2017, Archives, September 2017, The MFA Years

Lauren Mauldin Introduction (University of California Riverside)

I never considered myself to be a pool person. Something about stretching spandex over my fat rolls, and slathering my pale, Scandinavian skin in sunscreen to avoid inevitable sun shock never exactly screamed ‘relaxation’ to me.

But now I spend my afternoons bobbing through aqua water, surrounded by palm trees. On my lounge chair by the edge of the pool, the pages of a memoir warm in the sun. I float, a little aimless and untethered, waiting for classes to start.

I’m still surprised that I moved to Southern California. I never thought I’d have the chance to get an MFA either. It was a dream that began ten years ago, when I was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University. MFA students at NCSU taught my intro creative writing classes, and helped shape my initial journey as a writer. I idolized them, and I wanted to be part of that elite club of people that choose to put words in the forefront of their lives.

When the time came for me to decide what to do with my life after college, I wanted that MFA… but I was afraid. Instead, I pursued the corporate world. I carved a little notch for myself in tech. I moved away from home. I got married. I blinked, and had traveled so far away from the twenty-year-old version of myself, scribbling poetry in a dive bar. Occasionally I would write, but I stopped calling myself a writer.

Then my husband died. With no warning or time to prepare, I was in an empty house surrounded by things that suddenly, didn’t matter much. The life I worked so hard for had become hollow. I didn’t know who I was, or where I belonged.

So I wrote about it.

I wrote about it, and I remembered those MFA students from my youth. The people I idolized. I thought it might not be too late for me, and I applied.

My application process was admittedly a little scrappy. I gave myself one year to get in, and if no one would have me that would be a sign it was time to close the box on that dream. Between meetings at work, I’d comb through the MFA Years, Poets & Writers and the MFA Draft Facebook group trying to educate myself as quickly as possible on all things MFA. Deciding to concentrate in nonfiction narrowed my choices substantially, but after that first cut picking my schools to apply to was mostly a matter of avoiding the GRE and throwing dart boards on the map of places I might like to live.

When I threw the dart at Southern California, I didn’t know much about Riverside or the UC system schools in general. During application time, UCR was another line item on my spreadsheet. Its most distinguishing feature was that I needed to write a “project proposal” on top of the standard statement of purpose. In all, I applied to seven MFA programs. Five fully funded and two partially funded, spread from coast to coast.

While I waited to hear back, I engaged the manic planner side of my brain. Manic planner decided we were most likely to return back to the east coast to pursue writing splendor, and started browsing Zillow ads for historic houses in coastal North Carolina. Imagining yourself in an institution is the fastest way to ensure that you don’t end up there, at least for me. Coastal North Carolina wasn’t coming to fruition, and in the months of waiting I never seriously considered myself ending up in Riverside, California.

When the notices did finally all arrive, I was fortunate enough to have three acceptances and two waitlists. With the luxury of options, I was able to analyze stipends and teaching loads that each school offered. In this area, UCR lapped its competition and I scheduled a trip to meet the faculty and fellow students.

Arriving in Riverside, I saw snow-capped mountains and palm trees in the same horizon. It was a completely foreign landscape to me. It felt like a place to become a new person. Twenty-four hours after I returned home from my twenty-four hour UCR visit, I formally accepted the offer.

Maybe that new person is a pool person. I’m certainly heading in that direction, reading books in the sun while I wait for classes to start at the end of the month. I never thought I’d be in Southern California, but I never have been successful in planning out the best parts of my life. When they’ve appeared, I worked hard to settle down into them. I hope my MFA experience is like that.