who the heck knows anything, anyway

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oh, the odd places I look for comfort

At this point, you are all well aware that I am applying to grad schools. The number of hours spent on research, applications, and crying measures into the millions*--so what happens when I get back a bunch of rejections? Or if, for some reason, moving is suddenly not an option? Things like this happen. I'm primarily concerned about the first of those two, that dreaded "R" word. How does one steel herself against the pain that comes with that word, the sentiment that clearly reads "you are not good enough, we do not want you"? I'm already setting myself up for a lifetime of this feeling, so I can't say I'm particularly thrilled about the idea of schools--which I would be attending in order to improve myself--turning their backs on me as well. There are two things I have done to protect my pride:

1. Gave it my damnedest effort.
2. Made a list.**

The first needs no explanation (I should hope). The second probably does, so here goes:

I have a pretty sizable personal library at this point. If I were to estimate how much of my office-job paychecks went to building it, my brain might explode. Even while living in poverty (the kind where I could only afford to feed myself once a day because my rent was too high and I refused to take out loans for school), I could always scrounge up a few dollars for a trip to Powell's. Anywho, you'd assume my collection is mostly novels, but not so! While I do own 100+ novels, the other 350+ range from poetry to history to philosophy to comics to all my old childhood books about dinosaurs. Novels are the kind of thing that I used to take full advantage of via the library, and it wasn't really until college that I began my collection; a carefully curated one, at that, because I squirm at the very idea of people looking at my shelves and assuming that I like something that I don't. I am incredibly picky about fiction, and I don't mind admitting it. (Brag, brag, brag, it smells of rich mahogany, etc.)

I often wonder about the lives of all those authors. I'm relatively acquainted with little bits of trivia about them, but I had no idea who had degrees in what. Is an MFA my only chance to be great? I fretted.

Well, probably not. Nabokov wanted to study butterflies, and Kerouac was a drop out--I knew that much. What about the others, though? What an interesting opportunity for [non-scientific] experiment!

With this in mind, I decided to look up all of the authors on my novel shelf (with exceptions I will express in a moment) in order to see which ones held/hold advanced degrees in creative writing, and which do not. As I said, since this bit of my collection is only about 100 books deep with repeat authors (most important to my study: all authors whom I admire), it was a pretty manageable task.

The Guidelines:
To count in the "MFA (or Equivalent)" category, the author must have either an MFA, MA, or PhD in creative writing (specifically fiction) or literature. Journalism was not counted. The "No MFA" category contains everything from MAs in anthropology and PhDs in Law to having dropped out of school at 15. Authors were then weighted for a second count based on number of books by them that I own. Additionally, I believe Huxley was the oldest writer I included (b. 1894), so no Dickens, Collins, or Stevenson, etc. (MFAs are fairly new, and I don't know how popular literature degrees were before 1900--I wanted to play it safe and even out the competition a bit.) For research, I primarily used Wikipedia--though I did have to dig around the internet a bit for a few authors.

The point of this was originally just to satisfy my curiosity, but it has become more of a metaphorical "blankie" whose information I could use to assuage my spirits if The Nasty Ol' R decides to visit my house.

So what was the outcome? Well, of the 84 books (52 authors) included in my [non-scientific] study, 18 authors had an MFA or Equivalent, and 34 did not. The weighted scores are a bit more striking, however, with only two books added to the MFA-ers (end count: 20) and twenty-nine added to the non-MFAers (end count: 64). Though my initial reaction to this was rather, ah, negative***, after a deep breath or two I realized that this means something fantastic: First, an MFA is hardly a detriment; it will definitely help with networking and feedback-getting. The great bit, though, is the reminder that an MFA is not necessary. If a fancy school doesn't want me, it's not a death sentence. Far from it. Sure, it might take a bit more time for me to become amazing, but William Giraldi made an excellent observation in his Poets & Writers interview (one that I return to time and time again): "There's obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing, as if literature were a modeling agency. But let's be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say, and how could they? They haven't read enough. It took me twenty-five years of reading and twelve years of practice to produce a book worthy of being in the world."  (Yet another reason to read Busy Monsters by Mr. Giraldi. Dude is a serious pro.)

Well, there you have it, folks. Being great has very little to do with a college degree, and very much to do with your individual ability to kick ass (though being an autodidact certainly doesn't hurt). Makes you kind of hopeful, doesn't it?

[photo by me, of a section of my bookshelf]

*barely an exaggeration
**I know. You're totally surprised. Me? Making a list? How unusual!
***my original--notably irrational--thought-jump after seeing these results was "Why the #### am I applying for MFAs??"