Help Wanted

You get in life what you have the courage to ask for – Oprah Winfrey

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about not being brave.  About being scared of chasing after something I wanted and about how my cowardly nature had allowed me to settle for something less than my dreams. 

It’s right here, if you missed it.

That was three years ago, ya’ll.  Three years.  And guess what?  I’m still stuck, just in a different rut, in a different town, with even less hope than I had before.  It’s getting dark inside my head.  Real dark. Like, my-cell-phone’s-dead-and-the-flashlight’s-busted-and-I’m-down-to-my-last-handful-of-matches-and-they-keep-burning-my-fingers-as-they-burn-out-kind of dark.

So, I’m doing something I don’t normally do.  I’m asking for help.

I have a little under a month to submit my application for the MFA program at Boston University.  It’s my number one, top-pick, reach-for-the-moon, over-the-fence, World Series kind of choice for a school, a city, and a program.  I can’t explain it, but I’ve wanted to go to BU since I was sixteen.

And BU?  BU is fucking scary.  Okay? It’s even scary to Google!  You get all kinds of results with horrifying words like “Prestigious” and “Top-Ten Best” and “One of the Oldest and Most Renowned”. 

But I was like, no, Emry.  No.  We’re going to be brave and fierce and we’re going to fill out our application and get into that school.

That school where dozens of bestselling authors have been educated.

That school that only accepts ten students every year.

Ten.

Out of what I’m sure are thousands of applications.

So now I’m like

Below you will find my statement of purpose.  It is the one I wrote for the other schools to which I applied, and it is by no means perfect.  In fact, it’s probably a large, steaming pile of shit. I’ve editedit and rewritten it probably six times and each time I hate it a little more.

That’s where you come in, guys.  I can’t do this alone.  I don’t want to do this alone.  I need your help.  Please give me strong, concrete suggestions about what works and what doesn’t and what parts are worth saving and what can be tossed straight out.

Here's the info on BU’s program.

And here’s my insufficient statement of purpose:

Dear Selection Committee,

I was nine years old when I decided that creative writing was more important than long division.  My fourth grade teacher did not agree and called a meeting to inform my parents that instead of answering a single question on the front of my math test, I’d flipped the page over and written a story about the case of Seven, on trial for cannibalism.  He was charged with eating Nine.  My mother nodded grimly, kept her words short and clipped and promised to talk to me about it later.  Instead of the grounding I was expecting, she bought me an ice cream cone, a fresh stack of composition books, and signed me up for a library card. 

“You’ve gotta take your math tests, Em,” she said with affectionate exasperation. “But I don’t want you to ever stop reading and writing stories.”

In the twenty years that have passed since that afternoon, I have only attempted a handful more math tests, but I have completed several novels and dozens of short stories.  My voracious appetite for words has always been my greatest asset.  Without a strong mentor for writing in my youth, I foraged my education through the shelves of the public library.  Judy Blume was my first instructor in the field of realistic dialogue and screenplays or television scripts by Joss Whedon taught me the place for dark humor and the beauty of weirdness. These lessons were cemented by Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and later, Mark Danielewski.  Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest have revealed to me the beauty in dense, complex storytelling. The art of loveable, flawed characters was introduced by Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

My professional life has taken me away from writing for the last eight years.  I have worked in the nonprofit sector and in restaurant management full time, cultivating my corporate training and effective management skills.  These careers have been professionally satisfying, but not nearly enough to quell the hunger in my heart for the life of a writer.  My precious writing time is what I can squeeze in before work or in the wee hours of the morning when I can barely keep my eyes open.  I rely on friends and family for constructive criticism, but the responses I receive are more akin to comments on a well-written fanfiction.  As encouraging as it is to hear that they are enjoying my work, there is no real criticism, nothing to challenge me and spur me on to better things.

I strive to reach my goal of writing at least one page of creative work each day.  Though some days it feels impossible, I am never one to shrink from a challenge.  As such, I have participated and won NaNoWriMo by completing a 50,000 word project in the month of November each year since 2012. Recently, I have begun revisions on a novel I have been working on for the last three years, a hybrid of historical fiction braided with a modern romantic comedy. 

In October of 2015, I co-founded a weekly podcast, Badass Bitches, where we tell the true stories of women such as Alice B. Sheldon, Virginia Hall, and Juliane Koepcke. Our aim is to share the stories of women who have faded from history and share their lives and accomplishments with an audience who might otherwise remain ignorant. 

I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to share my passion with other writers over the years as a guest commentator in the high school English classes of teachers with whom I am acquainted.  I have presented creative writing lectures and workshops to accelerated students in their AP level English courses, to small groups of older writers looking for a place to share their work, and to high school students who had never been given an outlet for their creative writing interests. 

It is time to stop treating my writing as a hobby and allow it to be the focus of my life and my career.  The small, focused group setting of University of Oregon is exactly what I am looking for in an MFA program.  The combination of intense workshops and individual tutorials makes for an exciting prospect to grow and develop as a writer.  I am ready to expose myself to the criticism of a sophisticated audience and hone my craft alongside an equally impassioned community of writers and educators.  If selected for your program, I would focus on further developing a distinct written voice and begin the construction of my next novel. 

Though I have wandered from the path of professional writing and teaching, I have never left entirely.  It has not been easy to continue to call myself a writer, and even more difficult to live up to the title, but it is a challenge I accept every day. 

I have proven to myself that I have the discipline, passion and commitment for a higher level of instruction.  It is my hope that I can have the opportunity to prove the same to you as a student at the University of Oregon.

Thank you for your consideration.

Emily J. Jeziorski

Here’s what I’ve got going for me:

1.)    I’m a non-traditional student
2.)    I’ve taken time off to figure out that being a writer is what I really, really, really want to do
3.)    …I have pretty hair.

So, yeah, okay.  Not the resume I was hoping for, but it’s a start.  It’s also worth noting that the letter above doesn’t sound like me AT ALL and I’m wondering if I should just take some combination of the Autobiographical Statement I posted earlier today and somehow turn that into a letter they’d remember?

I literally don’t know.  Please help.

Please.

I’m going to go eat my feelings while I figure out my next move.


Autobiographical Statement

As some of you know--and some of you don't--I'm applying to grad school for Fall of 2016.  I didn't advertise this anywhere on social media for a lot of reasons.  Those reasons are for a different blog that's probably going to be really dark and depressing and maybe published later today. 

The purpose of this post, though, is not just to tell Squarespace that I'm still alive and using this domain, but to share one of the pieces I crafted for one of my applications.  This particular school asked for a lot of different things.  They wanted a Statement of Purpose, an Autobiographical Statement, and a Personal History Statement.

Uh...what?

That's a lot of things that all sound like the same thing.  And doesn't that sound like it would make it more difficult for the selection committee?  And why not lump all these things together and call it an Extra Long Tell Us About Yourself Statement?  (Capital Letters Are Important to Grad Schools).

But I'm bad a naming things, so I guess that's why they're reading my stuff and I'm sitting on my couch, waiting for rejection letters.  

Wait. That's too dark. I promised darkness later.  Shit.

Anyway, here's the autobiographical statement I ended up being the most proud of.  I haven't considered dipping a toe into the lake of Creative Nonfiction since sophomore year of college, but that's where this piece would fall if I needed to give it a genre.

Without further ado: 

In the fourth grade classroom at Gill Hall Elementary, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a hot April day in 1997, I sat with three adults.  My parents and my teacher.

            It was tense.  The sweat prickled at my hairline before sliding slowly down the back of my neck.  The adults were talking.  Their words clipped and terse.  No one was talking to me.  No one was even looking at me.  They were just carrying on, speaking to one another, hands folded over the papers in question.  Ignoring me like I wasn’t sitting there beside them, awaiting execution.

            I didn’t mean to forget to finish my math test.  Or start it.  I’d just gotten carried away.  Numbers were so much more interesting when I could turn them into little characters and make up a story about them instead.  And the story which I’d ended up writing on the back of my test was a lot more entertaining than the equations I hadn’t answered on the front, anyway. 

            “Emily,” Mrs. K said finally, setting her beady eyes on the accused.  “Do you understand why I’ve asked your parents to be here?”

            My mother and father—who couldn’t stand to be in the same room as one another normally—both focused their gaze on me.  I swallowed hard.  “Yes?”

            “And why is that?” Mrs. K raised one of her penciled on eyebrows and pursed her lined lips. 

            “Because I wrote a story about the numbers on the back of my math test,” I mumbled, looking down at my hands.

            “Instead of?”

            I sighed with resignation.  “Instead of taking my math test.”

            Even to my nine year old self, this tribunal seemed rife with injustice.  Did they even read the story about Seven dispelling the rumors of his cannibalism?  Did no one care that he went to trial and swore under oath that he did not eat Nine as he was charged?  Or how One defended him because she knew what it was like to be lonely and intimidating? And best yet, after Seven was cleared of all charged, they fell in love and walked hand in hand into the double digits together. 

            “Why do you think we’re disappointed, Em?” my father asked.  His tone was still kind and gentle as always, but undoubtedly displeased.

            “Because math is important?” It was a question.  One I’d been asking since the subject had been introduced to me three years ago and immediately begun its bullying. It was a question that no one had answered. 

            No one answered me this time.  Instead, they turned their attention back to one another and moved onto the sentencing portion of my trial.  Mrs. K used words like “special” and “extra help” and “after-school programs.”  Words that made the knot in my stomach twist tighter and tighter.   

            My mother was silent afterward as we climbed into the car and buckled our seatbelts.  I waited until we pulled onto the street before I swallowed hard and glanced over at her.  “Are you mad?” I asked, quietly, praying I was looking cuter than I felt.

            “Yes,” she said in an even tone.

            “Oh.”

            “I’m mad because I can’t believe my taxes go to paying that woman’s salary,” she gripped the steering wheel tighter.  I blinked. Didn’t expect that.  “What kind of idiot reads a story like that and calls a meeting to tell us she thinks there’s something wrong with you?”  She shook her head and pulled over onto the shoulder.  She took a deep breath and turned to me.  “Look, Em,” she reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.  “No one is good at everything, okay?  But this?” she held up my story.  “You’re good at this.  You’re really, really good at this.”  I felt myself smiling for the first time all day.  My mother smiled back and pressed a kiss to the top of my head.  “Just please don’t use your math tests anymore, okay?  I’ll buy you as many notebooks as you want.  I just don’t want to sit through another meeting like that one.”  She raised her eyebrows.  “Deal?”

            I grinned.  “Deal.”  

            “We’re going to the library,” her mother decided aloud.  “An imagination like yours needs to be fed.”

            True to my word, I stopped writing on the back of my math tests.  I still failed them, but no one had to go to any more meetings because of it.  I had a building full of new teachers waiting for me to devour the lessons they had hidden between their pages.

             I studied character development from Harper Lee and Thomas Mann.  I learned description from the poets—Mary Oliver was my favorite, but I made time for Dickenson and Thoreau.  I kept myself awake most of the summer of 2002 studying how to tingle a spine from the likes of Shelley and Danielewski.  Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, and Elmore Leonard taught me the ins and outs of great dialogue. 

            It was only eleven years later that I found myself in the hospital, sitting beside my mother in the last week of her life.  She had been asleep most of the day; the morphine dulled the pain of the cancer ravaging her body, but it also knocked her out.  She did open her eyes that afternoon, though, and reached for my hand, startling me from the book I was reading at her bedside.

            Her skin was yellowed with jaundice, but her eyes were the same.  Green and kind and curious about what I was doing.  “Who are you reading today?” she asked, her voice hoarse. 

            I covered her hand with mine.  “Neil Gaiman.”

            She managed a smile.  “Get it from the library?”  I nodded and swallowed down the lump in my throat.  “Is there anything in that place you haven’t read?”

            I brought our hands up and kissed the back of hers, squeezing our fingers together as I forced a smile.  “Just the math books.”