Feeding the Spark

Breakups hurt more when they are done nicely, don’t you think?

For example, if a guy breaks up with you in a mean way it’s easier to cope. If he says horrible things and behaves badly, then you really WANT to walk away.

But when he lets you down gently, politely, and is kind and complimentary, then it feels too much like a near miss. Perhaps a tweak here and there and you would have been walking down the aisle?

And as with gentle breakups, kind literary rejection is always followed up with self doubt and paranoia.

scaredof the dark

It usually happens at about three am. You wake up and you’re pretty sure those kind words were a figment of cut and paste. That rejection was definitely a form letter and they just stuck your name on top. Thoughts, the literary version of “I bet you say that to all the girls” race around.

And, like a desperate jilted lover, you can’t email for reassurance AND keep your pride.  Where is the dignity in that?

My dignity, I decided, lies in improving the quality of my writing.

Rhodes University offers a part-time MA Programme in Creative Writing (great for girls like me who don’t live in Grahamstown and who are committed to 42 weeks of school lunch making, annually) It’s spread over two years, mostly online, with a total of only three weeks that your real life presence is required in Grahamstown.

I scoured the website and decided this is where I might learn to improve.

My barrier to entry is of course that while I hold a diploma in health and skincare, a secretarial diploma, a welding trade certificate, a couple of diplomas in massage, and a few creative writing certificates, I have no undergraduate degree.  Bachelor of nothing.

Never mind, I thought, after reading the part about Ad Eundem Gradum. I would submit a portfolio of work. (After multiple writing workshops, edits, advice, rewrites, how bad could it be? It’s a learning space after all. Doesn’t have to be perfect, right?) I decided to see if my road to improvement in creative writing could be paved with knowledge from Rhodes.

I applied and waited. And waited and waited. September, October, November, December….No reply. Nothing.  Tumbleweeds in my inbox. It might explode if I refresh it once more.

‘That bad huh?’ I thought.  ‘My portfolio must have been AWFUL.’

Perhaps ghosting isn’t just a dating breakup thing?

waiting gif

FINALLY I send The Email.

The undignified “You don’t call and you don’t write”, pitiful one.

A confused lady from Rhodes University replies. I learn that I have done a terrible thing. A ridiculous thing. In my attempt to qualify for a place of higher learning I have bungled one of the most basic tasks. In that one thing for which I have a qualification, secretarial skills, I have failed.

I scanned my application upside down.

disappointed gif

The irony is not lost on me.

I’ve sent blanks.

I try to rectify it, I send plaintive emails and correct scans, but it is already holidays. Game Over. The taste of disappointment is bitter.

And then, in January, a nice Rhodes man emails.

So sorry, he says. Yes, you sent blank application forms (all the other documents were the right way around.) please resend all correspondence with Rhodes.  So sorry, (his apologies are quite profuse) we lost you in the system. But, he promises, we will give your portfolio fair adjudication. 

And so, they don’t write me off as a Bachelorette of Nothing, they do indeed consider my portfolio. He says it will take a few days.

I wait again.

horse biting nails

Then I receive a break up letter of the worst kind.

Dear Melissa.

nicenicenicenicenice-your work is firmly anchored in realism-nicenicenicenicenice-decline application-nicenicenicenicenice-you will not prosper in this coursenicenicenicenicenice.

Best Wishes


sadness  gif

PS please find attached the reading list of the TYPE of writing we seek    

(FYI:  innovative, experimental fiction and poetry)

I find no attachment. So, like a pitiful jilted one, I must send another anxious email.

Dear Nice-Man-Who-Prefers-Poetry

Please (I know I scanned the other thing upside down but I think this time it’s you) resend the attachment.

The Experimental Poet has a penchant for lower case. He writes back and sends the attachment.

I peruse the list. The only one I’m familiar with is Alexandra Fuller. Pffft. I think I will do something else to improve. I consider my options:

  1.  Read More
  2. Write More

Time passes. I recover. I surf, I read Girl on a Train, (not on The List, although also a Southern African writer…does it count?) I hit the gym. I have a shopping spree at H&M. Chin is up.

And then I open my inbox and find another email from Rhodes University. From a different person.

Dear Melissa

We have your application but not your portfolio. Please send it to us as soon as possible.


It’s like getting an invitation to a party from your ex that was meant for his new girlfriend. I start typing straight away and copy in the Lower Case Poet for good measure.

Dear Lovely People at Rhodes

why would you do that to me

Is this the twist of a plunging dagger into dashed hopes?

And then I rein myself in.

Never mind, I sulk.  I have recovered from the great sadness caused by The Declined Application.

The Ambassador for Poetry, Experimental Fiction, Lower Case and What-what-make-believe writes back.

i’m really sorry about this. i will get back to academic admin and make sure you don’t get tormented any further. btw there is of course the rest of your life and nothing prevents you from applying again in the future (october, to be precise). there are also other creative writing courses, though ours is probably the best 🙂

Um. The rest of my life. Okay then.

please don’t let our rejection of your application be in any way a reflection on your writing per se. if i thought your writing was no good i would have told you so, make no mistake about that.

I stop chewing my nails and pause, my spoon hovering over the Nutella jar.

in  a way, what we need to see in applications is failure along the path to targeted glory because when the two meet you see a spark in all its unexpectedness and with all its inherent danger.
use that short booklist we sent you. investigate. see what you can feed into your writing, see what drugs you can get it hooked on.

I read that over and over and over. I screw the lid back on the Nutella jar. I think. I try to think deeper.

pooh thinks

How can I feed that spark? What drugs can I get my writing hooked on? I’m so obsessed with finding those answers that I don’t write. I read. I read and read and I think and I read and I still don’t find the answers.

And then (among all that literature) I read an article in the New York Times about raising creative children  It dawns on me that the answer might be hiding in plain sight, its essence in my lack of knowledge.

The NYT article argues that “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,”

So who become creators, then? Who become the innovative scientists, artists, writers, musicians, the people who bring something new to the world?

NYT continues, “Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience.”

I toy with that idea for a while.  Perhaps my unrequited quest for depth is not the holy grail.

please feel better, the lower-case-poetry-man had said, the gatekeeper to the deep well of knowledge.

And I think I actually do.





  One thought on “Feeding the Spark

  1. February 1, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    loved this. Well done to you, hope the nutella wasn’t eaten in it’s entirety. And well done on the H&M shopping. my goodness that shop is ENOURMOUS.

  2. Valerie Dunne
    February 1, 2016 at 11:23 pm

    Astonishingly interesting ! I ( in my meaningless capacity ) think you write really well !

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