When I was nineteen, my father became very ill. I found out that he had been HIV-positive for years. My mother had known, but they had decided not to tell me, not yet. I was too young, they thought. I still had to finish school. Knowing he didn't have much time left, my father asked me whether I was disappointed in him. I wasn't, and I didn't want him to die. I was alone with him and a nurse in the hospital room. He had told my mother that he couldn't see, that he needed his glasses, and she had driven home to get them. The nurse tried everything he could to keep my father alive until her return: he pinched his arm, shouted my father's first name, told him to stay. It worked. My mother rushed back into the room and could tell my father she loved him before he died.
When I learned about my father's diagnosis, and about a lot of things that had happened in my parents' marriage, I saw that my life had not been what I had thought it was. I had wanted to be a writer. I had won a prize for a short story about a boy who is in a psychiatric hospital after an LSD overdose. This was a topic that fascinated me back then, and it still does: mental illness, "craziness"—different ways of perceiving and being in the world. I had wanted to be a voice for those who couldn't express themselves, or who were dismissed as lunatics. But after my father died, I felt I needed stability in my life, and I had to grow up. I discarded my dream of becoming a writer for the time being, and studied psychology, with the goal of becoming a therapist.
I became a scientist instead. I did research in the field of cognitive modeling: building computer simulations of human thought. In addition to classes in psychology, I studied mathematics, programming, and computer science. After receiving my Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Heidelberg, I was admitted to the graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2003 I moved to Pittsburgh, together with the man who would later become my husband.
On the surface, my interest in science looked like a departure from my artistic dreams, but in hindsight I see that the things that drew me to science were not so different from the things that had drawn me to writing. I was still trying to decipher the workings of the mind, but with the help of theorizing and empirical data in addition to introspection and imagination. I became increasingly interested in the mindset of scientists and the stories behind scientific discoveries (favorite books from that period include The Eighth Day of Creation by H. F. Judson, a wonderful, sprawling account of the emergence of the field of molecular biology, in which scientific collaborations are described as love, and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, a fast-paced story interweaving Alan Turing's code-breaking work during WW II with the creation of the modern internet).
Two years into my stay in Pittsburgh, my mother had an epileptic seizure that turned out to be caused by a large tumor in her brain. I talked to her on the phone before she had emergency surgery, and flew back to Germany. When she woke up, she was barely able to communicate. Half of her head was shaved, and a drain went into her neck, but she still looked tanned and beautiful. She had walked the El Camino a few weeks before. Not being able to speak, she signaled she wanted to write, but she was too weak to hold the pen. A few weeks later, she died.
Once the shock of becoming an orphan (I am an only child) had faded enough to allow me to think clearly again, I realized that, as much as I loved science, I loved it as a spectator, not as a participant. After earning my MSc. from CMU, I left graduate school and started to pursue my childhood goal of becoming a writer.
My first teachers were the writers I discovered: Amy Hempel, Tom Wolfe, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Miranda July, Laura van den Berg, Adam Haslett, T.C. Boyle, John Irving, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, David Leavitt, Tom Lanoye, Harry Mulisch, and so, so many more. I discovered a wonderful and exhilarating range in topics and styles.
Slowly, my grasp on writing became more confident. I published stories in literary and science fiction magazines such as Inkwell, Web Conjunctions, and Cosmos, and had stories selected for Flash Fiction International and Best of the Web. More importantly, I attended writing workshops, which made the endeavor feel real and humbling, but which also strengthened my resolve. Anthony Doerr at Tin House taught me how powerful emotions can be unleashed through humble and precise descriptions of nature. Steve Almond dared me to confront the raw, uncomfortable emotions between people, and to keep looking. I was also one of eighteen writers out of hundreds of applicants to be accepted to the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop, an intense six-week program where students are producing a lot of new material under high pressure, with the guidance of accomplished instructors, such as Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link. New experiences entered my life: I learned about the culture of running by joining an athletics club and becoming a marathon runner. We moved to the Netherlands, and I learned to talk and write in Dutch. In 2013 I became a mother for the first time.
By now, I have had some success with my writing: My story "Men in Pink Tutus" won the first prize in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. I found an agent for my second novel, a literary science fiction book about smart drugs in the vein of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.
I am applying to the MFA program because, despite these first successes, I need help with the next steps. More clearly than before, I see that I need guidance on how to be an effective critic and editor of my own work. I am eager to start a new novel, and to complete a collection of short stories centered on running and science. Right now, I feel my eye isn't sharp enough, my instincts buried too deep under mannerisms, to make these books worth reading.
I am looking for the ability to see the true story underneath the dazzling, confusing details. This means cutting through descriptions of drug-induced brilliance and dementia, athletic triumph, barriers of language, and pitfalls of science, and confront the silence left by my parents' death. What happened to their minds in the end? They will never run a marathon with me, never hear me speak Dutch, never meet their grandson. Which parts of my life would I save for them, if I could, and how many memories? I want to find and tell their stories, and give back mine in return.
I would be honored if the faculty at Bennington College would be willing to guide me in this endeavor.