2016, Archives, August 2016, The MFA Years

Molly Montgomery Introduction (University of California, Davis ’18)

Image: Loren Kerns

At seventeen years old, I was certain of two things: first, I wanted to be a writer and second, I knew that to write well I needed to go outside of my bubble and have new life experiences. For some reason, probably glossy marketing pamphlets from out-of-state universities, I thought this necessitated leaving California, where I had spent all my life.

I was convinced that living somewhere with snow and harsh weather would somehow be good for my character and help me develop resilience that translates into better writing. That’s why I tried to “escape” California when I was applying to college. It didn’t work. Out of the programs that accepted me, the one that I liked the best and that offered me the best financial aid was UCLA— still in California, albeit in Southern California, which I told myself was practically a different state entirely from the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up.

At UCLA, I continued to write, but more importantly, I gained life experience that expanded my worldview and gave me more ideas to write about. Before UCLA, I had led a very sheltered, privileged life. Of course, UCLA, a prestigious university, wasn’t exactly the ideal melting pot of cultures and races that it promised to be in its brochures. Still as I took creative writing courses with a diverse group of students from different countries and socioeconomic backgrounds, led by experienced teachers who were established poets and novelists, I grappled with my own experiences and identity in my writing. I learned by trial and error that I prefer to write fiction, and I began to realize the importance of my family history in my writing.

Some say that writing can’t be taught, only guided towards improvement. In some ways that’s true: a professor will never be able to tell you exactly how you should fix a short story or how you should end a poem. But they can command you to write a certain number of pages by a specific deadline, and they can also help you develop your writing instinct. I benefited greatly from the creative writing courses at UCLA, and I hungered for more of the same type of workshops.

Unfortunately, at UCLA, creative writing was my side pursuit. I was majoring in English and French, and I was very involved in campus life, so I had to squeeze in creative writing time between writing critical essays, attending club meetings, tutoring high school students, and socializing. My writing professors recommended that I pursue an MFA in creative writing. There, I would have a chance to focus intently just on my writing for a couple of years. I would be surrounded by a supportive community of writers, developing relationships that would help me sustain my writing for the rest of my life.

Sure, I thought. Why the heck not? It’s not like I had any other solid life plan at the time.

My professors recommended that I wait for at least two years, telling me that it was important to gain life experience to be a good writer (something I had already known for a while). I took their advice, and spent the two “gap” years exploring my other passions: travel and education. The first year I spent as an English teaching assistant at a high school in a tiny rural village in France, the second as an Americorps literacy tutor in an elementary school in California. Both were transformative experiences in different ways that I don’t have time to explore in this blog post. Suffice it to say, life experience? Check.

When I was twenty-three and applying to MFA programs, I knew two things for certain: firstly, whether I got into a program or not, I would keep writing. Secondly, I yearned to be accepted into an MFA program where I would write in a secluded nook of an overheated library while snow fell in droves outside. That naïve, fatalistic desire to escape had returned. I wanted to get out of California.

Why did I continue to romanticize living in any state but my home? I don’t know. In France, where I had studied abroad and taught, I had experienced snow. It was pretty when it first fell, but not life-changing, and then when it melted, the slush resembled the aftermath of a writing session at 3 AM, which you look at the next day and wish you hadn’t wrote.

I decided only to apply to funded programs, since I knew I did not want to go into debt while pursuing an MFA. I applied to nine funded programs in seven different states. Only one program was in California.

Out of the programs, I applied for, only one accepted me outright: the University of California, Davis, for an M.A. in Creative Writing. That’s where I’m headed this fall.

My dream of writing in a library surrounded by falling snow is on hold for now. Maybe that will be a reality one day for me, but not for the next couple of years. But when I think of the incredible faculty at UC Davis, the excited and thoughtful students I met on their Visiting Day, and the opportunity for me to devote myself to writing for two years of my life, all of that outweighs the pretty snow globe I had built in my mind.

After all, there are some advantages to being rooted too. I will only be an hour’s drive from home, so I will be able to visit the locations in the San Francisco Bay Area that have inspired me time after time to write. Recently, my writing has often turned towards California’s fascinating history for material, and at Davis I’ll be at the heart of the historical echoes in the state that continue to reverberate to this day.

Yet, I don’t want to slip into complacency. Instead I want to use my rootedness to develop as a writer. I want to take creative risks and dive deeply into my words, since I will have the time to hone in on my writing techniques.

For those of you who are wondering, the creative writing program at Davis is essentially the same as an MFA program since it requires students to take creative writing workshops and literature courses. My program starts in just a few weeks, in mid-September. I am incredibly excited to buckle down and write, while surrounded by a small, intimate writing community— there are only ten students from all the different genres in each cohort.

UC Davis only offered me partial funding— I’m guaranteed a paid TA position throughout my second year that covers my tuition and provides me with a small stipend. However, the university allows incoming students to seek out TA positions on their own, so I’ve cobbled together funding for my first year, in which I will be a T.A. for both the English and French departments during different quarters.

I don’t see working for my degree as a drawback. On the contrary, I’m glad that I’ll be able to develop my teaching skills alongside my writing skills during graduate school, since one of my future goals is to teach, whether at a high school or college level.

Now, at the age of twenty-four, I know two things for certain: I want to be a writer, and to do so, I don’t need my life to conform to a particular romanticized image in my mind. Maybe I’ll learn a magical recipe for writing well at UC Davis. In all likelihood, I won’t, but I hope that in graduate school I’ll sink deeper roots and take my writing to new heights.

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