[Image: The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. Oil on oak panels. A triptych depicting moss-green, sky blue, and pink tones in the first two panels and black and dark tans in the last. The first two panels depict a garden with humans and animals in surreal, almost extraterrestrial scenes of giant berries, monsters, and supernatural orbs and structures. Notably, in the third panel, a person is diving under a harp with music on their butt-cheeks.]
I’m sure you have received this question in multiple different forms. Here I am, asking you the most common question in writing history, probably. How do you know if you’re ready for an MFA program? I’ve continued writing while working full time, workshopped my stories to constructive criticism and positive feedback, and have studied craft on my own time. This gave me confidence, until I started submitting my work. I’ve been rejected left and right from literary journals. I’ve even been rejected from advanced fiction writing classes. Every form rejection says the selection was “subjective” and I shouldn’t take it personally. But it’s still a huge punch to my confidence. Even though I have prepped and believe I have a strong, distinctive writing sample, the rejections make me believe I shouldn’t even try to apply to an MFA program. How will I ever know if I’m good enough?
Thank you so much for your kind wisdom.
Scared and Unconfident Child, Probably
First, I want to commend you for not only writing but continuing a whole curriculum on writing while holding down a full-time job. Capitalism has its seersuckers deep in us. It takes an incredible amount of drive, ambition, and luck to keep yourself out of its grip long enough to do what you’ve been doing.
I laughed when you framed the MFA question as “the most common question in writing history, probably.” Because it probably is in frequency, at least. MFA programs are totally new concoctions from the post-WWII era (you can find some links in a previous MFA letter). If I were to workshop your letter, I’d gravitate more toward your second question: “How will I ever know if I’m good enough?” For there’s no such thing as being “ready for an MFA”—plenty of people apply and get into them right out of undergrad or, if you’re like me, after years of working on writing mostly outside of the academy and the elusive curriculum that would have told me how to write things “right.” You seem to fall into the latter, though I won’t forego the possibility that you studied writing formally too.
Now, let’s get into your letter: you write that you’ve been getting rejected all over from literary journals and even advanced fiction workshops, it’s been sucking the confidence out of you, and you’re discouraged from even applying to MFAs right now. I know a few people who immediately delete the rejections they receive; others will keep them as reminders of how far they’ve come.
Imagine what it looks like if you were watching from the outside: we writers send these all these applications into the ether and wait, three months or more after sending, for a slow avalanche of rejections to pop into our inboxes at random, periodic self-esteem whack-a-moles. The fact that we don’t receive them at the same time only elongates and exacerbates the suffering, like the risk of prying open doors that mostly plan on smacking us in the face.
If you’re getting quite a few rejections, I encourage you to stop sending things out for the time being. Not because your work is no good and not because you don’t believe you can keep going, but because you might want to question why you are. Stopping is not a sign of weakness: it’s a technique of attention. Namely, the attention you’re giving to yourself rather than the goals you’ve set in front of you.
You are going to hear the opposite advice, something along the lines of submissions are a numbers game, everywhere else. This is true to a point. Today, there are more literary magazines than you will be able to publish in in your lifetime. The question of getting published isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and it’s more in figuring out where your work might be read well and appreciated rather than chasing the tails of prestige.
From your letter, I can tell that you have drive. Perhaps you’ve very good at comprehensively reviewing the field and making decisions from there. Perhaps you like to set your goals before your feet have even touched the ground. And so you know which literary magazines are the most challenging markets to get into; you know which writers are the most famous, which institutions make the top-of creative writing lists, and you mark your progress by which publications, fellowships, and medals you hope to add to your bio before you dare call yourself a writer. No matter what goal you reach, you can’t celebrate, for there’s another one on the horizon to strike at next.
Now, if you’re like this, then your sense of confidence will be directly rigged to your CV. Every rejection becomes much worse than what it is: it’s a measure of your worth as a writer; it’s permission to consider your writing worth paying attention to. You’re looking for a praise from a parent who rarely comes home. You’re staying at a job that promises you a raise soon, but always maybe next cycle. You’re writing to a lover who leaves your messages on read. You’re used to working far past what’s normal to get a small dose of acknowledgement; you mistake your suffering for diligence. Stop. You’re a seed trying to root in shifting sand. You deserve to be embraced by ground that not only tolerates you, but wants you.
For if you think of your writing in terms of progression, you probably look at your career in terms of a pyramid: the writing you do for yourself at the bottom, then getting published in magazines, then publishing a book, then getting fellowships and awards at the very top. If you believe in prestige, you’ll automatically look at writing programs and magazines in this way too. From the note that you’ve been applying to advanced fiction workshops, I assume that you’ve been doing this for a while but you’ve hit a ceiling of some sort in this progression and you don’t know why. You assume it’s the quality of your work only—there are far more factors.
Most of us who were successful in school or work have gotten there by very carefully following an imposed structure for our time and energy. Being able to accomplish all of those milestones—think of those 30-under-30 lists—are supposed to mark us not only as “writers” or “adults” but also just “normal.” And at the end of all those milestones, at the end of getting that long series of checkmarks, is the idea that we are “good.” To reach our potential is “good.” To go “above and beyond” is “good.” To proactively edit ourselves and our needs; to be silent; to be convenient; to fit exactly what someone wants without them even having to tell us. We follow the instructions of “goodness” from the moment we can understand what it promises—control of our bodies and minds for access to community; access to comfort; access to love.
“Goodness” steels the frame of a biased economic and social order with a moral disguise. To free yourself from the impulse to hierarchy within yourself—constantly putting your work up next to others’ and asking Is it better? Is it good enough?—you must free yourself from goodness. Neither will do you any good on the page. They don’t do much off of it, either, beyond wasting the time you could have been reading, writing, and living.
It is practical to get a sense of what exists today not secondhand but directly. If you’re like me and you have a tremendous energy for prep, as it sounds like you do, throw out those “best stories of all time” and “secrets to submitting” listicles. Stop writing for a little while. Read widely and seriously across time and space based on your curiosity, not someone else’s curation. In fact, get involved in the community at the other side of the table if you can. Working as an editor will force you to read differently and exactly as I’m encouraging you to do. If you look around, you’ll find that there is not one, but many kinds of writing alive not only today, but always.
Contemporary writing is not so much a pyramid from “indie” to “mainstream” or “bad” to “good” writing but a garden of ongoing arguments and traditions. How does your writing live in that garden? To whom and what will you speak to next? The more you know of this world, the more your own tastes, desires, and wants will change. Your writing will transform not for better or for worse, but toward complexity and maturity. Do not so much present yourself to be judged by others as judge where you belong among them. Literature exists in the writing of it. Everything else is an afterlife.
Author’s note: As The Reading grows, this Sunday advice column will always be free. In the next couple months, I will be expanding my offerings both on and off Substack. Would you be interested in taking a workshop with me or embarking on a one-on-one mentorship program? Or would you want something else? Help me by answering one question!