Read Like an MFA Student

You love to write.  You’ve been scribbling poems or stories in notebooks and on napkins since you were a kid.  Maybe you worked on the school newspaper or do technical writing for your job now.  Maybe you already have a book (or multiple books) published.  Either way, you want to learn more.  You want an MFA.

So, the research begins. Do you go for a traditional studio degree, which requires you to become a full-time student and possibly relocate for two to three years, or a low-residency MFA where you meet up for residencies with faculty and your fellow students and then do the rest of your work from home?  And if you decide to go with a low-residency, how do you choose which one, and what is it really like?

This is where we come in.  We understand that this is a big decision, that you’re taking a leap of faith when you choose to pursue an MFA, choose a school, begin a new chapter in your life (have I exhausted all the cliches in the world yet?).  That’s why we try to offer options for those potential students that are still on the fence.  If you want to get a feel for a residency at Converse (there are two a year, January and June, ten days each) without actually registering as a student, we offer something we call an “Immersion Residency,” where you attend a residency, participate in workshop, listen to lectures and readings, and basically do everything the other students are doing except for making a semester plan or earning academic credit. We also offer Lecture Passes (there are full and half passes), that give you the opportunity to attend craft lectures from our exceptional faculty in all genres.

These are amazing opportunities to dig in and live like an MFA student for ten days, and these not-for-credit options are not offered at every MFA program.  But even with these sneak peeks, you may still be curious about what the rest of the semester is really like.  How much reading and writing is required?  How do I communicate with my faculty mentor?  And while many of these questions can and will be answered at the residencies, I think it’s helpful to get a glimpse into some pieces of real-life semester plans.  If you follow us on Instagram, you’ll know we’ve been doing a series called #readlikeanmfastudent.  We have featured books that were actually assigned to students in previous semesters and give you an idea of the kind of reading you’d actually be doing.  Of course, there are response papers and actual writing in your genre due over the five semester packets, but it seemed like it might be fun and informative to take a look at the wide breadth of the readings assigned to students.  So here goes.

Craft books.

Several of the books assigned for your semester reading list will include books on the craft of writing.

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Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, YA, or poetry, you’ll be assigned several books each semester that take a deep dive into the craft of writing.  You will learn how to take apart what you read in your genre, analyze it , and determine what techniques the author used to accomplish specific structures/effects/moods/etc.

Genre Books

This is the fun part.  You and your faculty mentor will sit down together to create your reading list of books in your particular genre.  Which books you choose are often partially determined by what you are writing or a particular area in your writing where you would like to improve.  Are you working on a collection of linked short stories?  Then you may choose several of these as part of your reading plan.  Do you write narrative-style poetry?  Your faculty mentor will be able to recommend tons of great books that use that structure/style.  The great part is that, unlike when you’re an undergrad and you’re at the mercy of whatever your professor assigns, you will work with your faculty mentor to choose books that you want to read.

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Critical Paper Reading

In our program, every third semester student writes a critical paper.  Maybe you want to focus on some specific area of craft within your genre.  Or perhaps you’re interested in a particular trend or element that you find interesting.  Either way, you’ll be constructing a reading list that furthers your research for this project.  Here are two examples from our #readlikeanmfastudent Instagram series.

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Perhaps you’d like to read everything written by one specific author and then analyze an element of their writing.

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Or maybe you’re interested in writing that is from a specific geographical area and would like to take a deep dive into the literature of that people and place.  The above photo shows a reading list of books that are either written by Appalachian writers, set in Appalachian settings, or in most cases, both.

Whatever direction you decide to take in your critical paper, it’s a fun opportunity to explore a topic that you are passionate about.  Your subject is not dictated to you by your faculty mentor, which makes the hours of research and reading seem more like fun and less like academic drudgery.

Meet & Greet Info Session

Does all this targeted reading and the writing that results from it sound like the kind of thing you’re looking for? Then come by during the upcoming January Residency for an Information Session where you can meet some of the faculty, ask questions, and get a feel for the Converse College Campus.   Join us on Saturday, January 6, 2018, from 3:30-4:30 pm in the Montgomery Building’s Barnet Room.  We would love the chance to meet you and answer any and all questions you may have about any aspect of the program, from application/acceptance to the Summer/Fall semester, to the possibility of joining us for an Immersion Residency or Lecture Pass.  Here’s hoping we see you there.

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What I’ve Learned, or How is May only Five Months Ago?

hangintherekittenIn 2011, I completed my MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction), at Converse College.  I was excited, I was exhausted, and I had no idea what came next.  I didn’t know how scary it would be to write after graduation, with no faculty mentor to tell me everything I was doing wrong or that I had accidentally given my character three arms. (True story!)  I didn’t know how much I’d miss the community of writers that met twice a year for residency.  All I really knew for sure was that those graduation robes are hot, nobody looks good in those mortarboard hats they make you wear, and my eighteen month old was decidedly not impressed with my brand-spanking new graduate degree and wanted to go home.

I’ve done lots of different things since graduation: running a summer writer’s camp for teenagers, editing an online literary journal, working as an adjunct instructor at my very favorite place, Converse.  How I ended up where I am right now as Associate Director of the MFA program is still a bit dizzying to me, and adjustments to my job and life are being made daily.

Back in 2009, starting the program three weeks after my undergrad graduation, I can remember watching Rick and his then admin, Melody, work crazy hours during residency, scrambling to answer questions and keep everyone happy and everything running smoothly.  We were all impressed with their poise and stamina.  When I realized I would start my current position with a bit of a baptism by fire — my first residency, mere weeks after my hire date, and without Rick to guide me — I thought that would be the biggest learning curve.  And it was certainly a challenge.  What I didn’t expect was that what came after–the supposed “quiet” part of the school year–would be at least as challenging,  if not more.

Suddenly, I am seeing things from the other side of the desk.  Reading applications and transcripts, planning schedules, arranging housing for students.  It hasn’t been so much a learning curve, as a learning U-turn.  So, I thought I’d share with you some of the things I’ve picked up along the way that may be helpful to those looking for a low-residency program, applying to a program, or participating in one.  Maybe you’ll find something useful; maybe you’ll just laugh at my own missteps.  Either way, enjoy!

 

1. Write down your questions before you call.  We’ve all done it.  You pick up the phone, ready to get all the information you can.  Someone answers your call, and your mind goes blank, and you forget how to use words.  It’s okay.  We’re writers, not orators.  Have a plan, write it down, and then write the answers down too because you won’t remember a thing they said when you hang up.

2. Whenever possible, send ALL of your application materials in one packet.  This needs no explanation.  Just know that the office staff will have all kinds of warm fuzzies for you if you do this, and, hey, that can’t hurt.

3. It’s called a “Personal Statement,” but keep the personal bits short and relevant to your point.  Remember those annoying five paragraph essays you had to do a million years ago in ENG101? Think like that (only don’t write like your freshman self.)  Have a cohesive point that ties together your reading and writing influences and any personal information you share.  I literally shudder to think what was in my personal statement when I applied.  I’m kind of glad it’s filed away in a scary basement where I’ll never be tempted to take a peek at a document that’s probably scarier than whatever is living in said basement.  Oh, and don’t bother name dropping authors you “love,” hoping to impress the readers.  You finished Infinite Jest with all the footnotes.  Congratulations.  (Unless, of course, you’re name-dropping one of our faculty members’ books, in which case it’s totally okay.)

4.  Send your absolute BEST writing.  Don’t worry so much about showing how everything you send fits together.  You think you want to write a novel in short stories, or poems about your late aunt’s QVC habit, but it’s all going to change.  Your ideas will shift and reform as you study and work.  Just send in your best stuff and let the readers sort it out.

5.  Keep to deadlines.  This applies to applicants, students, associate directors, everybody.  We’re all happier, and things run much more smoothly when everyone views deadlines as absolute and not friendly suggestions.

6. Build a writing community with your fellow students that will sustain you when the program ends.  Just do it.  You’ll thank me later.

7. Whenever possible, have a Paula, and be sure to tell her she’s great often.  That sweet lady that calls and reminds you to pay your deposit or tracks down your missing transcripts?  She’s a superhero, and I think everyone needs one of those by their side.

8. Never start a blog post with a “Hang in There” kitten poster.  Those are the worst.

 

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Sarah Gray graduated from Converse with a BFA in Creative and Professional Writing in 2009 through the Converse II program and stayed around to earn her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Converse as a member of the program’s very first graduating class in 2011.

She founded the MFA program’s literary journal, South 85, directed the Converse Young Writers’ Workshop for two years, and served as an adjunct for three years before stepping into her current position as Associate Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program.

While Converse feels like home, she actually lives in Greer, SC, with her husband and daughter.

Accomplished YA Author: Why I Chose Converse MFA

While many of our students come into our program never having published so much as a classified ad, some arrive as published authors seeking to improve in their craft.  Gwen Holt, a soon-to-be-graduate in our YA program, is one such student.  When asked to talk about her time in the program, she eagerly agreed to write something for our blog.  So keep reading to hear about Gwen’s journey to Converse and through our MFA program.

 

Doing the MFA Math

By Gwen Holt

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I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years. One day, I realized my life was probably half over and I hadn’t written the great American novel, or anything good enough to sell, and I started typing like mad. I used a lot of blogs and craft books and workshops to find my way through the fray. I wrote draft after draft of bad fantasy novels and dragged myself to critique groups and conferences. I queried editors and agents, both big and small. I had some really near misses and some epic fails. Finally, I won a twitter contest and four small presses suddenly wanted my latest YA novel.

With a book in the bag and a sequel under contract, it was much easier to land an agent. My sales numbers were good and I had a lot of other material I could polish and pitch. Yet, when I browsed bookstores and binge-listened to audible, I knew even though I had sold two books, and landed a stellar agent, my writing wasn’t where I wanted it to be.

Rinse, wash, repeat: more workshops, critique groups, conferences, and craft books. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, or if I was, it was at a snail’s pace. I’m not an invertebrate-type person. That’s when I started reading a lot of bios. I needed to find out what the great writers I loved had in common. They came from all walks of life, all genders, and backgrounds. They had varying styles and genres. They were pretty evenly spread in the bookshelves between literary and commercial writers, some were classics, some speculative writers, some contemporary. The only binding thread was that most had an MFA degree.

When I delved further into the world of the MFA, I discovered two of my friends (already New York Times Best-Sellers) were also considering going back to school. I asked one what benefit she saw in more formal schooling, and her answer was simple and poignant— she loves learning. She wanted to learn everything about writing, and an MFA program is a cluster of people who feel the same way. They are serious about their work, and they are serious about your work. What’s to lose?

Money and time … that’s what. As a mother with four children, I knew I couldn’t go back to a full-time program. So I started considering low-residency MFA programs. The price tags made me sick as well. Like I said, I have four kids who will hopefully go to college in the not-so-distant future. I didn’t feel great about jumping the gun on them and raking up my own six figure loan first.

So I did the next most sensible thing, I started adding up how much I knew most serious writers regularly spend on conferences, professional critiques, and workshops. Plus all the travel and accommodations involved with those outings, then I multiplied that by two years (the average time frame of an MFA program). What I found was surprising to say the least. When compared to more modestly priced low residency MFA programs, the total wasn’t that far off. Bonus: I’d be leaving with a degree I could hang on my wall, take pride in, and use to get a teaching job should I want to go that route. An MFA would also qualify me to teach at workshops I longed to attend. I immediately pulled out the low res MFA list from Poets & Writers again and started sorting by a formula I had created for myself.

I knew I wanted a literary program. I’m a junkie for the classics and a beautifully written scene. I also wanted a program that was kidlit friendly, or one that had a YA program, since that’s what I write. I knew I needed to be with people who understood the difference between the adult fiction world and the YA world. For personal reasons, I didn’t want to get too far from home. I have two special needs children, and I knew there was always the chance that I might be called home at short notice.

Once I had those parameters in place, I started making phone calls. All low res MFA programs offer information sessions, and most directors are more than happy to schedule one-on-one calls to answer specific questions. It quickly became clear that there were three schools I would be more than happy to get into. After applying and getting my acceptance letters, I chose Converse College, and I’m so glad I did.

Let me back up a minute so we can address the elephant in the room. I wish I could tell you that the right program for you will grab you by the lapels and kiss you passionately and all will be sunshine and roses. This just isn’t going to happen. It’s a leap of faith no matter what you’re looking for. I know a few students who did a semester of their MFA and realized that either the specific program wasn’t a good fit for them, or the people in the program weren’t a good fit for them, or that they actually wanted to study poetry instead of fiction. But, you give it a try. Do your math, make your charts, and read your tea leaves. Then choose as best you can for yourself and go in with an open mind. It’s never what you think it’s going to be or should be, but there’s a very good chance that the program will be better than you anticipate.

I practically internet stalked the entire faculty of Converse’s program before I applied. I read their work, poured over their many publications and awards, felt incredibly humble and apprehensive about meeting these literary giants (C. Michael Curtis, people! He practically gave birth to The Atlantic). But I charged ahead anyway, and I’m so glad I did.

In spite of their many awards, publications, accomplishments and accolades, the faculty at Converse couldn’t be more humble or kind. Each member of the core faculty brings to the table a different sensibility when it comes to writing. I was able to work with big picture people who helped me hone the scope of my creative work into a smooth and compelling arc. There were also detail people, who chipped and drilled away at my idiosyncrasies and overuse of adverbs— a well-placed adverb is the unicorn of prose. My final mentor, Tommy Hays, did all of these things and helped me polish my final creative thesis so that I felt good about sending it to my agent as well. All the while, Rick Mulkey, Director of the MFA program, was cheering me on and answering all my newbie questions with patience and kindness.

In the end, you also can’t tell who your fellow students will be. I got extremely lucky. My graduating class, and a few of those before and after, are now dear friends and critique partners that I hope to stay in touch with for many years to come. The beauty of a program like this is no matter who fills the seats beside you, you’ll always have something in common: a love of writing, and a desire to improve. Sometimes that’s all your career needs to jumpstart it into the right lane.

 

gwenholt.png Gwen Holt was raised in the wilds of rural Idaho, but found her heart in New York City. She worked at many interesting jobs before settling in as a mother and writer. She now resides in North Carolina with her husband, four children, ten chickens, and two suspected serial killer cats.

Gwen will graduate from Converse College with her MFA in Young Adult Literature in 2018. She has written countless short stories, and is the author of three published novels under the penname, Leigh Statham: The Perilous Journey of the Not-So-Innocuous Girl (Month9Books), The Perilous Journey of the Much-Too-Spontaneous Girl(Month9Books), and Daughter4254 (Owl Hollow Press). She is also the winner of the 2016 Southeast Review Nonfiction Prize for her short story “The Ditch Bank and the Fenceline.”

 

South 85 Journal Brings Poetry to YouTube

south85Converse College Low-Residency MFA program has long been proud of our online literary journal, South 85Helmed by Converse MFA fiction alumna, Debby DeRosa, the journal is a well-curated online publication featuring fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art from writers and artists across the country.

Not one to allow our beloved publication to drift in the sea of similar online journals, Debby is constantly looking for innovative ways of featuring the work and artistry that make up South 85.

Enter the South85 YouTube channel.  Once a month, this brand new channel will feature videos of select poets reading their own work.  The inaugural performance video dropped October 9, 2017, and it features Converse MFA alumna, Mel Sherrer, reading her poetry to bassoon accompaniment by bassoonist, Liz Valvano.  See link below.

Enjoy this month’s video post, and be sure to click “Subscribe,” so you don’t miss next month’s post.  All of us in the MFA office are proud of Debby and her staff’s innovative ideas and the professionalism with which they execute them.  And a huge shout-out to multi-talented alumna, Mel Sherrer, and her friend, Liz Valvano.  Beautiful work, ladies.

To read the full text of Mel’s poem, click here.

 

Mel-Sherrer-100x100 Mel Sherrer completed her MFA at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She uses her Southern roots and knowledge of sonic aesthetic to create poems which have personal reverence for place, time, and societal evolution. Mel has been performing poetry for more than ten years. She is currently the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal, and she regularly interviews writers for our blog. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is an avid performer, angler, and Nerf collector.

Liz-Valvano-photo-100x100 Liz Valvano, bassoon, is beginning her Doctorate of Musical Arts in double reed performance at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She completed her Masters in Music at Texas State University, woodwind performance under the tutelage of Daris Hale and Dr. Ian Davidson May 2017, and her BA in music and chemistry at Hollins University in May 2015, studying under Danny Felty of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. Currently, she performs with the UNLV Symphony Orchestra and Honors Graduate Wind Quintet.

 

Readings, Reviews, and Hurricane Relief

IMG_1081The MFA blog has been quiet for a little while as we are still reading last minute applications and getting to meet so many wonderful writers through their submitted manuscripts.  I guess what I’m saying is, it’s going to be a terrific January residency.

Meanwhile, the world outside our office has been less terrific with one hurricane after another pounding coasts and putting the lives of many (students, faculty, and alumni included) in danger.  So with the help of poetry graduate, Clara Jane Hallar, we joined forces with her Pints & Poets reading series at local brewery, Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery, and held a very special Pints & Poets for Hurricane Relief.  Our readers included MFA faculty, students, alumni, and some local writers as well.  Featured poets were Rick Mulkey, Kathleen Nalley, Leslie Sainz, and Kimberly Simms.  In fiction, we heard from Susan Tekulve and Linda Prince.  All money raised went toward Can’d Aid/Oskar Blues Charity, which distributes growlers of fresh drinking water to those in need during natural disasters.

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Thank you so much to everyone who came out to support the cause, to Clara Jane Haller and Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery for organizing the event and providing the space, and to all our talented readers.  It was a lovely evening.

The MFA office is alsIMG_9985o excited to give a shout out to fiction faculty member, Robert Olmsted for his rave review/interview on Kirkus Reviews for his latest book, Savage Country.  His book was also named one of the top ten reads for October by the editors of Amazon books! We are so proud to have Bob on our fiction faculty here at Converse and can’t wait to read his new book.

Now it’s back to work, and so, till next time, keep writing!

Fall Update: Hurricane Relief, Facebook Live Event, and MFA Instagram Goes New York

If you notice the blog has been quiet lately that’s only because we have been busy in the MFA office reading applications and getting reading for the swiftly approaching January residency.  (No really, it’ll be here so fast.)  But quiet on the blog does NOT mean quiet everywhere, and we’ve got lots of exciting things to tell you about.

First and foremost, we are grateful that our students and alumni that were in the path of Harvey and Irma are safe.  But that doesn’t mean that they (and many others) don’t still need our help.  That’s why we will be holding a special hurricane relief reading/fundraiser in conjunction with Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery’s Pints and Poets reading series.  So come have a drink, listen to some great readings, and support a cause that’s close to all our hearts. All donations will given to CAN’d Aid Foundation by Oskar Blues, an organization that provides clean drinking water for those affected by the hurricanes.  The event is free, but donations are appreciated.
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And just in case you don’t follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter and you didn’t know about our Facebook Live event, I’d like to report it was a great success.  As of today, we’ve had over 300 views of our information session that was held as a live streaming event here in the MFA office.  If you missed it, don’t worry because you can still view it on our Facebook page any time you want.  Many thanks to our fearless leader, Rick Mulkey, for coming in during his sabbatical to help field questions and talk about the program. Also much gratitude to alumnus, Travis Burnham, for making time for us on a Saturday morning to help with the event.  Of course, I’m not surprised by his willingness to jump in and lend a hand as, apparently, it’s just what our alumni do.  We had current students and alumni both, answering questions posted in the comments section faster that Rick, Travis, or I could get to them.  We are grateful for our MFA family, and we’d love to have you join our tight-knit community.  The application deadline for the January residency is October 1, 2017.

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Have you checked out our Instagram account yet?  So far we’ve featured everything from faculty to craft books, campus pics to bookish art.  And we’re always looking for new things to feature, so be sure to send us your pics of your semester reading or your new favorite craft book or your pick for the Man Booker prize.  In the meantime, the Converse MFA Instagram is going to be taking a brief trip to the Big Apple at the beginning of October, so be on the lookout for all things bookish in NYC.  (You know there’ll be a trip to the Strand in there.)

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Until next time, keep writing!

Guest Blogger: A Poet (and Alumna) Bares Her Soul

Once again, one of our own, alumna, Gabrielle Brant Freeman, has graciously shared with our blog.  I have to say that I’ve yet to be turned down by a student or alum.  The Converse MFA family is strong.  Now sit back and read this beautiful piece by Gabby, and then get your application in by October 1, 2017, so you can change your life as well.

Baring your soul, changing your life, and other consequences of the MFA

by Gabrielle Brant Freeman

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Almost exactly seven years ago, I was sitting in my office at the university where I teach freshman composition trying to decide between applying for PhD programs or applying for MFA programs. My office mate kept trying to steer me towards an MFA. She had recently completed hers in YA literature, and she had only glowing reviews of her program. “Gabrielle, it will literally change your life,” she said. I thought she had to be exaggerating, but ultimately the low-residency model worked best for me. I applied to Converse and got in.

Flash forward seven years. My life is, quite literally, completely changed.

After my first workshop resulted in me throwing away every poem in my packet, I realized that I had been writing, what little writing I actually did, without purpose. I had been writing because I liked the idea of writing, not because I had to write. I realized I had been holding back.

For this blog post, Sarah asked me to write about how I mix visual art, poetry, prose, and music. To address that, I have to say that seven years ago, I had painted, but I didn’t paint. I had written, but I didn’t write. I wasn’t yet brave enough to put my whole self on the page or the canvas. Giving other people a window into your soul is a scary thing. Even if the poem or story isn’t about you, it comes from you. It’s a part of you. It belongs to you. Until it doesn’t. Until you put it out into the world to be judged.

I decided that first semester that I was going to stop worrying about that judgment. I was going to take risks. I wrote a poem about women and sexuality called “Whore” that I, admittedly, wasn’t ready to read out loud until last summer. I wrote a poem about a lesbian version of the Orpheus myth incorporating opera which I sing at readings. I created and participated in public writing and art challenges for myself using social media not only to get drafts down on the page, but also to keep my sense of vulnerability open. Writing or painting or singing for an audience, no matter how real or perceived, makes me accountable. Someone at Converse once said that an audience chooses to spend some of their limited time listening to you, reading your words. Don’t waste their time.

Right now, in part because of the events of the past year, both public and private, I am writing about women in America and the restrictions and constraints we live with every day. These poems are difficult for me to write, my brain keeps saying you really shouldn’t write that, and that lets me know that I am taking necessary risks. I have done some photography and painting on this subject, but it is mostly coming out as writing right now. And that is possibly the biggest change I have made. I trust my instincts, and I act on them.

If something comes into my mind as an image, I paint, draw, or take pictures. If it comes as a line, idea, or concept, I generally take to the page. I resist the voice in my head that says you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. And when it’s done, I send it out.

In the past seven years, I have rediscovered my creativity and my passion. I have given myself permission to be creative, to be passionate. To be my authentic self. And, oh yes, I have changed. Baring your soul will do that.

b&wsmileheadshotGabrielle Brant Freeman’s poetry has been published in many journals, most recently in Barrelhouse, Cider Press Review, Grist, One, Rappahannock Review, storySouth, and Waxwing. She was nominated twice for the Best of the Net, and she was a 2014 finalist. Gabrielle won the 2015 Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition. Press 53 published her first book, When She Was Bad, in 2016. Gabrielle earned her MFA through Converse College. Read her poems and more at http://gabriellebrantfreeman.squarespace.com/.

Facebook Live Info Session/AMA!

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Every day we get questions: How does the low-residency program work?  Where will I stay?  Do I have to be published? Am I too old?  Plus LOTS more question besides.  Well, on Saturday, September 16, at 11 am, you can have all these questions answered and more during our very first Facebook Live Info Session.  If you have already “liked” our FB page, a notification should pop up on your smartphone when we go live.  If you haven’t liked our FB page, then what are you waiting for?  Go to http://www.facebook.com/ConverseMFA and click on the “Like” button.  If for some reason you can’t watch us live (and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t immediately clear your schedule for this 😉 ), no worries because the entire video will remain up on the FB page for later viewing, and you can always private message us your questions on FB, or you can email me at sarah.gray@converse.edu, or call 864-596-9550.

While we have had information sessions in the past on campus, this time we wanted to broaden our reach, make it so that people who don’t live close enough to drive here for an hour-long session can have the same experience as locals.  I am an alumna of the program, a member of the very first graduating class, in fact.  That meant that when I was accepted into the MFA program here, I didn’t fully know how things would work and what a residency would look like even as I signed on the dotted line.  So I’m very happy to be able to talk about the program and answer all the questions just generally have a good time chatting with you all.  I hope to see you there!

Sarah Gray, Associate Director

 

Guest Blogger: Another First-Timer Falls for the Program

Today, we have another guest blogger, Edmund Schubert, a first semester fiction student, to give us the scoop on what it’s like to dig into your first residency.  Edmund has already become a beloved addition to our MFA family.  From his extensive knowledge of  Star Wars (a really impressive trait to a certain Associate Director) to his inability to meet a stranger, Edmund immediately felt like he had always been a part of the program.  Need an emcee for the student reading? Call Edmund, who will have wacky introductions and a deadpan delivery of each.  Need someone to write a clever and charming essay about his time at Converse? Call Edmund.  Or in this case, email him. Which is what I did.

 

Schubert selfieGetting It Right: The Story of a Residency

I’m starting at the end, because that’s a viable way to tell a story. Hook your readers with the penultimate moment of action or drama, then rewind and show them how it all began, then hit them with the big finish. In this case, that penultimate moment of action is me, in my first residency for Converse College’s MFA Program, standing in the middle of the college campus. It’s June 8, 2017, and there’s only one day left. I’m loving it so much that I’m already thinking about how I can’t wait to come back for the next residency. The Winter Residency is held at a hotel in town, not on campus like the Summer Residency, but it doesn’t matter: I just can’t wait to get back to this environment and these people and immerse myself again in the craft of writing and surround myself with all the phenomenal people who are part of this program—teachers and students alike.

On the other hand, maybe I won’t jump to the beginning. Maybe next I’ll do something different and unexpected. One of the books my current mentor assigned me to read and analyze is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a brilliant piece of writing and story-telling (two skills that are not the same thing at all), and through it I realized the potency of non-linear story-telling, so let’s do that instead and jump to the middle of this tale, wherein I’m watching the whirlwind poetry professor do a dervish-dance around the main lecture hall while guiding us through something she calls radical revision. She’s got us rewriting an exercise she just had us compose about a happy memory, only now we’re turning the details of that same event into a tragic memory. The power of perspective. A radical revision indeed.

Even further backward in time we go now, before the beginning, where I’m trying to decide where I want to go to get my MFA. I want—scratch that, write a second draft… I need to connect with real human beings, so a strictly online program is out of the question. But I also have two teenagers in college, too, so quitting my job and going back to school full-time is even less of an option. Low-residency, it is then. Converse’s MFA program is the best of both worlds: on campus for four residencies, home for four semesters. Then one graduating residency, where I pass along an idea or two to the newer students,  some nuggets of value that I’ve picked up along the way.

The residencies: ten days on campus, surrounded by other people who love words like I do, immersed in the craft of writing, attending readings by visiting and fulltime teachers, student readings, late night bull sessions, meals and drinks and library marathons writing/proofing/printing, plus workshops and feedback. (Is it any wonder I can’t wait to get back?)

The first day was daunting. I was late to my first meeting with my first-semester mentor. Great first impression, huh? Day two was smoother. Turns out the fastest way from the dining hall to the main lecture hall is to follow my fellow students, people who’ve been there before. They’re more than happy to help. My roommate even gave me copies of stories and critical papers and all sorts of documents so I could have templates to work from.

And now it’s over and I’m home. This is the part that comes after the end of the story about my first residency. I’m writing short stories and chapters of a novel and reading books and books and books, books I would never have read on my own, and God how did I get this far in life without having read this amazing book? Where’s the next one? What should the next one be? For the record, I have a reading list of ten books to read this semester. I also have to write a four page paper about each one. I write between fifteen and twenty-five pages of new fiction for each packet that I submit to my mentor, and I have to submit five packets each semester.

But the most important number of all?

Only 127 days left until I go back again…

Guest Blogger: First Semester Student Spells It Out

We are so excited to welcome another guest blogger today, first semester fiction student, Frances Nevill.  Few students jump into their first residency with the same enthusiasm and work ethic as Frances.  She is a talented writer who only wants to improve and has no ego about her writing — all eagerness and energy.  And so she makes the perfect person to give prospective students a peek into the program, of what it’s like to jump in feet first and hope you can at least doggie paddle.  Enjoy her post.  I’m sure you’ll find her excitement as infectious as we did.

Don’t forget that applications for the January Residency are due October 1, 2017.

Immersion & Inspiration:aaa DSC_4137 The Converse College MFA Residency

If you are thinking about jumping into a low residency MFA program,  you might be wondering, “What is the ‘residency’? Will it feel like going back to school? An extended workshop? A writer’s retreat?” Quite possibly, it will be a little like all of those, and yet I think it’s something more.

Converse’s MFA residency is a 10-day combination of workshops, lectures and readings, all pertaining to your craft that takes place on the beautiful Converse campus. The workshops afford you the time to delve into the fine details of your creative work as well as the work of others. In this intimate, faculty-led setting, students are able to not only refine their own work, but to play a crucial role in helping their fellow classmates reach the next level in their own writing. And by way of that process, your own work begins to improve.

Daily craft lectures enable students to take a tour of genres and techniques. While there will be plenty of lectures offered in your chosen field of study, exploring the landscape of other genres opens up a new lens for the writer from which to see. The poet gets insight from the fiction writer; the young adult author is infused with tips from a creative nonfiction writer. The ways in which to learn and see our own work continues to grow and develop.

The evenings are filled with readings from faculty and visiting writers. These evenings give students the opportunity to hear work from published writers from all around the country. The whole act of listening to work read aloud adds another dimension to the student’s experience and enjoyment of the written word. Book signings and time to socialize are also fun parts of the whole residency experience.

On a personal note, my decision to attend Converse was confirmed during my first residency. Workshops were small enough that each student received a lot of individual attention. The MFA faculty loves what they do, and it’s evident in how they participate and interact with students. The faculty gave us in-depth, written analysis of our work, and they made themselves completely accessible. I don’t think I had one meal where several members of the faculty weren’t at my table. I also don’t think there was one workshop, craft lecture, or reading where the entire faculty, or nearly entire faculty, wasn’t in attendance. I realized I was part of a program where the teachers and the students are all invested in each other’s work and long-term success. I don’t know if this is common in other residencies, but during mine, it was clear I was someplace special.

Writers might notice the bronze statue of Emily Dickinson near the campus library. Her statue stands to remind us all of the lasting power of words and how writers endeavor to craft art that will live on from generation to generation. This is what the faculty strives to instill in its graduate students. I found this to be of the utmost importance from my own residency workshop instructors, Marlin Barton and Leslie Pietrzyk. As writers, they conveyed, we aren’t just striving to get better for today; we are striving for our work to last beyond these days. It’s the great legacy of art and the great challenge of the artist: to create those works that resonate with people we will never know. No easy feat.

But the journey is also part of that complicated marathon that writer’s run every day. It’s a journey that is punctuated by the relationships—the shared experiences created by those who have committed their life’s work to the same path. You walk this path together at Converse, and the residency is the beginning. It’s the starting point of two years of literary critiques, book recommendations, deep discussions about your genre, and bonding moments where we all share our writing challenges. Residency offers the student the time to “build their writing life” as said by faculty member, Leslie Pietrzyk. Aside from the wonderful circle of friends you will foster, it’s also those simple moments you might experience alone. Those moments sitting near that Emily Dickinson statue or in the library or in your dorm room contemplating your next poem, story, character, or plot. It’s a journey I encourage you to jump into with full commitment and not look back. Now is the time to do it. You will have lots of writers beside you sharing your struggles and successes, and ultimately creating those moments and works of art that will endure.

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Frances Nevill is a first semester MFA student from Florida. Find her on Twitter @francesnevill or Instagram @floridayall.