A Tale of Two Bombs

For my applications to MFA in Creative Writing Programs, I have to submit both a personal statement and a writing sample. I wanted to share with you the personal statement I wrote as to why I want to pursue the MFA.

One of the schools to which I am applying is Southern New Hampshire University (which is a 100% online program). They asked me to address the following: explain how someone else’s story – such as a novel, movie, or a personal account – has impacted your life and influenced your drive to become a writer.

Here’s what I had to say:

I was twenty-one years old in the spring of 1996. I had been working on campus in the Office of International Programs, a job I loved because it was all about studying abroad and travel. Tucked at the back of our department were two smaller offices that belonged to faculty in the English department. While I had never taken a class from Dr. T., she was someone who was gregarious and often engaged me in conversation because she knew I loved to read.

I graduated that May and as a gift, my parents allowed me to audit a two-week study abroad program to Italy. On my last day of work, Dr. T. pressed a mass-market paperback into my hands and told me it would rock my world.

I started reading it on the plane to Milan and was immediately engrossed. So much so that I stayed up as night bled quickly into the next morning to find out what happened next. I read it on trains, and at night in my hotel rooms in Florence, Rome, and Siena. Stunning art and architecture surrounded me by day and a great story, well-told, filled my nights.

Finally, in Venice, I finished it. I was sharing a room with two other women and they were both sound asleep. But I had been so completely electrified and inspired by that book that I wanted to jump from bed, fling open the shutters and shout into the darkness of the city: “You must stop what you are doing immediately and read this book!”

The title? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Dr. T. was right, my world had indeed been rocked to the foundations. I had always toyed with the idea of writing fiction seriously, but in the moment I finished that book something shifted. I was so astonished by the way Irving gathered together plot threads. Then he didn’t just neatly tie them together at the end, he wove them into a fuse that exploded a bomb in my mind.

If someone so unknown to me as John Irving could have that much impact upon me with a novel, I knew then and there that I wanted to do that. I wanted in.

By nature, life mostly does not go according to plan. I went on to get a second bachelor’s degree, but during my time at the University of Minnesota I took many literature and creative writing classes. I loved them as much as the classes in my major.

In 1999 I had two bachelor’s degrees (one in Anthropology and one in Art History). I knew plainly and painfully that I was neither truly motivated nor brilliant enough to pursue an advanced degree in either subject. While I loved both disciplines, it was the stories they told that held the most fascination for me. 

I did write, but not steadily. I knew I had the requisite talent to create stories and novels, and the muse occasionally got me by the throat and I would write furiously for a couple weeks. But I did not have the dedication nor the drive to create a portfolio in my early twenties.

Even so, I knew that books and literature were it for me. So, I did the only thing I could think of that would surround me with stories that paid well and had health insurance: I became a librarian. It was practical and it helped to lull me into a false sense of being part of the literary world.

It worked for a while, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. 

By my mid-thirties I desperately wanted to write something. I craved it. But I had no ideas. I started looking at mythology, thinking I could retell a story from the Greek pantheon. Then, on March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm, I was scrolling through a web page on the nine muses when I hit on the idea that would become my first novel. Like the explosion that had been detonated by A Prayer for Owen Meany, this too packed lots of gunpowder. I was a live wire, smoking and snapping with the charge I just received.

I was so excited that evening as I went for a walk with my husband. I gamboled around him like a baby goat, telling him about the story I was planning. Details and plot points flew at me in a rush. And with that second bomb, I started writing. Really writing.

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in twelve weeks. I have written three other novels since and have ideas for three more on the back burner. I have a steady, faithful writing habit I have sustained for ten years. Only once, after my mother died after a protracted illness, was I unable to write for grief. But I eased back in by writing flash fiction and working up to short stories. I even got some of them published.

My reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing are twofold. The first is I want to be surrounded with writing in my day job–I want to teach at the college level. The MFA will get me there. The second, and most important, is I simply want the experience. I want to indulge and immerse myself in a program that will engage my critical thinking again and make me a better writer. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

I have come a long way since that night in Venice when John Irving blew my mind. I now possess the maturity and motivation to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a portfolio to show for it. I will never forget the gift Dr. T. gave me that day she presented me with that well-worn paperback. A Prayer for Owen Meany cracked me open to the endless possibilities of stories and the devastating effect of great writing.

I want that.

Plague Diaries #8

My place of work closed one month ago today, and even though we report to a library empty of patrons, we still do work to reach the public. My coworker and I did a live virtual book discussion today on Facebook, for instance. We’ve been heavy into making online content and pushing our digital resources so people won’t miss us quite so much. I know a lot of our regulars do. One doesn’t work at a library for fifteen years without getting to know quite a few faces.

I wonder about the homeless population. There are a few regulars at my branch that have been coming in every day for years to read the papers or use the computers. Now they can’t come to the library. They can’t go to the beach. All the parks are closed. What happened to them all? Where are they going all day?

We’ve also been handing out paper unemployment applications. Since the State of Florida’s “Reemployment” Office is being overwhelmed, they have resorted to having people fill those forms out on paper and mail them in. I suppose it makes a desperate person feel like they’re doing something, but I really don’t know how it’s supposed to help. Those applications aren’t going to be processed any time soon. Disney just furloughed tens of thousands of employees. Do you really think the system was made to handle that?

For those of us blessed enough to have jobs, I wonder if others are feeling pressure like me to prove my worth over and over again. The “I”m producing, please don’t lay me off,” spiel. But please, also, treat me like a human being. Take my health and safety into consideration as talk of reopening is starting to happen. Please don’t let me be cannon fodder because people need to check out movies.

I’ve mentioned before my only family is my father and my husband. As of now, I feel relatively safe at work. I mostly stay in my office. But when the library reopens, (it is only a matter of time, I know this) I am terrified of working with the public. I can begin to imagine how the folks who work at the grocery stores feel. I don’t want to feel like a bomb ready to explode at home and rain virus down on the two people who matter most to me.

I know reopening is going to happen. But I’m afraid the powers that be in Florida are going to move just as quickly to reopen as they were in being reluctant to close. The governor needs to look at the numbers. We added 1222 new cases just yesterday. A 32-year-old woman died in my county yesterday. We haven’t hit our peak. He needs to have people around him that are not just focused money but also on the value of human life. I fear this is not the case.

I get it. Money is important. Without it we starve, we don’t have shelter, our businesses falter and die. But the economy will bounce back, it always does. Even from the Great Depression.  It might take a long time, but it will happen.

But one thing you don’t bounce back from is dead. Every number in that death toll is a person who won’t be going forward on this earth. And every number is leaving innumerable others behind to mourn their senseless and lonely deaths.

I won’t apologize for being morose. I’m not happy with the way my country has responded to this epic disaster. I have a friend in France that I talk to often and she is appalled at what she hears in the news and the things I tell her. It makes me not ashamed, per se, but sad to be an American in these times. I love my country. I want it to be the shining beacon it once was to the world. There has never been another country so uniquely founded on ethics and careful logic as this one. To see it torn apart breaks my fucking heart.

Still, even at the bottom of Pandora’s box was hope. We have to cling to that like nothing else. Because right now, that is all we have. Hope for a vaccine. Hope for recovery. Hope for a future.

I’ll see you on the other side,

Anna