Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)

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A rejection 😦 (There is a twist at the end, so read on.)

Dear Writing,

It’s an open secret that I love you but have never felt very sure about you. You’re a complicated lover — sometimes, you come so close I can breathe your scintillating effervescence and feel you intimately against the insides of my skin; other times, I’m reminded by your improbable capriciousness. You don’t belong to me, you dance nimble steps a distance away, you ask, all wide-eyed innocence, Who said this would be easy? 

I know. I really do.

*

I applied for a fiction writing workshop under Harvard’s Creative Writing program, housed in the college’s English Department. A brief Googling yields some interesting yet intimidating history about the program on The Crimson (Harvard’s daily newspaper): Writing Classes Turn Students Away is pretty self-evident from its five-word title; Ink and Paper: Creative Writing at Harvard calls the selection process “notoriously competitive”; Many Dissatisfied with Creative Writing compares Harvard’s (intimate 12-people workshops) to the larger number of creative writing offerings at other schools like Yale and Princeton.

To determine admissions, all of Harvard’s creative writing courses require a separate application that includes a three to five-page writing sample in the relevant genre due on the first day of classes each semester. Each student also ranks their course preferences when applying.

Frankly speaking, I don’t have a lot of experience with fiction writing. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but I ended up talking more about it than ever seriously attempting it. I have not written a novel; I have never been to a writing workshop; I have not even published any short stories online or elsewhere.

Yet, when I opened my inbox to read that email on a drizzling gray afternoon on September 5, my heart still died a little. (It resurrected sometime later.)

Here were the first things that enveloped me. Self-doubt (Maybe I’m not a good writer? Should I stop trying for this kind of thing? Goodbye The Advocate and anything remotely creative writing related.), thoughts of if-only and what-if (I should not have started working on my writing sample eight hours before it is due; why did I ever think this was a good idea?), and a sense of resigned helplessness clambered into my mind in a clamorous scuffle. Even though I had an inkling of the competition that it is inevitable when you gather the best and brightest together for a limited number of opportunities, and I knew I was competing against not only my peers but also upperclassmen and graduate students for those 12 slots, rejection is never (and should never be) easy to swallow.

In a mildly depressed haze, I went to the gym at the M.A.C. for the first time since college started. The steady thuds of my soles against the treadmill pulled me out of the despondent swirl of thoughts. And I recognized the pulsing, irrevocable pull I felt towards challenging and transformative experiences, the inextinguishable yearning I had for doing hard things that can change me, and the heart that drummed loudly to authentically live and achieve my best — if I can never get rid of my ambition, I must necessarily come to terms with this ugly but formative thing called rejection.

The moment I officially acknowledged that in my mind, all the clutter cleared. What mattered then was how fast I could condition my mind to move past rejection and whether I could figure out how to try again, again and again — however many times it would take — in a progressing, more sophisticated fashion.

*

Life works in mercurial, unbelievable ways.

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Turns out I’m the first name on the waiting list! Someone didn’t enroll (thank you!!!) and I got in! 🙂

The next day, on September 6, when I was on my way to shop another class, I refreshed my inbox and saw an impossible email from the Harvard Creative Writing Program.

I got in, off the waiting list! Firstly, I didn’t know there was a waiting list. Secondly, isn’t it incredible that I am the first name on the waiting list? Thirdly, it must be by some strange miracle of the universe that someone just so happens to be unable to enroll and I get to discover all this behind-the-scenes stuff. This is what I think: God wants to test my resilience. The power to embrace rejection is harder to master than hard-earned acceptance. So every rejection I taste at an early phase is a precious chance for self-growth.

So, yes! I am now one of 12 students taking the Fiction Writing workshop under Professor Claire Messud this semester.

And yes, there is a happy ending to this story.

But, the happy ending is not the key thing here. What is crucial is understanding that we must each discover how we individually can embrace rejection, conquer it in as short a time as possible, and keep moving with high hopes and concrete action — all these set against the backdrop of Life in which rejection is constant and inescapable.

Even as a freshman, I find myself constantly faced with the prospect of not getting a coveted class. For instance, out of the four classes I’m taking this fall, three had an application process. I might have ended up with a completely different slate of classes in another time and place if all three didn’t happen to work out. Introducing my Freshman Fall classes:

  1. A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez
  2. Freshman Seminar: The Creative Work of Translating
  3. Fiction Writing: Workshop
  4. The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods & Reasoning (For people who are like ‘HUH? You want to be an archaeologist?’, no I don’t, but in an alternate universe, I would be a 20th century tomb-raider. This anthropology class satisfies the Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning General Education requirement, yay! Farewell calculus!)

I am immensely grateful for the rocky way I converged with my fiction writing workshop and this early rejection on the cusp of my transition to four years at Harvard. I will never be able to stop myself from aiming for things I love — no matter how high the probability of rejection. In a place like Harvard, or even in life, the most empowering thing might just be to proudly wear whatever rejections come my way like emblems of a battle-hardened veteran driven by unyielding dreams.

Lots of Love,

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12 thoughts on “Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)

  1. tianyi207 says:

    Although I’m not a huge fan of happy endings in movies (sappy romcoms I’m looking at you), happy endings in real life are always super delightful! I know you mention it’s not the key thing, but still super happy for you nonetheless. Post is extremely motivational in so many ways, definitely riled up my fighting spirit for my oncoming uni term!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s really an incredible twist of events and the best thing that could have happened! Now you can attend this creative writing class with much more security that you were sort of meant to be there haha now that you have lost the chance once:) I think the word is serendipity :p

    And jiayou, confirm will have more rejections along the way! 道理大家都懂 and good that this incident has helped to strengthen your 心理素质 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. wongsl98 says:

    YAY I’m happy for you 😀 Sounds like a very happening first week of school! Looking forward to your updates on the classes! Do you think you can share your stories/writing pieces from the class? I’m looking forward to seeing what exciting plots you will write about hohoho

    Liked by 2 people

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