Irvine, CA

The Real Reason I Decided to Get an MFA

T.S. Lowry

There are many ways to escape

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My original plan was to be a sportswriter by day and aspiring novelist by night.

As a result, I did what I thought was best for future me — I switched out one to-be-claimed-at-a-later-date piece of paper that had “Psychology” attached to it for another piece of paper that had “Journalism” attached.

I eventually acquired that piece of paper and moved to Irvine, California for a full-time sportswriting job that seemed to have a lot of promise in an online world in which “promise” doesn’t tend to exist.

Unfortunately, this was a salary position and I was working 40-plus hours a week.

I was overworked, underpaid, wanted to quit, and wasn’t an aspiring novelist by night. I was a sportswriter by morning, afternoon, night and weekends.

Daily phone calls to loved ones from back home were my messages to the world saying I didn’t like how my life turned out. I wasn’t ready to move back to Colorado and I also didn’t want to work in an office setting, so I searched for an escape plan. I found the infamous MFA in creative writing degree.

I didn’t have time to waste. I didn’t have the undergrad GPA to get into “top” schools. I also didn’t want a traditional education in which a student attends classes, so I browsed the internet for online MFA programs.

I was drawn to the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree program at National University. I applied and was virtually accepted overnight.

I put in my notice at work and did something that was so familiar to me during my undergrad studies — I applied for financial aid. (I understand people might be cringing at those words, but this isn’t a story about debt road … it’s a story about finding the correct path.)

I told my family I was leaving my full-time office role and replacing it with a part-time, work-from-home role … and an MFA program.

They were worried. I don’t blame them.

I was — and still am— let’s say, careless with my finances. I also hated college. I loved college-college, but I disliked the going to class part. I skipped classes frequently, got out of every presentation I could, dropped this class and withdrew from that one, and I would even choose editing shifts for the employer that eventually offered me a full-time gig in the full-time sun over going to class. I was a terrible student, which is a big reason why it took me five years to graduate.

My family was also worried because most people “go back to school” so they can increase their salary or land a higher-paying job (apparently, more money is the only reason why you’re allowed to go back to school). An MFA didn’t guarantee that. It didn’t guarantee anything, really. It didn’t guarantee higher pay, a better job, or even a book being placed on a B&N shelf at the end.

However, and this is how I sold it to friends and family members, an MFA could lead to me doing something that would make me happy — writing books for a living.

Deep down, that held some truth, but here’s the real reason why I wanted to go back to school: It was a good excuse to leave my job. Plus, financial aid could support me until I found something better.

I did (and still do) want to publish books for a living, but I didn’t think it was reasonable at the time. I also loved the idea of what an MFA program offered: Writing and reading for two years.

I had some freelance leads before I left my full-time job and was also going to work for said full-time job on a part-time basis — and I did for a while — but I’m sure you see where this is going…

Being bad with my finances and not having a concrete plan in place to make ends meet, I got into more debt and struggled to pay the sky-high California rent. Financial aid doesn’t go as far for a student who wants to pursue a creative degree as compared to a student who, let’s say, enrolls in a medical or law program because certain degrees apparently attract more funding, but I digress.

Times got dark. It wasn’t completely my fault. I’ll leave it at that.

Troubles aside, something happened during my MFA.

I fell in love with creative writing.

After leaving a profession I thought was my calling, even though teachers warned us journalism students that the field was “changing,” I didn’t think I would find happiness in a profession again. I wanted nothing more than to be a sportswriter for a long time and it ended up tearing my heart out.

You’ve seen how the journalism world has panned out over the years, and it’s crazy how employers treat their employees (however, looking back, those once-guaranteed paychecks are the No. 1 luxury in life because freelance writing can be a brutal and cold world).

I’ve been very lucky (from decent health to good friends to a loving family), but I found out that the real world doesn’t care about the kid who could party like a rockstar and who everyone supposedly loved. I learned that life will knock you down if you don’t get your life together.

One thing kept me going, and that was creative writing, the act of sitting down and pouring it all out on paper.

I don’t want to pretend like an MFA degree changed my life for the better and was the ultimate experience (that would be my study abroad program in Barcelona during undergrad … but now that I look back at that experience, I see a lost and lonely 22-year-old) because that’s not the case. I still pushed off writing assignments until the last minute and took a 10-month pause on my thesis.

An MFA degree didn’t change my life and I doubt my thesis (which is a collection of short stories) will ever be rewarding in the sense of a traditional book deal or a slice of validation, but that’s okay.

This program helped me open my eyes to a new world … a cruel yet optimistic world.

It also helped me escape an environment that I never want to go back to again, an environment that’s known as corporate America (startups can exist in that world, too).

It helped me realize I want to be a novelist more than anything and that this form of writing, a form that consists of essays, short stories, and books, truly makes me happy.

An MFA in creative writing program might have been an escape from a soiled job and autopilot life, but it was more of an escape to a new life. A better life. A life I’ve always wanted, even though I’m stuck somewhere in between … in a purgatory of words.

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