Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

It’s nice when you’re #1

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 5.08.17 PM As I’ve written before, I’m not the biggest fan of ranking MFA programs, though I do think those rankings have some value. For one, they tell you what programs other applicants are likely to apply to. When they’re despcriptive, they can give you some valuable information as well.

Though I don’t take a lot of stock in these rankings (and fewer places are doing them), it’s still nice when you’re ranked #1, which is true of our MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, which was recently ranked first at Intelligent.com and also at The Best Masters Degrees. What I like about both of these rankings (besides that they picked us) is that they look at more than just cost. Yes, they consider the cost of an MFA, which is a significant issue, especially for low-res or fully online programs that don’t have a lot of scholarship funding, but they also consider quality. This helps our program stand out in a field that is often composed of both MA and MFA degrees. The two aren’t comparable, and to compare a 48 hour degree (ours) with a 36-hour degree (most MA programs) on the basis of tuition alone is highly problematic.

We also like to think that these websites have at least looked closely at our website and tried to get a sense of the satisfaction of our students or their productivity in the literary marketplace. I know they didn’t ask the program for information, but I like to think that our program will stand out on its own. And these rankings are evidence that we do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re the best program for everyone. But if you’re looking for a low-residency or online degree that is affordable and high quality, then I hope these rankings will encourage you to give us a closer look. I think you’ll like what you find.

At the very least, these rankings give us something to feel good about for a little while before we turn back to the much more important work of trying to do our very best for our students and alumni. That’s where the true value is, and if we weren’t listed #1, I’d still be just as proud of all the accomplishments our students and faculty have achieved and the honors we’ve earned.

Keeping the Res in Low-Residency MFA

DSCN9898As our low-residency MFA program enters its fifth year, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we’ve come and how we’ve evolved, and that includes why we’re committed to the low-res format for the degree.

Our program is different from many low-res MFAs out there because we follow an online class model. AWP, in its Hallmarks for Low-Residency MFA programs, oulines three types of program: ones with mentoring, ones with electronic classrooms, and hybrid. I’ve never met a hybrid program, and most of the well-known low-res MFAs out there seem to use the mentoring model, but I assume there are others using online classes, since the model existed before ours was created. Still, a lot of programs and prospective students seem to expect the mentoring model. Our students are usually glad to have the online class model because it means they have contact with each other outside of the residency periods. But for some, it begs the question: why do I even have to come to campus? Usually, once they’ve been here, they understand.

There are fully online MFA programs, of course, and those can be our competition. But there are things you can’t do online that you can do in a residency: have meals together, have and give readings, talk face-to-face in workshop groups and socially, complain about the air conditioning or the dorm beds (hey, nothing is perfect), get up early (as Kyla is famous for doing when she’s here) to go to the wildlife refuge, or stay up late together hanging out at local restaurants, etc. We have parties, and we bring coffee cake to workshops.

And in our program, we have multi-genre workshops in the summer, where fiction writers sit across from poets and beside playwrites or memoirists. We get out of our comfort zone and learn from each other, and our workshop leaders are not the same people who taught us during the semester and may even write in other genres than we do. This, combined with the afternoon seminars on practical aspects of being a professional writer and evening readings by students, thesis candidates, teachers, and guest writers helps us form a strong sense of community even though we are spread out all across the country (and in Europe). The online class format with regular video conferences helps with this as well, but being together for 10 days cements that feeling, energizes us, and gives us connections that will last a lifetime.

That’s the full-residency experience, but when we put the program together, we realized we also wanted some shorter experiences, too. We wanted to have times when we could recharge our batteries in four or five days and offer unique experiences. So we also instituted short residencies. The most logical one was at our Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, where students come to hear a dozen recently published writers at this annual event that is now in its 31st year. With a great writing event like this on campus, it only made sense to incorporate it into our MFA program, but since it happens in October and is for the community and the undergraduate campus as well, we knew it had to be seperate from any of our online classes.

Other short residency experiences that we’ve developed since then have focused on the business of writing or on another artform. The first summer short residency was led by our drama professor, T. K. Lee, who led a 5-day session in acting for writers. Students wrote their own short scripts adapted from something else they’ve been writing, and then acted in each others’ plays. We’ve also done one on oral storytelling and one on songwriting and music (and we repeated the acting residency once). Each was a great experience: a little intimidating at first for some, but in the end a great bonding experience and an opportunity for growth as an artist.

The other short residency that we offer is in the spring, when we take a group to the AWP conference. This is full immersion into the professional world of the writer, and it is also overwhelming, exciting, and incredibly rewarding. We spend a fair amount of time in our online class before the conference getting prepared: poring over the schedule, talking about what panels and off-site events people want to go to, looking at what bookstores or other local hotspots we definitely want to see when we escape AWP, and plannign what we’ll say about our writing and about our program and literary magazines when we’re walking the book fair or working our table. Then we arrive at AWP and are immersed for the three-day conference, trying to get together as a group a few times, though often we end up coalescing in smaller groups or seeing each other in passing.

When the program was begun, we knew this was the basic format we wanted to go with. We said (and continue to say) that we were flexible and want to work with students so they can have a low-res experience whether they can come to campus every semester or not. And we’ve managed to do that very well. We encourage everyone to come early in their program and to come back whenever they can, and generally that’s been doable, but we’ve had some students go a year or so without coming to a residency, yet they are always glad when they can return.

The other thing that has kept us flexible is adding new classes like the literary magazine production class and the internship class that allow us to give students professional experiences that will help their writing. In response to student requests, we’ve developed classes like Professional Writer, a (primarily) fiction class aimed at helping students revise and submit their work to literary magazines, and we’re planning to do a section of it focused on the long form: novels and full-length memoir. We’ve added special topics classes to address themes that students or faculty are interested in, and we keep exploring ways we can grow.

One of the most exciting developments this year will be collaborating with the theatre department’s new low-res MFA in Theatre Education program. We will have some of their students in our drama classes, and we are looking forward to the ability to offer some of their practical theatre classes (directing, stage design, etc.) to our playwriting students. And we’ve already been collaborating with theatre to produce staged readings of some of our student plays. Now that they’ll have a summer residency, too, we may be able to stage full productions of some of our scripts, and we may be able to offer a theatre residency or a short independent residency class for a resident playwrite.

Our first four years have been fantastic, and I’m looking forward to what the fifth year will bring. As always, our goal will be bringing the most rewarding experiences we can to all of our students and combining the flexibility of online learning with the benefits of face-to-face experiences.

The Best Little MFA

It’s been four years since we started the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, and in that time, I think we’ve created the best MFA of it’s size around. Of course, I’m biased, and I’m grateful to the students and faculty of our program who have been so great to work with.

We’ve now graduated 15 MFAs (counting the five who’ve defended their these and will get their degrees in August), and we have an enrollment hovering around 40, which is right where we want to be. We started with three faculty, two of whom were part-time, and now have three full-time faculty, one who prefers to teach 2 classes and direct theses and so is still part-time for now, and several regular part-time faculty who teach one class per semester. This allows us to offer a wide variety of classes and serve the varied needs of our current students. And it allows us to have enough faculty to direct theses as students move from taking coursework to the thesis stage. We’ve seen theses in each of the genres we focus on in the program: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and now drama with our first playscript as thesis defended in June.

What makes me think of our program as the best, though, are our students. We have a great, diverse group who work well together. They are writing in different genres (and some writing genre fiction or young adult), yet they provide a supportive environment in our online classes and when they get together at residencies. The energy in the building (despite this year’s headaches with A/C issues) has been fantastic. Every night at a full resicency, we host readings, featuring a faculty member or guest writer, a thesis candidate, and two or three other students at the residency. Our thesis students give great readings, are confident, and show they are ready to move into their professional careers. But the shorter readings by other students are fabulous, too. Here students take risks, sometimes reading for the first time in public, and the work they present is polished and compelling. You’d have to be there to know what I mean — and you could be, since they’re open to the public and we often have guests from town or beyond.

Besides the readings, I know our students are killing it through there publications. Hardly a week goes by without at least one notice of an acceptance from a student or alumn. We’ve had an AWP Intro Journals prize winner and an honorable mention, and our writers are getting into some great publications. We already have one graduate with two books of a three book deal published, and a poet with a micro chapbook and good leads on a full-length collection. And I expect more good news soon, given the strength of the theses I’ve seen.

I try to keep up with the all these accomplishments on our Facebook group, then periodically I ask students and faculty to send me their publications (I’m afraid I will miss some things on Facebook and Twitter) and list them on our accomplishments page.

I know there are more established and more prestigeous programs out there, and many of them do great work by their grad students. But if you measure the value of a program by the dedication of the faculty to teaching and by the cameraderie of the students and the writing (and publications) that this fosters, then we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve accomplished a lot in the first four years, and we’re looking forward to an even better fifth year.

That said, how would we like to improve? For one, I’d love to attract an even more diverse student body. We’ve been fortunate enough to attract African American, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ students (and faculty). We also have students from all over Mississippi, every US time zone except Alaska and Hawaii (so far), and even a student in Italy (for now). We have students from all kinds of backgrounds and religious and political persuasions, yet everyone tends to get along very well because the writing is what really matters. Together, we have formed a great community, and to me, that’s what makes us the best little low-res MFA out there.

The Art of Implication: replying to emails

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over many years of replying to email as an educator and a literary magazine editor, it’s to take a deep breath before writing a reply and to imply the things I’d like to say. So you can imagine the reply I might have sent to the submitter tone our literary magazines who wrote to complain that we had returned a submission that was getting recognition elsewhere.

In my reply, I acknowledged that our review process is imperfect and subjective, and I mentioned some of the factors that can play a role, from the typos in a submission, to the length, to the themes that emerge as an issue of the journal comes together. I also encouraged him to read our journal to better understand our choices, and I defended our practice of offering a discount to all those who submit, even if their work is returned. What I didn’t say is that no one is obligated to subscribe, but I did note that we have back issues posted online with free access.

The advice I didn’t give, but I hope was implied, is that writing snarky responses to rejection notices rarely helps your chances when submitting to journals. Editors work hard and try to make the best decisions they can. We know you’ll be disappointed when we don’t take your work, but we expect you to develop a thick skin and not take it personally.

I could have said this explicitly, but I doubt the person who wrote would have taken it very well. Keeping the tone positive is more likely to get the desired result. Of course the other option would be not to reply. Sometimes no answer is the best answer.

Revisiting the Statement of Purpose for the MFA

This week, I’ve been learning how to apply to MFA programs in creative writing: I decided to take a free course, even though I direct an MFA program. I’m taking the course to see what Kenzie Allen has to say about the process and to review what I think about it, since I’ve written a number of advice articles and our program’s Guide for Applicants. This morning’s ‘class’ (each morning for 10 days you get an email with advice on applying) was on the Statement of Purpose. It got me thinking about the importance of this part the application, which I’ve written about previously.

Allen has some good advice, and she links through to several articles by others about how to write a statement of purpose. They all pretty much agree, though each gives a slightly different take. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for this, or the statement wouldnt’ be personal. Incidentally at my program, we call it a Letter of Intent. We do that in part to make it seem less daunting, in part to make it paradoxically seem more personal, and in part to emphasize your goals. You’re not selling me on who you are; you’re selling me on what you want to do in our program (and that you are the person who can do those things).

What I was struck by in my reading this morning is just how important this letter is. Everyone says the writing sample is the most important, and that can be true, but the statement of purpose or letter of intent is just as big a deal, and it’s probably harder to write.

I’ve seen letters of intent that definitely got an applicant into our program. Their writing sample was competent, but not terribly exciting, but their letter was moving and read like very good creative nonfiction. I could see the potential in this writer from their letter, even though I could tell from their writing sample that they were still struggling to find that voice in their fiction or poetry. The letter showed me that I had someone who was ready to make that leap in their creative writing.

I’ve also seen letters that swayed me the other way. I’ve seen many that used the clichés every advice article warns against: all the permutations of “I was born to write,” for instance.  A few have been accompanied by writing samples that made me overlook the naiveté of a poor letter (yes, I know how hard they are to write!) and others that led me to believe the writer simply wasn’t ready for an MFA program yet.

I’ve even turned down one applicant, who wrote back an impassioned response defending themselves and arguing why they were ready and didn’t want to wait another year to reapply. I told them that this should have been their letter in the first place, and I allowed them to send me more writing. Eventually they were admitted to our program and are doing quite well. However, I don’t recommend that strategy!

We’re a small, young program, and so far we’re not overrun with applications. I can take more time with every applicant than the programs whose admissions committees see hundreds of applicants each admission cycle. We can give more personal attention, and so far, we can accept nearly everyone who seems to be ready for an MFA and who seems like a good fit for our program. That may change, and we may be faced with more difficult decisions. Yet even now, the statement of purpose/letter of intent is a very important part of your application, along with your writing sample. Those are the first two things we’ll see, and they form the basis of our initial decision whether or not to encourage you to complete your application and pay the application fee, send transcripts, and get letters of recommendation.

We want to know who you are and how you got to where you are, and we want to know where you think you’re going and why our program is a place that can help you get there. We want you to be as specific and detailed as possible, and we want your letter to be well-written, somewhere between a personal letter and a creative nonfiction essay. If you can do that, and if you send us writing that you’re passionate about that shows your promise as a writer, then the odds are in your favor.

The rest of your application confirms that you are who you say you are. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But your letter and writing sample will literally give the first impression, and therefore, they carry the most weight.

In Memoriam: Robin Metz

I first met Robin Metz when I hitch-hiked to Knox College in the midst of a November blizzard. In typical Robin fashion, he took it all in stride, found me a place to stay on campus, and proceeded to sell me on transferring. It would have been hard to do anything else after being exposed to Robin’s charisma and the incredibly vital environment for writing that he and Sam Moon had created. They will remain two of the most influential educators and writers in my life.

I have many fond memories of long discussions in fiction workshops with Robin that went long beyond the official end of class, especially on the nights (at least once per term) when Robin would have us all come out to his house on Broad Street. A five-hour class was not uncommon—the fact that we were allowed to drink and smoke in these night classes (maybe not the wisest policy and one that he would change in later years) may have contributed, but so did his wide-ranging discussions. Critiquing a story was never just about ‘fixing’ issues of form or style; for Robin it was always an opportunity to discuss the deeper meanings of life.

No one I knew worked harder or gave more of himself to his students than he. We joked that he sometimes didn’t pay his bills, not because he didn’t have the money but because he couldn’t find the time to write out the check. But he always had time for coffee in the Gizmo and the conference that would often last at least twice as long as scheduled. And his friendship and devotion lasted long after we graduated.

I got to spend time with Robin in Chicago when he was leading the ACM Urban Studies program. He invited to help with a workshop and then invited me back to Knox a couple years later to help with the Alumni Catch and be his assistant for two terms when I was between a job and grad school. He welcomed me into his home until I found a place to stay in an apartment across the street. And he invited me back twice mores to read on campus when I had a new book out. I also saw him many times at AWP or when I passed through Galesburg, which wasn’t as often as I wish now. But every time I saw him, it was like no time had passed.

And of course, we had our differences, and even a run-in or two, but we also had an enormous amount of mutual respect. I don’t know of anyone more curious about life and more dedicated to his craft and to his students, who he alwasy treated as fellow writers. I learned more from working with him than I have from any of my other mentors.

Robin Metz died today, after teaching at Knox for 51 years. I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at Mississippi University for Women. To imagine doubling that is nearly unthinkable, yet Robin never stopped. Despite pancreatic cancer, he always wanted to be teaching and inspiring new students and colleagues. He built a creative writing program at Knox that is unrivaled by any udergraduate college, and he inspired an army of writers who have all gone on to do great things, whether as writers, as educators, or in other creative fields. He was fortunate to be able to celebrate the program’s 50th year by traveling around the country visiting alumns (though for part of that year he was undergoing treatments).

I don’t know that I will try to match him in longevity, but I do know that he inspires me every day to create a legacy. For Robin, it never seemed to be about his own ego, but always was about helping others to achieve their potential. Yes, he had books and awards to his name, but I believe he was most proud when someone he taught had their successes. And whenever we meet up at AWP or in any other context, I know the talk will always turn to Robin Metx and how much we will all miss him.

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.