How Becoming a Mother Made Me a Better Writer
In 2015, Ries and I talked a lot applying to Creative Writing MFA programs. What we didn’t talk about was getting universally rejected from those programs the following spring.
Ries was probably more realistic (I thought he was being cynical at the time) and thought he wouldn’t get in. When his rejection letters (or emails) came, he was immediately furious.
I had a different reaction.
When I heard back from the first of the three schools to which I applied, UT Austin, I wasn’t too disappointed. I applied there because I heard an interview on NPR in 2011 with Dean Young, a poet and professor there, and the interview had really inspired me. After I had applied, however, I found a few more articles about Young and his opinion on what poetry was and should be, and I fundamentally disagreed with him.
I heard back from Cornell shortly after I ran the Disney Princess Half Marathon–maybe I received the email at my birthday brunch at the Grand Floridian, maybe I received the email on the drive home. Cornell was the school I wanted to get into the most, so that hit a little harder.
The last school I waited to hear from was Iowa. The Writers’ Workshop. You know, the best writing school in the world. Now to be clear, I actually never wanted to apply to Iowa. I didn’t want to live in the state of Iowa for starters, (Bri, if you’re reading this, sorry!) I hadn’t heard of any of their professors, and if accepted, I didn’t want to go to school surrounded by the smug egos of those who got into the world’s best writing program. But Ries convinced me by saying, “If you’re applying to MFA programs, why wouldn’t you apply to the best one?” Well, that was the summation of a lot of very long conversations, at least.
Iowa was different for another reason: it was the only school to which both of us applied. So when we got Ries’ rejection letter in the mail, we started thinking maybe I had made it through the first round of cuts. I didn’t really believe that, but as more time passed and no letter with my name showed up, I started to believe that maybe, by some stupid stroke of luck, I had actually gotten into the world’s best MFA program.
Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I emailed Iowa and asked for the status of my application.
They attached a scanned-in copy of my rejection letter, misspelling my name, and didn’t even bother to write anything in the body of the email. Nothing like, “Here is the status of your application,” or “Better luck next time.” Nothing.
And want to know the real kicker? It was dated the same date as Ries’ rejection letter.
Two months after that email exchange, they mailed me my rejection letter, with my name still misspelled, just in case I needed to be reminded that I had been the fool who thought I had been accepted to the Writers’ Workshop.
Now, I have, for quite a while, believed that if you want something badly enough, you can essentially will the universe into giving it to you through hard work and positive thinking. Prior to sending out applications, I spent a year studying for the GRE, writing and revising my portfolio, and visiting DePauw to ask for letters of recommendation. I never stopped to think, “What if I don’t get in?”
The possibility of applying and being rejected never crossed my mind. Not that year, not…ever. When I dropped my biochemistry major and switched to creative writing and theater, I thought the two were equally employable, that my odds of succeeding in my career field were equal. Yes, it would be challenging, but everything I did was considered challenging. I had never come out of anything empty handed–until now. I worked intensely as a writer for a solid year, I had written the best thing I had ever written–and yet, my best wasn’t good enough.
I wanted to be a professor. That’s who I was. That’s who I would become. That’s what I would do for the rest of my life. That was my identity. Yet suddenly, there was a giant roadblock in my way. I couldn’t become a professor if I didn’t have an MFA. In fact, the local schools wouldn’t even let me teach K-12 without a masters degree.
On top of that, I had been applying to two jobs a week for three months at this point, only to discover that I wasn’t qualified for any salaried positions. Furthermore, my fallback food service jobs I had once worked no longer wanted to hire me because I had a college degree.
I was 25 years old, had been unemployed since graduating from college, and the career path I had been chasing for seven years had just been flushed down the toilet.
So what did I do?
I internalized it, of course. I didn’t realize what I was doing for a solid year, but I stopped finishing things. I would start a diet, a running plan, a yoga challenge, a sewing project, a book, and then I just…quit. Because what was the point? I had written my best material and it wasn’t good enough; I had studied for the GRE for a year and scored lower than when I had taken it cold my senior year; I had trained for a half marathon for a year and finished only seconds faster than my previous race time in 2012; I had dieted, meticulously counted macros, paid for a personal trainer, spoken to doctors and specialists and yet I continued to gain weight; my college friends spontaneously and sneakily cut me out of their friend group (something I learned via social media when they posted photos of the group together at each other’s weddings I had not even been invited to,) and around the same time another friendship fell apart. It seemed no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do anything. I became paralyzed with fear and I spent the rest of 2016 with my tail tucked between my legs, trying to take up as little space as possible.
And then I got pregnant.
I wasn’t expecting to get pregnant as fast as we did. I was quite convinced I wouldn’t be able to get pregnant at all, given that I had a lot of health issues the five years leading up to that point.
The majority of the pregnancy didn’t change much. Well, that’s not true. I have never felt better about myself in my life than when I was pregnant. I was growing a bundle of cells into a six and a half pound person, and I felt that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I started eating regular meals (I have always been terrible about eating and can easily go twenty hours between meals) and I started trusting my body to do what it was meant to do, instead of feeling like I was constantly playing tug of war with someone twice my size.
But toward the end of my pregnancy, I kept getting nervous something terrible was going to happen. I would panic for hours when I hadn’t felt the baby move, and I was sure that after all of this happiness and all of this hard work and all of these months, something catastrophic would occur and I wouldn’t get the baby I had been promised. Between each appointment it felt like I was holding my breath, and I didn’t think the pregnancy would ever end.
I haven’t written a birth story yet. I plan to, but my experience with my doctor and the hospital was so terrible I become enraged every time I think of what happened, and I haven’t been able to get past that anger to write down what I can remember.
But after 41 weeks of pregnancy, and 43 hours of being in labor, I had a baby. It was the first time in sixteen months that I hadn’t given up. Giving up during labor isn’t really a possibility–you can’t throw up your hands and say, “I changed my mind! I don’t think I want to do this anymore!” One way or another, that baby has to come out. And once he’s out, you can’t say, “Wow, this is a lot more responsibility than I imagined. Can’t I just trade him in for a golden retriever or maybe one of those beta fish?” In reality, you can’t give up on motherhood. Maybe that’s what makes it so hard. Quitting is off the table.
Since having Gus, I have not only started running, but I have run consistently for the past three months. I’m sewing our family Halloween costumes. I’m on Day 25 of the Whole30 diet and I don’t see myself dipping out any time before Day 30. I have confidence in my ability to complete things again.
And as for writing?
I made a goal for 2017 that I would submit poetry to one publication a month. I gave up in March, telling myself that I wasn’t a writer. Maybe I was a scientist or security guard or a waitress who liked writing, but I wasn’t a writer.
Well, last month I got an email from two publications, RHINO and the Atlanta Review, asking to publish two of my poems. And do you know where those poems came from?
They came straight out of the portfolio that three MFA programs rejected.
Currently, the only publication to reject my work is the New Yorker, and I’m going to brag about that as long as I can because that’s not something many people can say.
As for “being a writer:” I think it’s damn near impossible to “be a writer” in this day in age. I think I’ll get an MFA eventually, but you only get to go through that experience once. You only get to take two years off of life to “be a writer” once, and I want to save that learning experience for when I’ve exhausted my abilities and I really need to learn new tricks and need the feedback a workshop provides.
And as much as I would like to become a professor, I want to win respect in the writing world before I put myself in any position that inherently demands respect and time from young writers. The only way to do that is to keep getting published. And the only way to keep getting published is to keep writing and keep submitting my work for publication. And the only way to do that is to risk rejection and be brave. And I have the courage to do that now.
And for that courage, I have Gus to thank.