To have an expectation about something would imply you’re anticipating a certain outcome—positive or negative—with a fair degree of certainty. Expectation naturally forms part of the intention to achieve a certain goal, which is inherent in the concept of positive thinking. In its negative form, an expectation about something that might happen alludes to an attitude related to irrational thinking styles (like paranoia). Since expectation is influenced by the beliefs we hold about ourselves, people who believe they’re capable of achieving certain goals tend to invest more time and effort in their activities, while skeptics might undermine their own efforts in order to sustain whatever limiting beliefs they hold about their abilities—a weird but true phenomenon. Values and beliefs are powerful motivators of behavior. That said, we’re social animals, thus easily influenced by the sentiments of others and quite capable of wielding our own Force, whether as Jedi or Sith.
When you apply to an MFA program, you’re required to write an essay—Statement of Intent— on your reasons for doing so and your expectations for the program. By the time I started the application process in the latter part of 2009, I’d been thinking about it for two years; thinking and not acting, because the mainstream belief of the time was that you had better be a writing wizard and that any applicant with less than a kickass writing sample would be…gulp…REJECTED (watch out for my post about the Feedback Loop and how this horrid word must surely regulate industry behavior and, consequently, erode writers’ confidence). At that point, I’d already been struck down by Darth Vader so many times there was no way I wanted to invite more bad luck into my dark galaxy. (Ironically, the original title of my soon-to-be released memoir, Out of Sync, was My Life As An Alien, as you’ll see from the excerpts below.)
If you Google “personal statement samples,” I bet you’ll come across many warnings about how fiendishly difficult it is to write this darn element that’s an integral part of every MFA application. Guidelines will include a word limit. Queens University of Charlotte requires a one-page, typed, single-spaced paper. You’ll be challenged to write a good hook, employ a professional yet stirring tone, portray yourself as intelligent and able and passionate, convince the judges you’re ready to take this cosmic leap. And you’ll be warned that you had better be ready to treat peers the way you want to be treated, too. (What happens in critiquing workshops sometimes calls for grace under fire, but I’ll talk more about that in a later post).
My best advice is to relax, be your creative self, and think about how you want to present yourself and your writing aspirations. I structured my essay in terms of past, present, and future (the excerpts from my own Statement of Intent below merely serve as an inexpert example, which is what it was at the time)—
The past (the literary influences and formative events that had brought me to that point):
“The secret to success is knowing where you’re at in the circle of life,” a wise old lady once told me. Or maybe she was just a figment of my imagination. Even so, I have indeed come to the end of a significant cycle in completing a 90,000-word memoir. My Life As An Alien is a quirky story about change, displacement, and the search for identity. Confident with my skills in non-fiction, I know the time is right to pursue my next goal: mastering the craft of fiction.
Applying for admission to the MFA program in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte thus feels like a step in the right direction. I believe that my training, life experience, and diverse background in writing will serve me well in such a program. Also, I come from a long line of storytellers. Growing up on a farm in Africa during the sixties, spinning a yarn was a way of socializing. Thanks to this influence, I excelled at literature throughout my school career. My love of writing did not only came about from reading a plethora of books, but also from acting out my fantasies with a cast of make-believe friends.
The present (the contribution I intended to make to the program in terms of my sunny personality and exotic experiences):
The low-residency nature of the MFA program will suit my writing routine and work-from-home life-coaching practice perfectly. I am a disciplined individual who completed my BA-degree in Communication and Sociology through distance learning at the University of South Africa (UNISA) while raising my two children. During that time, I wrote monologues for students to perform at the annual eisteddfod. I also volunteered as a foster parent for eight years. I have realized that while my passion is working with people, I find my true inspiration in creative writing. It is no coincidence that both these pursuits influence the outcome of the other.
I worked as an advertising copywriter in the healthcare industry from 1996 to 2001, when my husband and I relocated to the United States on account of his career. While waiting for our green cards, I earned my master practitioner, life coach, and trainer certificates at the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Institute of California. NLP is based on a set of principles that help you to understand and describe behavior, communication, and the process of change in a detailed way, a skill that has enriched my writing. The shock of our arrival in the U.S. on 9/11, the difficulty of our cultural adaptation during a trying time for the nation, and my inability to revive my career compelled me to write My Life As An Alien, now ready for publication.
My first mentor, author Nancy Peacock, is of the opinion that a good critic makes a better writer. She instilled in me the value of working with other writers in a supportive environment. In 2007 I attended the month-long Artist Residency Program in Sheridan, Wyoming. I have also been a student of author Carrie Knowles for four years and have worked with another critiquing group, which I founded, for the same period.
The future (my expectations with respect to the impact of the program on my future career as a writer and/or teacher):
I am ready to pursue graduate studies in fiction in a challenging environment where I can experiment with and broaden the scope of my work. I intend completing a novel, which I recently started writing, by the time I receive my degree. It has an intricate plot, spanning various generations and two continents. The themes I wish to examine are incest, intergenerational shame, post-partum depression, and shamanic influences.
My foremost goal is to write and get published, while my long-term goals are to teach at college level, coach writers to improve their creativity and productivity, and help others to use writing as self-discovery.
I look forward to entering the next cycle of my life, and undertake to bring a well-rounded, international perspective to your MFA program.
Going back to expectations, you may wonder if I’m pleased with the outcome (the experience and actual degree). There’s no easy answer to that, though I loved the sense of camaraderie among the students and have honestly learned a tremendous amount about creative writing (fiction and nonfiction, since I exchanged one semester to work on a complete revision of my memoir). One letdown is that I did not manage to complete my novel—for several reasons: 1) it has turned out to be a much bigger story than I anticipated; most of my mentors and peers seem to think it should really be a trilogy; 2) the critiquing process has numbed my creative spirit somewhat, though I’m expecting it’s just a temporary malaise; 3) my memoir has demanded more time, money, and effort over a five year period than it would have if the publishing industry had been a level playing field (look out for a series of blog posts on my decision to self-publish, a daunting yet exciting prospect).
My opting for an MFA had a lot to do with the standard sentiments of that time: that it was a fast-track to getting published and would open the door to the teaching profession—a double bind, if ever there was one: the publishing world is in trouble and not even an MFA or whatever revered connections you might have are a guarantee that you’ll be acknowledged for your talents, let alone recoup your expenses. Without being published, there’s not a Jedi’s hope in the Galactic Empire of securing a tenure-track position in creative writing. But the world is shifting and players are being rearranged, which is never a bad thing when equilibrium is needed. If you do decide to embark on an MFA, make sure that it is for reasons you feel comfortable with and believe in.