Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

A Writer’s Craft makes Poets & Writers

Untitled-2.inddOkay, I’ll admit it. Sometimes I search on my name or the title of one of my books. It’s not just vanity. Some days it can be useful to see what’s online about me or my work, and today was one of those days. Since I’d given away some exam copies of A Writer’s Craft at the AWP conference in Tampa, I thought I’d see if anyone had posted about it without my knowing. Instead, I found that Poets & Writers had included it in their list of Best Books for Writers, along with a short review that begins: “Either as an introduction or as a refresher, A Writer’s Craft serves as a straightforward guide to the broad world of creative writing.”

Here’s how Poets & Writers describes the list: “From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.” I feel humbled and honored to have been added to such a prestigious list, and I’m very grateful for their positive review!

A Fitting Finale to #AWP18

What a great experience this AWP was! And what a fine ending. This evening, I went to an inspiring poetry reading, presented by the Academy of American Poets, featuring Layli Long Soldier, Khaled Matawa, and Mark Doty. In contrast to last night, there was no tension in the room and the poems were allowed to be political. Long Soldier read her response to the apology to native peoples signed into law under Barack Obama, after a preface where she recounted how it had been written and signed, but not read aloud and without any native leaders present. Matawa read a new series of poems about the migration crisis from the Middle East and Africa, and Doty read poems about his neighborhood  in New York with many references to the political situation in the U.S. The poems were not strident, yet they beautifully expressed the complexity of our time.

The most fitting ending, though, was that as I was coming out of the reading, I happened to check my email and saw that Tar River Poetry had sent the page proofs for a poem that will appear in this spring’s issue.

So the conference began with a poem accepted and published at The Ekphrastic Review and ended with news of another publication. I know “Birdsongs” had been accepted, but hadn’t been notified yet which issue it would appear in, so this was excellent news.

Between these two bookends, AWP was another great experience. This year, we had several students from our low-res MFA program in attendance, including one alumna, Tammie Rice, who helped organize our book table and got us some great swag (thank you again Tammie!). I got to talk to a ton of people, including several contributors to Ponder Review and Poetry South, as well as several teachers interested in A Writer’s Craft and someone at New Pages who might blog about it. I handed out lots of flyers and even a few exam copies I had on hand. I also got to reconnect with writer friends and make new friends at the book fair, and we had a great time at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium panel, celebrating our 30th year. As always, it was incredibly busy, exhausting, and rewarding!

See you next year in Portland, where hopefully more great things will happen, though I doubt I’ll be able to match the experience of publishing a poem on the first and last day of the conference again!

Heading to #AWP18

This week, I’ll be going to Tampa for the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. As always, it will be a very busy few days—inspiring and exhausting.

This year, it will be a little different, since I’ll get to hang out with some of my students who are taking a Short Residency class centered around the conference. They will attend panels, help at our book fair table (T1411 if you want to find us!), and explore the book fair in their free time. They’re required to go to some professional panels on writing or the business of writing, as well as some panels that feature readings. They’ve already learned a lot just from scouring the schedule to see what they most want to attend.

I’ll go to the directors panels, both the general one and one for the Southeast region, and I’ll try to catch the Low-Residency Caucus panel, too, so I can hear about the latest developments that affect our program. But much of my time will be spent in the book fair, where in addition to our program and our literary magazines Ponder Review and Poetry South, I’ll also be giving out copies of A Writer’s Craftmy multi-genre intro to creative writing textbook.

And to top it all off, as if seeing old friends, working with students, and connecting with other writers and directors isn’t enough, this year I’ll be moderating and participating in a panel to celebrate the 30th Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, which will be held Oct. 18-20, 2018!

It should be a lot of fun! See you in Tampa, if you’re going to #AWP18!

How A Writer’s Craft Came to Be.

img_0354Today, I received copies of my introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft, hot off the presses in both hardback and paperback. So it seemed like a good time to reflect back on how I got to this point.

When I began the project, I wasn’t planning on publishing a textbook; in fact, the initial writing that eventually became the book were the notes I created for my creative writing class. First, I wrote notes to fill in the gaps in the textbooks I was using or to complement, and at times even argue with, the way that information was presented in each book.

Eventually, after using three or four different texts and finding none that really met my need, and after thinking about how much material of my own I brought to the table, I decided it was time to leave a textbook behind and work from my own notes. Still, I wanted to give students something: something to read before class so they would be prepared, something to study from for their tests, something to take with them after the class was over. I realized I didn’t want to abandon a textbook altogether; I wanted to create my own. But I wasn’t seriously thinking about publishing one. Maybe in the back of my mind, I thought it could happen, if it turned out to be useful.

So I sat down with my notes and thought about the order that I really wanted to present my material in. I thought about the things from different textbooks that weren’t in the one I was using. I thought about the things in my notes that I had added over the years, some of which I wasn’t able to cover with the book I had just been using, some of which I had found a way to slip in. I thought about what I wouldn’t want to do that these authors did.

And then I started writing, trying as much as possible to take my own path and not to be too heavily influenced by others. If one textbook used a term that no one else did, I tried to avoid it. Naturally, standard literary terms like simile or point of view weren’t at issue, but I tried to give my own take on all the material presented, then I cross-checked to make sure I wasn’t borrowing from others.

These notes, I posted in the online course shell (first in Blackboard and then in Canvas) for my class in a few formats: pdf, epub, mobi, and as part of the discussion area. Students began using them (I’m not sure which format was most popular, though I suspect pdf was, since everyone has Adobe Reader), and the class went pretty well.

Because it wasn’t a flop — not too much of a surprise, since I’ve been teaching for over 20 years — and because I often hear people complaining about textbooks, especially the cost, I sent a copy of the finished notes to a couple of friends to teach creative writing with one question: do you think there would be a demand for a book like this? Their answer was a resounding yes. Of course, they are friends, but I did feel they would have told me if they thought it wouldn’t be well received.

So the next time I taught the course, I revised my notes based on the previous year’s experiences. I took my students’ comments into consideration and tried to add more on creative nonfiction and drama, for instance, and I fixed a few things that didn’t work as well as I wanted them to. Then, at AWP I approached a friend of a friend who edits a series of books on creative writing pedagogy. I didn’t think he would be able to publish a textbook, but I thought he might have some ideas. He agreed to read the manuscript, and ultimately recommended it to Palgrave.

There were a few missed connections along the way — emails that went astray, queries about whether there had been a response, copies of the manuscript that disappeared into the ether (not my only copy, just ones I sent out), but eventually Palgrave said they were interested in seeing a full book proposal, and since they had already reviewed the manuscript, it wouldn’t be necessary to resubmit it.

I had already filled out some book proposals for a couple of other textbook publishers (who didn’t bite), so I already had some ideas on the market for intro creative writing textbooks and how mine was different. It didn’t take too long to put everything in Palgrave’s format and fill in the gaps where they asked for information I hadn’t thought of already.

Pretty soon, they accepted the proposal and then sent the manuscript out for peer review. Their reviewers gave comments, I responded, and we negotiated how much revision would be necessary for the final draft. Essentially it boiled down to making the manuscript more accessible for an international market (since Palgrave is based in the UK and also markets to Australia) and adding in a few fairly minor things. I also proposed adding another chapter and an appendix to account for a few issues that were raised. They sent me a contract. I signed it, and then had about 3 months to write the revisions.

That was intense, but I managed to do it, adding things like the glossary and list of references, and preparing to add an index once the actual pages were ready. The final draft went to a company in India for proofreading and final editing, so the next 3-4 months were spent responding to their suggested changes, negotiating punctuation (English or American rules, and how to apply them), and working some on the design once we got to the stage of doing final proofs on the pdfs.

One issue that came up was how to format the writing exercises at the end of each chapter. We settled on using a numbered list to make it clear where one exercise begins and ends, and also to make them easier to assign for instructors. I had the idea to use the nib image from the cover, miniaturized and in black, as a marker at the beginning of the exercise sections. It was a nice way to pull that detail in and tie the book together, and it separated the text of each chapter from the end matter. Palgrave did a great job of implementing that idea — and the cover design, which one of their artists hand sketched, is gorgeous. I also love the way they brought that design onto the back cover.

back coverSince then, I’ve been waiting for my books to arrive, working on the companion website, and trying to generate some interest.

As I look back on it, I realize it took a ton of work to get to this point — mine, friends’ (thank you for reading and giving me comments!), Palgrave’s, and the production company’s. It hardly seems possible from this vantage point, yet over the four years since I started this project, I’ve taken it one step at a time, and each step didn’t seem so daunting as I did it. Of course, in the meantime, I also published a book of poems, kept busy starting a low-residency MFA program, and taught my other classes at Mississippi University for Women! It’s been a wild ride, and I’m happy to start the next phase with books in hand.

Welcome: A Writer’s Craft!

It’s been a long journey to this point, but today marks a turning point in my writing career. My introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft is now available. I don’t have my copies yet, but it’s on the Palgrave website and listed as In Stock for paperback, e-book, and hardback. Now, besides being a poet, I’m officially the author of a textbook. Who knows where this new phase of my career will lead? It’s exciting, to be sure.

Low-Res or Fully Funded: an MFA Decision

I write a lot about MFA programs because I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. I mention this to let you know I am biased on this topic, but I’ve been thinking about the advice people often get about applying for MFA’s: don’t unless it’s fully funded.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. No one would advise you to go into a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t promise a career with great earning potential, and creative writing is one of those fields where only a very few make it really big — the rest of us do okay, but not well enough to take on a ton of debt. So if you can get someone to pay for your education, why not?

That’s what this post is about. I agree with that advice, but I also think there are trade-offs you should consider. It would be great if someone is going to pay you to write and then give you a degree at the end. There are a few programs that can do that, but even most of the fully funded programs don’t hand out ‘free money.’ They do hand out money; it just isn’t exactly free.

Most programs that are fully funded expect their graduate students to work for that stipend. Usually you will be a graduate teaching assistant or research assistant. That’s great, if you’ll be gaining experience in the field you want to work in. (Do you want to teach at the college level? What are your chances of landing an academic job after graduation?) Often you will start teaching composition, sometimes you might have a literature survey (or lead a discussion section), and maybe you’ll get to teach creative writing at some point. Yes, that can all be good experience, but there are other ways to work your way through your degree.

If you consider that fully funded stipend a wage, then you’ll soon find that it’s not a huge salary. Of course, you do usually get a tuition waiver, which adds to the value of your stipend, and sometimes you are eligible for health insurance, which is another huge benefit to teaching. If you’re fresh out of your undergraduate degree and you don’t have a job, then a program that will give you a job that meshes well with your graduate degree and comes with built-in support from your department can be an excellent opportunity.

Low-residency programs, on the other hand, often don’t offer graduate assistantships. Students don’t live on campus, so it is more difficult for them to work at the university. That’s why many low-res programs aren’t fully funded, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad deal. The low-res model is set up to allow you to work where you are while you are in school. If you already have a job, you can keep it, and odds are that you’ll earn more at a regular job than you would teaching (though a tuition waiver can make a big difference). Low-residency programs allow you stay where you are, so those with family obligations or other reasons why they don’t want to or aren’t able to move for their graduate degree can still get one.

Those who already are mid-career might be giving up a lot in order to take advantage of full funding at a full residency program. When considering offers or considering where to apply, compare the amount of aid and the cost of the degree against a low-res program where you can keep your current job.

What else should you think about when considering fully funded programs?

I would say you need to bear in mind that fully funded MFA programs will receive the most applications. Competition will be stiff, especially for the best scholarships or assistantships. It’s great if you get one, but your chances are slimmer, so it might be a good idea to widen your application pool to include some partially funded programs or programs without much funding if you think you can afford them.

When considering any program, think about the culture and the writers at that school. I wouldn’t say that a fully funded program is always going to be worse, but it might not be your best fit. If you only go to a program because of the money, you might end up unhappy. If you go to a school where you really fit in and a program that genuinely supports the writing you do, you’ll likely be happier. Finances should be a big part of your decision, but they shouldn’t be the only part, in other words.

The goal should be to get a good degree, work with good writers (teachers and other students), and not go into a ton of debt. Full funding is the most obvious way to achieve that, but a low-residency program (or a partially funded resident program) can do just as well. If you realize that for most fully funded programs you will work your way through school, then keeping your job in order to work your way through a low-residency program may seem like a good alternative.

For most fully funded programs, you will have to uproot yourself, move to another city and live there while pursuing your degree. That may be precisely the adventure you want or need to stimulate your writing. Or you may have work or family obligations — parents who need care, or a partner or spouse whose job isn’t portable, children whose school or family life would be uprooted in a move — that would make accepting a fully funded program’s offer difficult. A low-res program allows you to work from where you live and travel to your program’s campus for residency periods now and then.

Low-residency programs also have some advantages. Because you don’t need to move and because you don’t teach, low-residency students can find internships in their local area. They may explore fields like publishing, marketing, literacy programs, or other writing related careers. And they can learn about those careers where they are. Many writers don’t intend to go into academia, so getting experience outside academia during your MFA can be beneficial.

Which kind of program is right for you: low-res or fully funded? There is no one right answer for everyone. For many, the advice to only get an MFA if it is fully funded seems too limiting. Low residency programs allow you to be creative about how you will fund your MFA from where you live, combining work and university or private scholarships to pay the bills.

How To Find the best MFA program in Creative Writing (for you)

Summer is a time when many prospective MFA students begin searching for programs. Or maybe you’ve already begun that search, but it is now intensified as the application season approaches. Those who want to apply for an MFA need to have a good idea of their top choices soon, so they can work on crafting their writing samples and honing their statements. Application deadlines range from December to March, with most falling in January or February, so it’s not too early to start hunting for the perfect programs.

One of the best resources for this search is still <a href=”https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Writing-Mfa-Handbook-Prospective/dp/082642886X&#8221; rel=”nofollow”>The Creative Writing MFA Handbook</a> by Tom Kealey. I recommend it to my undergraduates (and often let them borrow a copy) not only because it has a good list of programs (though that list is getting a little dated), but also because it gives good advice on choosing a program. The best advice Kealey gives is that you should find the best program for you, which is not necessarily going to be the top-ranked program. He goes into much more detail about the kinds of choices that exist. Things to consider are the culture of the program, the kind of writing that the professors do or that recent graduates have done, as well as cost, location, and program structure. Finding the right programs for you to apply to is complicated. In his guide, he doesn’t give a ranking of programs because everyone’s rankings ought to be different. He does give valuable information about the programs he lists, though more programs have sprung up since the book was published, and programs change over time.

For up to date information, consult guides like those found at AWP, Poets & Writers, Publisher’s Weekly, and New Pages. Each of these sources provides some different information, so it’s a good idea to consult more than one and compare what you find.

In all of these listings, you can search by state, by genre, by type of degree, etc. This can help you narrow your search. It won’t take long to realize that there are a plethora of programs to choose from and that there is incredible diversity in their offerings. This is why some serious research at this stage can be beneficial.

Of course, there are rankings of MFA programs from sources like The Atlantic or Poets & Writers. What I tell my students about these rankings is that they’re most valuable for finding out where everyone else is probably going to apply. I don’t discourage students from applying to the top-ranked schools, but I do warn them to be aware of their chances. Most of these programs have very limited enrollments. They receive many, many more highly qualified applications than they will ever be able accept. We’ve had someone get in a very competitive program, so you shouldn’t ever sell yourself short, but you also shouldn’t limit yourself to applying only to the top-ranked schools. There are many other high quality programs out there that may be a better fit and where you may have better odds. I recommend applying to a range of schools. Don’t apply anywhere that you wouldn’t want to go, but don’t be so influenced by the rankings that you overlook schools that would be a great fit for you. Consider all of your options, and you should find a program that is the best for you.

Resources like The MFA Years blog or The MFA Draft group on Facebook (the link is to 2018, but a new group is started every year) can also help you research your decision and deal with the process of applying to programs. Also, be sure to read AWP’s Advice Articles about the application process.

In the end, taking the time and effort now to research the programs that are best for you will give you a much better chance of success. Not only will you find the programs that are the best fit, but you will likely also learn a lot about who you are as a writer and what your goals are. This will lead to a clearer, stronger application, and I would hope to a more rewarding experience in the program where you eventually choose to enroll.