Conversation with Yasmeen Alkishawi, Writer

Yasmeen Alkishawi is a Palestinian-Venezuelan American writer. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. She currently teaches English at Sun Lake High School in Land O Lakes, Florida. Her work appears in Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Rattle. She is currently applying to MFA programs.  Here’s our conversation about a key part of the application process: writing the statement of purpose.

Heather Sellers: What tips do you have to share with writers working on a personal statement about their work?

Yasmeen sits at her writing desk. She is wearing a blue sweatshirt and black head scarf.
Yasmeen at the desk
Photo courtesy of Yasmeen Alkishawi

Yasmeen Alkishawi: I didn't realize how difficult it would be to talk about my own work. I had to think deeply about what I've written and why. I also realized that until writing this statement, I didn't think too much about how I see my work developing in the future, so I appreciate you telling me to think about that. I am amazed that most of what I had in my first draft did not make it to the latest draft.

Here is a sentence from my early drafts: “However, the truth is, I am still figuring out what poetry is and what it isn’t.” After I wrote my first draft, I read a list of Statement of Purpose do’s and don’ts. The author says not to take on the question of what poetry is. I am not ready for that. Instead, she advises we talk about what poetry can do. After reading this post, I rewrote my statement and started to sound more like this: “Poetry was described to me as a type of possession –a control of peoples’ tongues, mouths, and even their breath.” 

What I needed to do was to move from seeming unsure of myself to beginning to show confidence in myself and what I’ve learned, which then allowed me to segue into talking about what and how I want to grow. 

HS: What other changes did you make from the first draft, which I have heard you call “awful,” to your next drafts?

YA: I don’t think my first draft said much about my work or me. I was so worried about coming off as arrogant that I didn’t realized I needed to worry about the other end, which is appearing unsure of myself. How can I convince a board of professors to feel confident in picking me out of hundreds of qualified and talented applicants, if I was struggling to show that I was even confident in myself? Dr. Sellers, you really pushed me here. You said “Be humble. Yes. But do talk about the arc of the work, and how you imagine your first book manuscript.”

The SOP really challenges you, if you haven’t already, to find that confidence. Even if you aren’t applying to graduate school or don’t plan ever, if you are a writer, write an SOP! In some ways, I wish I wrote a statement of purpose years ago. I think there is something powerful in writing on paper where your work comes from and where you want it to go.

HS: I have just loved watching your process through this experience. And I'm curious. How can I better teach my students to understand the first draft usually looks nothing like the last draft? 

 YA:  I think what I struggle with most each draft is cutting out material. I felt myself attached to keeping certain things in, when really I should take them out. For example, when mentioning that Gaza is a central topic in my work, I went on about what the people of Gaza are like, which at that point was becoming irrelevant to my SOP. For me this hesitancy to delete sentences came from the fear of accidentally editing out something "good." So I just saved all my previous drafts "just in case" but not once have I gone back yet to put something back in that I took out. I was shocked to see that when I went back to my first draft, only 4-5 phrases or sentences out of the whole draft had made it to my most recent draft. 

Structure and organization seem very challenging for me. Being given an outline from you with a 1, 2 and 3 really helped. I was also able to find guidelines from the universities I was applying to. 

Tone is very challenging for me as well. It's a statement about my purpose, so I realize I have to use "I," but like you mentioned in my first draft, my tone was very informal. We can see that when we look at the sentences I mentioned before that I cut. I basically tell you hey I’m still figuring this thing out, and it comes off very informal of course. After countless rounds of refining my latest draft, I feel I have made my overall tone formal. Rephrasing really helps me... there were some sentences that I rephrased over and over again until it felt right. In some cases, I just needed a stronger verb or adjective.

HS: So, you are saying that starting earlier—having students write a personal statement about their work in essentially every class I teach, from intro all the way through, would be really helpful.  What else do you wish you had known about this process, earlier on, that you know now?

YA:   I wish I knew how many drafts it would take to get something decent and just how early I would have to start writing it. It took about 5 drafts to get something decent and then 5 more to get something close to being final. I worked on my SOP every week for a month and a half because that’s all the time I had. Ideally, I’d say you need at least 3 months, but I wasn’t able to make the decision to apply to graduate programs until a couple of months before the deadline. Due to the pandemic, I, along with all other U.S. teachers in my program, had to be evacuated from Cambodia back to the U.S.; both my husband and I didn’t have a job anymore, and by the time I got myself back up on my feet and decided graduate school could be an option for me, I was ecstatic and had to scramble to get my SOP together. For that month and a half, I worked on it almost every day, even though I tried hard to give myself a day to not think about it to come back at it with fresh eyes, I knew I didn’t have time like others may have. 

Now that we are talking about students having the opportunity to write an SOP as an undergraduate, I am thinking how awesome it would have been to already have experience writing one and even have a couple of drafts to work from. 

I also wish I knew just how important it is to have someone to provide feedback on your SOP. I am thankful to have gotten honest, transformative, and helpful feedback from you, Dr. Sellers. To have someone who believes in you and your work, and still, will tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear… I thank you for that. Professors are at the top of the list of course, but if you can’t find a professor who has time to give you feedback (which I think all students recognize is a huge favor a professor would be doing for you given the busy schedule they have) then move down the list. Reach out to someone who you know got accepted into an MFA program. No luck there? What about someone who got accepted into any graduate program and had to write an SOP? What about a writer friend you stayed in touch with? Okay maybe you can’t find someone who has written a successful SOP before, what about someone you know who could be brutally honest?   

I didn’t realize how badly I would need this live feedback. 

YA: When thinking about revision, who do you think students should reach out to for help?

HS: Such a good question.  Most students who are writing personal statements have graduated. Their undergrad profs have a whole new host of students who need their attention.  You kind of feel like you are out there in the cold, alone, right? I know you tried to get in at the Writing Center, but when you aren’t a student, they are like, uh, no?  I think you have to be a weird combination of elegant, polite, and annoying. Hopefully you have stayed on good terms with your professors and let them know of your successes since graduating. (Please let us know!) And I think it’s okay to email the professors you worked with closely with, multiple times. You should ask your writing group.  You should look online for sample successful statements. You should know some writers—cultivating those relationships (going to readings, reading the books published by writers in your community and writing notes to them, etc.) is crucial, right?

I think students aren’t aware of how many drafts it takes to get this kind of high-level thinking in some kind of a good shape on the page. For me, it’s always been about seventeen drafts. Substantive change in each one. Where you begin is not where you are going to end up.  It’s a super, super challenging writing assignment: sound smart about your own work without sounding egotistical, woo-woo, suck-uppy, needy, or “off.” Really hard!  Because it’s such a challenging assignment, I recommend starting the writing of the personal statement four or five months before you are going to submit your applications.  Know that you are going to do many drafts, and have multiple readers, as you embark on a deep reflective process.  Let the first five drafts be terrible—that’s not a problem—it’s how everyone begins.

HS: Do you have a quick-start guide, or a recipe? A method that might help my future students? Best practices?

YA: Yes. In brief:

1. This will take at least three months to write. 

2. Gather a list of people you can reach out to for feedback.  

I love that you mention how important it is to keep in touch with our professors. I remember each time I sent an email to my professors, I drafted it a bunch of times worrying I would come off as annoying. Yes, professors won’t always have time to respond to our random attempts to keep in touch; however, when professors did have time to respond to me, it was always a joyful response to hear how I was doing post grad. Actually, I remember before graduating USF, two of my creative writing professors were very straightforward with me and told me to make sure to keep in touch with them every now and then and keep them in the loop with any published work, especially if I planned to go to graduate school. Now I understand why. 

YA: So, Dr. Sellers, in your opinion, is it important to mention faculty that students are looking forward to studying under?

HS:  This is tricky.  My colleagues have different opinions on this.  You have to decide for yourself. I, personally, would not mention the faculty, unless there is a deep and relevant reason to do so. For example, you are a person who is blind and from the south one of the faculty is a writer who is blind and from the south, and you want to study with this person because there are so many connections in your work—you share the same subject matter.

But to name drop—without relevance—makes me worry a bit.  What if the people reading the application aren’t mentioned? What if the person you want to work with is on leave while you are there? People move, they get sick, they go on sabbatical… they may not be taking on new students. I’m not sure, unless you have done your research, and you have a connection with that person, that mentioning names is wise.  I think if you show you have read the work of the faculty—you’ve really done your homework in your genre—and you understand how the program works, and ways you can contribute to their program—that is a better way to go.  But ultimately, this is a statement of your purpose. It’s supposed to be about you showing you understand how your work fits into the larger scheme of themes.  What is your current project? what is your next project? What’s your reading regimen? Where are you headed?

Yasmeen's laptop and handwritten notes
Yasmeen's notes
Photo courtesy of Yasmeen Alkishawi

HS: So, I want to get back to your recipe—your how-to guide.  Can you offer some instruction in how to write a great personal statement?

YA: Yes, I can certainly try! If I were to write myself a recipe for writing a successful statement of purpose it would look something like this: 

What you’ll need: 

  1. The internet
  2. People to give you feedback 
  3. Patience. 

Steps: 

Step 1: Research—take a look what other statement of purposes look like, but truly widen your search here. I only knew one friend who had received an MFA and he was kind enough to offer to send me his SOP to reference as a guide. However, I made the mistake of relying too heavily on this and did not widen my scope. A quick google search opened up many more examples. Also, I realized a further in the process that some universities had entire outlines and guides posted for you!! Find them! 

Step 2: Get Started—Once you’ve found your guide from the university your applying to or a sample SOP from the internet to use as a guide, start writing. 

I liked the guide you gave me, Dr. Sellers. This is what you gave me: 

  1. What you have learned studying poetry, show how you are called to pursue deeper study
  2. The poets you have studied and what precisely you seek in further study
  3. The body of your work, so far, and how you wish to develop this work.

Try different outlines and see which one works best for you. Don’t forget to check the guidelines each University provides to make sure you are in line with their expectations. Start scribbling on paper. This isn’t supposed to look pretty and remember this is probably the hardest step. It requires all that deep thinking about your own work and where you want it to go. Dr. Sellers, you really pushed me here as well. 

Step 3: Edit—Get through a few drafts, giving yourself a couple of days in between each draft. (Try not to think about it! This was hard for me. I would even find myself playing through possible edits in my head and had to distract myself). 

Don’t be afraid to delete. You can always save your previous drafts.

Step 4: Feedback—At this point you should have a workable draft. Now is a good time for some critical feedback. It is so crucial to find someone willing to give you honest feedback. Some people are afraid to give you constructive criticism. One writer friend looked at one of my early drafts and said it was all great. (It wasn’t). Make sure you account for the time the person will need to look at it and give you feedback. Don’t be afraid to reach out to more than one person. Finally, make edits and cuts yourself. 

Step 5: Refine—At this point, you’ve received a lot of feedback, you’ve done a lot of research, and you’ve done a lot of painful editing. You have a good idea of what a good SOP should like because you are probably looking at one! You’re almost there. I recommend going back to the University’s guideline or prompt to make sure you have responded to everything they have asked you. Finally, see if you can get another set of eyes or use your own after another couple of days to look for details like punctuation, transitions, repetitiveness, and anything else you may have missed.

HS:  I love this.

YA: I’ve been told that the SOP is one of the most important parts of an application. Would you agree? If so, why? What does the SOP tell you about the applicant?

HS: When I read applications, I read the statement first and I read it again, after looking at everything else. It’s the most important part of the package for me.  The statement is the only time I really get to meet the writer. Grades and test scores don’t tell me too much. Recommendation letters are all usually glowing across the board. The writing sample tells me a lot about the subject matter this writer is drawn to and the techniques they’ve mastered (or are working on). 

But the statement tells me who this person is. I get to see how their mind works. I can discern their level of enthusiasm for learning and growing as a writer, their level of self-awareness, and, often—and this is important—I get some clues as to how they are going to function in a small cohort, in our tightly-knit program.  Intelligence, verve, energy, community-mindedness, open-mindedness, confidence and humility, reading background and writing goals—these are the things that come through in the statement, and they are the most important things.  I love reading statements of purpose.  Yasmeen, this interview we are doing is making me want to write one, now, as move into a new calendar year, for my own work.

HS: Do you think this is a process you will return to, for yourself, as a writer?

YA: Yes, I am excited like you and am promising myself right now that going forward, I will do this at least once a year! I feel this process has already transformed me as a writer. It allowed me to think deeply about my “why”. It is so important for me to ground myself in my purpose as I write, or else what I am writing for? 

Unexpectedly, this also has made me think about the process of editing in poetry. Looking back now, I don’t think I gave my poems the time, respect, and patience they deserve in the editing process. If I can do this for my statement, I can certainly do this for my poems. 

This process has also made me realize that we are never truly starting from scratch. I’d love to quote from Mahmoud Darwish, a revolutionary Palestinian poet, who says in an interview in Bomb Magazine “you are always building on the work of others. There is no blank page from which to start. All you can hope for is to find a small margin on which to write your signature.” 

If I could go back and tell myself anything, it would be that you are not writing a statement of purpose from a blank page. You are writing a statement with the help of guidelines, outlines, expertise from professors, colleagues, the internet... our page is not blank. 

HS: We are writing with the help of a community—constantly. Thank you for this elegant reminder of that, Yasmeen. Thanks for all the nice things you said about our work together. I didn’t do much—you did all the work. It was always so good having you in class—I will never forget the first piece of yours I read. And then the reaction of the class when I read it aloud…       

YA:  Thank you for your kind words Dr. Sellers. I can pinpoint your Micro Memoir in 2017 as the first time I began to believe in myself as capable of progress, not just in my work, but as a person navigating their identity and place in this world. Thank you for allowing me that space to grow; I am really happy at who I am becoming because of it. It gives me hope, as a current high school teacher, to give my students the same opportunity to grow that you gave me.  

To read Yasmeen’s Statement of Purpose—a work in progress—click here.