I know there have already been tons of things people have said about the application process, and with everyone who is currently getting their portfolios ready for Draft ’15, I’ll say Caitlin’s post on the subject is very well informed and exhaustive. All I will add is don’t do what I did! If there’s anyone who’s constantly putting themselves at a disadvantage by doing things the hard way, it’s definitely me. If you haven’t started working on your samples already, get on that now! If you’re an early bird, the summer would have been a great time to do some sprucing and sorting of old material and workshopping and editing new material. Luckily, like I’ve said, it’s definitely not too late to be putting together spreadsheets and cleaning up material right now. Some of the earliest deadlines are late November, early December. It would be crunch time, but still in the realm of possibility. From experience, it takes a lot of discipline and effort to get your ducks in a row with even just a 2 month crunch for a deadline. So, keep in mind that this process isn’t exactly made for the procrastinator in all of us. More time is better, and less time will get you stressed out. Neither method will guarantee you an in, but the latter method will make you paranoid if you don’t. Don’t leave anything up to chance and give yourself the best shot possible and start as early as you can.
Getting into Northern Arizona was both thrilling and validating. It was my first choice and just knowing the amount of apps they got and that I was one of the ones they decided to take, there were simply no words for that. Getting in and not getting funding on the other hand? More on that later. For me the travel was just over 2000 miles west from my small town in Pennsylvania. Can I tell you that I still can’t believe I made the trip?! I’ve never done anything like it before, and I’m so glad I was able to make it all by myself with no car problems, no getting lost, no thefts, it was amazing! It’s one of those things I’d actually recommend everyone do at least once. It’s one of those insurmountable task that on paper you just think, “there’s just no way,” and then when you actually achieve it you just get that warm fuzzy feeling inside like, “hell yeah, I just did that!” That said, pro-tip for future MFA hopefuls who get into a program super far away: make sure you have at least a grand saved up before you leave! Of course that was my plan going in. The plan was to save up around $3000-$2500 before making the big trip, and boy do I wish I had actually done that because it would’ve made things financially less strenuous. Between a new boyfriend a month before take off and unforeseen auto fixes that were mandatory before I took said vehicle on the cross country trip, lets just say I was more than strapped on take off day. Don’t do what I did!
Somehow it all came together that I was able to make it to Flagstaff, Arizona, move into a relatively affordable apartment close to campus with an easy going roommate, and somehow cobble together good deal purchases to furnish my room all before school started. Don’t ask me how I did it, somehow I’m still amazed it all worked itself out!
My first introduction to school? Orientation. The dreaded orientation. I don’t like orientations. They always tend to be too early, too long, and filled with information you could’ve stayed home and read on the website. The worst part? The mandatory GA portion of the orientation that was mandatory for all GTAs, RAs, and anyone and everyone interested in becoming one in the future. This was hard. It’s still hard hearing about GAs and the classes they’re getting to teach and the like. It’s hard because I wanted to be one so badly, but was never offered the chance. I wish I could be one of those people who could brush off that fleeting denial of funding that bittersweet “we want you, but we just don’t have the breadth of funds to pay for you” acceptance letter, but I’m just not. The sting is one I never imagined would hurt this bad, but it does. It hurts quite a lot. Especially when you’re left staring at your bank account trying to figure out how you’re going to make the paltry loan refund you got last for 4 months. So, pro-tip hopefuls, think hard, real hard, about how badly you want to go to a program and if it’s in the realm of possibility to still go with no funding. Even more important pro-tip, one I stress more than anything to those still putting lists together: find out if your school has additional funding options for grad students in general! This tip is one I wish I had gotten when I was rushing to complete apps back in January. MFA hopefuls get so stuck on that lofty funding package from the program itself, but all but ignore the fact that sometimes there are other GA appointments or RA positions that are possible for them to obtain on the off chance they don’t get funding that pay a stipend (though often times not as large as the one you can get through the program), a tuition waiver, health care, and in some cases it’ll even waive fees. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize that NAU had these options until June, two months before school was meant to start, when a lot of the appointments had already been made. I was late to the party, and I paid for it. I wasn’t able to convince any other department seeking GAs to take me on, and I won’t lie: it sucked. It sucked a lot.
So MFA hopefuls who are still putting your spreadsheets together, please, for the love of everything holy, don’t write a school off for the department’s funding (or lack of funding) package alone. Do more exhaustive research. Check and see what the schools graduate school in general has in the way of funding. If you’ve got your heart set on a school, don’t discount any avenue. Despite my no luck in the GA department, NAU offers tuition waivers. All they require is a written explanation on why it would be beneficial for you to have one, and I’m certain in most situations the waiver is granted. What that meant for me is that the out of state portion of my tuition was waived, better than nothing in the grand scheme of things. What that meant for resident students is their complete tuition was waived. Pretty awesome I think!
Enough of the doom and gloom, on to the good stuff! My first month as an official MFA candidate has been pretty interesting. I signed up for two workshops, one in ficiton and the other in non-fiction, and a lit class, intro to lit for grad students. My first class was the fiction workshop and I ended up showing up 30 minutes late because I was lost. Super lost. Like circled around the Liberal Arts building maybe five or six times before I finally found it lost! I thought the University of Pittsburgh campus was big, but NAU is a whole other story. Their campus is ginormous. A month and a half in and I still don’t know where everything on campus is, and thank goodness I’ll never have to. All my classes are in the Liberal Arts building, so as long as I can find my way there every Monday and Thursday, I’m in good shape. Obvious pro-tip for you hopefuls: print a list of your classes and locations out and do a walk through at least a day before your classes so you know where you’re going. I meant to do this, but literally was getting things for my apartment up until the last possible second. Time literally ran out on me and I definitely paid for it.
So, I’ll start with my fiction workshop. Fiction is my concentration so you’d think it would go without saying that I’m loving it, but I’ve been in some pretty horrible fiction workshops in undergrad. Thankfully, graduate fiction workshop is nothing like any of those! I adore my fiction workshop. Everyone involved is super nice and super constructive, and even better, a good amount of them are incredible writers. It can be a bit intimidating because you’re often left wondering, “how do I stack up against these giants?” But truly, it pushes me to make sure I put forward my best work. I can be super critical in workshops. I’d even say, borderline brutal. I used to love it in undergrad getting a piece to read that I could really tear up because it’s infinitely easy for me to articulate what I hated about a piece versus what I loved. But I’ve been trying to turn my own critiques back on myself, learning from everyone else’s pitfalls as they say, to tighten up my own work. I can truthfully say though, I haven’t come across a piece yet that’s been down right horrid. Guess that’s what happens when a selection committee acts as gate keepers for admittance. This past Monday, I workshopped the first chapter of a piece I’ve been working on since 2011. I tweaked some things to it from the initial draft and got a lot of good feedback in regards to the additions. I feel so encourage and filled with fresh new energy to finally finish this piece, hopefully for my thesis!
Monday nights after my fiction workshop, I typically stop by the Einsteins in the Union, order an albacore tuna salad sandwich on wheat (toasted of course), and chat with my boyfriend on my cell for an hour before my lit class at seven. I won’t mince words, I hate my lit class. It’s pretty much everything I hate about lit classes in general. And let me clarify, it’s what I hate about poorly constructed lit classes. It reminds me so much of the short story in context class I was required to take for my major in undergrad: a professor who’s read one too many lit theory and crit books who’s adopted the thoughts and beliefs of all of those authors, and sees fit to make sure you think and say all the same things she does. It’s insufferable. What’s most insufferable is how my professor sees fit to dictate and control the discussions so that they fit into her lesson plans. It’s so counterproductive to how I enjoy taking part in a lecture that I generally find little to say which of course is never good because it’s always these kind of classes that require class participation. Blah! I will be counting down the days.
Thursdays are when I have my creative non-ficiton workshop. Oddly enough, this was the class I was most nervous about going in. Non-fiction has never been my forte. I find it extremely difficult to make real life sound interesting, and thus, I’ve never successfully achieved — until this class. I really just am shocked at how much I really enjoy coming to this class. I know everyone says you don’t go into a writing program for someone to teach how to write, but I sincerely believe this class has shown me how to write — how to write creative nonfiction anyway. I’ve read a lot of good essays for this class, and they were written in a way that wasn’t dry or boring and some of them even read like fiction. Who knew you could write non-fiction as it were a fictional story? I certainly didn’t. I owe to this class my first legitimate effort at writing a non-fictional essay that didn’t read trite, dry, or boring. I workshopped it last week, and I appreciated that the class liked a lot of the same things about it that I did, but of course I’m still a little rough beginner so they gave me plenty of pointers for polishing. Fun fact: my instructor for non-fiction is the program’s director and she always makes it a point to say how glad she is that I chose to come to NAU and that I chose to take the class. Nicole is super nice, so all I can say is if all program directors aren’t as nice and involved as she is, they definitely should be.
So, there’s my roller coaster of a 6 week experience so far. There’s still a lot I want to do, experience, and work on, but what can I say? Flagstaff is a beautiful city, I love my workshops, and I can’t wait to see what the next four weeks bring. Thanks for reading!