It’s official—I have a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California! My diploma just arrived in the mail.
This is a journey I’d never dreamed for myself. I’d like to share my writing journey with you, in case it encourages you.
I dropped out of UC Santa Cruz in my late twenties, where I was studying English literature, French literature, and creative writing. I wanted to be an English teacher and a writer. At the time, UC Santa Cruz didn’t give out letter grades. Instead, you either passed or failed, and your professors wrote narrative evaluations. The words my first English literature professor wrote are burned into my memory: “Leanne is already a first-rate student of literature and potentially a critic to watch.” I didn’t even know what a literary critic was at the time, but it sounded good to me. Leaving UC Santa Cruz has been one of my biggest regrets, but life, as they say, is what happens when you’re making other plans. I needed to work and support my three children, so I became a paralegal instead, reasoning that the job required the same skills: reading, researching, interpreting, writing. It’s been a good career, but I always dreamed I’d go back and finish my English degree.
Around 2012, I started knocking off the remaining general education classes I needed, and in 2016, I was admitted to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I earned my BA in English with a minor in history and an emphasis in creative writing in 2018. I graduated summa cum laude. I did this while working full time, something of which I am immensely proud. I took a year off and went to Europe with my daughter that summer. But while I was at Cal Poly, two of my professors encouraged me to take my education to the next level: They told me I should consider getting an MFA in creative writing. This is something I didn’t even know existed, so I’d never dreamed that dream for myself.
I decided to apply to two low-residency programs in California, either of which would allow me to continue working, to continue living in San Luis Obispo near my children, and to study early mornings, evenings, and weekends. On top of allowing me to incorporate school into my existing life, I liked the idea that it would allow me to live my life the way I would continue to live it as a working writer—nearly all writers have day jobs and write outside of those hours.
I was accepted to both programs, but chose the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA Program for several reasons, including the amazing faculty, the proximity, and the fact that accommodations and meals for the two ten-day-long residencies each year are arranged for students so they can focus on writing. I never imagined the University of California would accept me, and I was floored when they did.
Over the course of the program, I studied fiction with New York Times bestselling author Tod Goldberg, who was my thesis mentor, and who helped me so much that I’m tearing up right now thinking about him. I also studied fiction with Mary Yukari Waters and Jill Alexander Essbaum—each of these women elevated my writing so much. I didn’t know there was so much to learn! I loved spending time talking with them and workshopping with them immensely.
At UCR Palm Desert, students are required to also study a “cross-genre,” which they can switch up to give various types of writing a try. I stuck with creative non-fiction for my cross-genre studies throughout. I first studied with the incredible Emily Rapp Black—I was so intimidated that I was going to be studying with her that I actually looked up one-star reviews of her books to calm myself down. The one-star reviews are bullshit by the way—she is the best writer and I found her to also be the best human being. Her line edits to my work made me cry more than once and encouraged me to write essays. For the rest of the program, I studied creative nonfiction with Deanne Stillman, which was a surreal experience because I’d been reading her for many years. Deanne was so encouraging that she often advocated for my work more than I did myself. She’d send me an email: “Have you submitted this essay yet? It’s a great essay. Why don’t you send it to such-and-such literary journal?”
The pandemic hit a year into the program and a few months after my second residency. I’d wanted to give playwriting and maybe even screenwriting a try, maybe work with some other professors, but I was so stressed by the pandemic, working remotely, and worrying about my family, that I decided to stick with what I knew and not to try anything else. Another regret—I wish I hadn’t played it so safe. But guess what? I’m beginning to self-study screenwriting now.
Take it from me: it is never too late to do anything.
If you’re interested in applying to UCR Palm Desert, I’m happy to chat with you about the program. Shoot me an email: leannephillips.com/contact/.