Dear MFA Faculty at Private University,
When I was a child, I lived on the sea. It was me, my parents, and my five older siblings on a small dinghy that bounced between Maryland and the Isle of Wight for eighteen years. My parents never educated us, and the ocean oppressed me with its squalls and frigid gales. I am different from everyone else who is applying to this program and have suffered more than them, as I will show you.
My job on the boat was to sweep the dinghy. My five older siblings would swim in the Atlantic on calm days and wouldn’t invite me overboard; at least, not in a way that wasn’t threatening. I have always been special, but I didn’t realize that was a gift. So, I grew lonely and found myself scrawling into the wood next to my cot in a language with an alphabet I made up, having never seen English written down before. My alphabet was inspired by the shapes of the fish that swam below and the sky that spanned above. I could write before I could even read.
Soon, I was writing stories in my unique sea language. I’d describe fantastical lands made mostly of land, of humans who lived in boats nestled into the earth that never saw water, of beings that spent most of their lives dry. I’d perform these stories for my family on the rare occasions they’d let me speak.
At night, alone, I’d log the major events of my life: the ocean screaming my name, the wind swearing at me during hurricanes, the dinghy trying to hurl me into every storm. But I always hung onto the boat with both hands, which makes me uniquely qualified for an MFA.
“Away!” I yelled at my oppressors, as my legs flailed in the air. And that’s when I realized that I had a voice. I wanted the world beyond my parents, my four siblings (we lost one to terminal scurvy), and the plankton to hear it.
I’ll never forget the day I discovered the written word in English. We were headed west at about 40 degrees, and roughly 34 degrees north, give or take. I was sitting on the edge of the dinghy, watching the lemon sharks swirl around below.
“How big am I allowed to dream?” I asked the sharks.
One shark flipped his tail, and something strange landed next to me.
“What the heck?” I said to him. I never swore in front of the sharks, except when I swore to them that I’d one day be a very elite, serious person.
The shark had thrown me a bag. It was crunchy to the touch, not made of cloth or dried whale skin. It made a sound like creaking wood. The bag was white, and there were green shapes on it. Later, I’d realize that the first word I ever learned to read in English, at age seventeen, was “Dick’s.” The second and third words I’d ever read were “Sporting” and “Goods,” respectively.
I had a lot of catching up to do once I swam away from the dinghy, learned to walk on land, and won a full undergraduate scholarship to Harvard University where I studied English.
It was no longer a fantasy–I finally lived a dry life in a land boat. I lived in the library, due to an error at the bursar’s office that meant the scholarship I received did not include room and board. I spent all four years of college sleeping in the B stacks on Level A, nestled into section 800-899 of the Dewey Decimal System. Sometimes, I’d sleep in the elevator to mimic the rhythm of the ocean. Because, although the water had always screamed at me, once I left I occasionally felt it call my name. Now, all I hear is the voice of a graduate degree beckoning me to write about myself.
I have overcome a lot but not everything. That is why I want a masters degree in creative writing. During my time in this MFA program, I dream of writing a genre-bending work in regular English as well as hand-carved in my sea language on old driftwood, about what could have been, what was, and what I imagine will be.
I hope I have earned one spot in next year’s five-person cohort by living a unique life brimming with trauma that has damaged my mental health forever. I feel ready to unearth everything I have been through in a workshop of other unique, damaged people forced to criticize each other.
Thank you for considering my application,
Rumpus original art by Natalie Peeples
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