I recently had the opportunity to speak openly with some of my first-year MFA in Creative Writing peers about their concerns for the future. While they were pleased and excited with their choice to undertake this educational journey, some were still terrified by the business-side of being a writer. As novice writers, we are so quickly and harshly exposed to the old looming adage: being a writer is a financial risk.
Georgetown’s recent study showing the median return of investment of liberal arts education is nearly $200,000 higher than at most other types of four-year institutions, paired with a “demand boom” for creative writing on college campuses, is exciting to hear. Still, we as Creative Writing students inexplicably find ourselves constantly questioning our choices. “Why am I a writer,” “what am I getting out of this MFA,” and “what am I going to do after this,” as if the normal pressures of graduate study aren’t already living rent free in our minds.
As individuals studying the craft and power of words, in a program that emphasizes peer mentorship, I find stories are often more encouraging than articles and studies. Hearing the paths of other writers and former students of the creative writing program in the Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences not only demonstrate possibilities, but give answers our anxieties and questions.
Julia Walton is the author of the award-winning Words on Bathroom Walls. Having received her MFA in 2016, Walton is on a roll with Words on Bathroom Walls just recently released as a major motion picture as well as her new novel, Just Our Luck, hitting the shelves soon. We can’t help but cheer her on! I reached out to Walton to discuss not only her new book, but how Wilkinson, and her peers and mentors in the MFA program supported her writing journey.
Marrissa Childs: Congratulations on the screen adaptation of Words on the Bathroom Walls now in theaters! Let’s think about this: an idea, draft, manuscript, award-winning novel, screenplay, featured film… the journey is impeccable, both for the writer and the piece. What has surprised you along the way?
Julia Walton: Thank you! I was surprised by everything. I’m still surprised by everything. Every once in a while I forget this whole thing happened and I feel myself sink into a moment where I can fully appreciate the fact that I somehow got a book published and that some extremely talented people turned it into a movie. Regarding the film, I was surprised by how moved I was by the whole experience. Beautiful script, talented actors…everything. As for the book, I’m still surprised I can go to a library and find it on a shelf. That still hits me hard.
MC: On the idea of the journey, and going back to your student days, what was your first impression of Chapman when you first started to attend? Were the classes what you thought they would be? How did the classes and/or professors change your relationship or experience with writing?
JW: I thought about how beautiful the Chapman campus was at night and how nervous I was that first time I had to share my writing. Nothing can really prepare you for that moment, but I was blessed with some lovely classmates who made everything less scary. It wasn’t what I expected because I didn’t know what to expect. I was still working in insurance, trying to find a way to escape from an industry I’d come to hate. My classes at night were such a relief because they reminded me that the world of books and writing and impossible dreams still existed. If it still existed then I could find a way to get there.
MC: What is the most memorable moment you have about a class in Wilkinson?
JW: [Creative Writing Professor] Richard Bausch read a piece I wrote about my grandmother out loud to the class during the workshop. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember that it lifted me. His praise at that moment gave me a burst of confidence when I really needed it.
MC: On journeys we find ourselves learning from others. What was the most important thing you learned from a professor? What was your experience of faculty mentorship like, and what would you talk to MFA students about regarding the role of mentorship?
JW: Richard Bausch once said that we would learn more from each other than we would from him. And while I’m not sure that’s entirely true because I did learn a lot from Richard, the lessons I learned from reading my classmates’ pieces and providing feedback really taught me how to listen and how to properly evaluate my own work.
“Learning what to do with feedback is one of the hardest lessons to master as a writer and one of the most important things I learned at Chapman.”
MC: What can say that you appreciated about the program by the time you reached the end?
JW: I appreciated the body of work the program allowed me to create. At the time I had a full-time job and I really needed the structure of workshop to push me along.
MC: How much of your writing was guided by what you learned within Wilkinson? Whether about the environment, people, social limits, or technique, etc.
JW: By the time I started at Chapman my rough draft for my first novel was nearly finished, so I’d have to say that I already knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. But I was broken and I had no confidence. I had come to believe that writing was for other people and the best I could hope for was to get my MFA so I could surround myself with books for the rest of my life.
“My professors guided my confidence more than anything else. The discipline of the courses was exactly the medicine I needed as a writer.”
MC: What do you think that every writer should get from an MFA, and what do you think comes from Wilkinson that couldn’t come from anywhere else?
JW: I can’t speak for other programs, but any writer who goes into an MFA program should have the freedom to experiment and fail. That is the time to make mistakes and find your voice.
MC: Looking forward, what projects are coming down the line?
JW: My next novel, Just Our Luck, comes out December 29th and is available for pre-order now. Hopefully, I’ll have another fun announcement I can share soon!