2016, Archives, August 2016, The MFA Years

Gionni Ponce Introduction (Indiana University ‘19)

Image: Joey Lax-Salinas

More aptly titled: How I Failed My Way into MFA Candidacy.

This fall, I’ll begin Indiana University’s creative writing MFA program in fiction. It’s a fully funded program that will cover the cost of my tuition, insurance, and provide me with a teaching stipend to pay my rent and buy food. IU’s program has consistently been ranked the Top 15 in the nation and is known for supporting a diverse student body. In short, this is a HUGE blessing that is allowing me to work towards a lifestyle I’ve wanted since I was 13.

Summed up like that, as any social media post might be, it really sounds like I have my shit together, right? Whatta joke. Even as I sit on my new bed in southern Indiana, writing this post and putting off prepping for my first day of class tomorrow, I feel a sense of disconnect. How can someone who made so many mistakes still end up in such a good place?

I don’t want to add to the toxicity that comes with just learning about people’s accomplishments. So I’m going to take it back to my three-year long series of FAILS that brought me here.

At the University of Pennsylvania, there is an incredible creative writing program. You can find the community, funding, and physical space (a whole house) to create a young writer’s dream. Did I take full advantage of these resources? Nope. There are a few complicated reasons why, but suffice to say I didn’t go to as many events as I could have; I didn’t get involved in any of the extra-curricular groups; I didn’t plan well enough to even APPLY to the creative writing honors program. Initially, I had wanted to go to grad school immediately after college, but in truth, I didn’t have a tight enough portfolio to apply. The honors program would have helped with that. It was a huge blow when I figured that one out.

Still, I majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing, took some really helpful workshops, and made my first writing friends.

After college, I, like generations of English majors before me, didn’t have a job lined up. My plan went as far as moving to Los Angeles and figuring out how to pay rent. To be fair, that’s time consuming but I also allowed myself to procrastinate on my MFA applications so long that I severely limited my options. I started applying, I kid you not, in November for that year’s cycle.

Of the three under-researched schools I applied to, I was miraculously accepted at the California Institute of the Arts. It’s a small liberal arts school with a penchant for encouraging cross-genre and cross-artform work that was close to my home in Los Angeles. As an amateur visual artist, nothing could have been more exciting… until I realized I couldn’t afford it. That moment came when the admissions counselor I was working with told me that with the partial funding I received, I would still have to take out private loans AND pay the university about $800 a month (which was the cost of my rent at the time). I told him I’d need more money. He offered an extra $2,000. I told him I’d need an extra $10,000. He kindly said good-bye.

That was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my writing life. Admission rates are so low amongst MFA programs that I was absolutely terrified no one else would accept me. I even had a writing mentor who told me, after the fact, that they had never known anyone to turn down an offer when they didn’t have another option. That made me feel like I should have just accepted whatever was given to me. What if no one ever accepted me again? Wouldn’t that mean that I wasn’t meant to write? Rhetorical Question Answer: absolutely not.

With all that anxiety, I revved up for another year of application preparation. This time, I was smarter and I invested more: I found a writing course and friends who could offer me critical feedback on stories for my portfolio. I started researching schools widely and set an application timeline by late summer. I studied for the GRE so I wouldn’t be limited in my choices. In my second round of applications, I applied to 13 mostly to fully funded programs with racially diverse staff. I plan to explore that diversity process in another blog post. I ran into so many frustrating problems (some external, some self-created) along the way that I could easily complain for another 1,000 words but the details would probably bore you. Instead, I’ll skip to the juicy bits.

When my ninth rejection rolled in, my prospects were non-existent and my spirit crushed. I spent an evening bawling my eyes out on my couch while my boyfriend rubbed my back and reassured me my writing life wasn’t over, that there was still a glimmer of hope, and that I didn’t need a program. He was right about all of it.

Eventually, I found out I was waitlisted and subsequently accepted at both the University of Miami and Indiana University.

If you’re reading this and feeling down, just remember that you might be in the middle of your series of fails.

It gets better.

After all that, I didn’t even tell you much about me as a unique individual. I’m a young Chicana writer with dual hometown claims to Phoenix and Detroit. I like upcycling old junk into beautiful and useful art. Sometimes that manifests itself in tangible items. Other times, a story is born. To me, upcycling is what writers do with experiences and memories.

Over the next year, I plan to use this blog to process my thoughts, experiences, and mistakes. Surprise, surprise, I think best when I’m writing. I hope that my posts can help you as much as they’ll help me. I appreciate you as a reader because you’re my motivation to go on when I’m lying face down on the couch.

Please reach out to me.

With that, I have to be off—headed to a community poetry reading hosted in someone’s backyard. Cool, right? It almost sounds like I knew what I was doing all along…

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