Credit: Brave Sir Robin

Today’s guest is author talented debut author Fleur Philips. Her first novel, I Am Lucky Bird, has been called “stunning and visceral, an extraordinary debut.” A captivatingly haunting coming-of-age, I Am Lucky Bird was selected as a general fiction finalist for the 2011 Book of the Year Award from ForeWord Reviews.

When her mother mysteriously vanishes from the small town of Plains, Montana, 12-year-old Lucky Bird’s childhood comes to an abrupt end. Left to defend herself against her suddenly abusive grandmother, Marian, and forced to endure the twisted predatory games played out by Marian’s lover, Lucky soon finds herself trapped in a nightmare.

Even when she manages to escape, the outside world can’t take away the brutal images of her past. Still haunted by her mother’s disappearance and the trauma that followed, Lucky is easily led down a path of self-destruction—a path that only the intervention of a young stranger and his family can guide her away from. But first, Lucky will have to confront her demons, and the dark truths kept hidden.

To MFA or not to MFA?

When I graduated from the University of Montana in 1998, I had no interest in ever going back to school. I had a degree, along with student loans that would haunt me for years to come. Besides, I was a writer. What was the point of going back to school? I’d write books and earn a living, and all would be good.

Twelve years later, my writing was a mere hobby in the chaos of what had become my life. In 2009, I was at the top of my game as the Communications Director for a prominent Beverly Hills dermatologist. I had a great income, I loved my job, and I was meeting fabulous people. And then something happened: Michael Jackson died, and I lost my job. I thought the world was coming to an end.

Life after Michael Jackson

I decided to take my sudden unemployment as a sign. I had disconnected myself from the writing community. It was time to go back. But how? Join a writing group through MeetUp? Take some writing classes online? And would that be enough to reignite the passion that had become a mere hobby? No. I wanted something bigger, something that would light a fire under my butt and make writing more of a priority. And so, I decided to go back to school to get my MFA.

Making the decision to go to graduate school isn’t an easy one. There’s a lot to consider, especially if you’re a few years gone from undergrad. First of all, can you afford it? I was still trying to pay off those undergraduate loans. In addition, do you have the time? I’m a single mom. I have no choice but to work while I’m in school. What kind of time commitment is expected when pursuing an MFA? What will I be required to do besides write?

I Am Lucky Bird by Fleur Philips

I was amazed at how many wonderful programs were out there! And it does take time to research these programs, so give yourself plenty to find the one that fits you best. One of my favorite resources was The Creative Writing MFA Handbook. There are full-residency programs that follow a more traditional graduate school format, and there are low-residency programs designed to accommodate students who seek something more “part-time”. Both are viable options and meant to accommodate any MFA seeker.

Choosing low residency

There are plenty of schools throughout the country that offer programs, so finding one close to home may be easier than you think. And with every program comes a list of full-time faculty and guest faculty members who are experts in their fields—some programs even share faculty, so if the person you hoped to learn from lives on the East Coast, it doesn’t necessarily mean he/she doesn’t also teach somewhere out West.

I decided to apply to Antioch University in Los Angeles. For me, I had to choose a low-residency program, meaning more distance education with short-term residencies. I also needed to find a school close to home so I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving my son overnight when I needed to be on campus. At Antioch, like many of the low-residency models, students meet twice each year for two, 10-day residencies.

These residencies consist of lectures and seminars by writing mentors and graduating students (as well as special guests), readings, and workshops. The rest of the time (what are called “project periods”) is spent reading and annotating, conferencing with fellow students on assigned novels, and WRITING! In addition, students are required to produce two critical papers and a final manuscript, and at the final residency, conduct a 20-minute presentation and a reading.

Social issues and field study

In addition to location and low-residency, I chose Antioch because of its commitment to social justice, responsibility, and action. This appeals to me as a writer for two reasons:  One, because my own writing tends to focus on a myriad of social issues; and two, because I’ve always wanted to do more for my community.

For my field study, I chose to volunteer for an organization in Los Angeles called WriteGirl, a creative writing and mentoring organization for teen girls. I’m a volunteer in their In-School Program. Once a week for two hours, I assist with a creative writing class at Asuza Cal-SAFE, a school for pregnant teens and teen parents. What an incredible experience to be able to

Fleur Philips, author of I Am Lucky Bird

provide these kids with an outlet where they can express themselves in a non-threatening environment. Their words are heartfelt and real. At the end of the eight-month program, WriteGirl publishes an anthology of their work.

Going back to school may not be the right decision for everyone. But for me, making that commitment to my writing by furthering my education, surrounding myself with other writers, and continuously learning and growing as a writer will undoubtedly be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

Have you ever considered an MFA program or perhaps you’re a graduate of one? What can you share with our community about these programs and their merits for writers?

To find out more about I Am Lucky Bird and Fleur’s forthcoming novel, be sure to follow her on her website , Twitter and on Facebook. Also, don’t miss the I Am Lucky Bird book trailer! Write on!