Note: Throughout the 2015 application process, we will be following and featuring writers who are currently applying to creative writing programs.
This fall marks my third foray into MFA applications. By the time I submit the last batch of samples, transcripts, tears and hope, I’ll be thirty. I’d like to think there’s something auspicious about all these “3’s” — that they signify manifestation of dreams, maybe, or even good old-fashioned luck. But looking back, I’m mostly just grateful: for the false starts, trials, errors and confusions of the past two cycles that have landed me here, finally ready, finally clear on what I want to explore as a writer and how an MFA best fits into that dream.
Of course, there are those who think it’s crazy, applying three years in a row. Those who, in the thick of their first “draft season,” take to Facebook with a chorus of, “how does anyone ever do this more than once?” and “I would never survive the stress.” If you are or have been one of these folks, listen: I feel you. But I’m here to tell you that it does get better. That the second time around—when you’ve already got GRE scores on file, digital copies of college transcripts, contact info for all the registrars’ offices you never thought you’d need again, requests for letters of recommendation waiting patiently in your “sent mail” folder—is simpler; less terrifying; more streamlined. That you are so far ahead of yourself when it comes to the considerations and questions you didn’t even THINK to ask in that first crazy shit show of a year. That a year spent reading and writing and being will enrich not only your work, but also your sense of purpose and self.
SOP #1: November 2012
Five years ago, I believed myself destined for academia. But I also sensed that such a life would feed only one side of myself. I flew south to practice yoga on the shores of Baja. Until that moment, I had intended to teach literary criticism. But afterwards, all I could do was wander. I taught yoga, worked as a line cook, cared for a sick parent and eventually found my footing as a holistic nutrition counselor and copywriter. But most importantly, I began writing–something I hadn’t done since I was a child.
I write in a variety of forms, both fiction and nonfiction; but I find myself most attracted to the literary balance achieved by blending facts with subjective experience. This interest has led me to focus on essay and memoir writing, while simultaneously testing and debating any single definition of “creative nonfiction.” I want to learn all there is to know about telling the truth on the page. I hope to deepen my understanding of craft and connect with a community of passionate writers, and to foster a life of empathetic communication.
Prior to the winter of 2011, I had only ever taken one creative writing class in my life. By the time I started applying to MFA programs less than a year later, I’d completed two more workshops at the UC San Diego extension. And that’s it. I’d read some essays by Sedaris, Crosley, Chabon; I’d written a thing or two about my mother, and gotten some compliments on my “capacity for description.” Mostly, I knew I wanted writing in my life, and I knew I was good at being in school. And so I figured, I’ll go for it. How tough could it be?
As far as the reality of an MFA was concerned, however, I knew so very, very little. My strategy was naïve: I applied to 12 schools, pretty much all the top funded CNF programs, with a few fiction ones thrown in for good measure (because hey, how would they know the difference? And besides, I liked the idea of living in Austin, so why not apply to Michener?) Having always been a successful student, I let words of warning about the highly subjective nature of MFA admissions roll off my shoulders. I was in for an unpleasant surprise.
Come February, I was sitting on a steadily growing pile of rejections. And the reason, as you might be able to guess from the SOP excerpt above, was becoming obvious. Apart from my earnest desire to write, I didn’t have the first clue about what I wanted or needed from an MFA program. Sure, I wanted community; empathy; opportunity. But all these things fall flat without some real passion or drive behind them—without a project, a goal, even the barest hint of an aesthetic to get the fire started. As far as genre was concerned, my claims of writing in a “variety of forms” was based on the production of approximately three personal essays and one short story. I had so much to read, to write, to explore. I began to see the silver lining of rejection: a chance to commit myself to writing on my own terms and see what happened, what came of it, where I saw myself on the other side of that ego-denting and interminable spring.
SOP#2: November 2013
Anxiety has been my greatest burden and my greatest teacher. It inspired me to pursue studies in holistic nutrition, which in turn compelled a daily writing practice that helped me dig in and swim around in the meaning of “holism.” In seeking a safe haven from worry, I discovered the meditative power of writing. I began to see connections radiating out from my body – connections to other bodies, healing, art and identity. Writing changed my relationship with my own flesh and blood, allowing me to decipher its language.
I aspire to write creative nonfiction that maintains this physicality and embodies significance beyond my own story. I am seeking that space where personal writing transcends, as Lidia Yuknavitch says, “the glory of the self in favor of the possible relationship with another.”
The year that followed was a big one, messy and stressful and transient. In the spring, I completed my coursework to earn a certificate in holistic nutrition. In the summer, I moved from San Diego to Chino to take care of my sick mother. In the fall, I moved back from Chino to San Diego and then to Los Angeles with my partner of the past five years.
By November, I had only just landed in L.A. I was eager to dig my heels into the literary life of the city—take classes, attend readings—and found myself ambivalent about moving again within 8 or 9 months to pursue an MFA. Plus, there was the whole relationship factor—one that was further complicated this time around by my partner’s intention of staying put to study acting. An MFA in any city other than Los Angeles would mean leaving my partner and doing long distance; but an MFA with funding that would allow me to stay with him in our hard-won, super charming apartment simply didn’t exist.
In the end, I applied to just two programs—both art schools, both in L.A. —and crossed my fingers for magical funding.
The magic failed.
As it turns out, though, I did get accepted to both programs. And in addition to feeling quite a bit cooler knowing that I could, in fact, pass muster as an “artist,” I learned all of this: that after much consideration and temptation and the sudden urge to get some piercings, I did not want to go to an art school MFA, no matter how much I loved the vibes. That I did not want to go to school at a program that wasn’t quite right just so I could stay in Los Angeles. That I was much closer to knowing what I really did want—namely, the out-of-state programs I’d chopped from my hypothetical list once the L.A. move became a reality. And that as hard as it was to let go of a sure thing and decline these offers, my gut was telling me to take a risk, to apply one more time—to take what I’d learned and go all in.
SOP # 3: November 2014
So where am I now, heading into September, heading into the high season? Despite not having started my statement of purpose yet, I’m feeling solid about the months ahead. I have a list of schools. I have a timeline of due dates. I have a folder with transcripts, GRE scores and recommenders’ info. I have a spreadsheet (fancy!) with program details and additional requirements and sample lengths and fees. I have a selection of 5-6 essays that make me proud, reflect the type of work I want to pursue in a workshop, and represent my best writing. Thanks to the last nine months or so spent here in L.A., I’ve also got incredible writing teachers and workshop peers who have been invaluable in their feedback and support.
Best of all, though, I have a writing practice that is growing every day. I am curious, hungry, inspired. I am learning how to, as Maggie Nelson puts it, edit myself “into boldness.” I’ve got a book in me, and it’s slowly beginning to make its way out and onto the page.
I am pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction because I want to dig deep into craft, to explore the nuances of essay and memoir and long-form nonfiction writing, to experience teaching, to work amongst giants, to learn from fearless fellow writers, to dedicate time to this work, and to make lifelong friends. But if my magic number 3 has something else in store for me—if the MFA doesn’t pan out in 2015—I know I’ll still be writing. That I’m a writer. That the task of creating nine more SOP’s will only get me that much closer to understanding myself and my work for the year ahead. That I’ll not only survive application season, but emerge better for it, not matter the outcome.
Lauren W. Westerfield is a writer from Northern California. Her essays and poetry have most recently appeared in Willow Springs, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, and Third Coast.
She received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Idaho, where she was a Centrum Fellow and a Center for Digital Inquiry & Learning (CDIL) Graduate Fellow and served as the Nonfiction Editor of Fugue. As a graduate student, she also co-founded Pop-Up Prose, an itinerant and experimental community reading series based in Moscow, Idaho.
Lauren teaches in the English department at Washington State University and serves as the creative nonfiction and managing editor of Blood Orange Review. She is also the nonfiction editor at Split/Lip Press and the artistic program director at LiTFUSE Poetry Workshop.
A Bay Area native and (semi) recent Los Angeles transplant, she now lives in Moscow, ID.
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