MFA Student Shares Her Inspirational Journey and Receives Critical Acclaim

Perseverance and Resiliency Are Keys to Homeless Student’s Creative Journey

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

Renee Westbrook“Being homeless was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Renée Westbrook said, “because it altered my perspective.” 

Westbrook, currently an MFA student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at SDSU, is a positive, cheerful, self-motivated woman. Prior to committing to a writer’s life, though, there were dark and challenging days. She lived in LA and Santa Monica for many months. During one 30-day period on the streets, she learned how to sleep on a bus. She learned what intersections and underpasses were most dangerous. She was assaulted. She finally found safety and support in a Santa Monica shelter, but decided it was time to head back to her hometown. 

In San Diego, after living in a pay-by-the-week hotel (most of which was covered by friends), she found herself at a bus stop on the corner of Park Boulevard and University Avenue where she had an epiphany. At that moment she realized, I am accountable to find my place in the world. And, at that moment she decided to take writing seriously. 

Westbrook recalled a pivotal conversation during her journey — it was with a librarian at the Writers’ Guild of America West Library whom she met during her time in LA. Westbrook said, “He told me to write about my homelessness.”  Advice that, later, proved to be fruitful.  

In 2015, a friend whose husband once worked at SDSU suggested that she apply for grad school. She told herself, I’m not smart enough and I need a job.  But the friend’s advice began to sink in and Westbrook started dreaming of making a better life for herself through writing. She changed her mindset about her creative future. With new determination and support, she began the MFA application process.

Upon acceptance to the MFA program in creative writing at SDSU, she met Sandra Alcosser, program director and graduate advisor. ”I was captivated immediately by Renée's forthright and pragmatic nature,”  Alcosser said. “Renée made a gift of a well-used book on writing [The Writer's Life by Julia Cameron], and she asked that I pass it on to another deserving writer.”

The Writer’s Life is considered Westbrook’s “bible” — she carried it with her and referred to it daily while living in shelters. It provided light in the dark hours. It offered a safe haven and most importantly inspiration to continue her own writer’s journey. Sharing it with others was a necessity for Westbrook. 

Renee Westbrook“Alcosser is a rockstar,” Westbrook said. “I owe a debt of gratitude to her and I have so much respect for her.” Westbrook appreciated Alcosser’s professionalism and encouragement. “Without her, I don’t know where I would be now,” she said. 

Another fellow writer interested in Westbrook’s writing journey was Lauretta Hannon, author of The Cracker Queen — A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life. After reading Hannon’s memoir, Westbrook sent her a note of appreciation. 

Hannon said, “Renée came across my memoir, while she was at rock bottom in a homeless shelter. She wrote me a powerfully moving letter about her situation and how my book was helping her through it. It touched me down to my bones, and I knew we were soul sisters.” 

Hannon provided encouragement, shared advice, and even sent care packages to Westbrook. Hannon said, “I see a path brim-full of success in the creative arts and in any other arena she seeks. She is a magnificent, compelling storyteller and wise woman.”

Westbrook translated her homeless experience into a one-woman show called “Shelter,” which she performed during the San Diego International Fringe Festival in both 2017 and 2019. In the show, she portrays different personas representing folks she encountered on the streets. In 2019, Westbrook received the Best Solo Performance Award, a Critics’ Choice Award from The San Diego Union-Tribune, and a KPBS Fringe Festival Top Pick Award. She’s been invited to perform at the Fringe Festival in Stockholm, Sweden in 2020.

Westbrook now realizes that her life’s purpose is in helping others through her storytelling. In the meantime she’s focused on finishing her thesis manuscript titled The Book of Mary, writing a screenplay, and maybe even directing someday.