It’s a funny story how I decided to get my MFA in Fiction Writing. Spoiler alert: it does not involve research.
I was twenty-four years old and in my second year as a full-time math teacher when I stopped by a little bookstore near my house in Uptown New Orleans and my eyes fell on a paperback called Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden.
I didn’t know Amanda Boyden then. I didn’t know that she lived in New Orleans and that one day I would sit with her and her husband at a bar in Spain, or that, a few years later, we would have margaritas together in Mexico. I didn’t know I would go to parties, and even a wedding, at her house in Mid-City New Orleans. All I saw was the skinny girl on the cover of the book, her arm cocked like she might be holding a cigarette, her face scribbled out with fluorescent yellow highlighter, and I knew it was just the sort of thing I liked to read: a literary coming-of-age story.
So I bought the book and devoured it. Then I read the author bio and learned that Amanda Boyden taught a class on fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.
It was around this time that I started thinking to myself, gosh, do I really want to be a math teacher for the rest of my life? The answer was no. What I really wanted to do was write novels, but I’d always assumed that was something people did in their spare time – it wasn’t a viable career option. (And, to be honest, I still think that’s somewhat accurate… at least for a lot of people.)
The problem was, teaching left me emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. It was difficult to find the energy to write in the little spare time I had. So I made a bold move: I quit my teaching job and embarked on a series of random jobs (barista, receptionist, orthodontic assistant) that gave me more time and energy for writing.
That summer, I sat down to write what I hoped to be a literary coming-of-age novel. When I finished the last sentence, I was elated. A day later, I reread the whole thing and was completely dismayed. The book wasn’t good – I knew it wasn’t good – but I had no idea how to make it better.
That’s when I decided to contact Amanda Boyden.
I’ve since looked to see if I could find the original email I sent to Amanda, along with her reply. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I can’t, but I know I said I’d enjoyed her book, and then I explained that it was the sort of thing I hoped to write, but I was having trouble figuring out how exactly to write a novel in the first place. I was thinking maybe she and I could get together for coffee sometime to talk about writing.
Yes, I realize now how naïve that sounds. So I don’t blame Amanda for how she responded. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of, no, I don’t have time to meet with you, but maybe you should check out the MFA program at The University of New Orleans.
And here’s where I’ll admit that up until then, I didn’t know there was even such a thing as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. (It does sound rather absurd, right? A Masters degree in creative writing?!) I realize that might make twenty-five-year-old Eva sound a bit dumb, but, to be honest,twenty-five-year-old Eva was a bit dumb.
Twenty-five-year-old Eva was also excited. Going to school was something I’d always exceled at. No wonder I was having trouble writing a good novel: I needed to go back to school and learn how to do it properly!
So I went online and found information about the University of New Orleans “low residency” program, which sounded cool. In the program, students took classes online during the school year and then did intensive summer abroad sessions. That sounded good to me. Online classes meant I could keep my day job at the orthodontist’s office, and I hadn’t studied abroad as an undergraduate, so this would be my chance to do some traveling.
I’m embarrassed to say that I did no other research. None. I didn’t look to see if there were other MFA programs that were more highly rated, or that perhaps focused specifically on novel-writing. I didn’t look into ways to get my tuition paid for. I didn’t even realize that there was also an in-person MFA program at the University of New Orleans I could have applied to.
I’ve never been a fan of research, and I’ve always been a bit trigger-happy when I’m excited about something. At the time, I honestly didn’t think that anyone would pay for my MFA. I didn’t realize that many schools offer teaching assistantships – something that would have been smart for me to do because not only would my tuition have been covered, but I would have gotten experience teaching at the college level.
Instead, without researching any other programs, I applied for the low-residency MFA at the University of New Orleans, and I was accepted. The following summer, I headed to Madrid, and my Fiction Workshop professors were Amanda Boyden and her husband, Joseph.
It’s hard to say whether or not I regret making such a quick decision. Yes, I did have to take out a student loan to pay for my degree, but I paid if off pretty quickly. And it’s true I could have gotten a teaching assistantship that led to a college teaching job, but I don’t want to be a teacher (remember?) And I probably could have gone to a more “prestigious” school, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked that any better.
Besides, so many good things have come out of my MFA from UNO. I met some wonderful (and eccentric!) people, and I had some amazing travel experiences. If not for my MFA from UNO, I never would have become involved with Burlesque Press or gotten to spend a month in Mexico on a writing fellowship.
In this case, my utter lack of research didn’t seem to hurt me. In other words, I got lucky.
I’m thinking about all of this as I prepare to query agents with the novel I recently finished revising. In the past I’ve been trigger-happy about contacting agents, and I’ve learned my lesson. This is one case where I am definitely doing my research. I am spending time on Twitter and agency websites and Manuscript Wishlist. I’m reading agent blogs and interviews. I’m making a spreadsheet of possible agents and revising my query letter over and over again. I know that when it comes to querying agents, it pays to do your homework.
My MFA didn’t teach me anything about querying agents. That’s something I learned on my own after a lot of practice, and probably in part because I did it wrong the first time around.
And, in a way, that’s how I’ve learned to write as well.