Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Because I’ve Never Been Accepted Into One
March 24, 2015 § 20 Comments
By Tim Hillegonds
In May of 2009, I was contemplating making a career move that would take me from my current employer to a competitor, all but guaranteeing a complicated transition wrought with conflict. I was in my early thirties at the time, and while the lawsuit risks and overall ugliness of what the scenario could morph into were substantial, the change seemed to make sense for me—new opportunities, big salary, a chance to go back to school and finish my undergrad on the new company’s dime. I was also at a point in life where the fulfillment meter inside my chest was hovering on empty, every corporate meeting I sat in ending with me asking myself if this was really all I was supposed to do in life, if vanilla walls and manila envelopes and “low-hanging fruit” clichés were all that awaited me when I finally closed in on forty.
Ultimately, I took the job and suffered through a long and arduous and emotional lawsuit, and was accepted into DePaul University to finish my undergrad. I’d had limited success in academics in the past—dropping out of high school at 17, getting my GED at 22, taking a few community college courses right after that, and then realizing I really just wanted to drink my way through my twenties. But this time was different. I’d gotten sober four years earlier, and being in college suddenly felt like this amazing second chance had been given to me. My entire worldview had shifted by then, and I felt this pull towards something that was hard to articulate at the time. Something I now think can most accurately be defined as “creativity.” I felt compelled to create.
Which I suppose makes sense, because I’d always considered myself a writer. I wrote all through my teens and intermittently through my early twenties, and then I wrote like a madman through the first two years of sobriety. But three years after enrolling at DePaul, when I’d finished my undergrad and had a cranium full of college-inspired conversations and reflections keeping me up at night, I knew that I wanted to take writing more seriously. I’d heard the term “craft,” and I wanted to focus on that—the craft of writing. It sounded so elegant. I wanted to be a serious writer. A sophisticated writer. A real writer.
But the world I came from, a world where I’d never heard of writing workshops or literary fiction or even creative nonfiction, a world where Grisham and Crichton, both of whom I’d been introduced to while in jail, kept my reading appetite satiated, had left me ill prepared for what steps to take next.
So of course I Googled writing programs, learned about MFAs, and found four MFA programs in my hometown of Chicago—Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, Columbia College, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I put together a writing sample and applied to Roosevelt and Northwestern. I attended a couple of open houses. Got my hopes up. And was then rejected, and forced to face the truth of the times: my writing simply wasn’t that good.
However, during my research, I’d also become aware that DePaul, the same place I’d received my undergrad from, offered a Master of Arts in Writing in Publishing (MAWP) Degree. As a precaution, while I was applying to MFA programs, I’d applied there too. I’d sent the same writing sample, and I awaited their decision with the same nervousness, the same trepidation. And then I was accepted.
But I wasn’t accepted because of the strength of my writing sample; rather, as I was later told by the program director, it was because my writing showed promise. I did a lot of things wrong and I had a lot to learn, but I did a few things right, too. And they saw that. They wanted to help fertilize that. As with all their students, they wanted to push me and see how I responded. To see if I could take the criticism and the challenge to do hard work and turn into the whetstone used to sharpen my skills.
During the two years that I spent earning the MAWP, I took seven workshops. Most of them were nonfiction, because that’s where my interest is, but I took both a fiction and poetry workshop, too. I monopolized my professors’ office hours and read voraciously and completed 150 pages of a memoir for my thesis. I also graduated with distinction, had a piece accepted for publication in Brevity, and left the program in June of last year with the deep sense of fulfillment I’d been searching for since 2009.
Which brings me to this point: degrees don’t matter—writing does. Sure, my degrees hang on the wall in my office and I glance at them from time to time, the physical manifestation of the hard work I put in a good reminder to keep putting in hard work. But the validation isn’t in the degree; it’s in the experience. The entire experience. The complete journey I took—the journeys we all take—to becoming the writers we are, the writers we want to be.
Writing is an art, and as such, it’s open to your own interpretation of what that art means to you. Maybe that means you take the path to an MFA or a PhD. Maybe you get an MA. Maybe you apply for an artist colony, get accepted, and write in woods for a month while artsy folks deliver lunch to your doorstep in quaint little picnic baskets. Or maybe it’s none of that.
Whatever your path to writing is, to being a writer, it’s just that—your path. So don’t worry about what Ryan Boudinot says. Or what even what I say. Just worry about what the art of writing, the craft of writing, means to you. Read. Write. Repeat. And do it all with the steadfast knowledge that wherever writing takes you is exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Tim Hillegonds is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brevity, RHINO, Midway Journal, Bluestem and r.k.v.r.y. quarterly. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, and was recently nominated for an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. He’s currently working on a memoir about his time in Colorado.