This is the last installment of the Nonfiction MFA Student Spotlight. Le sigh. This week, I interview Patrick Thornton, a first-year MFA candidate, who answers the most frequently asked prospective graduate student questions for you. How lovely of him!
Patrick is a wonderful example of a student who really researched MFA programs and made sure that the schools that he was choosing were right for him. I first met Patrick in December of 2011, during the fall semester, when he scheduled a meeting with me through the Graduate Admissions & Services Office. Columbia offers several opportunities for prospective students, who may be in the middle of the application process or just starting their search, to meet with current students in the program of their choice, namely at the graduate admissions events, Open House (which just took place on October 27th) and Preview Days, but also by appointment. Patrick is a student who really took every chance that he could to get a feel for Columbia, to actually see, with his own eyes, if the campus, the students, and the faculty were right for him. I saw him everywhere! Open House, our meeting, Admitted Students Day. He really did his research, and in the end, it paid off. I don’t get to see Patrick as much as I like to on campus, but we do respond to each others tweets and wave and have chats in the hallway. We recently discovered that we are both lovers of Barthes. (Swoon.) From what Patrick has told me, having a familiar face at graduate admissions events is one of the reasons why he felt comfortable with Columbia. It is a rare opportunity, one that not a lot of programs offer, to have so many opportunities to meet with people who are currently studying in your program of interest. Here, Patrick answers some questions as a first-year grad student who’s half-way into his first, very busy semester.
Q: What were you doing prior to your decision to apply to Columbia (working full-time, completing another degree program?) and what factors did you consider when choosing to pursue an MFA in nonfiction? Location? Faculty? Cost? Was it a combination?
A: I was working as the Volunteer Coordinator at a theater in my hometown before coming to Columbia. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I started thinking about being a writer. I’d always imagined myself writing fiction, but I ended up preferring creative nonfiction, and Columbia seemed like the perfect place to enhance my skills.
Being in Chicago was my top priority, and going to Columbia really puts you in the heart of the city. I had applied to other writing programs and actually considered getting a Master’s in Library Science, but Columbia was my first choice. Actually, the faculty and students in our program are so gifted that I was a little intimidated to apply, and I never really believed I would be accepted into the program. I think the word used to describe my reaction to receiving my acceptance letter is gobsmacked.
Q: What is your educational background? Where did you complete your undergraduate degree and in what area of study?
A: I went to Butler University in Indianapolis, IN for my undergraduate work. I received a Bachelor’s in Arts Administration with a concentration in Theatre. It was the perfect degree for me because I learned how to work in the not-for-profit sector while still being able to hone my acting skills. Acting also taught me so much about human nature and how we interact with one another, which has in turn made me a better writer.
Q: If you could describe your writing style, how would you describe it? Which writers influence your work the most?
A: Right now, I’m still trying to find my style. I do enjoy writing essays that have a journalistic or research-based quality to them. Even my personal essays have a lot of history and technical information that I believe helps to set the story. I’m also incorporating more humor into my writing. People tell me I’m funny, but I don’t consider myself to be a particularly funny writer. Authors that I look to when I’m writing include Carrie Fisher, Anne Lamott, Jenny Lawson, and David Sedaris. My favorite writer in general though is Anne Rice.
Q: What neighborhood do you live in and what would you say is the best thing about living in Chicago and then, also, the most surprising or the thing that took you a while to get used to?
A: Well, right now, I’m still living with my family in Northwest Indiana. I take the South Shore Line into downtown, which gives me lots of time to nap—I mean read. I’m planning on moving to Chicago in January and am considering the Lakeview area since I have a lot of friends there.
Q: How has pursuing your MFA at Columbia helped you, both creatively and professionally, with your writing? Can you pinpoint a specific moment that stands out to you as a defining moment during your time in the program, as a moment of clarity, a breakthrough moment?
A: I’m learning a lot about looking inward. There are so many emotions that I gloss over in my writing, which my peers (very nicely) pointed out while workshopping my first essay. That was my breakthrough moment, because now I’m just letting it all out. This can be very painful, but my writing feels more genuine than it ever has before. Being in this program and reading my peers’ work has also given me new ways of thinking about creative nonfiction, and I’ve become more willing to experiment and explore. I definitely believe it’s making me a better writer.
Q: This is your first year in the program, and you’re probably just beginning to get into the swing of things. How are you balancing your coursework, jobs, your commute, etc.? Has it been overwhelming to dive right into grad school? Do you have any tips for prospective students that are helping you figure out how to manage your time?
A: I’m a personal time vampire, so it’s important to have a balance between school and personal life. I also work part-time helping my mom with her business (she sells used, rare, and collectable books online), and I help care for my grandfather who lives next door to us, so there’s a lot to squeeze in during a week. I tend to read on the train or in the mornings when I’m less distracted, but I do most of my writing at night. I write, read, and do other coursework every day, usually three hours per day, sometimes more, but give myself breaks and schedule in time to be with friends, which makes the work seem less overwhelming.
I think anyone considering graduate school should realize just how many hours you will have to devote to your studies per day, but always remember to set aside time for yourself. For me, I’ll read for pleasure, work on my blog, or watch Parks & Recreation for a brief escape from academia.
Finally, I’d tell students to make friends with the people in your program. I’ve only been here two months, and I feel like I have a built-in support system. There are some really beautiful people in this program, and I’m grateful to have them as friends.
Q: What are your plans for after you graduate, and how do you think Columbia is preparing you to take the next step toward that plan?
A: I would ultimately like to be a freelance writer of some sort. Creative nonfiction is a great genre in which to explore different voices, which lends itself to the freelance path. Working in the not-for-profit sector is very important to me, and I’m looking for ways to bring my writing skills into that area. I’m also interested in teaching, which is why I enrolled in the GSI program. I have no doubt that Columbia is preparing me to pursue my post-graduate goals.