Thick or Thin

April 13, 2006

A friend who works in college admissions recently apologized for the elliptical nature of his last few notes. He’s preoccupied right now by the process of building next year’s incoming freshman class. His is a “moderately selective” school with rolling admissions, meaning that applicants are accepted or rejected outright as their materials arrive and are reviewed. Some who are admitted send their deposits right away, locking in their place in the class. For others, however, this is their “safety school,” the one they know they’ll get into if the “highly selective” school that is their first choice rejects them, so they wait until after all their options are known before making a decision. The highly selective schools usually send their notifications around April 1, and this month my friend will be getting replies from the disappointed, allowing him to fill the spots he has left in the Class of 2010.

I’m a bit distracted right now by my own anticipation of acceptance or rejection. On Tuesday I mailed the last of three applications to summer writing conferences, and now I wait. The three conferences occur at different times, so it will be possible for me to attend all of them should I be accepted at all. My hopes, in the order in which I’ll be notified, are pinned on:

Notification by April 17: The Aspen Summer Words Writing Retreat and Literary Festival (Aspen, Colorado, June 25-June 29). I was attracted to this conference chiefly by the focus of two of the courses, Amy Bloom on writing a novel, and Ron Carlson on advanced techniques in fiction writing. I am more suited to the long form and I struggle to produce material that fits into the traditional short story workshop. I took a brief class with Carlson two years ago at Bread Loaf. He’s a dynamic instructor who gave me exercises and strategies I am still using. I’ve been a fan of Bloom’s work since her 1993 collection Come to Me.

Beyond the opportunities to learn at Aspen this year, there’s the lineup of speakers at the literary festival. Many of them, particularly Gretel Ehrlich and William Kittredge, are writers whose work I read in preparation for my trip to Wyoming. And beyond that, well, it’s in Colorado. That’s almost Wyoming!

Notification “last week in April”: Novel Writing: Living Through the First Draft (Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, May 22-May 26). I saw an announcement for this workshop in Poets & Writers. Again, I was attracted by the focus on the long form. Back in January I’d risked disaster to pick up a quarter that was lying in the middle of a busy street in downtown Harrisburg. It turned out to be a Georgia commemorative quarter. I used it as an object of meditation for several days thereafter, and the message it sent was “Go somewhere you’ve never been before.” The announcement in Poets & Writers a few weeks later seemed to be a sign.

Enrollment in this workshop will be limited to only about a dozen participants. It can be taken for graduate credit at a cost of $1000 or for no credit at a cost of under $500. My admissions professional friend considered that and then said, hmm, if he could fill the group with a dozen people willing to pay $1000 to be there, he’d be inclined to pass over the writer bringing only $500 to the table, despite her interesting demographics.

Notification letters mailed May 20: Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (Middlebury, Vermont, August 16-27) Bread Loaf is regarded by some (including me) as the Holy Grail of summer conferences. It’s famous, well-established, and “highly selective” (that is, fewer than 20% of applicants are accepted). I attended Bread Loaf in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and it is my hope to attend every year for the rest of my writing life. Some of the people I’ve become friends with are perennial attendees, some having gone up the mountain every year for more than two decades. They have testified that they must earn admittance every year, and cannot count on their long history with the institution as a substitute for compelling work.

The conventional wisdom in the admissions game is that acceptances are thick, rejections are thin. Bread Loaf still sends a letter, and you can feel the bulk of the letter, the reservation form, and the return envelope when you pluck it out of the catalogs and pieces of junk mail it always arrives among. Aspen and Emory, however, have indicated that their notifications will come by e-mail. All e-mails look alike, so I won’t know until I click to open what my prospects are.

I’ll keep you posted.

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