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Crises for Motivation
by Michael Quinones

Back to School–Not Just a Great Flick

I eat my hands. I’m eating them right now. I eat them while I write. In fact, a moment ago I tore a hangnail off my pinky with my teeth. Blood has seeped over my nail and formed a pretty red semi-circle along my cuticle. I write slowly and have a lot of nervous energy, so it’s either this or chain smoke. But I quit smoking. I’m applying to grad school for writing. If I get in I figure it’s better to have deformed hands than lung cancer.

"Oh, wow, a master’s in writing. Good for you," says my uppity editor, a superstar of small talk when I see him at the printer. And like most folks, he says this as if I’d been bragging about my high score on Galaga. I get the urge to scream, "I want to create literature for the ages, you John Grisham-reading whore."

Grad school for writing, while not as ridiculous as grad school for philosophy, is still as practical as buying a Hummer that gets four miles to the gallon. And grad school for writing doesn’t exactly come with a money-back guarantee.

Good Excuse

But why an MFA in writing? Well, I’m attempting to solve my quarter-life crisis. Damn it if this phrase didn’t enter the lexicon the same month that I turned 24.

"Why are you suffering a quarter-life crisis, you melodramatic buffoon?" you ask. From least convincing reason to most:

I pay $650 for a 19’ x 12’ studio in Woodside, Queens (without knowing Chinese, Spanish, or drunk Irish).

I work at a job where, if lucky, I’ll see a two-percent raise after two years.

I consider myself a "writer," though I haven’t published anything since my high school literary magazine.

I still spend the majority of my time and money kissing sobriety goodbye.

I guess I can always take solace in that list e-mail I seem to get every week. You know, the one assuring me that everyone is a floundering 20-something, and that I’m not alone in being a confused, broke copy machine expert. I want to believe that this lapse of focus and identity is normal and, like masturbation when you’re 14, ubiquitous and healthy. But there’s that 23-year-old making six figures designing video games and the girl who scored the cushy marketing job for Phillip Morris, pulling in 60 Gs a year removed from college. I want these things too; I just don’t know how to get them.

My way of dealing with this, prior to the idea of grad school, was to get stoned and watch Fight Club. I’d also imagine myself as someone possessing a higher degree of consciousness than, say, 75 percent of the souls I encounter while bar hopping. I sometimes feel I’m the only one who knows of Otto von Bismarck. I know this may be some of the most pompous rationalizing since Clinton defined "sexual relations," but I believe that if someone hasn’t evaluated themselves in the stretch between 23 and 27, they need to wake up and smell that damn coffee before it’s gone.

They Don’t Call it an Application Process for Nothing

For the last month I’ve been engaged in the application process, the most critical thinking I’d done since…well, I guess since the day after I blacked out and tried to remember where I’d left my cell phone and drugs.

The application process in itself isn’t particularly daunting; with Columbia I didn’t even have to sweat the GRE. Of course, my lack of a GRE score kept me from applying to any other schools, but I’ve always been passive-aggressive. Why should grad school be any different?

Anyway, here’s really all that’s required (Please ignore the silly second-person switch):

1. 30 pages of writing–You dig up two of your rough short stories and an excerpt from your Great American Novel (a literary breakthrough, if only you’d finished it two years ago, three years after you began). Then you revise until the word "revise" sounds as appealing as the word "chokefart." Revise until revising consists of coming full circle to what you had originally, before your first revision fucked up everything.

2. 1,000-word literary response paper–Instructions: Respond to a work of literature. Nice and specific, considering you haven’t written anything of the kind in three years. And when you did, it was up-all-night delirious, chomping Vivarin and finishing at 10:42 AM when the paper was due at 10.

3. Two-page personal statement–Why do you want to attend Columbia? You must master stretching "I want to learn" into two pages, avoiding sentences like, "I really don’t know what else to do with myself."

4. College transcripts–You ask Undergraduate U. to send an extra copy for you to peruse and rediscover you actually got Cs in your creative writing classes. Appropriate sitcom gimmick: abrupt riotous laughter, then instant transition to woeful weeping.

5. Three recommendations–E-mail past professors or advisors and kiss their asses into remembering you, then watch as they fuck up the strict Columbia instructions you implored them to follow. Is it that hard to sign the envelope’s seal?

6. $90 application fee–!%#$!@#$&@!

Back to Reality

My ex-girlfriend, who works in admissions at the University of Dayton, said she knew someone in Columbia’s grad school admissions. I was ecstatic and not above such nepotism; one proud sucker in a million makes it without help in NYC. But really, what was she going to do? Toss the guy’s salad? Then she told me what my dumbass should have known anyway: Columbia is the fourth-ranked MFA writing program in the nation and only accepts 10 percent of applicants. With my 2.9 GPA, I was highly enthusiastic of my chances.

But it was gut-check time. Did I really want to move to Harlem, work some demeaning night job, and bust my brains, all the while knowing that, with no savings, I’ll feel guilty eating anything that costs more than a McDonald’s Value Meal.

I was so caught up in the prospect of getting in, the wailing around to anyone who would listen, that reality had no bearing. I was never certain that grad school was the answer, but fuck if it didn’t sound admirable and lofty. The hip excuse, "Sorry I never called back. I’ve been busy perfecting my sample writings for Columbia" had replaced the slightly more pathetic, "I’ve been way too hung over to call anyone lately."

So maybe I’ll be accepted, if only because I’m half Puerto Rican and shrewdly marked "Puerto Rican" on the application. Maybe I won’t even go because my Great American Novel will be on the bestsellers’ list and I’ll be too busy dissing Oprah’s Book Club. But either way I’ve won, because I’ve shared this experience with you, dear reader, and I’m one step closer to figuring out whatever it is I’m supposed to figure out.


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