Voiceover Artist Bill Ratner on Why He Went Back to School to Get His Creative Writing M.F.A. at UCR Palm Desert at 68
When I arrived at my first UC Riverside/Palm Desert Creative Writing MFA residency, I got a massage — a really nice, 90-minute deep tissue massage followed by a soak in the huge Rancho Las Palmas Resort hot tub.
A massage at grad school? It wasn’t part of the syllabus, but this is California.
In 2013, I applied to UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing program partly because I work full time. I am a voiceover artist who narrates movie trailers, TV commercials, documentaries, and cartoons. (I was the voice of “Flint” — the G.I. Joe action figure in fatigues, a black beret, with re- ally big pecs.) Plus I had a writing project that needed serious help, and I didn’t feel like giving up my career and moving to Irvine or Iowa to study writing.
I am 68 years old. Why choose grad school at the dawn of my golden years? I started writing and publishing short stories and essays in my 40s and I am an avid reader. But when I became a parent, my writing took a back seat to childrearing and work. Then, as luck would have it, I was approached by a young publisher who asked if I would consider writing a book about a media awareness program I created for the Los Angeles Public Schools. We emailed back and forth, and I finally glued my pants to the chair and wrote a couple of chapters. I faced the task of putting 75,000 words end-to-end in an organized manner. I had never written anything longer than 3,000 words. I felt like a non- climber contemplating a climb up Mount Whitney.
A friend who had some success writing screenplays in Hollywood had decided to shift his talents to long- form fiction, and he enrolled in the UCR Palm Desert MFA. I went online and looked at the program’s faculty resumes and publishing histories. I was astounded. These writers were the real deal.
I submitted writing samples and wrote the obligatory essay on why I desired to wander in the desert on a literary quest. I got permission to use my book project as my main creative focus, and in late summer of 2013, Program Director Tod Goldberg called to congratulate me on my acceptance into grad school. I was thrilled.
That September, I drove out to the UCR/Palm Desert campus for orientation where Goldberg and his chief administrator Agam Patel served us really good chocolate chip cookies, halfway decent coffee, and conducted an informative afternoon discussion about grad school and the writing life. Goldberg immediately struck me as an unusual hybrid — a college administrator and a widely published crime fiction writer. (He also could have been a stand-up comic, but I think he made the wiser choice.) Goldberg’s graduate writing program at UCR Palm Desert truly professionalizes writing. Let’s face it, unless all you wish to do is self-publish your memoir and send paperback copies to your friends, there is a business to the business of writing. He has assembled a faculty of working novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and literary nonfiction writers, all who publish widely.
Our 10-day, semiannual MFA writing residencies take place in June and December at Rancho Las Palmas Resort — no ivy-covered halls, but lots of palm trees and sunshine. Alongside core faculty members comes a veritable parade of guest lecturers — publishers, literary agents, editors, book publicists, professional bloggers, newspaper columnists, and pro writers — who present seminars, panels and talk- backs, and are available to students for private one-on-one consultations. It is truly an embarrassment of literary luxury.
By the time I started my first quarter in September 2013, I had written about 25 percent of the book I hoped to publish. As the fall quarter rolled on I submitted portions of my manuscript to my professors online and got terrific help and advice.
A year later I submitted the final draft of my book to the publisher. Soon a dozen copies of my new book arrived on my doorstep. I ran my fingers across its silken cover and felt very proud. But I am well aware that my effort was hardly a solo one.
Without the talents of Goldberg, Patel, and help from faculty members such as L.A. Times book critic and writer David Ulin, memoirist Emily Rapp, playwrights Charles Evered and Kate Anger, poet and novelist Jill Essbaum, literary nonfiction writer Deanne Stillman and fiction writer and editor Gina Frangello, I’d still be spending days with my unpublished manuscript, inserting commas in the morning and taking them out in the afternoon.
I will graduate with an MFA in creative writing in December. But I have mixed feelings. I’ll be proud of my accomplishment, but it will be hard to say goodbye to my professors, my fellow students, and a graduate program that has provided me with some of the most productive and creative years of my life.