Judson Merrill Applies for an MFA
My literary career is young, but it’s never too early to begin charging the defibrillator of posterity. For the benefit of scholars and fans alike, I will use this space on The Outlet, on a semi-regular basis, to release a selection of my correspondence and other papers. Enjoy. (Universities interested in acquiring the complete Judson Merrill archive should contact me through my web site.)
Dear Graduate School,
By submitting this application essay, I am rejecting the debate over how possible it is to teach creative writing. It doesn’t matter if great fiction can be taught, because the hacks who run the publishing world believe that it can.
Over the past year I’ve embarked on an intriguing social experiment: the resubmission of every story I’ve ever had rejected from the “leading” literary magazines. My new submissions were identical to the originals but for one detail: the new cover letters claimed that I was a student at one of a handful of prestigious MFA programs. The results have been astonishing.
Using a rudeness rubric, I rated all of my rejections, old and new. When I was an unattached citizen, my rejections scored at the top of the rudeness rubric, with the three most commonly used words or phrases being “risible,” “desist,” and “final warning.” Compare that to the three most common phrases from the new batch of rejections: “solid effort,” “does not fit our needs,” and “evocative details.” On the whole, the “MFA” rejections scored near the bottom of the rudeness rubric, with many of them neutral or even polite in tone.
Your school, in particular, stood out in this project. Those submissions in which I claimed to be a student at your program garnered a nearly curse-free set of rejections, including one letter in which an editor invited me to submit again.
Results like these should readily explain why you find yourself with my application, which is, at first glance, a bundle of contradictions. If you’ve already read my writing sample, you know my writing is more advanced than that of a typical “student.” And if you’ve looked over my resume, you’ve noticed that I’ve already written and/or published hundreds of stories and Facebook posts, not to mention several novels that I’ve submitted to award committees.
Tragically, given the biases I’ve discovered in the publishing world, most of these accomplishments have gone unheralded. I am, however, unwilling to let my pride drown my work in obscurity. And so, I surrender to the tide of our times, and submit this application to join the academic-editorial complex.
Frankly, it will be a relief to have an institution in my corner for a change. But let me allay any fears you may have that I will not be a good fit for your school.
Any fiction program is, of course, only as strong as its student writers and, I assure you, your other students will benefit greatly from having me in the classroom. I offer incisive and accurate feedback. I have a knack for knowing when a story feels off and/or needs more. On the other side of the table, I’m excellent at noticing when someone simply hasn’t understood my story. I have no problem tactfully interrupting their discussion to explain my work to them. This is a timesaver for all involved.
I also greatly look forward to studying with your faculty. I assure you that I will be able to set aside the potentially awkward fact that I am very probably just as accomplished as they. That will not stop me from listening to what they have to say about my work. Great writers do not always make great teachers, but the reverse is also true. Even those members of your faculty who do not have my natural talent or boldness of imagination, may yet have some interesting insights into my fiction. (Although, just in case you’re more open minded than most programs, which insist on drawing their faculty from “published” writers, I’ve also included, in the appendices to this application, a resume and cover letter.)
On that note, I am hungry for the opportunity to teach, even at the undergraduate level. I’ll be a natural in the classroom. Over the years, many of my own teachers coyly refused to say who was the best writer in the class, despite overwhelming evidence pointing in my direction. I do not believe in this sort of coddling and will let my students know where they stand and which of them would be better off reconsidering a life in the arts.
If you were intrigued by my writing sample and read any of the novels I included in Appendix B, you’ll understand that the intense and artistic style which defines my work is not the sort of pap that can be mass marketed. Those of us creating real art cannot expect the crass publishing world to reward us with the six- or seven-figure advances I deserve. I am, however, prepared to earn my bread as a teacher. The experience I’ll gain instructing your undergraduates will be invaluable and shore up a few half-truths on my resume.
My resubmission experiment has proved that attending your program will, at least in superficial ways, benefit me. I have, however, also committed myself to making my transition into the academic world smooth and beneficial to you as well. I look forward to working with you.
–Judson Merrill lives and writes in Brooklyn. Some of his work, including his e-novella The Pool, can be found at judsonmerrill.com.