Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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.

10 Strategies to Unblock Writer’s Block

A conversation in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group got me thinking about this issue again. That conversation was initiated by Julianna Baggot’s blog post Is Writer’s Block a Form of Self-Protection.

First, let me just say that I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I do believe there are many reasons why we don’t write, and that some people call these reasons writer’s block. I believe it’s a concept; I just don’t believe the concept is helpful.

I face what some people would call writer’s block constantly. Starting a new poem, deciding what to write next, trying to decide whether the project I’m working on is a book or a bunch of words that I’ve arranged to look like poems, deciding whether I’m a writer or someone who wastes time with words, fighting to make time to write when there are a million other pressing concerns: all these could be considered aspects of writer’s block. But naming them that doesn’t help me find solutions to those problems. Instead, considering those as part of the writing process — an unavoidable part, perhaps, but also a part of the process that every writer must face — does help.

So here are a few strategies I’ve found that can be helpful in overcoming what some people call writer’s block and I prefer to think of as a stage of pre-writing. It is a stage that can feel like a block when we allow it (or even encourage it) to go on too long and consume our energies, rather than allowing it to lead to productive writing.

  1. Rumination. Sometimes what we think of as writer’s block is simply the necessary phase of dormancy. Instead of actively writing, we are searching for the next thing to write. Our minds aren’t ready to put words on paper, and we don’t have a direction to write in. Calling this phase writer’s block makes it sound like a problem, something to be overcome, when in fact it may be a quiet period that the writer needs to embrace. Thinking that you’re ‘blocked’ leads to stress. Enjoy this time to refuel, and don’t push too hard to get a new project started. To keep from getting stuck in this phase, though, you can begin writing without purpose just to see what might come out. Free writing is a good tactic in this phase. The point of free writing is not to create something good, but simply to explore and see what happens.
  2. Finding Direction. After rumination or maybe as part of that process, writers often are searching for a new direction to write. After completing a novel or even a book or cycle of poems, writers often report casting about, looking for the next big project. Writing prompts and exercises can often help in this stage. The goal is not to complete the exercise and get a great piece of writing. The goal of the exercise or prompt is to distract you. The stress of needing to start something often gets in the way of writing. Because we want it to be a poem, a story, an essay, or heaven forbid, the next novel, we don’t know how to start that. Writing an exercise lets us write without worrying about what we’re starting (other than to follow the prompt). As we do that, often something completely unrelated comes out. After writing several exercises, those unrelated elements may start to add up. The exercises didn’t give you the content that will become your next project, but they did keep you distracted from the need to have a project, so you were able to write about those things and then recognize the project in them. Distraction is often the best way to combat what many think of as writers’ block.
  3. Finding Time. Another thing that gets in the way of writing, especially when we are between projects, is the fact that most of us are incredibly busy. If you don’t have a pressing deadline for a writing project or aren’t energized by being in the midst of a project, then it’s easy to let those work projects or house projects that have piled up take over every spare moment of your life. On the one hand, those are also necessary, and completing those tasks can free you to write later. They can also be a vital part of the process of rumination — keeping busy while you think about writing. But ultimately, if you’re going to get back to writing, you need to make time for it. Taking time away to focus entirely on writing by attending a writing retreat can seem like a luxury. But even if you can’t do that, you can schedule time for writing every day or several times a week. In those scheduled times, make sure you have something to write. Doing prompts or free writing can be a great way to get warmed up. Keep your expectations low: plan to write a list or write a paragraph or write random words; don’t plan to write a poem or a story until you know you have an idea for one. Just write. Doing that, and allowing yourself to write drivel is often the only way to get back to writing something you care about. Usually there is something of value in what you write, though you may not recognize it until much later. But even if none of what you write can be salvaged, it is still worthwhile if it eventually gets you to something you do care to write about.
  4. Journaling. One way to keep writing is to keep a journal. A journal is not meant to be published or even publishable work. It is a free space for writing ideas, observations, lists, rough embarrassing drafts, etc. Sometimes, what causes ‘writer’s block’ is a subject that we need to write about but we don’t know how to make it public. It may be an issue that so consumes us that we can’t write about anything else, but we’re not sure we want anyone else to read (or that we think no one else will be interested in). My advice is to write about it anyway, but write it first in a private journal. Write your way through a difficult subject, and eventually you will be able write about other subjects, too. You may well find that there are portions of the journal that can be made into a public document. Write it first in all its raw honesty, and then cull out the parts that you aren’t willing to share and keep the parts you can share with the world. Or change the names and disguise the circumstances so that you can create enough distance between you and that subject. When writing, know that it never has to be public. When revising, choose what to keep and how you want to make it public.
  5. Banish Your Inner Censor. There is a time in the writing process when we make value judgments, but in the early stages of any project, we really need to keep our inner censor at bay. If we worry too much at the outset whether something will be good enough, we will never write it, so how will we find out? If we have too many preconceived notions about the form or the ending of a piece, we are not free to explore wherever it might lead. If we worry what others will think, we can’t be honest with ourselves. So learning to write without expectations can be extremely valuable. The draft of a poem I write isn’t a poem, but it is a draft that I can refine and rewrite until I’m happy with it. The first draft of a story may be clunky and ill-conceived, but as long has there is something of interest in it for me as the writer, I can revise until that something is apparent to the reader. Writer’s block often happens when we worry too much about the final product and don’t allow ourselves the messy early stages of writing. If we expect the first draft to look like the final product, then we will be continually dissatisfied. If we allow for the fact that all good writing goes through multiple revisions until the final product is distilled from the rough beginnings, then we give ourselves license to begin.
  6. Follow a Form. Often contradictory advice can be useful, and though this tactic contradicts the absolute freedom I’ve been advocating, it can be helpful. A form is essentially a writing prompt. If I try to write a sonnet, I will write something to fit that form. If I decide to write a modern epic or follow any other recognizable pattern, I will find content to fit the pattern. The value of the form is that it forces you to write content that you didn’t intend. To meet the demands of form, you have stretch yourself beyond your limits. Form can lead to valuable surprises. Be willing to reconsider the form at a later stage of the process, but try using a form to generate unexpected content.
  7. Write Different. Sometimes the best way to get out of a pattern of not writing is to try something completely different. The fiction writer who turns to nonfiction or the poet who turns to drama can often stimulate their creativity in the unfamiliar territory. If you’ve been successful at writing in one form, the demands of continuing that success may get in your way, so try a different form where you aren’t the expert. This may give you more freedom to write in ways your inner censor would normally block. Consider blogging or writing creatively on social media or another platform that you’re not comfortable with. Give yourself limitations — novelists might try flash fiction; free verse poets might try haiku. Or break your limits: poets might try prose or longer lines; short story writers or essayists might try longer forms. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to find the creative tensions that come with new forms.
  8. Set Attainable Goals. Giving yourself a goal or deadline can be helpful in getting back to writing or remaining productive. But keep the goal attainable. It is probably not the best idea to have as your goal that you will write a novel by a specific date (unless you have a contract with a publisher and need to have it finished!). Rather, it is more productive to set goals like writing a certain number of words every day or sitting down to write and actually writing something, regardless of its merit. Once you’ve started writing, then your goals can become clearer. Maybe you’ll realize those words are part of a novel or an essay, and you’ll keep working on that project. Maybe those poems will begin to take shape as a series of poems. Maybe you’ll find the content that you want to keep returning to: whether that is a character and plot or a time and place in your memory or a subject you decide to research for your next project. Set goals that work for the stage you are at in your writing process, and be willing to modify those goals as the project evolves.
  9. Collaborate. Working with others can be the best incentive to keep writing. If your writing partner is looking for your next installment of a shared project, you don’t want to let that person down. Hopefully you collaborate with someone you trust, so that when you send them something you aren’t 100% sure of, they will take what you’ve written and run with it. Another form of collaboration is translation. If you find you don’t have a lot of ideas coming, then work with someone else’s ideas in another language or in another form. If you don’t speak another language, adapt a work from an earlier era to the present. Once you get working with it, allow your own ideas to infuse the work. Listen to music, go to an art museum, go to a reading or read other writers. These are all forms of collaboration that can lead to ideas. If those are specifically about the work of art, then you may have ekphrastic writing. If the other artist leads you to ideas that are mostly your own, then you are simply taking part in the great conversation of art. Often at a reading, ideas for a poem or a character will come that have nothing to do with what the writer is reading: the sound of their words may have called up a memory or a thought, but it isn’t directly related to the other writer’s content. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, in other words, go in search of it.
  10. Let Others Read Your Writing. Often what we call writers block isn’t really an inability to write. Don’t we all write emails, memos, texts, grocery list, and other practical things every day? We are able to put words on paper. We simply think that none of our writing has merit or is creative. This is the perfect time to give it to someone else. Don’t tell them what they should find in it; listen to what they say they did find that was valuable. Often we are surprised that someone else responds to work we think isn’t good enough. That doesn’t mean we can’t still revise and make it better, but the voice of encouragement from someone we trust can be exactly what we need to embark upon that journey.

The main situation where I encounter writer’s block in others is in the creative writing classroom. There we have a built-in incentive to get over it: a grade. Yet this can also put an incredible amount of stress on the writer. This is why I emphasize the writing process and the reality that no writing is good enough in a first draft. The goal of a class is not to make the writing perfect, but it is to make it better. I value improvement and growth as a writer over perfection. And students in a class have the support system of the class—other students and the instructor, who want them to succeed. Of course, there are also aspects of form that we’ve studied that I want the writer to pay attention to in their finished work. Value is part of my final grade determination, but it shouldn’t be an issue in the beginning, and it shouldn’t be the final arbiter for the grade. I have found that with some encouragement and with some combination of these strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. Sometimes writer’s block is an excuse or a crutch that a student uses to rationalize why they haven’t written. Treating it as a real issue, but not as an insurmountable obstacle, helps the writer start writing. When I’ve faced my own incredibly busy schedules or the lack of direction between major projects (or when yI’ve been stalled on a project), I’ve tried many of these strategies myself. Sometimes have been easier than others, but I’m still writing so they must work.

Value in Residency

We are in the midst of our low-residency MFA’s intense 10-day full residency period. We hardly notice weekends or holidays (except we have the campus pretty much to ourselves on those days, and I need to lock and unlock out building!). This year, we did take a little break on Memorial Day, and that got me thinking about the value of these residencies — it confirmed what I thought as we were creating the program.

Yes, part of the value is that we get to do a different kind of workshopping. Yesterday, we met in the morning, as usual, for 2 hours of discussion of 2 texts that had previously been workshopped in other classes. We haven’t all been in the same classes together, so the texts were new to some of us and familiar to others. We had a couple of poems by one writer and a play script by another. These workshops are cross-genre, so we are exposed to writing that is outside of our comfort zone. We look at the work as art, not just in terms of how to fix it or make it better, but also in terms of what it says about the artist who wrote it.

Then we broke for lunch, followed by our afternoon seminar on writing the thesis. Our two students who had just defended theirs led the discussion and gave some great practical advice. Afterwards, instead of our usual mentoring conferences and evening reading, we adjourned until dinner.

We had intended a cookout at Plymouth Bluff, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate. Actually, it would have turned out okay had we gone, but the forecast gave a 60% chance of thunderstorms, and we didn’t have much indoor room to shelter, so we opted to stay on campus and have our cookout in the building where one of our faculty is staying. We ‘grilled’ burgers in the oven and ate, either on the porch or at a big table indoors, depending on your preference. We ate and talked and joked, and stayed together about as long as we would have if we had had our evening reading.

The course content is on part of the value of residency, but the other part — I’d say bigger part, but they really are intertwined and can’t be separated or measured separately — is the social aspect. In residency, we build community. We laugh together, talk together, eat together, and become much more than classmates. I can’t imagine teaching in a fully online creative writing program, though the ease of organizing it without having to deal with food, lodging, travel, etc. would be tempting. Without these times together, we wouldn’t be a program. We would merely be isolated students and teachers in classes, and the experience would feel artificial and impersonal. We would not form the bonds we form when we come together.

Summer Residency

This afternoon our Low-Residency MFA program starts its summer Full Residency class — 10 intense days of workshops, seminars, and readings. It’s been a ton of work to get it ready, and I hope everything will go well! All our food is ordered, and the restaurant reservations have been made. Workshop groups have been set up, and students have been exchanging texts. The syllabus is ready, speakers are lined up… now the time for prep is nearly over (okay, there are a few minor details to attend to and a little food to get), and then everyone will start to arrive (at least one is already in town).

That’s when the real excitement begins. It’s why we set the program up as a low-residency, not a fully online program, which may have been much easier. But seeing our students face-to-face, having a chance to host readings, workshopping together in the same room, trading ideas about how to live the life of a writer in our seminars, and generally just getting to hang out together, that’s what makes the program work as well as it does.

Online classes are great — and much better than they used to be — with video conferencing and discussion boards. It almost feels like you’re in a real class (except for the constant technical difficulties with the server or someone’s connection or software configuration — there will probably always be something!), but almost is never quite a good as the real thing. Yes, it takes an amazing effort to put it all together, and it takes our students an amazing effort to get here, but once we’re all in the same room, it really is worth it.

And this year, we’ll have our first two students defend their Master’s theses. We’ll get to sit down and talk to them about the exciting book manuscripts they’ve been working on — what may still need to be done and what successes and challenges they’ve had. It will be a bitter-sweet moment because it will mean they’ve completed a major project and completed the program, but it will also mean they’ll soon no longer be our students, but will remain our colleagues and friends. And a good number of the students in our program will be here to witness — not the defense itself, but the accomplishment and their public readings.

So let’s hope I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and let’s hope there are no crises like last year (when a restaurant had to close the night of our reservation!). And no matter what happens, we’ll all have a great time!