2015, Archives, August 2015, The MFA Years

Lydia Mulligan Introduction (Eastern Washington University ’17)

Image: Carolyn Jewel

I fell in love with writing at a young age. I read voraciously in the crook of this one plum tree in our backyard. We all climbed it, but I owned it. It was my special reading nook. I walked through the stacks of the library in my hometown and felt the spines of the plastic coated books as I walked past. I fell in and out of writing throughout grade school and eventually went to college to get my writing degree (after cycling through about ten other degree choices…I’m a bad decision maker). I wrote for and edited the school literary journal, I took every creative writing class that was offered; I was in plays and musicals, all in an effort to find myself. Little did I know that wanting to find yourself is a key component to becoming an essayist.

My friend Miranda and I were taking a class on the Bronte sisters. It was our last seminar class for the English literature major. Up until that point I had focused mainly on writing fiction and dabbling in poetry. I had never heard of creative nonfiction. I avoided reading nonfiction books like they might give me boils. They were boring and were the opposite of my whole reason for reading—to escape. “No, no this is different. You have to take this teacher. She’s AMAZING.”

And so I did. I took the class with professor Malek. It was Introduction to Creative Nonfiction. I know it sounds corny and like the beginning of a PSA, but the class actually did change my life. It introduced me to a whole new world of writing and creativity. I found my voice and I knew that I had to be an essayist.

I took several classes with Ceil Malek, and she ended up being a sort of mentor for me. I ventured into fiction and poetry classes and found that I loved being a cross genre writer, but I knew that if I was going to get an MFA I wanted to focus on the essay. I had never thought that I would get a degree in creative writing. I thought that I would go on to a MA and PhD in Literature and that would be that. I thought MFA degrees were for the elite.

After a couple of workshops with Malek, she made me see that I was a good enough writer. I had talent and drive and a seeking mind. She showed me that I could get this degree. She added an independent study onto my last creative nonfiction class so that we could work on my packet together. I gathered materials that might be good enough. I wrote and wrote and wrote. My writing practice had never been so disciplined as it was that semester. As soon as my husband and I found out where we were moving (he is in the Air Force, and moving is sort of dictated right now), I started researching schools. I knew that I could always get a degree online, but I was in it for the camaraderie, the workshops, I needed to be in the classroom. I found one program that would be within driving distance, Eastern Washington University in Spokane Washington.

I was working at my school’s Writing Center at the time, and I took my personal statement and writing sample in no less than ten times. My confidence was low and the stakes were high. I was only applying to one school. I only had one chance. My friends were amazing. They were encouraging and helpful. Most of them were writers too (really talented writers) and we did writing sessions together so that I could generate more work. This is a little off topic, but I couldn’t have done it without them. If you are able to surround yourself with a cohort of writing buddies, you will not be sorry you did.

I did all the research. I read the memoirs of the CNF faculty. I wrote current students. I trolled the program website like it was my job. I followed the Facebook and twitter groups. I am not really the sort of person to do something halfheartedly, especially if I really want it. And I really wanted this.

Eventually it was time to move to Spokane. We would be moving in December (two days after graduation, three days before Christmas…not recommended.) I was applying for admission in September. I had a plan. I was going to got to the programs public events, and I was going to get in to that program come hell or high water.

The best-laid plans…are just plans. I only went to one event before I heard back from the program. I was accepted. I was accepted without funding. Well, that was ok right? I would just work at Target or a coffee shop or anywhere so that I could follow this dream. I went to talk to one of the creative writing faculty to check on funding opportunities that might still be available. We talked for two hours, and I found out that she was a pretty amazing human being. I was already excited about the program, and she made me feel even more excited. She invited me to the orientation for one of the internships that I knew I was going to be taking: Writers in the Community. They volunteer in different places (schools, hospitals, shelters, etc.) to bring writing and creativity to the Spokane community. There I met a few of the students who I ended up hanging out with quite a lot. They were warm and helpful and really kind.

After the orientation life was kind of a whirlwind. I hung out almost exclusively with students currently in the program. I went to parties, I applied for funding and for tons of jobs, and my husband and I bought a house. I interviewed for and was hired for a GSA position at the EWU Writer’s Center. I was now a funded future MFA candidate. And I was scared out of my mind.

So now it’s August. I’ve bought my books, a new backpack, clothes for work, and my favorite pens. I have a little less than a month to go until classes start. The other first years are moving in and having parties. They are feeling each other out and forming friendships. And I am worried about how I will fit in. I hope to find my new writing group soon. My last one was integral to my undergraduate experience. I hope there are other people searching for the same thing.

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