Why A Creative Writing PhD?
Just before I started my master's program, a friend of mine joked, "Soon you'll be Dr. Pierce" and I laughed but immediately made a face and shook my head. A doctorate? I'm the least academic person I know. Yet there I was starting a master's.
Before I can answer why I've decided to do a PhD, I need to first answer: Why writing?
When I was a young warthog—I mean kid
I had a very strong obsession with horses. (I say "had" although at 24, I'm still pretty obsessed.) My horse obsession lead me to reading books about horses. The children and young adult bookshelves were stacked with stories about girls and horses. Oh, how I dreamed of having my own horse and a group of barn friends like Pony Pals or the Saddle Club. I began to write my own horse stories.
I still remember my first ever novel. It was titled Diablo and was about a girl who had to move to her grandparents' horse farm when her parents died and there she bonded with a crazy stallion named Diablo. It's pretty original, isn't it? A hard copy of that story, along with a handful of others, no longer exists but I still remember them clear as day and could probably write them up right now.
High school & My English Teacher
I only got good grades in the creative classes like drawing, choir, and media design. Everything else I got mediocre grades in because I didn't pay attention or care. I got bored easily when teachers spoke. I focused more on how long it took a classmate to come back from the bathroom than whatever the teacher was saying about the Cold War. I wrote a lot outside of school just for fun but I never submitted it to journals or anything. I just liked to write about real-life situations I wish would happen to me, like being the crush of the popular guy in school or moving to the highlands of Scotland. (My dad was Scottish and I grew up taking multiple trips to Edinburgh, thus I became obsessed with the idea that one day I'd end up there. My school friends still tell me they can't believe I've fulfilled my 8 year-old-self's dream.)
I didn't start to care about English class until junior year when I had Mr. Risoli as a teacher. He was intimidating at first because he didn't take our shit and he had a very dry sense of humor but I think the best teachers have those qualities. (I don't know how adults deal with teenagers. It sounds like hell.)
I vividly remember the day we spoke about The Catcher in the Rye. The tables were in a horseshoe shape and I was second from the right side. Mr. Risoli was standing in front of the green chalkboard with the book in his hand. The class expressed annoyance for the protagonist, Holden Caulfield and Mr. Risoli told us we were supposed to be annoyed by him. Holden was the quintessential teenager. Holden was us and we were Holden. It was such an aha moment for me. It was the first time something literary made sense to me. Or more that it was the first time I actually paid attention.
Mr. Risoli was teaching senior English so I got to have him two years in a row. I wanted to be in a class with him so badly that, although I got into Honors English, the school let me take both. It was senior year that I molded myself into an "English" student after years of not thinking I belonged anywhere. I no longer believe that we can be placed into categories like English, Math, Science, History but when you're 17 and your life for the past 12 years has been centered around "school subjects", of course that's how your mind works.
(I wanted to apply to the University of Edinburgh and St. Andrews but my parents said I wasn't mature enough to go to a different country by myself. My anxiety played a part in this, which is why I ended up at a college 5 minutes from home.)
college & getting screwed over with core curriculum
I went to Fairfield University, a liberal arts college, where I was forced to spend 50% of my four years taking classes that I didn't want to take, didn't need to take, and as a result, royally fucked up my overall grade point average. My attention did the same thing it did in high school and middle school—it drifted in class. I paid attention to the first 2 minutes and then went in and out until class was over, retaining nothing. I don't think I ever got above a C+ on a multiple question test but I got As and Bs on any essay.
I choose to study creative writing because I liked it and it was easy. I didn't want to suffer through my four years like the boys down the hall in my freshmen dorm who were studying pre-med and in class 5 days a week. I also didn't see the point in going on for a master's in creative writing, I thought it would be a waste of time. From an early age, I had it set in my mind that I would write books and publish them and that's how I would make money. But by the time I graduated, I had no direction and certainly no finished books ready for publication.
(Going into my junior year, I got accepted to the semester abroad program at Edinburgh but turned it down because my anxiety was too bad.)
Post-graduation, study abroad
I had a meltdown. I was no longer in a bubble doing whatever the hell I wanted and only caring about the weekends, hanging out with my friends or whatever boy I liked at the time. My friends with nursing degrees and finance degrees were already finding full-time jobs and I wasn't ready to work. The idea terrified me because it sounded miserable. Plus, who would ever hire an English major? So I thought.
My dad talked me into applying for a summer program at the University of Cambridge to help my resume. I spent two weeks there in August of 2014 to study creative writing and it was incredible. I was in the UK, on my own for the first time ever, writing and hanging out with people from all over the world. After the program, I immediately began applying to master's programs strictly in the UK.
(I turned down U of Edinburgh at first because Exeter University in England had a screenwriting course and Edinburgh didn't. Deciding on Exeter put a pit in my stomach because I knew, no matter what, I needed to go to Edinburgh. It had always been my dream and I was too close to just let it all go for a place I'd never been, for the off-chance I might want to take that screenwriting class. I contacted the head of the department at Edinburgh and asked if they'd still let me accept. Thank god they did.)
master's & phd in edinburgh
Long story short, I made the move to Edinburgh in 2015 to do a 12-month creative writing program with strangers from all over the world and not once did I feel doubt that I had made a mistake. I spent a year doing exactly what I wanted to do. I felt like a child again because all I did was play around in the city with friends and write stories.
When the year was coming to an end, I panicked. I had written a few things but I felt I needed more time. I wanted to write and publish a novel, but most of all, I wanted to do it here in Edinburgh. I had fallen in love with the city and more. Leaving would break my heart.
This is when I considered the PhD program. I had a few reasons why I applied (listed above) but I also felt that I was being offered a great opportunity because the program would allow me to focus all my energy into writing and I'd have a supervisor to help me. (In the past 6 months, my supervisor Robert Alan Jamieson has already helped my writing immensely.)
So I did something I thought I'd never do—I applied for the PhD program and I got accepted. 10 months later, and with the support of my parents, here I am and I aboslutely love it. I guess I really will be "Dr. Pierce" one day.