Cafe Racers & King of the Fish People

Here are two story-starts I worked on this semester. I don’t see a bright future for either, but I might come back and tinker with the lengths. I’m a very slow writer, and publishing is a very slow business, but I’d like to have something on the blog. So, here are two short pieces I’ve had fun writing. Not all my work is this incomplete! Just the stuff I’m allowed to publish myself (because of The Industry).

Thank you for reading. Your encouragement keeps me writing bigger, longer, more exciting things.

 

Cafe Racers

I saw the café racers only once, a roaring pack cresting the dark empty street a half mile away. They are outcasts, scofflaw, champions of street justice on the empty city streets. The 3 a.m bar door closed behind me and I stood on the sidewalk, wobbly and starving for salty foods. Then I heard it. The sounds came from far away, carrying from almost a mile away up the street where no cars were out at this time of night. The pack came over the summit of the hill, each in a polished bright helmet that turned their heads into glossy beetles, striped creatures fresh from the undergrowth and out into the night. Their bodies were low and folded over the bikes, quick, angular things with stiff handlebars and paintjobs that matched every sexless rider’s outfit, as if rider and machine budded from the same exotic plant. There must have been forty riders altogether, speeding down Broadway as fast as they could in a huge coordinated swarm. I balanced on the sidewalk curb and held my hands out to feel the rush of air as the café racers zoomed past—BMWs, Moto Guzzis, Yamahas, one very rare Ducati—and it was over as soon as it began. In their wake, their collective smell traveled so fast I had to lunge into the road to catch the scent. There it was. Vinyl, gasoline, hot rubber, and a grab bag of other scents less powerful but more distinctive. Before I could identify them, they were gone.

I’m told it takes no effort to fall asleep. “Just lie on your back and close your eyes,” sleeping partners have instructed me over the years. But I have yet to sleep with, beside, or in the vicinity of someone cursed enough to face the same vertiginous experience of falling asleep. Nights of peak neurosis, I feel as if I am plunging toward my final sleep. Yet doctors have discovered no reason to believe I, at a healthy 30, will die unexpectedly and of natural causes. But this doesn’t help me at 1 a.m when my muscles are wound tight as steel cables and my brain is coked out on irrational fears. I grind my teeth all night, anticipating the next heartbeat in my ears will be my very last. When my jaw aches and my eyes sting from concentrating on the ceiling fan above my bed, the work to rebuild my life can begin.

My nightly routine includes a Wellness/Financial/Personality audit of my life to date. First on the agenda is Wellness, so I tap each tooth with my tongue to feel for stability and assess the status of my periodontal health. I pinch each of my fingers and toes to check for numbness in the tips and areas of potential instep pain. I grip my receding pelvic bones and vow to run the next morning, 5 a.m, no excuses this time. My hands hunt for lumps, scars, skin tags, and bruises, welcoming back the familiar textures and analyzing newcomers for threats. Everything usually checks out ok and I begin the stage two: Financial audit. This is the hour of multiplication and division, strategies to make more and spend less, analysis of the most recent items purchased. Did I really need a summer coat? What about food—that time I offered to pay for Lindsey’s drinks. That time I threw away half a tomato I swore I’d finish, what a waste. The financial audit is the most circular and ultimately pointless, so for me, it’s counting sheep. The only dramatic change I’ve ever made after a night of considering my monetary worth was returning the glass bottles with the $2 deposit that had sat in my kitchen for almost five years.

Neither of these audits compares to the Personality audit—the tedious and soul depleting task of digging up to examine with exhaustive scrutiny gunk and regret buried deep by time, maturation, and pure denial. Oh it’s in there, I know it. That girl I pushed into a hedge when she told me I had a rat tail, leaving my brother behind on the playground to be eaten by fire ants, lying to my family so often they took me to a priest. I experience an elliptical rotation from my morning attitude—I easily blame everyone else for my problems when the sun is in the sky. But this changes at night. What the hell is wrong with me, like, on a spiritual level? I think about dozens of relationships, broke apart or wasted, people irreparably damaged because I appear in their lives, exaggerated, mean, a fount of unfortunate behavior. There are two types of personality audit. Type A is the audit that lasts all night until I pass out twenty minutes before my alarm. Type B lingers through the following day, referencing all my bad decisions as I make new decisions in real time. I close my eyes in bed and try to wrap up the Personality audit. I picture everyone I’m too embarrassed to speak to ever again. All those eyes staring, waiting to approve a confession. By the time I’m finished, it’s almost 3 a.m and I’m free to think of other things.

I thought about Louise and her neighbors, Dorothy and Lloyd. According to Louise, Dorothy, from across the street, has “a Jehovah’s witness knock.” Three forceful raps and then she lets herself onto the screened in porch and raps again on the window. Louise told me she is either half clothed, working on her cobblers bench, or smoking pot, so she hides in the broom closet until Dorothy leaves her baked goods at the door. Wholesome things like apple cake and ginger cinnamon cookies. Louise says she suspects Dorothy watches for her to come home through her old lady curtains before she runs across the street to deliver more baked goods.

Her next door neighbor, Lloyd, is an old Confederate weirdo. For some reason, he has Louise’s number (some drama with the washer and dryer in their basement belonging to him, on a loan to the landlord, and some debt has not been paid in their tenure) and he will call Louise at times of the day when she is not prepared to take a call. “I seriously think this guy is on drugs. He calls me and talks my ear off about nothing.” Sometimes though, it’s about the neighbors. There’s only about six occupied houses on that off-path cul-de-sac. In one yard, a rebuilt 1985 Norton Commando sits tilted to the left on a kickstand. I imagine it will come to life with a “screech!” Lloyd says, in his mysterious way, “we all got each others’ backs out here, you know? You gotta look out for your neighbors around here like they kin.” Louise, who had just ingested a small amount of acid when Lloyd called, had no way to respond to this manifesto. Maybe if I imagine a conversation between Louise on acid and Lloyd on whatever Lloyd takes, I’ll tire myself out enough to fall asleep. The phone rings. Louise stomps over to the coffee table. Across the street, a curtain parts in the window. The phone rings again and she answers it just as she hears a loud rap against the door…

Jesus, stop.

I blink at the dark ceiling, awake. Where was I going with all this? I run my hands behind my neck and over my face, pressing palms against my eyes until the dark gives way to a bright red sky. I open my eyes and they adjust back to the black room. The neighborhood is quiet except for the inconsistent rustle of possums through dried leaves in the yard. The time is 3 o’clock. Some nights I try too hard to fall asleep and I never fall asleep. For years, I have been awake enough times at enough quiet hours to hear the café racers speeding down Broadway. It’s late February, but there had already been a series of warm days leading up to the weekend. I hear a motor scream, a high pitched roar that starts far away and continues for a long time after whatever passed was blocks away. But I never got out of bed to locate the source of the sound, or why it seemed to occur at the same time each evening when all the roads in Midtown should have been completely empty. I’m awake for so long, it’s just a matter of time before I hear the racers again.

If I’m still awake after I hear the café racers pass, I begin the auditing process all over again. Wellness: revisit the irregular lump behind my ear. Are you sure that isn’t a mole? What about the new dimple inside my thigh? I should start going to the gym. If I do fifty crunches a day for two weeks and run one mile a day at least three times a week, will I fit into the shorts I bought last year or will I overcompensate and get too tone for the tight cuffs around my thighs? Is that really an issue I’m worried about—getting too muscular for my clothes? Has this ever been a problem before in my life? God, what an ego. Might as well segue into the Personality audit from here. Why did I tell that stranger at the post office what kind of earrings I was wearing? Not everyone has been fortunate enough to own sapphires, even if those sapphires were a gift from my father before I even had my ears pierced. She looked at me like I was a god damn colonialist. Did my dad know I didn’t have my ears pierced? Was I about to get them pierced? What did he say to me when I opened the black velvet box on my 7th birthday? Something along the lines of: “Those belonged to your great grandmother, Penny King,” and smile at me, in one of his rare good moods the year before he and mom finally got a divorce, and his hair wasn’t fully gray that year and he still thought my brother might get the hang of the football team. And didn’t I, in this unexpected glimmer of compassion and family intimacy, say something like “Ok thanks for the old lady earrings, dad.”? I remember my father’s face falling to pieces two years later when I came home with a black eye and fat lip from a fight on the playground. “You’re too pretty to fight like that,” he said, even though he knew I had bucked every feminine convention thrown at me since my youth. Maybe that’s why he chose to give me earrings, these delicate blue sapphires set in soft white gold, dark and glittery in the right light, on late nights when I wear my hair to the side and lightly perfume the white tendon of my neck. How much could I get for those earrings if I sold them to the right buyer? Would I make enough for a car payment, a bag of food, or new glasses? How much do I have in the bank now? If I spent $22 on food last night and $18 on gas this afternoon, and the rent has gone through as of this morning, how much does that leave me until payday next week? I should cancel plans for the next five or ten days and sit at home, think about all the ways I’ve failed myself and the people I love in the daylight. That would be the polite thing to do.

The clock says 5 a.m and I am exhausted. Without warning, my thoughts shut down. Deep in the survival part of my brain, the switch turns off and I am able to sleep in jerking waves for about thirty minutes. I wake up at a time when the light feels lifted from a dream, and I hear an unexpected sound. Throttles. Revs. A sound like the road is peeling away from the ground. They return to the streets in another swarm and I leap from the bed. I fling open the window and lean out to bear witness their return. Once more, the café racers speed by, prodigal, mysterious, their long exhale a scream for atonement in the endless night.

 

 

King of the Fish People

Two carnival tents pop up on the wharf during the last weekend of summer, taking over the moldering boardwalk with creaky rides, grease traps, and gaunt ride operators whose exhausted yet skittish appearance made them seem neither dead nor alive. Low concrete dikes divide the water from the carnival grounds, supporting the considerable proliferation of goose barnacles and mussels adhered to the algae-slick surface. Here, the ocean surf carries carnival waste out into the open water, sweeping up sawdust and tickets and candy wrappers that are lost among the coastal isopods and predaceous worms. The temperature ascends to the mid-nineties and by the early afternoon, visitants of the carnival squeeze together inside one of the two tents, beneath the broad shade that covers pageantry as exciting as portrait painting elephants, acrobatic septuplets, and the Fish People.

The sawdust floor in front of the Fish People is mostly undisturbed, since their modest booth is placed unfavorably equidistant between the public restrooms and the pen of tattooed pigs. When the spectators come to the Fish People, they don’t know what they are, where they came from, or what they do, but they rarely stick around for the answers to these questions because the smell from the pig pen and the public restrooms is, understandably, unbearable. Fish People are patient and amiable, which comes in handy during long hot hours filled with pungent waiting. They need no supervision, no gregarious ringleader to whip aside a velvet curtain and broadcast the Fish People’s story to a crowd. They need no traveling hype man to communicate the difference between the Fish People and the rest of humanity. In fact, the Fish People can speak for themselves, although their language is muddled and flecked with unfamiliar vocabulary used to describe what we might consider negligible conditions of water and light. But they’re easy enough to understand if the listener is attentive.

The Fish People sit on uncomfortable folding chairs with their feet in an inflatable pool. There are three here today. At a distance, the Fish People resemble children, but as you approach, you begin to notice big differences between the Fish People and humans like you and I. Their bodies are squat, and their shoulders create a gentle slope connecting their necks to their torsos, cutting a shape like the soft peak of an egg. Their eyes, while on the front of their faces like a person, are slightly farther apart, giving the Fish People a countenance of perpetual surprise—even dimwittedness. But above their delicate, rubbery lips, their eyes can see just fine, and Fish People enjoy better peripheral vision than the average human. This is convenient underwater, because Fish People are able to move in a nonlinear swimming pattern the landlocked do not fully appreciate. The Fish People can live for periods of time on dry land, but after a while they are susceptible to sloth and depression, often gaining an obscene amount of weight in as little as a month. Most prefer to live in the water, but there are some who migrate onto land, searching for a better life under the rules of democracy and the free market.

Of the three Fish People at the carnival, one is a full-time land dweller. He left the ocean in his youth to start a business selling boat lacquer to seamen. He has become obese and a little depressed, but he has also become financially comfortable. People assume this Fish Person makes his sales by swimming under the boats that need new lacquer and performing his assessment up close, but he has not gone for a swim in the ocean since his younger days and, frankly, has no desire to return to the water. He is not married and never reproduced or cared for a domestic animal, but he has a compact car with internet radio that he upgrades once a year with his expendable income. The lacquer business has had a fine quarter. The Fish Person suspects changing sea temperatures are having a negative effect on the old boat lacquers covering most commercial vessels, and has toyed with the idea of launching his own line of lacquers designed to counter these effects—with a chemical obsolescence of around five years to keep demand high.

He has come to the carnival booth at the behest of his sister, the second Fish Person at the carnival. She remembers their youth together—her brother always stiff and rule abiding, but a great orator with an excellent memory for historical events. She is here at the urging of her son, who plucked a watery advertisement out of the surf and begged her to let him perform. She surrendered to his insistent pleas, but even after her brother agreed to provide the story for their show, she still cannot understand why he left the sea to become a lacquer salesman. She does not like to leave the water for too long. Sudden oppressive gravity is not a joy for everyone to experience, and she can already feel her mood falling as the day in the tent drags on. The third Fish Person, her son, is an inarticulate youth who performs the Fish People’s story in a costume woven of shells and sea grass, with a crown of dead starfish on his round head. Sea lice entwine in and out of the damp ensemble. Together the Fish People wait in their little booth for an audience, and when a timid family wanders over from the public bathrooms, the youngest Fish Person jumps out of the pool and sets the stage for action.

This is the story the Fish People tell in their muddled underwater language while the youngest performs a choreographed dance, donned in his salt-encrusted costume.

 

The King of the Fish People

Down below the turquoise waters there is a region that—from the point of view of a scuba diver or aquatic outsider—seems Utopian. Long shoots of eel grass outline the kingdom’s borders. Acres of dense coral colonies fade into cool blue drop offs and through underwater meadows of a rich green weed. Like the Fish People themselves, the kingdom is so idyllic and safe, it appears dull. When he came into power, the King of the Fish People ruled inside his tunicate guarded by sea urchins. Monarchy had been the way of the land, and the royal family’s influence seeped like oxygen into every part of daily life. But the altruistic king died at the fantastic old age of fifteen, leaving his draconian son in power. In his first afternoon on the anemone throne, the young king consumed the queen and all the amber eggs cemented to the royal nursery. He ordered the echinoderm army loose from behind bars—an ancient skeletal prison made from the carcass of an unlucky sea lion. The thirteen-armed starfish, now free to follow their only instinct, devoured the young and elderly Fish People with protruding stomach acids, capturing all they crawled across in their muscular arms. They leveled the kingdom in a few days, creeping silently along the ocean floors at night and raiding the once-protective corals with fleshy, destructive appendages. Here in the story, the young Fish Person flopped to his stomach and inched along the floor, nipping at the exposed ankles in the audience. Once the Fish King had destroyed the region and most of its population, he called patrol away from the borders and opened the kingdom to hunters. Raids and slaughters continued as rapacious predators got wind of the open season, and the Fish King capitalized on his immunity by offering up the newly raped land to violent carnivores who could make the region fearsome again.

Few Fish People survived the feeding frenzy that ensued, but the ones who escaped with their families to deeper waters were too ill-suited for the light and temperature changes to thrive. Refugees grew weak in the cold dark depths, or else washed up into tide pools and baked in the summer heat. A number of Fish People tried their luck on land in temporary relocation tents along the coastline. But these colonies suffered a failure of constitution, succumbing to the harsh gravity while grappling with the grief over their loss of a homeland. In the dusty dimmed light of the carnival tent, the young Fish Person slumped onto the ground and wept into the sawdust, then shot up and wheeled around to dance the disorienting imbalance grief exerts on a fragile spirit. He collapsed on the ground, shaking loose sea lice that skittered back into the pungent green folds of his costume.

The audience stood still, waiting to hear the end of the story. But the Fish People were quiet, and both audience and entertainers looked at one another with dumbfounded expressions, each awaiting a conclusion neither party knew to offer. Eventually, the timid family walked away, whispering on their journey to the tattooed pigs, who grunted in greeting as their first audience approached. The youngest Fish Person picked himself up off the ground and brushed the sawdust off his costume. At the end of the day, the lacquer salesman checked his watch and put on his coat, said a one word farewell to his sister and nephew, and made his way out to the car.

 

On Grad School: A Personal Statement

Many of you know (because many of you know me in real life) I’m on my way to graduate school in August. This is the second time I’ve applied to programs, and it’s been a wild ride up to my eventual acceptance into Virginia Tech. I was not expecting to accept an offer this year, and I had resigned myself to another year of deep reflection and artistic reevaluation. I was so fully prepared to apply again this winter, I already started my third grad school spreadsheet and decided to aim only for the highest, most funded programs. I was going to learn another language! I was going to get a famous writer to write a letter of recommendation! I was going to start applying in June! Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of those things, because Virginia Tech came through at the 13th hour (long story) and I could scrap my 3rd spreadsheet with a huge sigh of relief.

Before my eventual acceptance, I spent November to February applying to ten schools, narrowed down from about fifteen. By the time I was halfway through the applications, I was spending ten hours a day on my personal statements.

TEN HOURS A DAY.

My samples had been revised and tightened and polished so many times in the previous months in my writing group, all I had to do over my three-week winter break from work was talk about myself and my goals for an MFA program. I’ll tell you: the quickest way to realize you have no goddamn idea who you are and what you want out of a strange, risky, creative career is to write 500-2,000 words about it ten times, to ten groups of faceless strangers who hold the fate of your life and your $75 application fee in their hands. Hence the obsessive ten-hour days.

This post will hopefully help new MFA applicants write the dreaded personal statement without as much anxiety. I haven’t included the whole thing, because some of it is really specific and might be boring to non-committees, but I explain the pieces I cut out and left in the rest for a more thorough demonstration, particularly where I felt imaginative statements met a practical purpose.

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Meeper, the guardian of my insane pre-moving to-do list

 

The Opening: Origins & Ambitions

My opening paragraph came to me in an epiphany-like moment halfway through my application season, so I only got it into five or six applications. Previously, I had a hard time with the personal aspect of the personal statement. My intro was too straight, too dry, until one sparkling moment I had this new idea. I scribbled sentences in my notebook in a delusional flurry and refined the ideas in Word when I got back to my computer. This, I’m convinced, is what landed me a spot at VT, and was maybe as important as my writing sample. I had always heard one must “get to the point” as fast as possible to not waste anyone’s time on the committee, but this hook is not only a crucial part of my origin story, it’s also fun to read:

“If you were to rewind ten years, you would see me as a sculptor attempting conceptual art about communication, and as a writer attempting conceptual stories about communication. I did this by writing stories about teenagers whose only dialogue was “What?” back and forth for five pages, and by setting up big sheets of industrial felt in the middle of areas with heavy foot traffic. This messy but essential origin as a writer led me to explore language barriers and miscommunications in my fiction, inspired by the two creative disciplines bickering away in my heart.

Each time I write, I pull the thread of my thesis a little more, edging closer to some human truth that can only be represented by leaving it unsaid. I am driven to write because I am driven by questions that fuel narratives: Do these linguistic obstacles exist in children? In animals? Is it possible to understand that which has no word attached? Writing about language absence and lost translations comes from my personal journey to connect across the space between what I can say and what I can feel.”

BAM! Took me years of experience and lots of shitty first drafts, plodding introspection, and eventual satisfaction with a few short stories to come up with that opening paragraph. Your opening paragraph should give the readers a sense of where you came from and where you’re headed. Think beyond the typical “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember” and punch it up several notches to paint a fuller picture of your rich creative life. For me, I felt it was essential to begin with a demonstration of my ambitions and early interdisciplinary origins. You also get a sense of my youthful ego in the opening line, but that segues into an honest reflection of why I do what I do and how I began to take it seriously. It’s also funny, because I know much of what I do under the pretense of living my best creative life is a little absurd. But it’s true, and it’s part of who I am and part of my creative process. Do some similar digging when building your opening.

 

The Journey/Research/Experience section

In the main body of the personal statement, I talk about my journey from visual artist to writer, and what led me to seek an MFA in creative writing. I talk about the writing courses I took at KCAI, who I studied with, and what I gained from the visual arts environment that influenced my writing. I talk about what happens when I study literature and how I keep track of my personal and academic growth in my own terms…basically demonstrating I haven’t wasted my time between degrees.

Today, I study writers who provide space for subtle details to bloom in a reader’s mind. I look for this because it is how I once approached sculpting—as a complete narrative containing moments where language could vanish, giving rise to an emotional texture I’m not sure has a name.”

This is a snapshot of my abstract thinking tendencies and ability to switch gears between visual and written work, something I have been practicing for many years. In this section, I also talk about the writers I currently study and what I admire most in their craft. I chose two contemporary American examples and one mid-century non-American example, because my work is mostly contemporary and set in America, but I have been heavily influenced by the styles and sensibilities of non-American writers. I chose writers who are recognizable to people of literature—not really mainstream examples, or anyone I discovered in high school or earlier. If you have the space to talk about writers you read or try to emulate, definitely consider what you appreciate about their style and how it informs your work. This is more than just “I like his use of language.” Instead, be concrete: “I study the character arcs of her aimless young adults to inform my coming-of-age novel-in-progress” or something equally evocative. This is a chance to show the committee you’re a worldly reader who appreciates subtle and dynamic literature, and as someone who kept reading after high school.

The next paragraph talks about my philosophy as a writer and how this developed over time. For me, it was in small press publishing, reading prose for a magazine, writing for The Pitch, belonging to a weekly writing workshop, and participating in contemporary visual art dialogue. My philosophy was developed over about ten years, so I’ve had time to think about my phrasing and presentation, summing the whole thing up in three varied sentences. If you have participated in any kind of critical/creative writing exchange, talk a little about what kind of peer you are. How do you approach writing written by other writers? What can you add to the workshop experience? How has that informed your decision to apply to this program? I applied to Virginia Tech because I have always been a cross-discipline writer, and I want to collaborate with writers in running a publication. Virginia Tech emphasizes both facets of the writing life, and I saw in the program a chance to build on my strengths.

 

The Self-Reflection section

You should also talk about your weaknesses, because ultimately, weaknesses are what get you into grad school. A brief detour: I love failing! Failure is the single best type of learning experience out there for creative people. There is no faster shortcut to creative self-reflection than crushing, debilitating, irreversible failure. I’m not saying this is fun to experience, but it’s so necessary in finding out how to direct our creative energies. For a personal statement, it’s good to recognize your shortcomings and tell the committee how you want to improve, what you’ve learned from rejection, and how you deal with criticism. If you address ways you want your cohort to help you improve, the committee can see A) that you are serious about improvement, B) that you won’t be a jerk to other writers, C) that you probably aren’t a genius (yet) and can admit to that, and D) you are capable of intense and productive self-reflection. All good things for a graduate committee to recognize in an applicant.

If your day job or professional work is of writerly importance, put it in the statement. MFA programs are not just for people who were “born to be writers” or “have been writing stories since childhood”. In fact, committees see that cliché all the time, and the truth is we live in a capitalist society that devalues or ignores creative work up until the point a creative person becomes famous. Most writers have jobs that pay the bills, and really good writers use that job to add something to their writing career—not always in the way Kafka used a job as fodder, but also as a way to grow and develop your skills in an area that will reflect in your creative discipline. For me, the routine responsibility of helping students with their writing and professional skills gave me academic experience in reading syllabi, constructing an academic plan around calendars, and articulating the creative bridge between visual art and literature. I gained research experience, worked on my chronic self-discipline problem, and recognized that I still consider myself a student of literature, even as I help students in their earlier stages of writing. I put all this in my statement.

I did not write that, as a bartender, I secretly made notes on the changing dialogue of my patrons. I did not write about my ruthless editor/mentor, who challenged me to write art journalism with greater clarity and precision. I did not write about how my time as an oyster shucker in Alaska, and a teacher in Cameroon, and a kid in the Michigan sand dunes developed my observational skills and help me imagine setting in new creative ways. But any of these personal things would have been fine to write about if I had unlimited space and attention. Choose the most effective personal experiences for the essay, and make your case for further study as persuasive as possible.

 

The Closing: Goals & Purpose

In the end, the committee wants to know exactly why you should be in their program. Talk about how you have prepared yourself for graduate level work, what self-direction you imposed on your routine, and where you see yourself headed as an artist and creative person. This is going to be different for everybody, and that’s what makes your perspective unique. If you want to get your MFA to teach, or get feedback on a book you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re not making a very convincing argument for your own capacity for growth and development. If you want to get your MFA in Virginia because you need 2-3 years to study the dialogue patterns of Appalachian natives because regional dialect is super important in your series of short stories, and this particular writer on the faculty has inspired you with their rendition of local speech etc. TELL THEM!! That example reason is much more colorful and unique to the program.

“I’ve discovered my drive to answer my creative and critical questions comes from the love of practice. I have prepared myself for graduate level work by applying this philosophy to self-directed writing, research projects, and professional activities. The more work I do, the more curious I become, the more I grow as an artist. Only Virginia Tech can pair me with resources, peers, and faculty who will embrace the interdisciplinary, collaborative essence of my trajectory. I am seeking a program with a history of educating writers who have taken artistic risks in their work—writers who have merged traditional and avant-garde ideas into a signature narrative style.”

For each statement, I found the most attractive aspects of the program I was applying to and I used that in my closing paragraph. For VT, it was their interdisciplinary curriculum and opportunity to work with two publications. For CalArts, it was the art school environment, which has proven beneficial to my practice. For Iowa, it was the understated writing tradition in the Midwest, a region I have lived in all my life. Every program I applied to (this time) had specific qualities that could improve my work and study of literature. One thing that sucks about applying: You might not know if your work fits the program or incoming cohort, but the committee knows, and sometimes even if your work is perfect for that school, it might not be the right time to attend. Rejections can say a lot about your readiness for rigorous work, but can also say a lot about the program itself.

“My goal is to emerge from an MFA program with a new body of work that continues connecting the communication ideas I started exploring in my undergrad. What I am looking for after a graduate program is a sustained relationship between art and language—a new way of writing that unveils the semantic bridge between visual and written work. After a graduate program, I want to continue to work with artists and authors to explore the collaborative grounds between creative disciplines. I will do this in a community role that compliments my fiction practice, either as editor of an experimental small-press, in publishing, or in a position an MFA from Virginia Tech will help me discover.”

I ended with this paragraph about my goals and ambitions in the coming years (to pursue the thread of my ongoing thesis) and the years that follow after an MFA (to bridge community work with writing work). Some goals will inevitably shift in August when I start the program, and they will shift again in January when I start teaching. My goals will continue to grow and shrink and change, but I’m totally open to this flexibility, because I’ll be in a supportive and engaging environment with other ambitious writers. Think about your goals as a writer and artist. What does your work look like in five years? How will you adapt to a changing job market? Will your creative work always be more important than your money-generating work? (It should be.)

In order to do all this, you need to REALLY look at what you’re writing and research the hell out of programs. I’ve applied to 18 programs in all and I’ve been rejected from 14 outright. Those 14 programs weren’t right for my learning and writing style, and that’s not always something new applicants are willing to accept. Although I’ll always be a little bummed I didn’t get into Brown or Iowa or University of Michigan, I also recognize my multi-discipline engagement might not have been a good fit for these straight-forward, traditional programs. It just took two years and many rejections to come to terms with that. The three schools that accepted me outright were The New School, CalArts, and California College of the Arts—three prestigious art colleges, not traditional writing universities. Virginia Tech is somewhere between an art program and traditional literary program, and this is totally where my work fits best. I ultimately decided on VT over the other three because it’s a three-year program with a broad focus (I can take non-fiction, digital media, and screen-writing courses), it’s fully funded and comes with a stipend for teaching, and I want to eventually relocate to the east coast. San Francisco is too expensive for my lifestyle, CalArts is great if I wanted to write for TV, and visiting The New School made me realize I don’t want to live in New York right now. Although I exchanged these hip metropolitan cities for a rural mountain community, Virginia Tech is only a few hours from DC, Richmond, the Outer Banks, Charleston, and Pittsburgh. I can scout these areas for cool internships and jobs in the summer when I’m not teaching.

Now you know how I managed to barely con my way into a program (just kidding! I don’t have impostor syndrome!! Not at all!!!) and secure the next three years for writing and studying literature. Whatever comes from this experience, I know it’s up to me to revisit my goals from the last ten years and set my sights on more challenging projects. This includes checking back on my statement of purpose and remembering the reasons I applied to school. If you’re going through this process now, or considering it this season, keep your arrow aimed straight at your target and allow yourself some flexibility when looking into programs. Make your spreadsheet, go visit schools, and write your head off!

Good luck!!