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I Am Not My Personal Statement

Image: Lidyanne Aquino

While I was applying to MFA poetry programs in late 2016- early 2017, I was simultaneously figuring out how to come out as non-binary. I was writing personal letters, bios, anything that described me, and they were slowly morphing into queer testimonies. I found that I was taking the application process a little too seriously, a little too defensively. I was refreshing my Gmail App almost every thirty minutes. I was butterflied, I felt, by the interrogation of personal statements and essay responses. I was trying to impress someone, and I was trying to be myself, and I didn’t believe myself.

The University of Mississippi’s Derrick Harriell called me to offer me a TAship in his program. I wanted to say, “Are you sure? I’m not my personal statement.” In fact, each school that accepted me got a version of Jennie on the phone who I can’t defend. I was scared and guilty of having changed dramatically since I sent my personal statement. Yeah, sure, my resume hadn’t changed, and sure, my personality hadn’t changed, but I felt I had presented as such a strong woman in my statement that it would be lying to not fix the typo that is my gender and identity.

There’s something about the physical application that is jarring for me. First, I have to use my legal name, Jennifer, who sounds like a woman who has two children and an office job, and I have to use she/her pronouns because there are few other options as of now. As someone who passes unbelievably well as a straight cis white woman, I hoped the only time I could present as myself without anyone seeing my physical body would be on paper, and I am quickly seeing that dissolve. After having been at school for over a month, I’ve seen that sure, I did write a personal statement that wasn’t as queer as I’d prefer, and yeah, I sent a packet that deals with womanhood, but ultimately, the person who I am in my program and the roles I play in workshop and as a teacher are most important.

This, obviously, is a one-person account. My experience is probably less intrusive than the experience of a non-binary person who doesn’t pass as a binary gender. I do, however, feel that the butterflied, interrogated, defensive person I was when I applied was reacting to more than just an application process. They were looking for a place in their body, not in academia. On the plus side, I found a home in a program. On the plus side, I am home now in a program I couldn’t love more, and the folks here are giving their best effort to not only respect my work, but they are working to respect who I am in my identity. I couldn’t ask for much more (but trust me, I will).

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Let’s Find You Some Help

Hello applicants! Long time no talk.

Well, actually, I’ve spoken to a couple applicants lately, mostly people with questions about their statements of purpose or doing the MFA with a kid (feel free to email me about either of these things, for real).

But you know what I wish more people would email me about? The actual writing. Just putting it out there that you should show your actual writing to as many people as possible, getting all the advice you can wrangle out of them, before you spend hundreds of dollars applying for grad school. Maybe you already knew this, in which case you can skip a couple paragraphs to the part of this article where I list specific venues for you to get critiques from other people.

If you didn’t already know this though, maybe stop and consider for a moment a few of the harshest realities of The Writing Life:

1. You’re not a prodigy. You may genuinely believe you’re a prodigy, but so does this guy. So does everybody, at one point or another. It’s almost never true.

(Note: Please don’t write me any hate mail about how I’m wrong and you’re special. The only person who’s allowed to tell me that is my poet friend who got into Syracuse with a sample he didn’t show a single other human being, and the reason he’s special is he wouldn’t waste his time shouting about it to strangers on the internet. You aren’t him, so go find a workshop.)

2. It’s very likely you’ll bust ass in all directions forever to compensate for not being a prodigy. Become okay with this.

3. Other people are getting help with their MFA samples from paid professionals or the undergrad writing professors who have already taken a shine to them, thereby getting a leg up on the poor suckers who imagine it is somehow purer to work in isolation. Don’t be one of the suckers.

Yes, I know these were very harsh realities. Again, it would be great if you didn’t write me any hate mail, because sometimes my fingers get tired from hitting the delete button.

Anyway, you may have very real obstacles in the way of getting yourself some help, and this is okay. It happens. Work with what you’ve got. I filled out all my apps while employed and raising a small kid, and sometimes I totally hit that Submit button in class (I’m very sorry about this, Professor Davis). Being a busy mom working on grad apps really sucked, is what I’m trying to tell you, and I might have done better if I’d gotten enough sleep at any point in the proceeding three years, but that’s life. I still got in a few amazing places, and you can as well. Maybe you’ve been out of school for a while, but there are workshops outside of school. Maybe you’re way too broke to afford any of the places I’m about to list, but hey! Some have scholarships! Maybe you have no free time for the actual writing. I didn’t either. Your choices are to either sleep less, or admit that you need another year and plan accordingly. (Taking an extra year doesn’t make you a failure, by the way. It makes you wise.)

So without further ado, let’s talk about places where a person can workshop. You can workshop via conferences, at in-person classes, or online. What all of these opportunities have in common is that you’ll tend to get better advice if your instructor is qualified, and if your classmates aren’t random people off the street. Go for a workshop with someone whose work is well published and well received. Try for workshops that make you submit a manuscript, rather than workshops that take anybody with money. Try some of these:

In-person and online weekly workshops

The Loft

Grub Street

Writers & Books

Catapult

Sackett Street 

Brooklyn Poets 

92Y

One Story

Writers’ Extension

Local universities, which may offer the chance to take individual workshops to people who aren’t current students.

Conferences and Weeklong Workshops

Kenyon

Tin House

Tent (Jew-ish, but admissions are open to the goys)

VONA (POC only)

One Story

Writing by Writers

Sewanee

Bread Loaf

Individuals

There are good reasons to do this. Maybe you’ve got time constraints that make it hard for you to participate in an actual workshop in which you are expected to also read and critique other people’s work. But be savvy and realistic. Know the rules, and manage your expectations. I know plenty of people who paid someone to help with their apps, with mixed results.

This sort of help is, for starters, much more expensive, and sort of a gamble–whoever you pay may just happen to not get your thing, whereas a workshop with several people is more likely to contain at least one person who is on your wavelength. A human who is getting paid to help you will feel awkward about telling you when your work is just not up to snuff, but a group of humans in a workshop will include those who have nothing to lose by being brutally honest with you. A person directly in your pay, operating as some sort of tutor, can’t write you a letter of recommendation, but a person running your workshop can.

There’s also the fact that a lot of people offering this service are not necessarily expert enough to reliably help you. Blame the oversaturated market for grad-level creative writing degrees if you want. There are a lot of former students out there who will absolutely never be professors, but they still have to eat; you can’t really blame them for trying to pick up whatever sort of freelance work people are willing to pay them for.

Still, you should know this: simply getting an MFA, even if it’s from a top program, doesn’t really qualify someone to take your money, and does not guarantee that said someone can get you into a comparable program. Or even if your helper has excellent publications but went to a very low-tier MFA, that’s often a red flag. If you’re going to spring for this sort of help, go to a person who not only went to the sort of MFA you want to attend, but teaches writing for a living, has worked an MFA’s admissions process in some capacity, and/or has a book deal with a Big Five publisher (or an associated imprint).

Someone with, say, my level of expertise should not be charging you. Don’t offer me money, for real. I don’t have a book and I didn’t go to Iowa, okay? In a world where Myla Goldberg offers her one-on-one services, I shouldn’t be an option. (Bee Season is everything contemporary Jewish writing should be and Myla if you’re reading this I admire you so much.)

Anyway, if you can’t afford Myla, just take one of the classes above, because that will be more productive than hiring the wrong guy. And hey, if you’re reading this and think I’ve left a cool opportunity off the lists above, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Strategizing for Second Year

Image: Shemsu.Hor

The countdown has begun. After a summer of traveling in Europe, teaching ESL classes, seeing the utterly inspirational musical Hamilton, and generally avoiding writing despite my desire to get ahead, I’ve started my fall classes and I finally have the motivation to do what I came to grad school for: write. I’m in my second and final year of my MA in creative writing at UC Davis, which means between now and May I need to write a thesis. I’ve decided to make my thesis a collection of short stories. Compartmentalizing my thesis into smaller, doable tasks— writing one story at a time— will do wonders for my mental health. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a senior thesis for my English degree. It was an academic paper that ended up being 90 pages long and not very good, even though I worked on it for a whole year straight. My entire senior year I felt this looming sense of dread hovering over me, like a thundercloud. I overworked myself. At one point I had walking pneumonia that I didn’t address until my roommate told me my breathing at night sounded like a death rattle. I’m determined not to let the stress of my MA thesis get to me like that. I plan on making my thesis my writing priority, while also not letting my mental health and physical health go astray. I plan on giving myself breaks for fun, taking care of myself, and reaching out to my friends and family for support. But I also know I will feel overwhelmed at times and I will have writer’s block. Nothing ever goes as planned.

One thing I keep asking myself how do I make writing feel like a rejuvenating activity rather than a chore? This whole summer, I meant to write, but whenever I actually sat down in front of my computer, trying to write felt like pulling teeth. Focusing on the writing made me want to bang my head against the wall repeatedly. As soon as I got back into school mode, however, writing suddenly came with ease again. Maybe because I have deadlines? I have to figure out the formula for making myself enjoy writing— because after this year I won’t have professors giving me assignments anymore.

On the first day of my fiction workshop this quarter, my professor told us that she has two fears that get in the way when she sits down to write— the first is the fear of writing something bad, and the second is the fear of finding out things about yourself that you’d rather not know. It was comforting to hear that my professor, who is a fairly renowned writer, still fears writing something bad. I don’t think that fear will ever completely disappear. I’m not as afraid about finding out unpleasant things about myself, apart from realizing that I have no self-discipline and can’t force myself to do the one activity that I supposedly love above all others.

One of my friends in my cohort and I discussed another fear that occurs when confronting a blank page— we’re afraid of not being able to finish what we start. That’s partially why I decided to write short stories instead of a novel for my thesis. Is this a cowardly response? Am I delicate snowflake letting my fear of failure drive my decisions?

I don’t think that’s case, but at the end of the year my writing will have to speak for itself. I will have a collection of short stories to show to the world. Whether I’ll be happy with them remains to be seen. But until then, I’ve got to keep writing through the discomfort and frustration that comes from this creative pursuit.

For me, the feelings that bubble up during my writing parallel the ones I feel when I start doing intense exercise. At first, I’ll feel energetic and motivated, but that soon turns into strain and pain if I push myself to my limits. But just like during a workout, if I keep going through the painful part, I’ll find my flow and the endorphins will kick in. At the end of this whole process, there’s no guarantee that what I have written will be any good. But at the very least, it will be on the page.

Uprooting

I’m lying on my couch, an air mattress, adjusting my elbows, which every few minutes scrub a crumb—probably KIND-brand cinnamon oat cluster granola. I was accepted into the Michener Center for Writers (after being accidentally rejected) in March and moved to Austin on August 9th, floating around for a month before landing a spacious apartment close to campus. But, in Austin, unless you want to live in one of those industrial, small-town-sized apartment complexes (you know, with a pool and visitor parking that’s never open anyway) you’re getting an unfurnished spot, and now that I have a real bed and felt too lazy to deflate this mattress, which was eight dollars at Wal-Mart, I have a couch, too.

I was born in Puerto Rico and raised, mostly, in Orlando, Florida. My family is pretty much all Nuyorican, and the other side is all Cuban, all living in Miami since 1966, when they won “the lottery”—which is not 300 million dollars taxed at 82% but more like a get-out-of-Cuba-free card.

But that was a long time ago, way before I was even a beforethought. (I feel goofy saying “planned”.) I only applied to two programs—here and Rutgers-Newark, where I was waitlisted—and now, two months into my three-year tenure at UT, I already feel justified in my decision. In fact, I wasn’t going to apply to any programs this year. Most of 2016 I spent on a Fulbright in Valparaiso, Chile, which hugs the Pacific coast of South America: Valpo, city of street art and neon hills; Chile, wine country, el país de los poetas (the country of poets). I thought a year of work experience would be just as helpful, and maybe it would’ve been, but my friend Alexis tore into me the day before the application window closed, convincing me to spend sixty-five bucks (can’t we get these things waived?) and a whole afternoon constructing my personal statement and writing sample, speed-emailing my professors (whom I was cognitively dissonant enough to ask for rec letters from months before) doing nothing but repeating to myself, “Is this the best you’ve got?” which also summarizes my “process,” whatever that means. (Do you ever feel like some poets talk endlessly about their process, endlessly ignoring how that only works for them?)

In any case, the journey here is over, and I can’t stop freaking out about how much I love everything about this place. My reasons for coming here had everything to do with faculty, location, and community. As a poet, I admire Dean Young, Lisa Olstein, and Roger Reeves. (Dean teaches my poetry workshop, Lisa a studies class on sixties poets, and I’ll take Roger next semester.) Also, I am a city guy. In Chile, I had no car, and New York is my favorite place in the world; Austin has a vivacious scene with art and culture and breakfast tacos dripping all over you and from every direction.

But probably the biggest reason I’m happy to be here is that for so long—since I graduated from Florida State in 2015—I lacked a community of poets I could engage in discussion with, and all of us here can’t seem to stop talking about everything from the idea of accessibility in contemporary poetry to Sylvia Plath’s controversial ownership of a certain cultural lexicon. (Our class on her book Ariel ended at 3:30 pm Tuesday, after which Roger Reeves read [also amazing], and at 1:30 am a handful of us were still at Spiderhouse discussing her.) This community is full of sweethearts and every single one of them has a distinctive style. All of us want to learn from all of us. This ego-sapped, inclusive circle of writers gives me more than hope: they reassure me that poetry has a collective importance; that, even if not everyone will be a poet, everyone I talk to talks to one, so the ways poetry changes me will be evident in those interactions, will be challenged by discourse with other poets, and if by the time I finish speaking to a non-poet, they say, “Damn, poetry isn’t what I thought it was,” I’ve done my job.

Poetry is so small it touches everything. None of us gets the whole picture, only a single resplendent tile on a grandiose kaleidoscope, and as I lie here on my air-filled couch, picking sticky oats off my skin, I can’t help but think—even though I don’t believe in luck—how lucky I am to be surrounded by different ways of seeing.

In Search of Lost Mojo (An introduction)

Image: Adeline Oka

You applied to MFA programs last winter peddling your best traits: a voracious curiosity and an insatiable lust for soul-stirring prose.

A year later, after a 17-day cross-country road trip originating in South Florida, after getting settled during one of those famed blissful Pacific Northwestern summers—the apex of which was witnessing a cosmically rare solar eclipse from smack dab in the path of totality—after briefly evacuating to New York City when those dreamy days combusted into a toxic haze fueled by catastrophic wildfires, you find yourself in rural Oregon the night before fall quarter starts, shivering in your Miami clothes, frozen before a white screen.

Fraud, you scream in your head.

It’s not that you knowingly deceived the ad-coms; what you’re realizing is, like the photo from eight years ago you still keep on your Tinder profile, that portrait of your writer self is outdated.

That version was based on who you thought you were at 24, when you first seriously considered getting an MFA upon realizing, during your first graduate program, that you didn’t just want to read and write words all day; you wanted to read pretty words and learn how to craft them. You were convinced then that no other life would do.

In the years that followed, you have chased that writing dream (or maybe that dream chased you?) across oceans and continents. In a medieval English hamlet, you worked brutal shifts at a hotel bistro to support your habit while reading Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s classic (and validating) account of being a broke-ass writer working in European hotels and restaurants.

You fled from there to Istanbul, where you worked as a copy-editor at a national daily newspaper. You witnessed the Arab Spring unfold in the headlines you crafted. Years later, that newspaper would be seized, your bosses imprisoned, your colleagues deported, by the very ruling party that they once extolled. These events dually inspired you to commit to the written word, believing as you did that bringing truth to power was your one true calling, but they also inflamed your cynicism. You began to question whether words—your words—mattered in the face of systemic real-world violence.

Between Turkey and Corvallis, you chased the sun and made your home in the tropics—first in Indonesia, then Miami Beach. You put art aside and invested outside of the life of the mind. You produced business intelligence reports, ghostwrote nonfiction books, administered international development programs, co-founded an economic magazine, taught in prisons. You lived on the beach. You circumnavigated the U.S. by train. You excelled at project management. You became an entrepreneur. At times you even made decent money.

But you were restless. The remedy, you determined, was to be a more devout practitioner of your art.

A decade after you put “get an MFA?” on your Life Goals list, you finally removed the question mark. You diligently combed through Poets & Writers’ exhaustive directory of creative writing programs, flagging those offering fully funded, full-res non-fiction tracks. You shortlisted 15, and applied to 10. Six would say yes, one would say maybe.

You cobbled together a writing sample from random essay-ish things you’d written and shopped it around to friends. To your horror, each person—bless their close-reading hearts—held opinions about your pieces that violently opposed what the others thought. How were you to convert all that feedback into meaningful edits with impossibly limited time? Your brain exploded.

When you weren’t uploading transcripts, soliciting recommendation letters, crafting personal statements, or taking the GRE, you played investigator. You read countless blog posts and articles on individual programs and the MFA broadly; lurked on relevant online forums and Facebook groups; and interrogated dozens of current and former students at your preferred institutions.

You were ostensibly looking to enhance your admissions strategy, but what you were really after was assurances—guarantees that your life choices were optimal. Like all compulsive research projects pursued to excess, your fact-finding was an expression of your deep anxiety: that you were being played the fool.

Week one of your first fall quarter comes and goes. You find to your relief that being a student thrills you. You devour reading assignments, produce colorful marginalia, explore extracurriculars.

But that creative fire in your belly? Still out.

It seems you are not alone. Losing your mojo is a common experience amongst MFA first-years. The application process, apparently, does not just bend, but breaks.

How do you find your way back to your words? How do you motivate this stranger, who is so evidently not the writer girl from the applications—not a girl at all, in fact, but a bona fide, albeit reluctant, adult?

How do you commit when empirical evidence point to other rewarding existences where art could be optional?

What you do not second-guess is choosing this program. Like in prose, setting and characters are key. The Pacific Northwest, with its lovely trees, abundant cafes, and DIY ethos, constantly enchants. You find small-town life cozy and inviting.

Your cohorts, meanwhile, are real gems. They can engage you when you are being irreverent and playful, but they also allow your intensity. You are welcomed into their homes. You sing karaoke with them.

And then you remember this thing about your self, this essential thing that has remained true over the years: your creative process requires collaboration. Pure solitude is an insufficient antecedent for you, while dialogue and play are as instrumental as suffering.

So you dwell less on the luxury of that overused application phrase, “crafting a space for your writing,” and focus more on how to meaningfully fill that space. The right stimulating activities and relationships will eventually lure your mojo back.

Or so you hope.

 

 

Mark Galarrita Introduction (University of Alabama ’17)

Image courtesy of Emily Montgomery (University of Alabama ’17)

 

Within the basement of the three-bedroom house that I rent in Tuscaloosa, there is a portal to hell. This particular hole belongs to Mikhail, the devil that has called Alabama his home for over a thousand years. Mikhail is not his first name; he goes by many names, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Dostoevsky on the sixteen-hour straight drive from Jersey to here, so the name stays. He’s not an evil devil, compared to other demonic entities; he’s helped me with things that one wouldn’t ask the dean of graduate admissions, like: where’s the best place to get Chinese food (Mr. Chen’s), the best place for graduate students to drink without undergrads lurking around (undisclosed location), and the nearest restaurant that deliver to our address (no one and you’re living on less than 1,300k a month, so your broke brown ass should be cooking anyway).

Most of what Mikhail has helped me with is getting a grip on reality.

“So what brings you to Tuscaloosa?” He asked.

“I’m getting an MFA at Bama,” I said.

“A what?”

“A Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. I’ll be studying different methods of prose, take outside courses that interest me like history, and work on my projects, like my novel—“

“Hold up; you’re going to school to learn how to write?”

“Nah it ain’t like that. I mean, well, yeah. I’m going to graduate school to work on my prose and learn to write…better. It’ll give me time to flesh out my style.”

He tilted his head to his left, narrowing his eyes. “Are they, at least paying you for this?”

“Yeah. Sort of.”

Mikhail straightens his head and smiles to stick his fist out to bump knuckles with me. “Roll Tide.”

It was then as we bumped fist, and solidified our bro-ship between demon and human; the power in the house went out. The two of us sat in the dark, only the faint embers of hell sparkled out of the pit. Mosquitos revealed themselves just above the fire; some darted across my face. The devil sat in his hole with his arms to the side, lounging like he was kicking back at a spa, and he asked me if he could play some music and light up a menthol. Mikhail is a big Kanye West fan, and so was I, so he played the Graduation album while I talked to him about my past and why I wanted to live in Alabama for three years.

Up until around this time last year, I never considered an MFA as an option. Being the son of immigrants who reinforced to me that they came to this country with less than twenty bucks, going to a graduate school where I’d the study the ‘art’ of writing was not only impractical, it was selfish. The dream pushed onto me, and others like me, isn’t original at all. It’s a familiar cycle:  get an education in a ‘respectable’ field, get a living wage with benefits, get married (preferably with someone of your ethnicity or white), get a few kids, get a house, take care of your parents, send balikbayan boxes back to the Philippines, don’t forget from where your blood comes from, and then one day pray that your children will grow up and take care of you. Then die. Rinse, repeat, and do it all over again. Don’t worry about what’s going on throughout the country.

Those who strayed from this dreamy cycle weren’t outsiders; they were assholes.

As Jess Silfa would say, “writing can feel like the bougiest thing anyone can ever fucking do.” For a writer of color, or for someone coming from a low-income background, it certainly seems like it. In my program, the full-residency (full-res) MFA experience means living on a meager wage while exploring your craft; there is the hope that by the end of this, you’ll have a couple of publications or some book you’re proud of calling your own. And after that, who knows?

The full-res MFA is marketed as a space to give you time to work on your projects, learn, and gain teaching experience. In a fully-funded MFA program, you’ll have to balance your workload with your classes and the demands of the institution, as the majority of fully-funded programs have their students as teaching assistants (Bama included). But after the MFA, there’s a lack of opportunities in the academic market once you leave. If you decide not to go into academia and instead go for a freelance career or some other job, you’re back to where you were in the first place; mixing in the writing/editing/revising/reading of your project with the demands of life, job, and security. True, there are a few outliers that emerge out of an MFA with a book deal, chapbook, teachings jobs, etc., but even those prospects can be small and not every writer’s process, or chance of marketability, is a guaranteed success.

Before I started the MFA application process at the beginning of fall 2016, I read a bunch of sources like Junot Diaz’s MFA vs. POC, Chad Harbach’s book MFA vs. NYC, and this blog. I started with the oldest articles about MFA programs to find out where the students are today. For years I held off applying for an MFA because of all the stories that condemned it:  mostly white writers who come out of the program and say the same damn thing, lack of writing time due to teaching and/or doing other menial tasks, lack of pay, issues with XYZ university faculty, and others.

So if you’re broke, brown, and the stuff you often write about involves the stories of your immigrant family and gun-toting robots, why the hell would you do this? Well, why the fuck not?

Writing is a process, the more time you devote to it and understand your writing, the better your chances will be that you’ll get it right next time. Writing can leave a lasting impression, a note of the human spirit that can start a conversation about an issue that was raised today, yesterday or years ago. It pushes our decision-making process, questioning events again and again. Whether the story is about dragons in The Sword Coast or the dragoons of 19th century Napoleonic France, the many forms of fiction continue to tell the story of the human conflict through different perspectives. Speculative fiction writers like Ken Liu, N.K. Jemisin, Ted Chiang, and Octavia Butler have created worlds that examine our forgotten myths and explore humanity’s uncertain future. Star Wars, Warcraft, and Star Trek are franchises loved, or hated, by millions across the world and continues to influence culture today.  The works of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Lynn Nottage, to name a few, further the discussion of the systematic racial divide in the United States that has existed since its founding. As a writer of color who is trying to work in an era of xenophobic narratives and a pushback against identity in favor of blind patriotism, if I or writers of color do not try to improve the narrative or stop trying altogether, who will write our stories? No one. And if they do try, it won’t be our story anymore. It will be an interpretation of Other.

The decision to come to the University of Alabama was to give me time. Time to organize, to build up my CV, establish my work habits, and develop myself as a writer while I have time and lack of external responsibilities on my side. From the cohort and what I gather online, Alabama favors a hands-off approach. It’s a large class of poets, essayists, and fiction writers who are here to develop their skillsets overtime. While I have yet to seek out a mentor amongst the faculty here, the vibe I get is that it’s not the sort of program to those who expect to be pushed throughout their three or four years here. No one tells you to try and publish; they just give you the tools through email. What you do with it, that’s up to you.

A majority of my writing cohort is white. For fiction, in my year, I am the only writer of color. Poetry has one woman of color and nonfiction has two. In total there are four of us in the first year. As far as writers of color in the entire MFA program, there is a handful of us. So that’s nice.

Mentor or not, my goals over the next three years boils down to three things: write, revise, and publish. If I were more realistic, it would be: try, try, and try again. Writing is a skill that takes time, refinement, and a lot of luck. If you’re passionate about something, what better time to go after your goal than in the here and now? Will I fail? Yes, constantly; however, I know I’ll just get back up again and go back to work.

I told all of this to Mikhail on top of my soapbox that was a stack of crit papers from the past summer at Clarion West; when I got off the box, a long silence followed. The demon lit up another menthol across his lips and blew smoke into the dark.

“That’s real cute and all, but how long are you going to be doing this for again?”

“Three years. Four if you want.”

“Okay…so you’re studying the art of making stuff up. After your three or four years are up, you’re going to come out of this with a job, yeah?”

“Job markets tight but yeah, possibly. I mean you could, in practice. There are fellowships, grants, becoming an adjunct professor-”

“With benefits? 401k plan? Healthcare?”

I scratched the mosquito bite on my arm until it bloomed red and yellow against brown.

“So none of this is secure for your future,” the devil said. “You’re lofting around for three years in cushy old buildings, talking about books, grammar, and shit.”

“Hey, dude, weren’t you listening?”

“Yeah.”

“This is what I’m passionate about.”

“Bruh-”

“What?”

“This MFA shit sounds like a hell of a gamble.”

“Fuck man, ain’t life a gamble? It’s to better live the life you want and work on what you’re passionate about then wondering what if I had the time, energy, and education to do it. I’ll find the time to write, and I’ll do it.”

Mikhail inhaled and blew. Through the light of the fire, I saw his smile. “Make sure they at least paying you to survive and shit,” he said. “Roll Tide.”

“Roll Tide,” I replied. The devil took out his iPhone to play The Good Life, and as T-Pain and Kanye spoke about living, the power came back to life, and the horde of mosquitos revealed themselves in the light. They encircled my face while the humidity in the room reached a point where I had trouble breathing but by then I was so taken in by sleep that I didn’t bother with fixing anything. I’m good.

 

Mark Galarrita is a McNair Fellow at the University of Alabama MFA Fiction Program. He is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop and received his B.A. from Marymount Manhattan College. His work has appeared in Bull Magazine and the Kelsey Review. He has also written for the “The Aethera Campaign Setting: a Pathfinder Compatible RPG” and narrative scripts for Global Gamer Jam events. Follow him on Twitter @MarkGalarrita or on his website.

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.