After about 15 years of working in high schools as a college counselor, and taking writing classes on the side, I reached a crossroads: I could keep doing what I was doing and wonder what it would have been like to live a writer’s life, or take the plunge and actually live that life.
So I took a deep breath and started filling out application forms for several local creative writing master’s programs.
Now I was the one writing personal statements. All those years of going over essays with a sharp eye and a sharpened pencil gave me a perspective I didn’t have when I’d applied to grad school the first time, nearly twenty five years before.
I’d briefly considered low-residency programs in other parts of the country, but ended up applying to three MFA programs in the Bay Area. My previous higher education experiences had taken place in large public institutions–Berkeley for undergrad and a local California State University campus for my MS in counseling, and back to UC Berkeley’s extension program for my college counseling certificate.
I wondered how it would feel to attend a small college for a change. How would I fit in with the other students who would be closer in age to my own kids? I didn’t know. But I was eager to find out.
I had a choice of schools, and I chose to attend Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, for a variety of reasons. The program offered classes in the areas of my interest, and it seemed like a kinder, gentler environment for learning and collaborating with other students. I knew where the campus was, after years of attending college counseling-related events there. And it’s a beautiful campus, surrounded by rolling hills. Bells chime on the hour. (I often raced to my 4:00 class across the far parking lot, sliding into my seat at the precise moment of that fourth toll.) It was an easy commute from home, and I loved being able to drive “the back road” again, as I used to do after the fire when I wanted to avoid the inevitable tunnel bottleneck and unpredictable traffic on the freeway. I could take classes in creative nonfiction, which is the genre that appealed to me the most, but I could dabble in fiction and poetry too.
This two-year program devoted to writing was a hard-won gift to myself (and from my husband who thought he was done paying for college), and a chance to put my resolve to the test. Would I be able to accomplish something worthwhile? Would I be open to criticism of my writing by a group of people I didn’t know? Would I have something to offer the other writers? Would I be able to stay awake in class and get the reading done on time? I was way out of practice
I went to the orientation and was happy to meet the other “kids” in my class, as well as the second years who would show me the ropes in workshop and tip me off to the best place on campus to get copies made, and where to go for a grilled cheese sandwich.
I bought a small laptop, some notebooks and a binder. But most importantly, I bought a writing sweater.(I honestly don’t know how anyone gets any writing done without a writing sweater. Mine is a big navy blue Gap cardigan, with long sleeves that I have to roll up at the cuff. It has pockets and a big shawl collar. It’s roomy, warm, and enveloping, just as a writing sweater should be. Seriously, if you are a writer, you need a big ol’ sweater like this. Put it on, and you can’t get the words on the page fast enough. I don’t know if it’s magic or what.)
My first year, I joined in the excitement of March Madness along with my fellow Gaels. Watching those games and getting swept up in the whole thing was something new and unexpected. I loved it!
|Saint Mary’s campus. Home of the Gaels!
I started the two- year writing program with excitement and trepidation. I ditched my “going to work” wardrobe and settled into a jeans and t-shirts routine. I let my hair grow to long-ago lengths, and noticed what the other “girls” were wearing. It was challenging and fun to sit around and talk about writing for hours in workshop and craft classes. I took the critiques of my thoughtful classmates to heart, and enjoyed offering my feedback–both in class and in the margins. We all tried new things in our writing, hitting and missing, but giving it our best effort to go “balls to the wall.”
The crucial difference in this experience was that for the first time in my academic career, I was neither working nor raising kids (or having a baby, as I did mid-way through my master’s in counseling). That baby had graduated from college the year before in 2008, so we had one year off before it was time to pay my tuition. Not much of a breather.
|Yeah, I wrote this
But I have no regrets, no doubts. It was a worthwhile investment in every way. I wrote a thesis I can be proud of, had the most outstanding last semester (thanks to Peter, Marilyn, and Alex, and all my classmates) I could have wished for, and was thrilled to have so many family members and friends cheer for me at graduation.
|The fashionable SMC Nonfictionistas, class of 2011
So, now I have a few more letters after my name, and a sense of accomplishment that still feels pretty good.
|Zoom zoom…Zero to sixty on this? Probably not!