Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From My Bookshelf: An Insider's Guide to Creative Writing Programs

This review originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of The Writer magazine.

Help for Choosing a Writing Program

An Insider's Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MFA or MA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant, or Fellowship
by Amy Holman, Prentice-Hall Press/Penguin, 208 pages plus CD-ROM. Paperback, $18.95

Review by Erika Dreifus

If you're tired of Googling for online lists of MFA programs or writing grants or residencies, and if you're not interested in seeking separate print volumes dedicated to each of the same, Amy Holman's new book, An Insider's Guide to Creative Writing Programs will make you very happy. A published poet and literary consultant who indeed demonstrates an insider's knowledge of the field, Holman has assembled a no-nonsense guide to several key aspects of writers' professional development. Both beginners and more advanced writers should be grateful.

Holman defines "creative writing programs" broadly; she wants to "open your minds to possibilities you might have overlooked, thought were closed to you, or worried were too hard to pursue, and to change your mind about them." So she doesn't limit herself to academic (MA or MFA) programs in creative writing--although she profiles 60 such programs, including some administered through the popular low-residency option, in the book, and lists another 93 on the accompanying CD-ROM. She covers residencies, colonies, grants, and fellowships, too.

The book's first sections introduce you to this vocabulary and offer advice on "choosing the right program at the right time" and preparing an application. Holman provides the context, background and guidance for you to proceed on your own, because, as she rightly notes, "How you become encouraged about your writing ability, how you improve, hone, or perfect it depends largely on your personality and also on your personal engagement to the literary community to date." She wants to help you identify the "right environments" for your own development as a writer; she understands that that will be a personal process.

Program profiles fill most of the book. Those covering graduate schools (presented alphabetically, as Holman has wisely avoided ranking them) stand out for the way they highlight distinguishing features/program "perks" while following an economical and easy-to-follow template: For each program, Holman tells you what kind of degree it offers, a "nutshell" summary, a faculty list, and information on "defraying the cost." Non-academic program descriptions are similarly highly individualized. Holman also does the reader a favor by signaling when colonies or grants are truly open to early-career writers and when they’re really looking for very experienced, very published people. Holman complements the listings with informative quotations throughout.

Since Holman limited the number of profiles printed in the book (which keeps the text both readable and portable), one of An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs's selling points is its accompanying CD-ROM, “with listings and links for 300 programs.” This bonus sounds fantastic, and in many ways it is (especially in listing and linking programs located outside the United States). But take note of my experience:

*I could not initially access the promised searchable database on my Mac; when I tried the disc on a library PC, that problem seemed to disappear.

*The desktop left me confused. I didn’t know which file/icon to click; I would have appreciated a file labeled "Read me first." When I did find the database, I learned that I could search only one category at a time (type of program, state, or subject of program).

*Although I searched successfully for "low-residency MA programs," an attempt to identify "low-residency MFA programs" yielded what seemed to be a list of residency and low-residency programs combined.

*Similarly, the 300 promised programs are divided among multiple categories (Resident MA; Resident MFA; Low-Residency MFA; Low-Residency MA; Artist Colonies and Writers Colonies; Artist-in-Residence Programs in National Parks and Community; Academic Writer-in-Residence Programs; Grants and Fellowships; and Paid Writing Spaces). Holman provides an excellent introduction, but to identify additional programs you’ll still need to make use of other resources (including those helpfully linked in a "Resources" section).

*If you’re hoping that the CD-ROM will contain program descriptions similar to those Holman provides in the book, be forewarned that it offers program links only. In other words, you won’t find another 93 MA/MFA program descriptions there.

Those observations notwithstanding, Holman has done something exceedingly useful here. "No matter at what stage--beginning, emerging, or established--you are in your writing career, you have goals," Holman writes. An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will help you meet them.


Blu said...

Hi again!

This book seems pretty interesting also. One of my plans for the future is to travel to retreats and on grants and fellowships around the world to broaden the perspective of my writing and to, well, travel! Get away! So it seems it may be a perfect addition to my library. Thanks for the info!


Erika D. said...

Thanks, and good luck!