There is no average student in our MFA program. Some come to us with stacks of published books, some with IMDB pages a mile long, some who just got out of college, some who are in the middle of a successful first career now looking to do what they’ve always loved, and some who have spent an entire life trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. Emile Barrios had a little bit of all that…he’d published a book previously, he’d worked in public relations and television news, and, by all outward accounts, probably had a career anyone would be happy to have. But Emile wanted to be a novelist and sometimes, well, that takes some figuring out. Here, Emile talks about how he came to choose the Low Residency MFA at the University of California, Riverside.
In 2006 I gave in to a lifelong urge and made a serious commitment to writing fiction. Having spent thirty-five years in the media and PR business, I felt well-grounded in the writing process and in what made a compelling story. Whenever I could find the time, I set about putting on paper the ideas that had rattled around in my head for decades.
I was astounded at how good I was. Before long I produced twenty-four short stories and was a hundred pages into my first novel. The anonymous rejection letters I collected were a badge of honor – a mark of my progress.
Soon I lost interest in my day job. In 2010 I left the business world to write full-time. I knew I needed to improve, so I showed my work to a well-established local writer I’d met. In my naiveté (developed over years of writing in a vacuum), I was sure she would tell me my work was excellent and to keep going.
She was not astounded. She told me (in excruciating detail) how I was making the same mistakes most novice writers make: flat characters, cliché plots, purple prose and too many adverbs. She suggested a summer writer’s workshop, and I mopped up what remained of my ego and went. It was there I learned about low-residency MFA programs.
The low-res model was a great fit for my goals. Intense, but flexible enough to fit my life. A commitment of time and effort without the classroom. While a lot of the MFA programs I looked at came across as traditional and spoke in almost reverent tones, UCR struck me as exciting and fun. These people loved what they did. I spent a day at residency observing, but it took me less than an hour (before breakfast was over) to decide. The day Tod Goldberg called me to say I was accepted was one of the happiest I can remember.
It didn’t take long to recognize that I was a long way from where I wanted to be as a writer. But I was among professors who would help me get there. I threw myself into the curriculum and found that UCR was exactly as advertised: intense, fun and exciting.
At my first residency I was amazed at the atmosphere: a hundred people together for ten days, talking about writing like it mattered. The feeling of being at residency, the sense of common experience and camaraderie, is hard to describe. Even setting aside what I learned, my life is immeasurably richer for being there. I had found my tribe.
It won’t be long now before I graduate, and the progress I’ve made is evident on the page. I expected I would learn a lot about technique and craft and process. I expected I would learn how to read critically, to recognize and apply to my own work the things other writers do. I expected I would write more pages than I’d ever written. All those expectations were met.
What I didn’t expect was how fundamentally my writing would change. How much practical instruction I’d get, and how quickly my work would evolve. I didn’t expect to be given so much help in launching my career as a writer. I expected the professors and visiting faculty to be first-rate, but I didn’t expect them to be so open and friendly and supportive. I didn’t expect to laugh so much.
Most of all, I didn’t expect to find myself a part of a community – students, faculty and alumni – that will stay with me in the years to come. Writing is a solitary experience, but among the people I’ve met at UCR I know I’ll never feel alone.
I tell people that next to proposing to my wife, applying to the UCR Low Residency MFA program is the best idea I ever had. No way was I ever going to make this much progress sitting at my desk navel-gazing. Embarking on a new career at this point in my life is thrilling and more than a little scary – and I still have a lot to learn. But I know it’s exactly where I need to be.
You can join Emile and the rest of our students beginning this spring. Applications for our next cohort are due February 1st. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us firstname.lastname@example.org or call 760-834-0926.