2014, Archives, September 2014, The MFA Years

Sarah Abbott – Introduction (University of Kentucky ’16)

2009_06_30 15_44_22z - single arch bridge over New River Gorge, Fayetteville - L

[image description: Bridge over a river with lush green foliage on each side]

When you go whitewater rafting on the New River for the first time, you don’t know what to expect. Climbing with a crowd of other people into an old yellow bus, you clack helmets and paddles against one another before settling in for the trip down to the departure point. The bus smells a little like mildew as it careens around kiss-your-hiney curves. Along the way, the head rafting guide tells you all the things that can go wrong when you are out there on the rapids. What to do while you’re in the raft; what to do if you fall out.

Then you’re out on the water, feet wedged firmly under the seat in front of you, and the guide’s warnings drift away like the damselflies that perched for a moment on your paddle. The river is tranquil, but you can hear the whitewater coming. Anticipation thrums through your fingers as you tighten your grip. A reckless smile spreads across your face. Just as you enter the first set of rapids, you realize there is no going back. You have committed to the river.

Whitewater rafting is kind of like applying to MFA programs for the first time. (No, really.) Everyone with MFA experience tells you how grueling the application process can be. They show you the statistics of fully-funded programs and give you the names of now-famous writers who were rejected from Iowa. Like the rafting guide’s instructions on what to do if you’re trapped under the raft, the words are meant to prepare you for unfortunate realities and the loss of control. Nothing really can, though, not until you’re staring at rejection email number five and wondering if you know yourself at all.

At this time last year, I was starting my senior year at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, finalizing my list of grad schools to apply to. I was completely ready on paper. I sent all of my transcripts early, agonized over drafts of my personal statement, and wrote furiously, both revising old work and writing new stories. I had meant to begin serious work on my writing sample over the summer (don’t we all?), but there had been a screeching halt to my well-laid plans: my father died unexpectedly that May. I threw myself into my summer job with a project management firm, putting my energy into thinking there and avoiding it at home. I didn’t write a word for months.

I don’t say all this to be depressing, I promise, but because I want to be honest. When I started submitting applications, I was proud of my writing sample, but a little voice inside me knew that I could’ve done better. I could’ve pushed myself more. For anyone who reads this and is thinking about applying, I can’t stress enough that no matter what wrecking balls (oh good, now Miley Cyrus is playing in my head) life sends at you, you have to keep writing.

Okay, enough of that. I applied to 13 schools initially. The rejections started coming in, and here’s where the whitewater rafting metaphor is kind of helpful again. Who here has ever fallen out of a raft in the middle of rapids? (Raises hand) You somersault with the current until you’re not sure which way is up, and your head smacks hard against a rock. When you find the surface again, you have a bad headache, limp limbs, and you have to remind yourself it’s okay to breathe now. You made it through. You lay in the raft and start laughing.

That’s exactly the experience I had. A tumultuous January and February, followed by a March where possibility became reality. Just when I was starting to dust off my Plan B of job applications, two good things happened: a waitlist spot at a fully-funded program and (drumroll, please) a link to the University of Kentucky’s new program page. I’m an Appalachian girl born and raised, with an interest in studying the region, so the idea of living in Lexington attracted me.

Then I read about the PhD and MA resources already in place here and the program description and requirements. Once I heard that it would be possible not only to take workshops in multiple genres at UK, but to study multiple genres within the same workshop, I couldn’t click the application link fast enough. I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I also love writing and reading creative nonfiction and poetry.

Something else that drew me was being part of the first class. One of my undergrad mentors was in the inaugural class of her MFA program, and had always told me she loved the experience of helping to build it. While I waited to hear back on my application, I read about the new faculty coming on board at UK–Manuel Gonzales, Hannah Pittard, Andrew Ewell–in addition to the faculty currently there. After I was accepted, I visited the campus and met current English grad students, who welcomed me to happy hour and loved to talk about their research and interests. I went to a reading by Gurney Norman and met several other faculty members. For the fiction faculty I couldn’t meet in person, I was able to speak to them over the phone. When funding came through in the form of a TAship, I accepted.

I’ve now been in Lexington for over a month, and last night I attended the first MFA workshop ever held at UK. It is an unbelievably cool feeling. The faculty are just as energetic as the students about building a program that is innovative and serious, a program that is quickly becoming a diverse, tight-knit community. Lexington itself is a great place to live, too; I’m enjoying finding all the good places to eat, and every time I drive to campus I attempt to forget that there’s a drive-thru Starbucks and a Half Price Books along the way. For my TAship I am grading for a large creative writing lecture, and it’s fun to revisit the tenets of creative writing and see them with fresh eyes as students discover their own ability for the first time. I get emails and Facebook invitations daily to readings and English graduate student events; one of the faculty members is hosting a cookout for the program faculty and students this weekend, and I can’t wait. The atmosphere here is incredible.

Like my first rafting experience, getting to the end of my application season was rocky, terrifying, and even a little painful at times. But it is an exhilarating ride, and I could not have ended up in a better place.

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