This essay is a part of our Insider/Outsider blog series. Once a month, we publish two works of nonfiction on the subject of the MFA culture, one from a writer in an MFA program, and one writer outside it. Pieces labelled "Outsider/In" refer to a story written by the latter, while those labelled "Insider/Out" refer to the former. Both pieces are published simultaneously each month on the Breakwater Review blog.
We Regret to Inform You: Writing as Rejection
By Lisa Ann Yiling Calcasola
The email came in at 1:38 p.m. from one Shaun Bowler, Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California at Riverside.
“Dear Applicant, we regret to inform you that at this time we cannot offer you admission…”
Before I opened this letter, the second to last in a slew of rejection emails I received this past spring, I had somehow forgotten just how uniquely terrible rejection letters are. I’ve sent a few myself, back when I was an unpaid college intern at a literary agency, reading through the slush pile and sending rejections on behalf of the agent I worked for. I felt awful as I dashed the hopes and dreams of writers who had toiled away for months and years—sometimes lifetimes—over their work, crafting their proposals just so, only to be left in the hands of: me. I could, and did, in the matter of many poorly drafted emails, change someone else’s life. Or rather, I sent the opposite of change: with my letter, I kept someone’s life the same, possibly forever.
I applied to five graduate writing programs last winter, all of which promised full funding should I be accepted. I knew that five schools were too few, that the chances of getting accepted to an all-expenses-paid program were miniscule. I had published approximately one short story at the time of submission. Even in college, I hadn’t taken a true creative writing class, deeming it “too risky.” To spend thousands of dollars on creative writing seemed like the worst way to repay my parents for all they’d done for me. Not that an English major was much better, but at least the road ahead seemed marginally wider. For a long time, I pushed off the possibility of writing as a viable career because, frankly, it couldn’t be. Or, I didn’t think it could be for me.
When I applied to these MFA programs, what I really did was ask someone to take a chance on me. Like Salma Hayek’s Frida Kahlo in the film Frida who, confronted with Diego Rivera’s compliment of her painting, demands of him, “Oh, come on. I’m not looking for compliments. I’m looking for serious critique […] I don’t have time to fool around just for vanity. If I’m not good enough, I need to do something else…” I too wanted a Diego. I wanted someone to tell me point-blank if I had any real talent, if I had what it took to be successful. Otherwise, what was the point? I wanted the admissions offices to validate me, to see real promise in me and in my writing.
There is more weight, literally, in a rejection letter that comes from the post office to your front door than by email. The excitement and alarm have more time to build, from the moment it takes you to read the seal on the envelope to when you finally decide to open it. Do you choose to rip it open right there at the mailbox? Or do you rush to your bedroom to hide the letter under your pillow, away from prying eyes, until night comes and you can at last tear into the paper alone, ready to read the words that will determine your future?
The steps are similar in opening a digital rejection. That same nervous, stampeding heartbeat as you see the institution’s name pop up, impatiently waiting to be clicked at the top of your inbox. That same sharp intake of breath as anticipation claws at your insides.
The difference between the two methods is in the waiting period. Email has a dangerously short incubation. Every day last winter I checked my email even more frantically than normal, at least ten times a day, as I waited for schools to respond. Each time I opened Facebook or Instagram on my phone, my fingers would automatically open my email, too. For months I sucked in a breath when I saw the numbers go up, only to let it out immediately when I realized the new messages were from Barnes & Noble, or retail shops offering discounts, or my alma mater asking for donations, and not from the admissions department. When UC Riverside appeared in the subject line of a new email in April, I bolted upright in my seat, braced myself, and clicked it open immediately. Then I saw the words.
We regret to inform you…
Just as suddenly, without reading beyond that first sentence, I closed out of my email. I opened other apps and began to mindlessly scroll through, trying to find distraction in the form of other people’s lives. But everyone’s posts of inspirational quotes and success stories irritated me. Disgusted, I closed out of all tabs and, ignoring the very strong urge to chuck my phone across the room, left it face-down on the kitchen table. I had one more school to hear back from, but my expectations were at that point nonexistent.
I had applied to MFA programs to meet and be surrounded by other writers and creatives, and because I figured that was the logical next step to take if I intended to make a career out of writing. More than anything, I yearned to be part of a larger creative community that took their work and themselves seriously. I knew fully-funded programs were ultra-competitive, but as the deadline for schools to get back to me crept closer and I still hadn’t heard back from a couple, I felt a small but mighty hope surge in me. Could the reason they were taking so long to respond be that I had been accepted? Maybe they put off their acceptance letters until later in the semester, I reasoned, after all the rejections had gone out.
The truth was the last school didn’t bother to send me a rejection email at all. I had logged into the student portal to check on my application’s status for about the hundredth time and realized with a start that its status had changed. Terrified, I dragged my mouse over the link and clicked ‘open’.
Your application for Fall 2020 has changed status to: DENIED.
The word “DENIED” flashed across the screen in deep red, no other personal message accompanying my fate. No “We sincerely wish you the best in future endeavors.” Not even a “We regret to inform you…” Just: DENIED.
The reality of the situation hit me all at once: every school I applied to had rejected me. I wouldn’t be going anywhere next fall, or for the foreseeable future.
I didn’t tell anyone of the bad news right away, not even my mother. I wanted to feel the weight of it alone for a while, as I tend to do when it comes to processing negative emotions. The pity would be too awkward. Worse than that, there was another, bigger question that floated on the horizon: What do I do now?
I allowed myself two days of self-pity; after that, I decided I would channel my favorite musician who, when notified that her album would not be nominated for a large award, was silent for a moment before saying: It’s fine. I’ll make a better album. All I have to do is make a better album.
I would write better. I would write like I’ve never written before. I would show them, and everyone, that I have what it takes. I didn’t need a Diego—or rather, I would be my own Diego, at least until I found a real one.
We had tacos the night of my last rejection, an anti-celebration of sorts, though my family had no idea that’s what it was at the time. As far as failure went, it felt tentatively okay. I still had a house over my head and food on the table. I had a full-time job that paid the bills, even if I didn’t love it.
We ate the tacos, tamales, enchiladas, rice and beans. I went to bed lighter, even with a full stomach. I slept dreamlessly.
My parents know I write, but they don’t read my work. I don’t offer, and they don’t ask. I would like to show them my writing and have them like it, of course, but it’s risky. There are too many taboos in my writing: race, sex, politics. It’s a bit too personal, too close for comfort for the both of us. It is enough that they support me from afar.
Growing up, the idea of being a writer filled me with joy, but it remained just that: an idea, too out-there to seem realistic. I wanted it too much to ever speak of it aloud. No one else in my family was in the arts. They were a bunch of doers, and at the time I didn’t associate writing with doing. They were teachers and nurses and parole officers and firefighters. I felt like a wuss next to them. When anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I shrugged it off. Maybe get into publishing, I said vaguely, or teaching. Those other things that English majors did after graduation. Not writing. How did one even begin to become a writer?
For days and weeks after my rejections, anxiety and self-doubt took over. Imposter syndrome attacked me at every angle. Could I really be a writer? What if I’d always kind of sucked for years, but no one said anything because they saw all the hopes and dreams in my face and in my little innocent eyes and didn’t want to disappoint me? How many Chinese women did I know who were writers, who got famous, who were successful? Why did I think that I could do it, out of anyone?
Rejection at any time is terrible. Five rejections at once is worse. Perhaps more than anything, though, rejection is the writer’s life, its one dependent quality.
Until one day it’s not. Until one day, instead of a door slammed in your face, there is an open window. You have to contort your body a little to fit through, but at last you enter, stunned and grateful. The past seems like a distant dream.
The best writing advice I ever got was from a stranger. I met him in a Chinese-language class in a Pret A Manger in New York. The meet-ups were free, and the group met once or twice a week in various public cafés to practice speaking Mandarin. I joined for a couple of sessions after college, when I feared my Mandarin would decline rapidly. (It did.)
Mickaël was middle-aged, French. He introduced himself as an artist, a retired filmmaker and documentarian. We got to talking about our future aspirations.
“So, what do you want to do?” Mickaël asked me.
“I’m not sure,” I hedged, ready to launch into my usual spiel. “I was an English major in college, and I’ve always loved to write, but I need to make money now…” I rolled my eyes, expecting his laughter to humor my punch line, the usual response I got when I said this to other people.
He stared at me, not laughing. “Are you a writer?” he asked seriously.
No one had ever asked me that before. “I-I want to be a writer,” I stammered. It felt surreal to be admitting it aloud, but it also felt…good. Right, somehow. “That’s, like, my far-flung dream. But until then…”
He smiled at me with barely-contained enthusiasm. “A writer. How wonderful. What are you writing?”
His questions floored me. I wasn’t used to people showing interest in my writing or taking me seriously.
“Uh, well, I’m working on a few separate things,” I mumbled, embarrassed. In truth, I hadn’t written anything in the past couple of months, at least not from start to finish. My writing was always scattered, disjointed. I tended to write in fits and bursts of inspiration, look at it later, hate it, discard it, and wait for the next writing frenzy to hit me again. I knew I needed to focus and see one or two smaller ideas to fruition, but I didn’t know how to do that yet.
“And how old are you?” Mickaël asked.
“Twenty-two?” I said it like a question, miffed by the subject change.
“Ah, a great age. Look, if you continue to write now—short stories, essays—you’ll have a prolific career in five, ten years. You’ll be prolific.”
I smiled at him. It felt incredible to talk about writing as a serious and worthy endeavor. To talk about my writing like it mattered, or could matter to someone.
“It was really nice to meet you,” I said as we walked out together after class ended. I meant it. We shook hands.
“You keep writing,” Mickaël said to me.
“I will.” I promised. “Who knows,” I said, feigning nonchalance, “maybe next time I’ll bring in some of my stories and you can look at them.” The last bit was mumbled; I felt embarrassed and over-eager, a child. He made a noncommittal noise, gave a final wave, and walked off in the opposite direction.
When I returned to class the next week, he wasn’t there. I never saw him again. But his words stayed with me.
I started introducing myself as a writer after that. Not as an aspiring writer, or as a future writer, but as a writer right now. What do you do? People ask me.
I’m a writer, I say.
An old lover once defined their idea of a writer to me as “the type of person who wakes up in the middle of the night because they have such a crazy good idea, they need to write it down; it can’t wait till morning.”
For better or worse, I am that writer. I have woken many a night, after already turning out the lights, only to toss and turn in bed as thoughts whizz through my brain, getting louder and louder, until they finally reach such a high velocity that I have no choice but to get back up, disgruntledly turn the lights back on, get out my journal and pen, and write. I won’t be able to fall back asleep until the idea exists outside of me, is written down, secure.
Writing is almost like a possession: my mind is both mine and not-mine, my hands frantically searching for paper to scribble on before I lose my train of thought. I have written in the dark, by the window in the shower, the only safe place I could go to escape another man in my bed who was so terrible, I had to write about him. If I didn’t write I’d lose the memory, the experience. I was very aware of how strange I looked, how easily he could have walked into the bathroom and found me standing there in the tub, hunched over a notepad in the dark, writing.
But I also wasn’t too worried. That man was very gullible; if I told him the only way I could write was in the shower by the light of the moon, he probably would have believed me and gone back to bed.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight. (Well I do know the short answer: it’s the coffee.) I feel like I’m drunk, only it’s even more powerful than that. Like I could do anything because I am alive, now. This energy is really what makes humans remarkable, if you think about it. I wonder if others feel this energy, this passion, about their own interests and talents: in art, architecture, science, what have you. This “zany urge to write,” as I call it, is so beautiful when it decides to show up, but it’s a pesky little guest. Not only does it show up unannounced, it then demands all your food, water, time. You never know when it’ll leave you. It might make a few fake passes throughout the night, only to come knocking on your door minutes later, begging to be let in for just one more little talk, just five more minutes. But I always welcome her graciously, gladly.
This is from a journal entry I wrote a few years back. I recently came across it again because of my intention of writing this essay about, well, writing. I had woken up in the middle of the night—again—and knew sleep would be impossible until I turned the light on, got out my journal and favorite pen, and wrote through it.
This “zany urge to write” hits at the most unexpected and inconvenient of times and places. Right before I’m trying to fall asleep. Right after having an incredible experience, and then having plans right after, so that I have no time alone to myself to reflect and write and process my thoughts before they’re gone.
When I write, I lose track of time. I used to think this was an exaggeration, a cliché people talked about in movies that didn’t happen in real life. But it does. True passion is when you can do something for hours on end and it feels like a matter of minutes, like time doesn’t exist.
Just like dating and stand-up comedy, good writing is all about the timing. If I don’t have a pen and paper near me when I feel the urge—god forbid I only have the Notes app on my phone—I feel anxious all day until I can finally crawl into bed at night with my journal and write it all down. Writing, for me, makes everything more real. I write to remember, to process how I feel. I use it for therapy and healing. The reasons go on.
At times I wish I could turn it off. Writing is so hard, sometimes I want to slam down my pen and exclaim, I don’t want to do this anymore! But I know I will always return, because I have to. It’s like I don’t have a choice.
Maybe I’ll apply to more MFA programs in the future, to fulfill the idea of what it means to be a writer in my head. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe there are more ways than one to walk this creative path. Regardless of what happens in the future, I know I will write about it.
You’re an observer, my aunt said to me once at a holiday gathering, a few drinks in. I didn’t understand it at the time, but what she was really saying to me was: you’re a writer.
I am. I am.
Lisa Ann Yiling Calcasola is a writer living in Massachusetts and in her imagination. Her essays have been featured in Hyphen Magazine, Vol 1. Brooklyn, the Asian American Feminist Collective's digital storytelling project, and more. Her fiction has appeared in VISIBLE Magazine. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @punkelevenn.