Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Because I’ve Never Been Accepted Into One

March 24, 2015 § 20 Comments

Tim Hillegonds

Tim Hillegonds

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 BrevityRHINOMidway 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.









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§ 20 Responses to Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Because I’ve Never Been Accepted Into One

  • Jail? Let’s hear about the jail time! Loved this piece Tim. Great message that a little drive can get us a long way in life at every stage of it.

  • cacramer says:

    Stated with understanding.

  • I agree entirely. Excellent piece. I’d also like to hear more about the jail time.

  • skyllairae says:

    Reblogged this on EAT ME and commented:
    The spirit of writing:

  • Thanks once again. I’d like to see you continue this. Many writers I know face post MFA depression and lack of success. I had to unlearn my MFA. I had to unlearn, for example, that a story is 15-20 pages long. Then I found I don’t write 15-20 page stories!

  • Thank you for sharing, Tim. Please tell me where the artist colony with lunch delivery resides! 😉

  • […] DePaul alumnus Tim Hillegonds, MAWP ’14, penned a post for the Brevity blog called “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Because I’ve Never Been Accepted Into One.&#82… […]

  • Thanks to everyone for all these great comments! As for the “more about jail” remarks, it’s definitely a theme that pops up now and again in my writing. (Spoiler alert: the food sucks.) As for the picnic lunches, I’ve heard that’s a coveted MacDowell Colony original.

  • norin10 says:

    Reblogged this on norin10.

  • Anyone who goes into an MFA program — or any other graduate school, for that matter — looking for a money-making scheme is surely delusional. But that shouldn’t mean that such an experience has no value. As a young woman who didn’t get accepted into college the first time around and finally made it through Rutgers U., my acceptance to Columbia University’s School of the Arts (1973-75) still stands as a peak accomplishment of my life. Learning from teachers like Galway Kinnell and Maxine Kumin, the friendships with fellow students, drinks at the Brass Rail and readings at Dr. Generosity’s as well as in Dodge Hall are all memorable and valuable memories to me many years later. Of course, tuition costs weren’t what they are today, but if you want to do it and can find a way, do it for the experience, for the moment in time you will create for yourself to write, re-write, critique and be inspired by others.

  • aunnielauren says:

    GAHHH i just want to hug you right now!

    1) This is lovely, and
    2) Amen

  • pjonesnill says:

    Great piece – Thanks for sharing.

  • […] Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Because I’ve Never Been Accepted Into One […]

  • 1WriteWay says:

    I am loving these posts about MFA programs, whether to apply or not, and why. Kudos to you, Tim, for going back to DePaul and getting what you needed to continue your path as a writer.
    Although I have an MA in English, I often think about applying for an MFA program, but for this reason: “… I wasn’t accepted because of the strength of my writing sample […], it was because my writing showed promise.” Those are the terms under which I’d want to be accepted. It would mean that I would actually develop relationships and have experiences that would help me grow as a writer. Maybe not necessarily get published. That’s more up to me than anyone else 😉

  • Anonymous Student says:

    I’m glad Tim had a positive experience in this program, and I commend his success. I might even like this piece–if I didn’t happen to be a current student of the MAWP. Just to clarify: some students here were not seeking MFAs and some of us DID get accepted to more selective programs. The MAWP is one of very few programs of its kind in the country. It doesn’t advertise to be a MFA and it doesn’t advertise to be the last-resort option with little-to-no admission standards that Tim applied to as a “precaution.” It is professionally damaging to all MAWP students/alumni for the author to make these suggestions. If it is true that the program caters to those who can’t get in elsewhere, the directors need to make this philosophy very clear, because I was not aware of this policy. Some of us had other options, but we genuinely liked what the program offered.

    I also take issue with how Tim suggests the program tends to accept students on “promise” rather than inherent talent or skill. It may be true that some students have yet to reach their potential, but this cannot be the case in every student’s situation. If this is indeed the general policy, the program needs to disclose this information. Whether one is in a MA or a MFA, the quality of colleagues’ work does matter in a collaborative environment.

    I don’t mean to rain on Tim’s parade and I am not saying he shouldn’t have been admitted. I do believe his intentions were positive in stating that degrees “don’t matter.” However, he suggested that my particular degree (which wasn’t cheap) shouldn’t be taken seriously. Some of us are nearing graduation. Some of us are applying to PhDs and other programs. Many of us need a realistic way to pay off massive education debt. An employer/admissions counselor could read this piece and think, ‘Hmm. Maybe I’ll pass on the candidate from a program with seemingly no admissions standards.’ So, while degrees may not be essential in becoming a writer, status is still relevant in our society. Also, I don’t believe Tim paid for his education; his employer did. This author already has a stable career. Many of us are just starting out. It is beyond inconsiderate that he did not consider these issues. So, no, this piece did not inspire me. This piece devastated me.

    *Brevity: Please stop promoting this piece until the name of this graduate program is removed. Think of how damaging this is to many students. I will no longer support your organization unless this concern is considered. Thank you.

  • Anonymous Student says:

    And it is quite disturbing that my program is sharing this piece in its current state. MAWP people: Please stop sharing this. It does not make us look good. Thank you.

  • Mary says:

    I had looked into DePaul’s Writing and Publishing program when it was still a certificate! I decided against it because, from looking at the degree requirements, saw there was a bigger focus on the writing, rather than publishing, aspect of the degree.

    I’m sorry that some students feel that the program is being shown in a negative light. I don’t think Mr. Hillegonds meant defamation when he said “As a precaution… [he] applied there too.” I believe universities look at their alumni more closely when they applied to graduate programs, not that he was applying to DePaul because it’s an easy school to get into or afford (then again, neither are Northwestern and SAIC). Perhaps not ALL of his reasons for choosing DePaul were described in this piece either.

    If you’re so concerned with what ONE alumnus said about the program ruining future employment or education, then you need to reevaluate how you market your degree on your résumé and during interviews. As Mr. Hillegonds stated “So don’t worry about what […] even what I say. Just worry about what the art of writing, the craft of writing, means to you.” So if you feel your flourished in an MFA or MA program, then continue fine-tuning your craft with the guidance of your professors and authors.

    Additionally, complaining that Mr. Hillegonds had a job while returning to school to pursue his degree while you made the decision to go straight into the MAWP program after undergrad doesn’t put you in a good light either…

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