2014, Archives, May 2014, The MFA Years

Whittier Strong (University of Alaska Fairbanks ’17) Introduction

A picture of Whitter Strong in a blue gingham shirt in front of a stone building with a plaque to the left.

My journey to the creative writing MFA is convoluted, and intimately tied up in my personal history. You see, I’m almost 40, so I lived a lot of life before I decided to pursue an MFA.

I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. I was born to lower-class parents who had little understanding of college in spite of the fact that we had a big, prestigious university in our backyard. Fresh out of high school, in 1992, I began attending Bible college in suburban St. Louis. I chose to attend this school mostly because it looked cheap and I could get scholarships through the denomination I was in at the time. My freshman year coincided with the realization that I was gay. Suffice it to say that Bible college was a long, difficult, and ultimately fruitless struggle.

After a few years in St. Louis, I moved back home and transferred to Indiana University, where I majored in philosophy. I chose this major because I wanted to be a writer; I loved reading Camus and Sartre and other philosopher-novelists, and I wanted to write like them. Unfortunately, I discovered too late that philosophers today don’t write anything that non-philosophers read. I had no idea that novelists-to-be majored in English. All the English majors I knew wanted to teach high school, which wasn’t my aspiration.

As luck would have it, some major events colluded suddenly to cut my degree short just a few credits shy of graduation. My financial situation forced me to move, so I relocated to Minneapolis. Here, I took up a customer service job at the Minnesota Children’s Museum, certain I’d never attain a bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t go far with the job, but I figured it was the best I could do, and I settled into it.

On November 1, 2008, everything changed. Owing to the collapsing economy, the museum faced company-wide layoffs, and I was one of the casualties. As the economy collapsed, so did I, aimless, jobless, and hopeless. Yet getting laid off turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It freed me up for a future I couldn’t have possibly predicted.

Reforms to student loan law opened up the chance for me to return to school and finish my degree. In January 2012, I restarted my education at St. Paul’s Metropolitan State University, a public school with low tuition and high reputation. When it came time to choose a major, I knew what direction I had to take this time: creative writing, which at Metro State was a degree program distinct from the English degree.

Some in my circle disapproved. They told me that a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) was the only way I could ever make money. But I knew it was foolish to think I could start amassing a fortune at my age and in that economy. I chose to focus not on what I could accomplish in this life, but on what I could leave behind: my words.

Back in school, and finally in the right major, I flourished. I aced my classes. I was happy. My professors pointed out that I had a knack for writing nonfiction. I found my niche in academia, and I determined I would remain in that world as long as I could. So all that was left was to apply for graduate school as a nonfiction writer.

I began the process in the spring of 2013. At that point, I connected with other creative writing MFA students and applicants through Facebook’s MFA Draft groups and learned all I could about the different schools. I assembled a list of places to apply to that changed a dozen times by the time I put in the final applications.

I started working on my creative writing sample in May. I learned very quickly that most creative writing MFAs require between 25 and 40 pages for a writing sample, so I planned to write one piece between 15 and 20 pages, one about seven or eight pages, and a flash-ish piece of about two pages. The final counts were 17 (Piece A), 7 (Piece B), and just over 2 (Piece C). MFAs that wanted under 20 pages received A and C. Those wanting under 25 got A and B. If they wanted over 25, they got all three.

This was not a foolproof plan, though. The University of New Hampshire wanted a writing sample of under 15 pages. The University of Pittsburgh wanted 50. Fortunately, my last summer at Metro State, I took a class in which I had to write a 20-page mixed genre piece that combined memoir, journalism, and the graphic novel. New Hampshire received an excerpt of that piece along with Piece B, and Pittsburgh received this entire piece plus the original three-work creative writing sample.

As I already indicated, my list of schools evolved over time, but there were some considerations that were carved in stone. I don’t drive—city kid—so I had to live where I could get around via public transportation. I had to be where I could navigate life as an openly gay man, but I was open to what that could look like. I had to avoid hot climates for health reasons.

From there, though, I was pretty flexible. I imagined that both my writing and I would change over the course of the application process—which is exactly what happened—so I opened myself to multiple scenarios and opportunities. I put myself in big cities and college towns. I put myself near the ocean and near the mountains. And I put myself all over the country (except the South because of the heat), as well as in Canada. The most important thing was that I be able to reasonably envision myself wherever I ended up.

So, with all that said, here is my list of applications: University of Alaska FairbanksUniversity of New Hampshire; Oregon State University; University of British Columbia; University of Victoria; University of Minnesota; Minnesota State University, Mankato; University of Iowa; Ohio State University; University of Pittsburgh; Sarah Lawrence College; Guelph-Humber; Rutgers University–Camden; and Emerson College.

I will say that I made the unusual move of withdrawing my application from Emerson’s MFA program. I realized after I applied that it wasn’t going to be a good fit. It’s a more hands-off program, in terms of how faculty relate to students, and though some students thrive in that scenario, I didn’t see that I would. I think that if I had to do it over again, I might replace Emerson with Columbia College Chicago. I love the city of Chicago, and it would have been nice to be a short bus ride away from family and friends in Indiana.

I was most fortunate in being able to line up three of my wonderful professors for my MFA application recommendations. I gave them plenty of advance notice, and they were always gracious, encouraging, and timely with their recommendations, even if the delivery methods, differing vastly from one school to the next, could be trying at times for all involved.

Fall semester of ’13 was one of the most strenuous and challenging times of my life. I was carrying 13 credit hours, applying to 14 graduate schools, singing as part of a chorus, and participating in various medical treatments for disability issues. It was a very heavy load that at times I thought would break me. But I survived. And I spent my entire winter break playing video games and watching movies, and in the spring I only took eight credit hours. It was a well-deserved time out.

And I needed a distraction from the nerve-bending anticipation. Then the notices started rolling in:

Ohio State: No.
Minnesota: No.
Iowa: No.

After these rejections, I was certain I wasn’t going to get in anywhere. I figured I was destined to go back to low-pay, low-future, low-hope customer service work.

And then the email came from Pittsburgh: Yes.

And it was the first of a string of acceptances: Rutgers–Camden, New Hampshire, Alaska Fairbanks, Sarah Lawrence, and Minnesota State, Mankato. (And a waitlist from British Columbia.)

I was so excited to have choices. But then came one last bit: funding. I had entered the application process being open to various funding scenarios. But as I stared at the prospect of paying off my already mounting student loans, I wanted to aim for a well-funded situation if at all possible. Some schools had me high on the waitlist for funding. Other schools offered me a partial scholarship. But the MFA at University of Alaska Fairbanks offered me a teaching assistantship and tuition remittance, my pot of gold.

And I realized by this point that Fairbanks would offer me so much more. Over spring break I made a rare trip to my hometown, a city about the same size as Fairbanks. And I noticed how quiet it was. It was so easy to think. And I knew that, with that kind of space to think, I would really be able to write, much more so than I have been able to living in the hubbub of downtown Minneapolis.

So the decision is made. And now I prepare for a big adventure. The biggest concern is raising the funds to make the move. A plane ticket, student fees, shipping costs for my essentials—it adds up. Beyond that, I have to get rid of a lot of stuff (which I’m actually okay with). I need to tie up loose ends socially. I have to adjust my mind to living in a dorm—I’m a little ways down the list for graduate housing, so I’ll spend the first semester or two in undergraduate housing. I have to adjust to living in a place where days can be extremely long or extremely short. I have to steel myself for the rigorous schedule of graduate life.

And the schedule at the creative writing MFA in Fairbanks is more rigorous than most. Aside from my classwork and teaching duties, I will be working five hours a week in the writing center, as is required of all TAs in the Department of English there. But this is a writing center unlike most, open not only to students but the whole community. I really like this idea.

I also need to consider how to prepare for the comprehensive exam, which is usually a feature of PhDs. At Fairbanks, all creative writing MFA students in their fourth semester must take an exam that covers a reading list of fifty-some works of literature. So I need to start in on that.

It sounds like a lot, but when I consider that the students at Fairbanks have picked up a knack for winning writing awards and going on to PhD programs, it seems well worth it.

And, of course, life is bigger than schoolwork. I’m looking into how I can be of help to the LGBTQ+ population both on campus and in the city. I’m thinking about how I might squeeze some volunteering into my schedule. I’m contemplating how to live a balanced life, making time for practicing hobbies and developing friendships so that I don’t burn out too much. I thrive on balance.

Let the adventure begin.