The Elusive Statement of Purpose

If you have ever started (or even thought about) the process of applying to a graduate program you know that it is pretty common to have to write some kind of essay as part of the application process.  Depending on the school and the program the type of essay can vary.  Many go with the standard SOP (Statement of Purpose) as their application essay.  However, most schools don’t bother to elaborate on what this SOP should look like.  I spend many hours scouring the internet looking for samples, looking at guidelines, and do’s and don’ts.   I felt hopeless.  I felt lost.  I felt like I didn’t even deserve to apply to this program if I couldn’t even figure out how to write a stupid admissions essay.

In the end, I realized that it is not a solitary endeavor.  I asked for help from fellow writer friends and even my former professor.  This, I think, was the key to writing the essay.  As writers, we never really go it alone.  We have readers to give us feedback, editors to fix our mistakes and to smooth things out, and mentors to guide us.   So, in an effort to hopefully light someone else’s path when it comes to applying to grad school, I share the SOP that (along with the rest of my application) helped me gain admission to UCF’s MFA program for Creative Writing.

 

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE / UCF / CREATIVE WRITING MFA

A man once asked me—well, he asked my middle school students, but I think I was the only one who took it to heart— what I was passionate about. On the whiteboard, with my dry erase markers that squeaked across the surface he wrote: Distraction = Passion. What distracts me?  What causes me to drift off and dream when I’m supposed to be doing something else?

It’s writing.  It’s cooking up scenes and characters and dialogue.  When I wasn’t teaching, I was writing so much more because I was in an office job with a keyboard at my fingertips all day. Even though I probably shouldn’t admit this, I write the best when I’m at work, when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Ever since I started my first post-college full-time job, I’ve had a bad habit of squeezing in a chapter here, or a character profile there, or revising when I should be working. Once, my boss even reprimanded me for it, but it wasn’t enough to discourage my writing habit.   I was addicted. I am addicted.

The power of words just blows my mind. A word transforms something imaginary into something solid, something almost tangible–a world where anything can happen and that will go on forever, with no fear of extinction. Characters live on in a world that would never have existed if the pen had not been put to paper. Everyday, new worlds are created to capture our imagination and captivate and stimulate our minds. What would the world be without writers willing to share the wild tales and colorful characters of their imaginations?

Where would the millions of Harry Potter fans, young and old, be if J.K. Rowling hadn’t created a new, magical world that co-exists with our own (Muggle) world? Where would Rowling be without the influences of Tolkien and Lewis and Shakespeare and Homer?

That rush of excitement and satisfaction is something I have missed over the last few years since I finished my BA in creative writing. I started teaching high school English shortly after graduation and not much time was left for indulging my imagination. I found it very difficult to juggle lesson plans, grading papers, professional development and all the new teacher training with my writing life. Writing, during that time was very minimal. My former professor, Nathan Holic, would often check in and ask how my writing was coming along. This question that always made me feel guilty for even pretending I was a writer. For a short period of time after, my word count would grow. But, then my job took over once more.

I loved my job so I didn’t really mind, though I did miss writing. It was so much fun and I was okay with the fact that, because it was so demanding, I might never be able to realize my dream of being a writer first, teacher second. But that contentedness all changed in January of 2013 when I lost my son shortly after birth. As if one devastating loss wasn’t enough, June would prove to be a month that would take something else dear to me. I also lost the job I loved and the students I loved. I was displaced and I was not happy.

That is how I ended up in a classroom full of middle-schoolers, listening to a guy talk to twelve-year-olds about distraction. It is then that I realized that I still wanted to be a writer first. Whatever else second.

In The Fellowship of the Rings, while the nine companions are trapped in the Mines of Moria, Gandalf says to Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Tolkien spent his time creating a magnificently painted and whole world, one filled with races of elves, dwarves, hobbits and men, that I could get lost in for years. His world included a rich backstory that holds as many fantastic stories as his novels, new languages, and far-reaching landscapes. Middle Earth is the type of world building that many writers aspire to, myself included. J.K. Rowling is another author who has succeeded in creating such a complete and fully realized alternate reality for readers to live in.

It’s the stories I’ve read by authors like Rowling and Tolkien and Neil Gaiman and John Connolly and C.S. Lewis, who spun words into pure magic, that inspire me to write. Over the dozen or so readings I’ve done of the Harry Potter series, my desire to invent only grows. I’ve seen the influences of Greek mythology, Chronicles of Narnia, and even Tolkien in her stories.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about high concept fantasy writers, but that is not where all my interest in writing lies. I’ve also been mesmerized by works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Magical realism is a beautiful and poetic literary form I’d like to learn more about. To be able to weave elements of magic so fluidly into a realistic setting is a skill I want to develop.

What I hope to get out of a program like the one at UCF is discipline, first and foremost. This MFA program will help me learn to write routinely and revise effectively, two things I have struggled with the most. I am also looking for an MFA experience where I can do in-depth craft studies on other authors like George RR Martin, Michael Chabon, Ursula LeGuin, and Octavia Butler. I believe that this program will help me to build entire worlds and bring my characters to life. My goal is to become an expert storyteller who might one day share shelf space with the likes of Rowling, Gaiman, Lewis, and Tolkien.

Although it is often misattributed to Tolkien, there is a particularly poignant quote from the original 1978 movie poster for Lord of the Rings. It reads, “J.R.R. Tolkien triumphed with the perception that a single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.” I want to dream up my own Middle Earth.

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