Discover more from We're Gonna Get Those Bastards
How I achieved my dream
I am a very good writer.
I was a good writer early in life—I won a very prestigious writing award in high school that was given out to only 700 students nationwide. I remember getting a lot of college marketing materials after that, trying to convince me to become an English major at liberal arts schools across the country.
But I didn’t want to be an English major. I wanted to be a math major. And I was pretty good at math, too, or so I thought. But around my junior year in college, I started to get sick of math. It started to lose all relevance to the outside world. My probability and statistics classes had obvious applications, and so did differential equations and multivariable calculus, but beyond that, I didn’t see the point. It got to where I was just dealing with abstractions. I don’t remember one single thing out of my Real Analysis class.
It was around that time that I took a writing class at the Coast Guard Academy, the only one that was offered. This was the first time in my life that I was exposed to really great writing—we read short stories from all the greats at the time—and I wanted to emulate them. There was a short story competition, and I came in second. I think I might have come in first had I not written about sex. Not much has changed—I write about sex all the time these days. I don’t understand why people are so squeamish about it.
After graduation, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the Coast Guard was not a good fit for me, that I didn’t have much of a future in that organization. So I started to think about what I wanted to do when I left the service. I decided I wanted to apply to writing programs and get an MFA somewhere, become a professor in some rural university town, wear a tweed coat with leather elbows, write short stories, and get them published in the literary magazines. It was about this time that I was living in Port Angeles, Washington, which had a very good new and used bookstore. Towards the front of the store there were a few shelves that were stocked with all the literary magazines. I didn’t have much money to spend on books, but I would stand there in the store and read them. I did buy a few. I bought one issue of Granta that had a feature issue with the top 20 writers under 40. A lot of those names you might recognize today: Jonathan Franzen, Ethan Canin, Jeffrey Eugenides, Kate Braverman, Edwidge Danticat, and others. There were photos of all of them, very artistically done black-and-white photos. This was very early in their careers, when they weren’t well-known outside the literary world.
I wanted that. I wanted to be one of the top writers under 40. I wanted to be a giant in the literary world. So I started doing some cursory research on what MFA programs I would apply to. I was excited about my plan.
I called up my mom one day and told her about this plan. Her reaction was not what I expected. She told me that it was a terrible idea, that I would never have any money, I’d be poor, and miserable, and eating cold cereal. I didn’t want to be poor and miserable, so I listened to my mother and changed my mind, and applied to MBA programs instead. I got accepted, finished my MBA, and the rest is history.
Of course, I couldn’t stay away from writing for long. When I was placed in charge of the ETF trading desk in 2004, my boss told me that my primary job was to do marketing for the business. What did he mean? Billboards? TV commercials? Instead, I started writing—short Bloomberg messages on a daily basis. It was pretty different than the market commentary that a lot of sales traders were putting out—it was of literary quality. What I was really doing was micrononfiction—150-200 words or less. And I got really good at it. And my distribution list got bigger and bigger. And those Bloomberg messages turned into the newsletter, The Daily DIrtnap, which I am still doing to this day. And the newsletter turned into other newsletters, and op-eds, and books, and a lot of other stuff. I have been writing pretty much every day for the last 19 years. And I love it.
In 2020, during the pandemic, my wife and I were itching to get out of the house, cabin fever and all. We figured the only way we could get some fresh air was to go camping. We decided to go camping in Wilmington, North Carolina. Well, it was June, and hot as balls, so when I got into the tent at night, it was a sauna, and I was like, there is no freaking way I am going to sleep in this tent. So I sat in a lawn chair by the fire. The fire died down after about an hour, but I stayed in the chair. I stayed in that chair all night—from about 10pm to 6am, and I thought about shit. I thought about my life. I thought about things left undone, and the fact that I never did get an MFA. By the time the sun came up, I had made up my mind—I was going to get my MFA. I was 46 years old.
When we got home, I didn’t even bother putting away the camping gear. I sat right down with my laptop and started researching MFA programs. There wasn’t anything close by where I could attend in-person classes. Coastal Carolina had a writing degree, but it was an MA, not an MFA, and there are crucial differences. But there was a school that had online programs that wasn’t too far away—the Savannah College of Art and Design. And best of all, it was a nonfiction program—by this point in my life, I was pretty burned out from writing my novel and didn’t have much desire to write fiction. I decided to apply.
The application process was pretty freaking arduous. I had to get my transcripts, get recommendation letters, and submit a portfolio of work, along with all the other administrative stuff. It took me a while to put the package together. I sent it off. About two months went by. If you know me, you know that I am pretty neurotic, and by this point, I was convinced that I was going to be rejected. Which is kind of absurd, if you think about it—a twice-published author and columnist getting rejected by an MFA program. Then I was checking my gmail one day in August, and I got this:
I would like to congratulate you on your acceptance to SCAD's M.F.A. writing program! Your official acceptance packet will be mailed to you shortly.
Well, I started bawling like a baby. Sitting there at my desk. I couldn’t get my shit together. I cried for about 45 minutes. It was The Path Not Taken—this thing that I wanted to do my entire life, and never did, because work got in the way.
Classes began shortly thereafter. My first class was Persuasive Writing—an easy one for me, since I was already an opinion columnist. Some classes were harder than others. I did have to take two art classes as part of the core curriculum, something I had never been exposed to in my life, and those were really hard. But they were also some of the most valuable classes that I took—they made me a much more well-rounded person. I did take some fiction classes along the way—two of them, in fact, which rekindled my love for writing fiction. An ambition of mine is to publish a short story collection someday, another goal I’ve had since I was 22.
I learned an enormous amount when I was in school. Prior to going to SCAD, I was a bit like a race car driver who didn’t know how the car engine worked. I loved the thrill of racing, and I was fast as shit, but I didn’t understand any of the theory behind it—I simply didn’t need to. SCAD is an applied arts school, meaning that you’re not studying art for art’s sake—there has to be some commercial applicability. This was also true of the writing program. There was a class I took called The Publishing Process, which was all about how to write a book proposal. The proposal I wrote for that class was the proposal for No Worries, which got a book deal, and is coming out in January. As I’ve mentioned before, Those Bastards was also a school project. I don’t know that SCAD has ever had another student write two books over the course of study, but I managed to do it.
Keep in mind that an MFA is no joke. It’s not just taking some classes and getting a diploma. I had to have an internship (which I did at Bloomberg, in the summer of 2022, spending four weeks of the summer in the city), oral exams, and a thesis, along with a thesis defense. The thesis was my book No Worries. The requirement for the thesis was 60-80 pages; I handed in well over 200. That’s why an MFA is what’s called a terminal degree—you can’t go any higher. A PhD is a terminal degree, as is an MD or a JD. In the arts world, getting an MFA is very similar to getting a doctorate. It’s a huge amount of work, and it’s a big accomplishment. If you get an MFA, you can teach at the university level. You can’t do it with an MA.
As I got closer to graduation, you might think I would get excited, but I didn’t. Instead, I started to deteriorate psychologically. I thought that something terrible would happen, and I would get kicked out of school before finishing my degree. I started to break out in acne. I got ringworm. I was sleeping 10 hours a night, to escape. I got a prescription for Valium, and I was taking it daily. I was counting down the days until graduation, and then the hours. Then I started to have fears about getting lost on the way to the ceremony, or not having my ID, or something going horribly wrong, and not being able to walk across the stage. I would break down crying in the middle of the day, for no reason. I cried at my desk every morning for two weeks. I used my usual tools about dealing with anxiety—none of them worked. This was the most important day of my life, and I was terrified that it was going to be a disaster.
None of that happened. I drove down to Savannah on June 1st, checked into an Airbnb, and then rehearsed the walk from the Airbnb to the ferry, which would take me to the convention center the next morning. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. The next morning, I put on a shirt and tie, and my robes, and my masters hood, and headed down to the ferry at zero dark hundred. The first ferry was at 7am—I was there at 6:15, ready to go.
The ceremony was everything I hoped it would be. There were some tears of joy, but remarkably, I managed to hold it together. I had visions of falling to my hands and knees and sobbing on stage, but it didn’t happen. I smiled when I got the diploma. I met my family outside after the ceremony and took some great pictures, including this one here, with my wife, my brother, and my mom.
I put myself back together and headed off to a writing department event where graduating students would read from their work. I read a passage from No Worries. I got to hang out with all of my professors, and gave them signed copies of my books. And here’s the incredible part—I got the Outstanding MFA Writer award for my class, which was an unbelievable surprise. There were some pretty good writers in my MFA class—I was shocked. An amazing day got even more amazing.
This isn’t the end. I have many, many more books in me. They won’t all be bestsellers. If there is one thing I have learned from this program, it is that you just keep writing. You never stop. It just pours out of you, from your heart, onto the page.
If I can do it, so can you.
Jared Dillian, MFA