This time of year, we frequently are asked by applicants whether or not they’ll fit into the program. It’s a good question, of course. We all want to fit in somewhere. But what they’re really asking is: Is there anyone there like me? The answer is: Probably. Our students are men and women. They come from all over the country and all over the world. They’ve published and produced and they’ve also done absolutely nothing…if absolutely nothing includes hoping to be a professional writer while also busily living a life, holding down a job, and writing during every spare moment. Sometimes, though, our students are like Ross Helford, a writer who has had a successful career in one field — in Ross’ case, screenwriting — and now wants to tackle a different field — in Ross’ case, novel writing — and come to the MFA to learn an entirely new craft. With a quarter left, we’re happy to report Ross is well on his way to becoming a successful novelist. Here’s his story…and if you apply by August 1st, you could be next:
It had been my intention, pretty much since my senior year in college, to earn an MFA in creative writing. The main reason I didn’t pursue one upon graduation was, first of all, I was totally sick of school, and secondly, I harbored this sinking suspicion that I wasn’t yet a good enough, or disciplined enough, writer to get into a program.
Instead, I moved to LA, paid a bunch of dues working as an assistant in TV and movies, and ultimately got an opportunity to make a living as a screenwriter for the next several years. And then I got to an interesting point in my life in which: 1) I was struggling to make a living, 2) I felt that I needed to become a better writer, while I was 3) feeling creatively frustrated and stuck. Considering that I, 4) needed to have a reason to write every day with the same (or, dare I say, more) focus and diligence as I had when I was cranking out movies, this at last seemed the right time to 5) pursue an MFA, where I could 6) expand my scope and horizons as a writer by studying fiction.
As I researched MFA programs, one thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be in a traditional program with day-to-day classroom learnin’. It was basically a fluke that I even applied to UC Riverside’s Palm Desert low-residency MFA program. A happy, inspiring, life-changing, artistically fulfilling fluke, as it would turn out. But the fact of the matter is, I’m a grown-up, and would have had to change pretty much every aspect of my life in order to fit it into a traditional program. What’s more, as a disciplined writer, I do not need the daily classroom grind to ensure I am staying on task with my work.
UCR’s Palm Desert MFA program is designed for grown-ups, people who come from all over the country and whose ages range from post-college to post-retirement. The majority of the students, in fact, do their coursework while maintaining some semblance of full-time jobs.Each quarter is set up as a work/reading intensive 3-month period, with classes meeting in a digital learning environment. The 10-day Residencies that conclude the Fall and Spring quarters are filled with lectures, workshops, meetings with industry professionals, readings, and co-mingling with an inspiring like-minded community of artists. It’s a time to reflect on all the good work you’ve done, and plan for the hard work to come.
As wonderful, nurturing, and inspiring as the creative elements of this program have been for me, of equal importance—especially having spent the majority of my adult life earning a living as a writer—is its focus on the professional aspects of a writing career. This certainly includes harnessing one’s degree as a means to earn money in academia. But also, it’s no small detail that the entire faculty is not only published/produced, they are all presently, and consistently, publishing/producing. As a result, you are getting a hands-on education from an extraordinarily talented group of individuals who not only know how to sell and publish, but also happen to be doing so every day.
Something strange and unexpected happened to me some time toward the end of my first year in the program. I started seeing Facebook updates from my screen and TV-writing friends whose careers were going better than my own: a sold script, an executive producer credit, a staff writer job, a directorial debut. Whereas in the past, I would take these moments to descend to that dark place of envy and frustration as I point-by-point measured my own value as a writer against theirs, all of a sudden I actually felt happy for my friends—a feeling I had previously believed I was incapable of experiencing. And what I realized was that, as a writer, the best anyone can ask for is direction and purpose, both of which I have gotten as a result of my hard work in this program.
Writing is lonely, and its inherent frustrations are as endless as the distractions that conspire to keep us from our craft. Its rewards can be nebulous at best, non-existent at worst. For these reasons, writing is not a profession for anyone except those who do it because they must. Writers need community, mentorship, and realistic hope. In UCR’s Palm Desert MFA program, I have found all three. And in the process, I continue to produce the best creative work of my life, while being pushed and challenged on a daily basis to grow and improve.
If you’d like to join Ross in UCR’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts, applications are due August 1st. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our office at 760-834-0926 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org