Here is a mock personal statement I wrote as a launching pad for ideas + a means of getting out some pent-up aggression at the whole application process. I didn’t apply with it, but a part of me wishes I had. Is it entirely too long and a touch self-indulgent? Perhaps, but maybe it will inspire you if you’re feeling stuck.
Please keep in mind, of course, that all plagiarists go to Hell. Enjoy!
I’ll be honest: I have no idea how to write a personal statement. The whole genre strikes me as false and horribly formulaic; personal statements, as far as I can tell, are usually anything but personal. I went to my fourteen-year-old little sister for recourse (actually, that’s misleading—I have two fourteen-year-old little sisters, identical twins, not to mention my four other siblings) and asked her what I ought to write, and she said I probably only want to go to grad school to secure my place as our mom’s favorite child. That statement may not be entirely inaccurate; I’ll be the first to admit I’m wildly competitive and obsessed with prestige, even if it only comes from my mom. In any case, I may not know what I’m doing, but I at least know I’m feeling a certain amount of presumptive sympathy and even guilt in writing this, because I know you (using the nebulous “you” here, a nice, vague pronoun because I have no clue how many people are reading this personal statement, if it might one day be reprinted in biographies or museum exhibits once I become wildly famous, etc.) have to read a million of these things and I hate adding one more to your pile. How many do you read in one day? Also, I’m curious—what percentage of those begin with a fun anecdote about how the writer in question knew they were destined to write since that fated day in second grade when they wrote a prize-winning story about a pair of crime-fighting kittens, complete with illustrations done in magic marker? Even if you don’t accept me into your MFA program, feel free to call me with answers to these questions. I will not be offended in the slightest. Personal rejection beats form rejection, I always say.
Since I’m applying to study in your program, the fact that I’m filling out this application implies that I’ve got a pretty impressive gap to fill in my education, at least as far as writing’s concerned. There’d be no reason for me to spend two years honing my writing skills (I refuse to use the word “craft”) if I already knew what I was doing. My best course of action, then, is to use this personal statement to convince you that I don’t know what I’m doing. For example, my philosophy concerning rejection comes from experience—I just checked my Submittable account, and I’ve earned an impressive 79 rejections since I first started submitting stories during my freshman year. That doesn’t even account for email and stand-alone submission managers! My personal favorite rejection letter came from The New Yorker, in which “The Editors” thanked me for giving them the opportunity to consider my story and wished me the best of luck in my studies. It was a lot to take in—The Editors acknowledging me, a budding writer with only seven or so publication credits to my name. (That was me subtly letting you know that it hasn’t just been non-stop failure for me.)
Don’t be fooled—editors at literary journals aren’t the only people who have rejected me. My peers in workshop have all but burned me in effigy. A common complaint my stories usually get is that their sentences are too long, their vocabulary too arcane. I clearly remember a girl getting very worked up because I made casual use of the word “malapropism” in a story; she informed me that my story was too wordy because she did pretty well on the verbal section of the GRE and couldn’t understand half of what I’d written. I felt the word was necessary because, in the story, an old man mistakenly called the narrator Olivia when in fact her name was Ophelia (symbolizing her distress/teen angst/my tendency to needlessly allude to Hamlet when I’m writing). This choice of nomenclature for my narrator should serve as further proof that I need more formal writing instruction (also consider the fact that I used the word “nomenclature,” which was probably a pretty pretentious, tonally-off thing to do).
Don’t think those are my only problems. I would say I have “myriad problems” but I’m suddenly feeling self-conscious about my presumably too-large vocabulary. Here’s another time when I felt a little self-conscious: At the 2016 AWP conference, I stood up to ask a question during the Q&A session of a Jonathan Franzen reading because the man passing around a microphone was naïve enough to hand it to me. I was raising one hand and eating fruit snacks with the other; I probably looked innocent enough. Later, my fiction professor, who was also there, confessed he thought I was going to ask Franzen to take a selfie with me based on a semi-serious comment I’d made earlier. I think I really gave my poor professor a good scare, but I only asked Franzen if (and I’m trying to get the wording as close to verbatim as possible), while writing a first draft, when things were going really well and he was thinking to himself, man, this is great, I am great, everything is great, he ever suddenly got a point where he just kind of stopped and said, oh, I actually hate this, and if so, what did he do?
clearly remember feeling particularly sweaty. Everyone in the room laughed. Even
Jonathan Franzen laughed, the kind of laugh where you bend over slightly and
shake your head—unfeigned amusement. He actually referred to me, at some point
during his long answer, as a bright young lady, which I considered typing up
and sending in as a letter of recommendation on his behalf. I don’t remember anything
else he said. I would have written it down, but how could I with a microphone
in my hand? What I’m getting at is this: In my typical experience, writing
advice sticks better when I receive it in a classroom setting, sans microphone,
sans sweat, where nobody is calling me a bright young lady because, frankly,
they know better.
I asked Jonathan Franzen this question for a very specific reason: because I’m writing a novel.
(I wanted to give that statement its own line because I like the drama of it. Writing a novel is Very Dramatic, in my experience. When the writing’s not going well, I have a tendency to walk around scowling at inanimate objects while wallowing in an unearned sense of imminent doom. Also, if you take me in as a student, you’ll have the opportunity to knock this awful habit of Capitalizing Important Phrases out of me.)
like my meager attempt at writing a novel will probably not impress you much, but
I’m mentioning it in the vague hope that it might redeem me after the last
several paragraphs. My sister (the same one I consulted earlier) told me I
should name the novel Ugh, which,
given its current state, is probably an appropriate title. I was not very happy
with it when I talked to Franzen, and I am not very happy with it now.
Yesterday, however, I was thrilled with it. Hopefully you are beginning to see
why I need your counsel.
happen to be drinking coffee, I would advise you to take this opportunity to
refill your cup now, because this is the part where I tell you about my novel.
I’m truly sorry. It is, among other things, about a young piano prodigy and his
best friend Rosemary, the daughter of Bill Clinton’s gastroenterologist, who wants
more than anything to be a famous pianist but unfortunately is far from
prodigious (whatever modicum of prestige that might come with being the
daughter of Clinton’s gastroenterologist is not getting her anywhere, either).
Just as bears similarly recur in John Irving’s writing, pianists have a
tendency to pop up in mine; perhaps this is because if I weren’t trying to be a
writer, I’d probably be playing piano somewhere strictly second or third rate.
(I know the first pages of several classical pieces you’d undoubtedly
recognize. It’s a dirty trick, honestly; I play the first page and then act
very modest—oh, no, I don’t want to show off, it’d just bore you—and no one
ever suspects a thing.) Poor little Rosemary constantly carries around a copy
of Swann’s Way in French and pretends
to read it in public places even though she’s only nine-years-old because, like
me, she needs everyone to understand that she is not just some ordinary kid,
but an exceptionally bright individual, someone destined for greatness.
same professor who nearly succumbed to a heart attack at the Franzen reading
noticed that this trait is not unique to Rosemary alone. Many of my stories, he
once told me, feature talented characters desperately trying to measure up to
prodigies, only to fall flat. He asked if I felt myself falling short in
comparison to someone else, and I said no, but now I realize I answered
incorrectly. I feel myself falling short in comparison to everyone, all these people
writing better stories than me, all these names on dust jackets and in history
books against which I measure myself. My biggest regret is that I’m not smarter,
that I don’t write every single day, that I haven’t published more stories. I’m
always reaching for this ideal version of myself, someone who manically writes
with Proustian brilliance, seven-part novels leaking from her pen while she
lounges all day in bed. She is my point of comparison, the person who makes me
burn with jealousy and wallow in inferiority. I’m not sure I really feel like
I’m falling short of anyone—I’m just worried of falling short of my potential.
And here comes the crux of this exceptionally long-winded, self-conscious statement of purpose, at last, the actual statement of my purpose: To write. I don’t want to drag out any elementary school anecdotes, but my god, this is what I’ve been doing ever since I learned how to hold a pencil (incorrectly, that is—however ironically, I don’t actually know how to properly hold a pencil. Perhaps that is something else you can teach me). I can’t do anything but write—I already told you about my piano trick. I’ve been told by people who know me better than Jonathan Franzen that I’m rather talented, perhaps talented enough to actually make it as a writer, but I know I’m not ready quite yet. I still lack the finesse required. I mean, just go back and reread this personal statement if you don’t believe me.
So, in short: this letter is my veritable copy of Swann’s Way in the original, and I’m sitting right in front of your bedroom window with my nose stuck in its spine. I know I’m being obnoxious and you’re considering calling the cops, but consider giving me a chance. I really can’t afford bail.