Chicken Soup for the Neurotic Soul – On Applying for My Low-Residency MFA
By Liz Breen
DISCLAIMER: This post is not for the faint of heart, for the reader seeking logical transitions and coherent thoughts. This blog post is for the reader who can identify with an author desperately trying to escape from the doldrums creativity by way of pop culture references.
It is 7:55 on a Thursday night. A young woman, let’s call her Lizz (with two z’s), sits on the couch on her apartment donning her coziest slippers. Her laptop purrs softly on her lap. Her feet are propped up on the coffee table next to a steaming cup of green tea (Lizz is very health conscious). A telltale, rhythmic squeaking sound emanates through the ceiling from the apartment above (Lizz is convinced those tenants are nymphomaniacs). Lizz seems not to notice the distraction, though. She seems to be completely focused on the screen in front of her, on her MFA writing sample, the key word here being “seems”. The inside of Lizz’s head sounds something like this:
Applying to undergraduate school couldn’t have been this hard. Otherwise, my 17-year-old lazy ass would’ve never gone to college… Ughhhhhhh. Ughhhhhhh… This story was such a good idea when I thought of it. Then again, Microsoft thought the Zune was a really good idea, too… Okay, just write whatever comes to your head. You can edit later, and you really just need the sound of keys typing to block out those two freaks upstairs going at it. Jesus, how long have they been having sex? Focus, focus, focus… I really miss Honey Boo Boo. I wonder what she is up to. When does the second season start? I’m going to Google it… Don’t tell anyone you just Googled that… La dee da la dee la Facebook stalking la dee da. Wait! That weirdo got engaged?! I need to text at least five people about this… FOCUS. Maybe I just need to read, get inspired by other people’s words. (Two hours later) WHY DID I JUST READ THAT?! CURSE YOU, JOYCE CAROL OATES! I CAN NEVER WRITE LIKE THAT!
Lizz then proceeds to eat all the Christmas cookies her grandma mailed her. After that binge, a trip to the gym seems more urgent than finishing her MFA applications. The next night, this process begins again.
All right, in case you haven’t figured it out, Lizz (with two z’s) is really me, Liz (with one z). And I am applying for my low-residency MFA. And it is not going well. The tricky thing is, I really think I have a chance of getting into one of these programs. I believe this, and yet over the past month, writing has become as difficult as watching an episode of Two and a Half Men. Unfortunately, I’m not just talking about writing my 20-page writing sample. I’m talking about a difficulty in all writing endeavors at the moment, even this blog post.
So what is behind this? Am I lazy? No. Normally, I can pursue a goal with the same tenacity that the paparazzi pursue a Kardashian. Am I afraid of failure? No. I know that admissions rates for master’s programs may be low, but I have 0% chance of getting in if I don’t apply. Have I somehow become allergic to the written word? No. I only have an allergy to toothpaste. (Yes, that’s a thing.) So what, then?
I realized (after a phone call with my mother, but don’t tell her and give her that satisfaction) I am trying to write as if I am someone worthy of graduating from an MFA program, not as if I am someone worthy of enrolling in an MFA program. I am trying to show the readers that I have memorized the whole fiction-writing handbook, not just the first few chapters. I am trying to inform them that I already know everything they are going to teach me.
The solution? I need to stop thesaurus-ing every word I type, looking for a smarter or more literary option. I need to stop naming and renaming my characters, as if an obtuse name (ex. Willamina) will make a difference. I need to focus on the basics, on showing that I am teachable, on demonstrating potential, not perfection. My final writing sample should not say, “This is my master work, my opus.” My final writing sample should say, in a Morgan Freeman-sounding voice, “This is what I can do on my own, and it needs some fine-tuning, I’m sure, but not to a degree that is totally unmanageable for your capable instructors.”
Ultimately, what makes this process both unique and difficult is that, for the first time in my life, I must embrace the idea that I am not good enough. The point of even applying for my MFA is that I am not good enough. My application on someone’s desk is a blatant admission that I am definitely, without a doubt not good enough, that I have not reached my peak, that I am searching out ways to obtain skills I do not already possess.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to employ a professional nagger/intimidator/cheerleader to make sure I follow my own strange epiphanies and get these applications out the door… Anyone know Mr. T?
Liz Breen is a con artist yet to be stopped. She finagled her way onto both Antiques Roadshow and CONAN on TBS before ultimately landing back in Boston at WGBH. She was a semifinalist in the 2011 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition and lied about being interesting in order to be featured in The Huffington Post and BostInnovation. When not writing, she tweets (@beinglizbreen), blogs (HAHAJK.com, YourIndustryInsider.com, InParenthesesMag.com) and watches Teen Mom.
Liz Breen is a freelance writer and producer who has worked for productions such as CONAN, WordGirl and Phantom Gourmet. She is also an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a writing instructor at Cambridge Center for Adult Education; her writing has been featured in Columbia's Catch & Release, Postcard Shorts and Cleaver Magazine. In her free time, Liz enjoys looking at dogs available for adoption. You can find her on the web at lizbreen.com or on Twitter @beinglizbreen.See other articles by Liz Breen