30 years ago (oh my, writing that made me gasp), I applied to the MFA program at USC film school, where I had just finished my BA in film studies and production.
I was turned down. Rejected. The faculty kindly told me they thought I should go out in the world and work for a few years. I was DEVASTATED – even more so when my boyfriend was accepted. I remember going back to my apartment and drinking straight vodka – clearly I was a bit more dramatic in those days!
It took me quite a few years to get over the sting of rejection and the certainty the five crabby old men who ran the program back then were right – I was a loser. I had zero talent.
But now, I wish those guys were still alive and I could kiss their hoary cheeks and say, “You were so right! Thank you!”
Why did I become grateful? Because I wanted to go to graduate school to hide. Like my daughter is right now, facing the big world without having a clue how to do what I wanted to do was beyond daunting – it was paralyzing.
But grad school? Perfect solution! I could stay in the womb for two or three more years. I might even end up teaching film. That could be fun, certainly more fun that being out there in the dog-eat-dog “industry.”
But instead, I was thrown out on my little tush, and being the ambitious – if fraught with self-doubt child I was – I picked myself up, dusted my heart off, and got to it.
If anything, my stubborn side kicked in big time. “I’ll show them!”
Not being able to hide gave me no choice but to sink or swim. I learned I was the only one who could make what I wanted to happen, happen. I had to claim what I wanted to do – write – and then learn how to do it.
But most of all, what that painful rejection taught me? To trust myself, my opinions, and my experiences rather than wait for the sanctioned “right” way to be passed down.
I’m not saying rejection is necessary to be successful or that MFA’s are a bad idea but rather that I refused to let what USC film school thought of me determine my future. I could have folded up right then and there, moved back to my parents’, worked for my dad, and had a nice life. But I never even considered because I wanted to create stuff so badly.
So even though I wasn’t very talented and I had a long, long way to go, I started walking. And learning.
That’s my point – we do not have to quit.
- We might have – and want to! – stay in a day job (having a day job can be better for artists and writers, especially when we are young or raising a family).
- We might need to embrace a different genre – I failed at writing screenplays but did well at writing personal growth books. I’m going to try to make the leap to more literary writing with my next book – that might totally fail. Oh, well!
- We might need to develop a related side business to support ourselves – I have with all my teaching offers. I adore teaching – so much! – and it allows me to work on a book that might never see the light of day.
- Above all, we must keep learning, seeking out great mentors and trusted peers to critique our work. We must stay out of the story, “I failed not because of my skill but because people don’t understand my work.” Then write or paint or code until you reach your people!
So yes, I am happy that I never went to grad school. I am happy that this weekend, hanging around with our running group after we ran a half-marathon in Moab, when a new friend said in this polite tentative voice, “Now what is it you do exactly, Jen?” I could proudly proclaim, “I’m a writer and a teacher, and I have made up my entire career!”
Here’s to your bold, proud claims and the courage to make them!
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