Hi. I’m Minda, and I’m three months away from completely changing the direction of my life. Again. Won’t you join me?
A year ago, I wasn’t doing so well. I was (and am) in a city I hated, I had just kicked my relationship with my neighbor cold turkey (Mr. Rogers could have saved me had he done just ONE episode on appropriate neighbor relations … ), I had practically no friends, and the end was not near. I was committed to being in this city for at least another 11 months. I felt helpless. Feelings of helplessness led to lots of lying in bed and staring at my ceiling painted in that perfectly neutral shade luxury apartments use to paint everything. It meant fighting the temptation to walk down the stairs and up the block to the liquor store on the corner, but thankfully, when I kicked my neighbor, I kicked many other vices by association.
I am a woman blessed with default happiness. I wake up every morning happy. I end every day in my bed happy. The only things that interfere with this general state of happiness are temporary, situations and events in my life. I used this knowledge coupled with the fact that time always passes faster when you have something to look forward to in order to develop a plan. Thought by thought, I threaded together my own lifeline: I would apply to creative writing MFA programs.
This was not a new idea. In fact, many years ago, after having done very little research, I applied to Chapman, got in, and was immediately turned off by the price tag. Once I discovered there were MFA programs that waived tuition, I decided I’d apply again. There was one pesky thing standing in my way: math. Lots of it packaged in the form of the GRE. While living in LA, I bought all the necessary materials to study for the MFA, but life constantly got in the way. I just wanted to party and bullshit with my friends ALL the time, not refamiliarize myself with my old enemy the Pythagorean theorem. But now, I was in a different city and I had no friends: the only equation that could make studying seem appealing.
I spent the summer prepping for the GRE, took it in the fall, and then spent the rest of the fall and winter working on my statement of intent, polishing my portfolio, and researching creative writing MFA programs. My list of MFAs to apply to changed several times over. How was I supposed to know where I wanted to go when I knew no one personally who had completed an MFA and there was so little information on the internet? Couple this with everyone and their mom, who had done zero research and had no graduate degree of any kind, constantly telling me what a bad idea it was to leave my quickly progressing career to get a “meaningless” degree.
Attempting to get care for strained vocal cords during this same period of time resulted in unexpected health-related expenses. I also decided I needed to save money to move, just in case I did happen to get into an MFA program the first time around (and why not make my life more stressful?!). This made money tight. Applying to schools is not cheap. But, still I hired one of my professors from the Lighthouse Writers Workshop for one-on-one sessions. These sessions were worth every penny, and I highly recommend them. They truly took my writing to the next level and made me aware of what I could accomplish once I was able to focus on my writing full time with other skilled individuals. The consultations were especially helpful for my statement of intent, because I had not written anything along those lines for quite some time. This is an excerpt from the intro:
I followed the map for the American dream and found myself … lost. I obeyed my parents (studied hard). Went to college (full scholarship). Graduated (magna cum laude). Went to work for corporate America (General Electric, BlackBerry, Rubbermaid) and flourished in a foundering economy. The failure-to-launch trend pieces about twenty-somethings are not about me.
But it’s not enough.
Finally, I narrowed my creative writing MFA program list down to six. I chose to focus on MFAs with nonfiction writing specialties (which considerably narrowed my options), with a couple of exceptions, and schools that hinted at funding. I applied to:
Location was also important to me. I wanted to either be closer to my family back in Kentucky or someplace it didn’t snow. UNO was at the top of my list, purely because I felt it’d be very romantic to be a young writer in the Big Easy. I could see living in New Orleans influencing my work greatly.
I used Interfolio to house all of my documents and make things easier for the folks who wrote my letters of recommendation. Instead of the recommender having to send letters to each creative writing MFA to which I’d applied, recommendations went to Interfolio, and Interfolio sent them off to the schools I wanted. Almost all the schools I applied to accepted Interfolio, and for the ones that did not, Interfolio put my docs in the mail for me. This was also an additional cost, but also one I felt was worthwhile and it helped me keep organized.
I completed my undergrad in 2007 and never maintained contact with any of my professors, so I had to get creative with my letters. I asked teachers from the Lighthouse, a teacher from a course I took in the UCLA Extension program, and a highly qualified friend from a writing group I spent several years attending when I lived in Orange County. Everyone I asked had published at least one book.
My first letter came at the end of February. I was in at Temple. The letter, one sheet of paper with very few words on it, meant I was finally going to near the end of my time in an unhappy situation.
Then a rejection email from Cornell’s creative writing MFA. An acceptance from UC Riverside. A rejection letter from Houston. I saw in various places that acceptances for UNO had already gone out. I didn’t receive notice, so I assumed I had not been admitted. Then, in mid-March, I received a letter from UNO. I was in.
I was so excited. My plan was falling into place beautifully. Still, as excited as I was about UNO’s MFA and writing in New Orleans, UC Riverside was also on my mind. The acceptance email they sent me was personalized. They called out exactly what they enjoyed about my application. They rang me on the phone and told me all about the program. They particularly liked that I already had a project in mind that I was working on. Last year they had accepted no one into their program for creative nonfiction, and this year there’d only be four or five of us. I felt honored.
Then Temple let me know their budget was tight and there likely would be no funding. I pointed out my budget was equally tight and bid them adieu. When I received word from UNO that all of their funding was scheduled to go to second-year students, I was heartbroken. Getting in but not being able to afford it felt so much worse than not having got in at all. If UCR had not offered me a fellowship, I would have seriously considered going to UNO anyways, just for the experience of living in New Orleans. In the end, I decided this just wasn’t the chapter of my life I would get to spend living in that city, but hopefully there’d be a stint somewhere else down the line. I happily fell into the warm, waiting arms of UC Riverside. I’m going, going, back to, back to Cali, Cali! #biggievoice
In addition to UC Riverside making me feel extremely wanted, I was also impressed by the diversity of their staff. I wanted to make sure I would be working with women and persons of color while pursuing my creative writing MFA. UC Riverside had the most diverse staff by far of all the schools I looked at.
I’m looking forward to sharing my MFA years with all of you! Thanks for reading. You can expect periodic posts from me over the summer as I figure out the logistics of moving, buying transportation, and finding a new place to live.