Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Prospective MFA Student Seeks Advice

I received this message via the blog, and I'm enlisting everyone's help responding to it. Please chime in!
Hello, Erika:

I have been looking at MFA programs in creative writing and have come across a problem. First, I live in Ohio where OSU is the only viable option for me to drive every day (and even that is 45 minutes one way). So I've been looking at some other options, mainly low residency programs. I've looked online and there seems to be a prejudice about which programs are best/worst.

How would I go about finding out if the programs I'm applying to will be a determent or a help in applying for work or getting published? My current choices (after OSU) are Eastern Kentucky University and Spalding University. They are not too far for me to drive once a semester or so to complete the low residency requirements.

Help!

I'm going to share a few immediate thoughts (and questions), and then I'll open things up for comments from our sage readers.

1) I'm not exactly sure which programs this writer is perceiving as "best/worst," though I have a few ideas. But I'm a big proponent of writers trying to match programs to their specific goals/needs. What might have struck one discussion board participant as "bad" may have been a bad fit for that person, but what if our correspondent has completely different professional goals or interests? Similarly, someone waxing eloquent about a program might have very different criteria for what a "good" program provides than our questioner does.

2) I think one aspect of what this writer is talking about is the level of support and guidance different programs offer their alumni. And given the extreme youth of many low-residency programs, that can be difficult to gauge. In my contribution to the revised edition of Tom Kealey's Creative Writing MFA Handbook, I say this: "It isn’t necessarily fair to compare the records of new programs with ones that have been around for decades, but it is absolutely fair to ask how programs and their faculty help students transition into careers as professional writers. Relevant questions might include: 'What happens when a faculty member thinks a given story/poem/essay is publishable?' or 'What counseling is offered students for post-MFA publication and job options?' Although some people may insist on the MFA’s purely 'artistic' purpose, many others approach it as a professional degree. Ostensibly, you’re receiving some real training for the time, money, and effort you’re devoting here. If that matters to you, make sure it matters to the program, too."

3) I know Ohio is a large state, and I'm not at all sure where our correspondent is living, but I wonder if she has considered all the low-res programs in Ohio/Kentucky? There are some others in those states, and they're listed here. I'm thinking of Ashland and Murray State, for example, although if our correspondent is a fiction writer, she probably won't be interested in Ashland (which offers concentrations in poetry and nonfiction only). By the way, I'm not at all sure she'd need to drive every day to OSU, or to any other campus-based program, for that matter.

I think I'll pause here and ask others to share their thoughts and insights. Hope this helps!

9 comments:

The First Paragraph said...

I also found the task of looking for a low-residency program a bit daunting until I found out about PLU in Tacoma, WA. I completely agree with you about matching specific goals and needs. After reading about several different programs, I checked out the creative writing website for PLU and the focus was more on people who already have jobs or commitments and also who already write on a regular basis. If I was much younger, this program would seem like a "bad" program for me, but it so happens that it was exactly what I needed.

Most of the low-residency programs seem open to answering questions, and in my case, I had a real-time conversation with the director and found out more than enough information to know I had found what I was looking for.

I hope this helps or at least lets you know you aren't alone.

Lexington girl said...

Hello,

I am a new student in EKU's Low residency MFA program and I am finding the professors are very helpful and excited about what they teach. I just finished the Winter Residency in Lexington and received so much great information about how to improve my own writing--and even tried to write in a new genre for the first time. The program seems strongest in the Fiction genre, but I hear some poets are going to be entering the program in the Fall. If you have more questions about EKU's program feel free to email me: tasha_cotter@eku.edu.
I hope that helps!

LCS249 said...

I did a great deal of research on this and came up with some good choices which you can see online.

By the say, I attended Sarah Lawrence College for two years and found that their reputation exceeds their reality. It all comes down to the students and professors. Low-res MFAs alleviate much of that, but also leave you out there on your own.

http://www.creativewriting.ubc.ca/
http://www.grad.ubc.ca/apply/programs/programs.asp?display=CRWR

http://www.murraystate.edu/mfa/

http://www.lesley.edu/gsass/creative_writing/

http://lowres.uno.edu/lowres.cfm
http://www.webdelsol.com/MFA/mfa.htm

best,

LS

Erika D. said...

Many thanks to our commenters so far. I truly appreciate your time and contributions, and I'm sure our questioner does, too.

I've had a few more thoughts about all of this over the course of the day. Please bear with me. My comments may seem a bit disconnected.

1) I thought I saw on its Web site that EKU holds one of its two residencies in Mexico. I have the impression from our correspondent's note that she doesn't wish to travel too far from home, so she'll probably want to look into that if she continues to pursue the EKU program.

2) This may seem obvious to those who have spent some time looking at program Web sites, but many programs do post updates about the publications and other accomplishments of their current students and alumni (some programs do a much better job of making this information available and keeping it current than others). But when you look at this information, tread carefully and always think about context. For instance, the larger programs should (one hopes), demonstrate quantifiably "more" such achievements: significant journal publications, books, fellowships, etc. than smaller ones might.

3) I think that to a very significant extent, one's writing ultimately has to speak for itself, regardless of program affiliation. You don't need to announce which MFA program you're attending/attended when you write a cover note with a short story submission, for example, or when you query an agent. And while some faculty members may be generous with their editorial referrals and advice, such helpfulness may vary not only from program to program, but also from faculty member to faculty member within a single program.

4) If, on the other hand, you are seeking a tenure-track job teaching writing in a college or university, your program affiliation will be obvious from your transcript. But I'm not sure any program here would be a "deal-breaker" for an application, if that's something of concern. In any case, there are many, many things that go into an application for a full-time, tenure-track job teaching creative writing (and in my experience, this sort of job is NOT a major goal among most low-res MFA students). Among other items, you'll also need publications (in most cases, at least one book under contract or published), strong recommendation letters, and teaching experience (which has traditionally not been emphasized in low-residency programs). Which brings us back, I think, to the point of trying to figure out what it is that you really want to accomplish and which programs may best help you reach those goals.

5) There was a lot I didn't realize about the options that would be open (or closed) to me upon graduation from my (low-res) MFA program when I applied (eight years ago now). Having previously earned a PhD in another field, I had no clue that having a book under contract or published (ideally, with a well recognized and respected press) would be so important for getting a tenure-track teaching job in creative writing. It's not that way at all in the field in which I originally trained--there, assistant professors are routinely hired well before they're even ready to send out their dissertations as book manuscripts.

And although an agent took on my first completed fiction manuscript just before I began my MFA program, that ms (a novel) never sold. And I had no idea that working on short stories, while delightful in itself and well-suited to the workshop format, wasn't exactly going to lead me to imminent book publication, either (both because collections are, as I have learned, notoriously difficult to sell and because it's very rare that an MFA thesis is truly "ready to go" as a book immediately upon graduation.)

In retrospect, I also wish I'd had the chance to learn more about the nuts-and-bolts of literary publishing while I was an MFA student, either through a required internship or participation with an MFA-affiliated journal or press. That might have led to some interesting professional development. Several low-res programs these days do offer such opportunities to their students, and if I were doing this all over again, such program elements would, I think, rank fairly high on my list of priorities.

OK, enough rambling for now. I hope that some of this is proving to be helpful!

Anonymous said...

I think it's worth not doing a low res program for the very hands on experience you get on multiple levels you can't even perceive yet (no tincluding the teacher interaction, the community of peer writers, and valuable teaching experience which does wonders for your writing esp. early on). And no, you don't have to drive every day.

So let me be frank and say I did my MFA at Ohio State (one of the top MFA programs--they almost made yet another a major hire this year until the search got cancelled, and already have two pulitzer nominees on staff). The first year or so when I was doing coursework I had to drive maybe three times a week. If I was lucky and got a T/R teaching assignment I drove only twice. But your classes are scheduled in such a way that you aren't wasting a trip.

I think a low res program is a viable option for those who want to write but can't get away from whatever it is, but I think it's also just sticking your toe in the water. I'm coming at this from a narrow point of view, I know, so please forgive me.

wishy the writer said...

Great post, subject and response comments! I thought I'd respond to your questioner that, as a current Spalding University MFA student in fiction, I am very pleased with my program. You are correct, though, that students' needs vary in any writing program. For what it's worth, I deeply appreciate Spalding's connection with the literary journal, The Louisville Review, and the editorial opportunities all Spalding students receive. Spalding's faculty and administrative staff are all exceptionally supportive as well. Hope this helps!

Cristina said...

Hello,

I'm also a Spalding student and a classmate of Wishy's. I agree with everything she said about Spalding. I would add that there is still a strong community built throughout the low-residency experience, stronger than the Anonymous writing might imagine. The Internet has helped a great deal with that, and many programs and literary mag or website start-ups as well as anthologies have come from the connections made through the intensive residencies, including a really nice alumni organization that works to keep Spalding grads in contact with one another. In other words, it's much more hands on than one would think.

Laura said...

Thank you so much! It's me the original "asker." I'm sure that's a term somewhere in the world-- namely my mind...

Anyway, I will hear back from OSU this week, and have decided to apply for other options over the summer. I didn't want to get into a low-res school until after I'd found a job for the fall. Things are tough all over, I suppose.

I think one last benefit to a low-res program is that you're learning to write in the real world. You have to put yourself on a schedule that allows you to churn out the required pages in the required time and work this around family and job-- which, if you want to be a real writer is more realistic than going away and making writing your job for two years.

But not nearly as much fun, I imagine.

thank you again, this was incredibly helpful and encouraging! They actually responded from the very three programs I'm considering! Spalding, OSU, and EKU.

Laura

Erika D. said...

I'm so glad you found this helpful, Laura. Let me add more thanks to all those who contributed!