backstory, part 2

Fast forward thirteen years, past a nightmarish stint in boarding school, countless overdoses and other near-death experiences as a result of my addiction and insistence on taking different drugs at the same time, dropping out of college to spend a year in a mental institution, three years spent in bed because I was too depressed to do anything else (including read), the forty-seventh antidepressant that actually worked and catapulted me out of bed and back into college, where I began to read again. Not just because I had to, because I wanted to. And oh how the face of contemporary U.S. literature had changed.

In 1995 I read Ruth Forman’s poetry collection, We Are the Young Magicians. She rocked my world. And for the first time in my life, I wrote poetry. One year later, I read Junot Díaz’s collection of short stories, Drown. He rocked my world even harder. I wrote a short story. I naively submitted it to an anthology seeking submissions. It was accepted. And published. I did a reading at a bookstore in San Francisco. I was a writer! But I was also an adult and had to pay my rent. So I didn’t write or submit anything else and after a few years of drifting from one boring career to another, I decided to do a PhD in Cultural Studies because school was the only thing I had ever really enjoyed, so I figured making a career out of it was a good idea.

As I prepared to move from Oakland to LA, where the PhD program was, a friend told me about a two-week writing workshop for writers of color. My interest was piqued. Then she told me Junot Díaz would be leading the fiction workshop and Ruth Forman would be leading the poetry workshop. Are you fucking kidding me! It’s like this thing was tailor made for me. So I applied for Junot’s workshop and Ruth’s workshop. And I got in, to both. So, a month before my PhD program was  scheduled to begin (I had already secured housing and a teaching fellowship, which took some finagling since I didn’t even have a master’s degree), I made a pit stop at  the University of San Francisco, where the VONA workshop was being held.

Those were the best two weeks of my life. I was surrounded by interesting, fun, brilliant writers, and we were all brown. To say it was an amazing experience would be a gross understatement. So, when on the last day of workshop Junot pulled me aside and asked, “If you could do anything you wanted and didn’t have to worry about money, what would you do?” I immediately replied, “I would be a writer.” His response was, “Then fuck the PhD. Do an MFA.” “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do an MFA.” Needless to say, the PhD program was not exactly thrilled when I called them and said I was withdrawing and they’d have to find someone else to take my TA position. My father, a former professor and academic junkie, thought I was nuts. But I was used to making unconventional decisions and pissing people off, so I shrugged off their anger and set about applying to MFA programs.

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