Hello again.

fishing boats, Isla Mujeres

Sorry for the long silence, folks. Been a crazy month or so. Forgive the long autobiographical post and allow me to bring you up to speed…

I. Failure to Launch

Around the time I last posted here, Angie and I decided that with only two graduate schools left to hear from, things were looking pretty grim. Rather than wait to the last minute to book our consolation prize (a vacation to Mexico), we started planning it that week. We would take some of the money we had saved for a move, and use the vacation time we had set aside for touring campuses. Good thing we did.

For those that have not heard, either directly or through Facebook & other grapevines, I did not get into an MFA program this year. Competition was fierce—most of the programs I was applying to had a considerably lower acceptance rate than either Harvard Medical or Harvard Law. And, despite all the noise I made this past year about it—the relentless writing, talking about MFAs, participating in online communities of other applicants—none of it remotely affected my chances. The bottom line was this: it was a huge field of well-qualified applicants, all talented writers themselves, and my writing sample simply wasn’t good enough. No, really. It’s okay.

In hindsight, it was the ONLY factor that really mattered in the admissions process. Not the GRE, not my letters of recommendation, not the classes and workshops I took (thought they definitely helped me), not the positioning of myself—via my blog and my presence in the Facebook MFA Draft group as someone who is Smart and Talented and Likeable—none of it truly mattered. It all came down to the writing sample. And mine was good. I had certainly spent enough time on it.  There was no one fatal flaw; it just wasn’t right.

It was a slow crush. Those last two schools—Irvine and Montana—held out for a long time. People told me not to give up hope, and I thank them for that sentiment, but it gradually started to sink in that my entire plan this past year—my plan for the next two or three years—was not coming to fruition. Then, that weekend, I called my half-sister, the one that lives in Tacoma. I hadn’t spoken to her in a while and needed some cheering up. I was going to invite her over for dinner. Her manic energy can be hard to manage sometimes, but at times like this it would have been a welcome relief. When she’s at her best, she can be really good at cheering someone up.

Unfortunately, she’s afflicted with some disorder that prevents her from listening much to people, or from filtering anything before she says it. Before I had a chance to tell her the MFA news and ask for her consolation, she interjected to tell me she had read my story sample—the one I had submitted to the MFA programs—and that she hoped it wasn’t the version I had submitted. She proceeded to issue the most scathing critique one can possibly give a brother. She called the story inauthentic. She said it had typos. She said the characters were weak and unbelievable.

I didn’t go down without a fight. I defended my work, told her flatly she was wrong, that she’s the only one to have this issue with my story, which every other reader has seemed to enjoy. But I had not gotten into any programs with it, and my defense was weak. I finally went for pity, trying to tell her to back off. But there’s no slowing a juggernaut.

She tried to qualify her opinion by stating that she knows nothing about literary fiction, doesn’t read it, and that her opinion shouldn’t matter anyway. But for me that wasn’t the point: she is my sister and therefore her opinion carried considerable weight. She doesn’t get that. At that moment the immenseness of my failure sank in and I was reduced to rubble. I hung up, literally sobbing. I was a speechless mess.

II. Licking my Wounds

I didn’t write for the next two weeks. I told myself to try, but I couldn’t. None of the fresh stories I had started this year seemed important to me. None of them seemed necessary. All of them seemed to me poorly written and contrived (save for one, maybe). I was beginning to fathom just how much of a beginner I was. I wanted to follow the advice of my writing coach and look toward getting some of my pieces published finally, but the best prospect for publication thus far was the very story that had just failed me with the MFA programs. It needed some serious tweaking if I was going to submit it, but I couldn’t look at it.

Write? Shit, I couldn’t even read much. The mornings that I was supposed to be spending writing I spent instead playing video games and catching up on projects around the house. Just as I had when I was laid off from the tourism bureau. Again with Angie’s blessing. Her future was on the line, too. I had been keeping her in limbo during this process, and it was made bearable by the knowledge that by late March we’d know what schools we’d have to choose from, and by mid-April we’d have made a decision.

Moreover, I was having to spend my afternoons at a job that was getting increasingly difficult to bear, doing everything but the copywriting I had been hired to do. It didn’t help that I worked with well-intentioned folks for whom communication does not come easily. Several weeks of copying-and-pasting text for a website, learning html, and studying up on how to write a marketing plan for a client were all mind-numbing projects that only served to remind me of how precious my time was. In the wake of my failure with the MFA programs, I needed to be doubling down and writing more, submitting more.

The more I reflected on it, the more I saw this job as the terminus of a mistaken career path. I had left publishing only because there weren’t publishing jobs to be had in the Puget Sound Area at the time when I was looking. I thought I was being responsible and savvy by expanding my job search two years ago to include marketing and publicity in ANY industry. That’s how I landed the job at the Visitor Bureau, and that’s how my resume came into the hands of this small ad agency. I do thank them wholeheartedly for giving me a job that paid well and didn’t demand much of me, and for being flexible with me during my pursuit of my white whale.

After numerous talks with Angie, we finally decided it was time to quit. I count my blessings every day that I could afford to make such a decision. I couldn’t do it without her. We didn’t have an alternate plan yet, but we had saved some money and knew we could live on her salary alone. And we had our Mexican vacation to look forward to.

I started writing again. I took a dream sketch—previously posted here as “Baby in a Hole”—and rewrote it as a short story. I changed the POV and ironed out some of the details and transitions, but overall it stayed true to the dream-form. It worked: since I simply reported the dream as it had occurred, there was no chance for my clumsy author’s hand to intrude and muck things up. The result is a five-page monster of a story that I intend to submit for publication. I’ve also dusted off Wayward Sister—the graphic novel with which I started this blog—and began to re-conceive it as a novel. Suddenly I’m finding my characters deepening, and what was once a tightly plotted script is now loosening up to accommodate surprise. I’m not far enough into it to confess anymore than that. As Stephen King says in On Writing, “Write with the door closed. Revise with the door open.” To that end, I’ve also splurged and signed up for a four-day writers’ retreat sponsored by Hugo House and led by my recommender Ryan Boudinot, in the alpine village of Leavenworth up in the Cascades. Don’t expect to hear much more about this first draft until that door swings open and I’m ready to revise.

I also began reading again. A few short stories, still, but I also allowed myself to dive back into novels again. I simply enjoy them more. It strikes me again of how much I’ve coasted over the last decade without reading or writing much. I was an English major at Berkeley, and I had read a lot. Working at bookstores and publishing houses exposed me to literature in snippets and blurbs, but I hadn’t done much serious reading until this past year—and this past year’s reading felt somewhat like a chore. A welcome chore, sure; but slogging through endless short stories, trying to study their craft and glean their truths was somehow missing a crucial point.

I’d been reading Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, typically as bedtime reading, often aloud to Angie (it’s a ritual we enjoy and it helps her drift to sleep), and though both books are thoroughly enjoyable, they were partly homework: both authors being wünderkinder of the MFA world. When packing for our Mexican beach vacation, I fretted over what books to bring—I wanted something that would be, above all, enjoyable. I had a stack of novels on my “to-read” list. I finally selected two to bring along—Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and I ended up devoting myself wholly to the latter. It’s a hefty novel, and I made it through about three hundred pages on our trip: no small feat for this slow reader. It is the most wondrous novel I’ve read in years. I’ve become completely immersed in its world(s). And again I have to admit: it’s one of the only novels I’ve read in years. I can honestly county the number of books I’ve finished on two hands, with fingers left over for licking. The fact that Mitchell’s novel has much to teach me about craft is beside the point. It’s just a great story, and it had been a long time since I had so thoroughly been scooped up inside a book. I recommend it to fans of genre fiction looking for something a bit meatier to chew on, or fans of high literature looking for escapism without being seen dallying on the wrong side of the literary tracks.

III. Relaxed and Refreshed

We woke up at 4:00 am on April 4 to catch our ride to the airport. Turns out that a hired limo service was the same price as a shared shuttle van. Our driver, Tom, had recently been laid off his lifelong career as a Cadillac dealer. He chatted us up as we rode to Sea-Tac, talking about his favorite part of Mexico, Cabo San Lucas, “where the desert meets the ocean.” He preferred Baja to the Yucatan, where the humidity felt “like a gorilla sitting on your chest.” After a long, damp winter and the raw bite of my recent failure, we were ready for any kind of sun at all.

In summary: our trip was fantastic. We spent the first night in Cancun’s horrid Zona Hotelera (coincidentally the same day that Obama got in for a conference on the environment, we learned). We then took a twenty-minute ferry ride to Isla Mujeres, where we spent the next four nights. We then rented a car back on the mainland and drove two hours south along the Mayan coast to Tulúm for another four nights. Our last two nights we passed at a nice resort in the fishing village of Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun.

We got in plenty of lazy beach time, with frosty beverages served on the sand or at the pool. We dined like royalty on fresh seafood hauled in that day and served by the fisherman’s family in small restaurants either on the beach or in town. We explored Mayan ruins (I climbed a twelve-story Mayan pyramid because I could, though my quadriceps punished me later). We snorkeled the Mesoamerican “Great Mayan” Reef, swam in underground cenotes (giant sinkholes filled with crystal-clear freshwater and limestone stalactites), and took a cooking class where we learned how to use chiles and make tamales, ceviche, and real, traditional guacamole (with a mortar and pestle, no lime juice, tomatoes, or garlic). We stayed at some nice B&Bs, including a place we enthusiastically recommend to all would-be travelers to Isla Mujeres: Villa la Bella, run by a belle from South Carolina and a dude from So Cal—the most friendly and hospitable couple we’ve ever encountered.

I’ll write more about the trip later. This is already a long post, and I could write a novella about our ten days in Mexico. Suffice it to say we returned this last Friday—technically, the wee hours of Saturday morning, thanks to a popped circuit breaker in the engine of our plane that grounded us for a while in Houston—tired and glad to be home but otherwise relaxed and rejuvenated.

We hadn’t given a single thought to our plans for work or moving while we were away. It was lovely to not think about being in limbo, and to not have to rehash the same debate with the same answerless questions each day. I brought it up first, in the car while running errands to restock our pantry. It was glum, revisiting the discussion, and we went in circles again before dropping it. Should we find Angie a job and move? To where? Minnesota? Boston? California? Hawaii? Or should we stay? Should I reapply to MFA programs next year? If we move, would we be willing to uproot again after only a year for a grad school program? Can we deal with another winter in Tacoma? (For those shaking their heads: I posit that winters in Tacoma are as dreary as those in Minnesota, or more so: they are grayer and wetter and longer, and Minnesota’s though extremely cold, offer sunny days followed by real thaws in Spring and genuinely hot—albeit humid—summers.)

Each of us is hypersensitive to the other’s needs. I keep reminding Angie that I can write anywhere, and that indeed writing is the only thing I need to be doing, apart from finding a part-time job somewhere. Angie keeps insisting that she doesn’t want me to give up so easily on the MFA track, and wants very much to allow me the optimal circumstances for re-applying. The only thing we can really agree on is that to stay in Tacoma is a sour prospect. Our closest friends, Will and Natalie (and their eight month old Mattyewill), are moving in a few weeks to North Carolina. Angie’s own work environment has deteriorated of late. We dread the winter weather and the notion that we’ll have to essentially be in limbo for another year: there’s little incentive to meet new people or form new routines, or do anything permanent, if we know we’ll be moving in a year. It was fine this past round, but adding another year seems daunting.

We’ve got some decisions ahead. We are lucky to be so flexible, yet it’s still frustrating to be in limbo like this. I’ve been sort of gelling on the idea of moving: of finding Angie a good job, either in Minnesota or elsewhere (Hawaii and Boston both seem like viable options, and there are  jobs available for her just about everywhere), moving, finding myself a part-time or three-quarter-time job, finding myself a literary community to get involved with, take some writing classes, and generally just write. Come autumn, I’d re-apply to MFA programs—whatever full-residency program exists in the city where we end up, plus low-res programs elsewhere. Meantime, I just write. And submit. And hopefully, publish.

So, onward, etc…

Angie Miller, Cancun 4/5/11



Leave a Reply

  1. Hey Zack! Just wanted to say that I know you’re struggling but learning! I’m a slow reader and for me reading is often a chore–but here’s what I just realized–I just coasted through your blog posting, and it pulled me through, while provoking thought and reflection the way a really enticing op-ed piece would. That doesn’t happen to me often…you’ll get there and I look forward to seeing it (reading it) happen!


  2. No matter how busy I am, when I read something you’ve written, I can’t put it down. Someday, it will be that 300-page novel or something else you’ve chosen to write. Either way, it will be fantastic and I am looking forward to all those great reads before I depart this planet. In the mean time, whatever you guys do, you have my love and support. Write on and don’t give up on your dreams.

  3. Zak,
    You’re an inspiration to me. Thank you for having the courage to write this. xxMaureen

  4. Zak,
    What a beautiful, insightful piece. I love reading the things that you’ve written. I hear you on the rainy, gray, gloomy winters. I vote for Hawaii too (that way I can come visit!).

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