I moved to Seattle, first and foremost, for a little writing program on Whidbey Island, a program run by writers, for writers; accredited, but removed from the institutionalization of academia, built and carried on the backs of people who fiercely believed in writing as a profession, a priority, and a way of life. I had lived in the Twin Cities for 10 years and desperately wanted a change, I wanted to take a risk and see where it led me. I’d tried to move before but hadn’t because of relationships and work and fun stuff I was doing. And none of that had changed, but my thirst for change grew nagging and constant. You know all this. All this is why I came here.
Now, 14 months later, I’m in my third semester at NILA. I’m working on my thesis. And NILA, this school that has been a constant for me in this year of transition, is closing at the end of this term due to multiple financial crises. We got the word on Thursday, March 3, three days ago. The fact that this program that has touched and shaped and challenged so many of the best people I know is going the way of so many MFA programs is no less than devastating. For such a special place, I’m astounded that it will inevitably succumb to something so frustratingly, unfairly ordinary.
I have so many emotions it’s hard to cull them all. There’s anger, so much anger. Denial, wanting to do everything I can to help save us. This is a state where Microsoft has billions, where real estate is through the roof, where the extremes “way too much” and “way too little” seem so stark. Most of us, there’s sadness, so much sadness for the end of this little, far-reaching community, so much unknown as we all try to grapple with the gravity of our loss.
People are asking what’s next. People are saying, in a well-meaning way, that I’ll just go somewhere else and get my degree. It’s so much more than that. Of course, there’s the practicality that many grad schools do not take transferred credits, even within the same discipline, because of the “specialized” nature of individual programs. It’s possible that my three semesters won’t mean much in applying to other schools, and that’s a lot of money borrowed that, on paper, won’t amount to much. There’s also the emotional reasons, the little kid tantrum of, “But I picked THIS school! I don’t want another one!” Long term, yes, my goal is to somehow, some way, finish my degree. Short term, though, it’s very painful to try to look ahead, even though I eventually must.
One decision that I have made is to move back home. I left to pursue my degree, in spite of my relationships and community. And now, I return with an open heart because of them.
I think it’s easy for us, students and outsiders alike, to criticize NILA’s financial issues. And certainly, the term “mismanagement” has been bantered around so much it’s almost cliche at this point. I’d like to suggest that we as a collective do a horrible job of talking about debt. The shaming, disdainful way we criticize people who have debt, the way we, as a society, equate “stability” and “success” so heavily with having a specific amount of money; and also, that money has to be “earned” and not “taken” or “borrowed” or “asked for”, because that’s a sign of instability, of weakness. Tons of people have debt. Most institutions have debt. It’s easy for us to say, “Well, NILA should have done this” or “NILA should have done that””, when we have no real idea what Nila should or could have done to save itself.
At its highest, I had about 11000 dollars in credit card debt, amounting from college and years of unemployment where it was the only way I could pay my bills. Since starting my job three months ago, and not getting paid that much at my job, I have that down to a little above 9000. I have been paying it down very aggressively because I don’t know how long this income source will last. I imagine by the time my degree is done, I will have around 100000 dollars of student loan debt. That’s why I call it my “student loan mortgage”, and why I will likely never own a home. Why am I telling you this? Why am I putting this out, publicly, starkly, on the Internet? It’s not for you to feel sorry for me. It’s because I believe we are grievously bad at discussing poverty and debt in this country, because people are ashamed to talk about the real figures for fear they will look irresponsible, volatile and unstable. I want to change that, in my tiny corner of the Internet. I want to talk about the disparity in the distribution of wealth, and the favor given to those who have the “right” kind of skills.
And I want to stop the shaming of NILA about its financial decisions before it even starts. As individuals, most writers don’t have a lot of money. As a writer, I joined an MFA program because my need for writing and for a community of writers finally, brazenly, overtook my fear, my self-doubt, and my lack of money. I hate to imagine the words we’ve missed out on from writers, especially poor people and minorities, who, understandably, feel crushed by the way society stifles their voices. And with NILA closing, that’s just one more outlet for creativity and catalyst for change that will no longer be available.
Meanwhile, on a practical note, NILA still has financial obligations to fulfill before its closing: paying back board members, paying faculty, (though many have said they would donate their time for the rest of the term), and paying for this year’s graduation. I know I am just one voice, a small voice, but if anything in this post has moved or inspired or made you feel something, anything, and if you are able, I’d compel and encourage and plead for you to donate to NILA. It’s uncomfortable for me to ask, but it’s so very important to me and to so many others whose livelihood was based on this program and whose strength and vitality and love run through it like a heartbeat. If you choose to donate, I’d love to know that you did, so I can thank you. And, in the meantime, we will keep writing, because there’s theses to draft and voices to hear and words to bring us strength. We’ll keep writing because, somehow, we must.
You can donate to NILA here: