Texas Tech University

Nontraditional, Creative Writing Doctoral Student Pursues Passion at Texas Tech

Amanda Bowman

February 27, 2019

Nancy Dinan

Nancy Dinan's first book will be published in the summer of 2020.

Pursuing one's passion can be a frightening thing. The uncertainty of whether it will work out, as well as the hard work and dedication one has to muster, can be overwhelming.

For Nancy Dinan, a nontraditional student in Texas Tech University's Graduate School, it was a risk worth taking. She is currently working toward her doctoral degree in English Literature with a creative writing specialization through the university's Department of English in the College of Arts & Sciences.

A passion for creative writing

Dinan, an Austin native, moved around quite a bit during her formative years. Her parents worked for the government, which caused her to live in multiple states over the course of 18 years.

"I was born in Austin, and I graduated from high school in Austin," Dinan said, "but we lived in Alabama, San Francisco, Virginia and Washington, D.C."

When Dinan wasn't living elsewhere, she'd find herself back in her hometown. But even coming back to a familiar place, Dinan would be the new kid in school. So, she found solace in books.

"In between, we'd always move back to Austin," she said. "And every time we moved, it was harder to make friends. So, I was always reading. I always had my head in a book. I would always get in trouble in class for reading instead of listening."

Dinan's passion for writing began at a young age, as she started writing her first novel in the first grade.

"It didn't get very far," she laughed. "I'm not even sure it got to a page."

Regardless, Dinan knew since then that she had a passion for creative writing.

College bound

Like many people, Dinan felt the reason to attend college and get a degree was to start a career that provided a stable income. As a first-generation college student, she felt that pressure even more.

"I'd grown up and I was very aware of the idea that attending college was so that you can make enough money to live on," Dinan said. "I don't know how much we struggled. I just knew that I wanted to make a certain amount of money. My mother took a few college courses, and my father didn't graduate high school, so I didn't know how to be in school. I really struggled while working on my undergraduate degree."

Despite the difficulty, Dinan earned her bachelor's degree through The University of Texas at Austin in a major where she knew she could make a decent living: business.

"I actually majored in management information systems," she said. "Then, I worked for a couple of years as an accountant because that's just where I found myself."


As time went on, Dinan knew that her heart wasn't in her work. She ended up getting a teaching certificate in San Antonio and taught elementary school there for a while. Then, she and her husband, Ben, moved to Ohio.

"We actually moved to Ohio for Ben to go to graduate school at Ohio State University (OSU)," she said. "By then, I knew I wanted to get a master's degree in fine arts. I knew I wanted to write books. And at this point, I had turned 30. I was empowered to follow my dreams instead of thinking about monetary factors.

"I ended up taking a few English classes at a community college in Columbus. Then, I applied to the master of fine arts program at OSU, and I haven't really looked back from there."

Texas Tech

After Dinan earned her master's at OSU, she and Ben moved back to Austin for Ben's job. Though moving to Ohio was the catalyst for Dinan's decision to commit 100 percent to creative writing, she has flourished at Texas Tech.

"I really think Texas Tech has been transformative for me," she said. "I saw women doing the things I wanted to do. I never really had that sort of role model before, and I didn't realize how important that was. At Texas Tech, I've received mentorship, a lot of practical knowledge, a lot of theoretical knowledge, a lot of practice and a lot of support."

That's not to say the decision to get her doctorate at Texas Tech was easy for Dinan. She had to make personal sacrifices in order to make it work.

Since Texas Tech's English department doesn't currently offer an online option for a doctoral degree in creative writing or literature, Dinan had to move to Lubbock to attend classes. To complicate things a bit further, the couple also had two young sons, James, 8, and Paul, 5.

While Ben stayed back in Austin, Dinan came to Lubbock with James and Paul.

"We would go back and forth every weekend," Dinan said. "It would be Ben coming to Lubbock or me, James and Paul going back to Austin."

With two young children and a massive amount of schoolwork, Dinan had to remain committed.

"I think graduate school is hard with or without children, but you just have to commit to it fully," she said. "I would have moments where I felt like I couldn't do it, especially when it was 10 o'clock at night, and I knew I had something that needed to be done, but I also knew I had to get up at 6:30 a.m. to get the kids to school. The moments when I knew I wasn't going to get enough sleep for the night, those were difficult. But I just kept going."

Now that Dinan has finished her required coursework and exam, she and her boys, who are now 11 and 8, recently were able to move back to Austin.

"I'm working on my dissertation from here," Dinan said. "I teach an online class and I edit for Iron Horse Literary Review, which is the literary magazine at Texas Tech."

'Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here'

Not only is Dinan a full-time doctoral student, a part-time instructor and a full-time mother and wife, she also is a soon-to-be-published author. Her first book, "Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here," will be available for purchase in the summer of 2020.

"The first novel is the story of a family in a Hill Country valley in Texas," Dinan said. "The story is about the events that take place right before a big flood."

"Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here," is the first part of three books Dinan is currently working on. She's almost finished with the second book, "In The Deep Heart's Core," and is in the process of drafting the yet-to-be-named third book.

"The second novel is about the flooding of the valley and how there were all these communities in this valley when a hydroelectric dam was built," Dinan said. "It's currently under revision with my agent."

Though the three fiction novels will exist in the same world, they aren't continuations of the same story.

"They're all standalone books," Dinan said. "They're not written in the way that 'Lord of the Rings' or some trilogy where book one ends and book two picks up, and book two ends and book three picks up. They focus on different characters, so none of the books have the same protagonist. They tell parts of the same story, but they stand alone."

Fulbright U.S. Student Program

Hoping to work on her dissertation full time, Dinan applied for a scholarship through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which is one part of the Fulbright Program. The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then-Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually. Roughly 1,600 U.S. students, 4,000 foreign students, 1,200 U.S. scholars and 900 visiting scholars receive awards, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals.

Competition for a Fulbright is fierce, and applying for one is a daunting task. Dinan basically had to write something completely new for the application, yet it had to be relevant to her dissertation.

"My Fulbright application materials focus on a minor female character from my dissertation work," she said. "She is investigating a person who actually existed, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a famous archaeologist from the 19th century who was kind of controversial because he would just go and dig up whatever he wanted, because he was very rich and there weren't a lot of rules.

"In his memoir, Schliemann tells a story about himself. He's this larger-than-life character who saves all of these communities and presents himself a certain way, but his actual journal tells a different story. Some of the things he said happened in his memoir don't actually happen in the journal. He never mentions them, and he tells different stories of those days, so there's a gap there."

Dinan recently was named a semifinalist for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, along with two other Texas Tech Graduate School students: Nicholas Acosta, a master's student in Applied Linguistics & Second Languages in the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures, and Shelby Young, a master's candidate in the Department of Plant and Soil Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.

Dinan, Acosta and Young will find out if they've been selected as a Fulbright recipient later this spring.

Dissertation decision

One might think that completing a dissertation would be easy once a multitude of work is already put together. However, Dinan might have too much content to choose from.

"For most people in the creative writing program, a dissertation would be a novel, collection of short stories or a book-length memoir," Dinan said. "My dissertation adviser, Katie Cortese, and I are actually still trying to think about how this will work with three book-length works. We're still having conversations about this because there are a couple of issues. For one, my doctoral committee doesn't want to read a 1,000-page dissertation."

After completing her master's degree, Dinan noticed a pattern in her writing she hadn't realized before. She's utilizing this pattern to give her dissertation a focus.

"I'm really interested in how the past affects the present and how the present will affect the future," she said. "In all my work, I go back and forth between something that's happened in the past and something that's happening in the present, and I didn't realize this for a lot of years. It was that point after getting my master's in fine arts that I realized that's what I was doing.

"But that's the technique that I'm focusing on in my dissertation. And I'm using a lot of primary sources, a lot of different forms of research about a place, like folklore, geological information, information about animals and wildlife and flora. I'm using this to build a narrative. Then, I also have this body of creative work. Dr. Cortese and I will decide where to go with it this next year."

With an anticipated graduation in May 2020, Dinan is thankful for the collaborative environment she's experienced at Texas Tech.

"The friends I've made here are wonderful, brilliant people," she said. "Sometimes in art programs, it's competitive. I didn't feel that at all here. It's been much more collaborative. I have a really hard time saying just how important Texas Tech is to me."