A little over a year ago, living in a half-underground studio apartment in another city, I received seven letters of rejection from six graduate English programs. (Seven because one sent a follow-up rejection to its first, ten days later.) The letters arrived within a four-week period, and I remember that just before they began arriving after spending nearly a thousand dollars on applications and transcripts and GRE classes and tests, and months working on my statement of purpose, polishing my writing samples, requesting letters of recommendation, struggling in vain to print envelopes right side up I still wasn't certain the doctoral route was the one I wanted to take.
During the application and waiting period, I hyper-considered what I saw as my two life options. I'd been a magazine editor for five years, and earned an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the low-totem-pole evening program of a high-caliber midwestern university. The two options as they battled each other in my pre-sleep make-believe scenarios of my future life were these: in the first, I was a professor, creating courses, teaching, publishing in journals, and greeting students in my English Department office, which would resemble those I visited often and with pleasure as a student; in the second, I was a writer unattached to an institution, publishing articles and reviews and essays like Adam Gopnik's, Susan Sontag's, Annie Dillard's that would later be collected into books (with blurbs, if things went well, from Gopnik, Sontag and Dillard).
When the first few rejections arrived, I found myself not too surprised. I'd done poorly on the GRE, my undergrad degree wasn't from a top university, and although many of my M.A. courses were taught by nationally recognized scholars, the program was one for continuing studies more recreational, less competitive. Further, I'd been warned by professors and students that the odds of acceptance at the schools to which I applied were low. Their message was that I shouldn't get my hopes up, and mostly I didn't.
During the second week of receiving the rejections, I had already begun to believe the doctoral student -> professor option was not to be realized (though of course more letters were still to come). As I remember, my reaction to the first few letters wasn't one of hostility, but more of a semi-detached interest in the letters themselves, and the process as a whole. Perhaps because my mother is an administrator who has lamented her part in accepting and rejecting students, I sometimes put myself in the deans' shoes and imagined how I'd phrase such a letter.
The first letter I received, from the university where I earned my evening M.A., closed this way: "...the faculty and administrators of The Graduate School respect your intellectual ambition and wish you success in attaining your goal of advanced study." Respect my intellectual ambition? A very satisfying sentiment, still. Is it possible, I wonder now, that what I wanted wasn't years of grad-school labor but for someone to, very officially and with a signature, respect my intellectual ambition?
The letters that followed also contained memorable lines. There was the sincere: "I send you best wishes for your writing and your future"; the mistakenly hopeful, which opened: "We were pleased to consider your application..."; the personal: "It is my unpleasant duty to inform you..."; and the assuming: "Trusting that you will find satisfactory placement at another school of your choice..." (A note on the last: I was, in fact, eventually accepted at another school, as I expected to be, but its standing below the others gave me concern that I might not find satisfactory placement in the shallow job pool I had been reading about in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)
What had consumed so much of my waking hours during the application and waiting process wasn't any doubt of my place as a reader, writer, or thinker, or a concern that I would lose my passion for and pursuit of truth and beauty in literature. What had consumed me were numbers. Mental mathematics took place on the train, in the shower, and always while reading other writers' bios. I'm twenty-seven now...Five years of study, that's...I'd be...thirty... two? And broke? On the other hand, the one number that mattered was the life I had one, same as yours and if being broke at 32 was part of the process of the life I wanted to lead, then that was that.
One particular letter noted the numbers game itself. This one read: "Because of the large number of our own M.A.s who wish to proceed toward the doctorate, we have accepted exceedingly few advanced students in recent years...Let me emphasize again that it is not a judgment on your ability to do advanced graduate work; at present we simply have no space."
Space, time, numbers...Though I often felt like I was consumed by a subject not of my choosing, I tried to stay focused on my literary and cultural goals. I knew that my life would be spent taking part in the arts books, film, music and writing about them, but I just didn't know the position from which I'd take part. I felt not like a racehorse whose gate wouldn't open, but like a racehorse that had yet to be assigned a gate.
A year later, I have a gate, and my life is in fact spent taking part in the arts. I moved to St. Louis, accepted a job as a museum grant writer, and began a more intense level of freelance writing. Since the move, I have often recalled with pleasure my favorite memories of the grad-school application process: a conversation with a warm and generous-hearted MFA professor who took genuine interest in me; supportive e-mails from my fiction professor in college, who remains a mentor; and many office talks with my M.A. advisor, a brilliant, bearded Russian poet and essayist who always had a cigarette burning, and who, perhaps, overestimated his weight in getting a student of his into his home university. I remember one afternoon with this advisor in particular. I mentioned that I'd just discovered a book of poems by Mark Strand, whom I was lucky enough to meet after a reading; my advisor mentioned that he was having drinks with the poet later that week. Rather than feeling one-upped, I felt that their evening meeting discussing poetry and the world was so very like the future professorial life I'd imagined for myself, pre-sleep. I wanted their lives.
These fond memories, and my semi-detachment from the reality of the rejections, were recently replaced by a more melancholy feeling. I had gone to my graduate-school folder, left the deans' letters where they were, and re-read a piece of my own writing: my statement of purpose.
In the two-page, very personal statement, I wrote that my decision on graduate school existed because "my relationship with literature has grown from being a major in college, to being the focus of evening graduate study, to being the core of the plan of the rest of my life." This definitiveness, now unsettling, continued:
"While my M.A. and my continued personal study have been challenging and nourishing, they have been, in pure hours of the day, peripheral. ... It has come time for me to make a long-term, low-income, high-reward commitment to prepare for a life as a researcher, writer, and teacher. ... Throughout this process of researching schools and, more importantly, programs, I have sought advice from mentors in academia. Most offer encouragement; they see in my eyes and read in my letters that this is what I have to do, and what I will do."
What I will do. Was my sentiment that I was destined for those doctoral programs an exaggeration? I don't think so; I felt what I wrote. Was I stating that fulfillment would come only when literary and cultural studies moved from the peripheral of my life to its center? It seems so. What does it mean that those studies remain, in pure hours of the day, on the periphery, and yet I still, on a new level, feel fulfilled?
I presently live a block away from one of the universities that rejected me, and I regularly attend its writers' series readings, as just a neighborhood guy from down the street. Last month, the guest was essayist Joseph Epstein, who delivered a stirring, hour-long reading of his essay, "My Friend Edward." The piece was about the very friendship I'd imagined as part of the professorial life two intellectually charged and generous peers, much like my advisor and Strand. But what resonated most that evening for what I now do, for where I now live was something the author said before his reading. He spoke of fate. He spoke of being in the military and having his superior give him a choice between two cities at which to be stationed. He went one way, and his life followed. From the podium, Epstein told us that he often wonders what his life would be like had he gone the other way.
Though I'm not yet of Epstein's years, I wonder, too, with neither regret nor certainty. I just wonder.