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

gwenholt

 

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.”

 

Advertisements

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.
PINTS & POETS (14)

 

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.

IMG_0890

 

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.)

thestrand

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

b&wsmileheadshot

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!

Yourbookhere

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.

aaa DSC_4137

 

 

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

 

An Interview with Rick Mulkey, Part III

It’s time for the final installment of our interview with program director, Rick Mulkey. But don’t despair.  There is still lots of good content in the works for our blog, so keep checking in to see what’s happening at the Converse College MFA Program.

IMG_0187

Writing, Career, and the Converse Low Residency MFA: A Conversation with the Director Part III

 

Q: Since the inception of MFA writing programs, one critic or another periodically bemoans how these programs fail writers in one form or another. The arguments usually made include something about the ways writers graduating from MFA programs lack distinct voices, about the cruelty of workshops, about the pettiness and cliquishness of writing programs, about how the writing and literature taught in these programs doesn’t fit what agents are looking for in today’s commercial marketplace, and a myriad of other items. How would you respond to those critics of MFA programs.

 

Mulkey: First I’d say these individuals have every right to make complaints and write and say what they want. Each individual is going to have a different experience, and some experiences are going to be better than others. This is true in every program of study, every occupation, and every walk of life. But to be honest, I’ve never understood this handwringing about graduate writing programs.

While these concerns may exist in other artistic fields, I can’t recall a single article about the ways in which the academic study of music or visual art has led to the development of inferior musicians or sculptors. Great artists and musicians have studied with mentors and teachers for centuries, and the academic study of those artistic pursuits has existed in colleges and universities for generations. My son, a musician who wants to work as a studio bassist in the commercial music arena, pursued a degree in music. While his intentions aren’t to be a classical performer or even a jazz performer, I’m pleased that his training included those areas of performance study. While he was uncertain how the study of Bach might translate to his commercial music pursuits, he recently expressed to me a gratitude for his training in those areas, believing that his studies in classical music made him a better commercial musician. Isn’t the same true for any writer of commercial fiction who really wants to improve his or her craft? Doesn’t the study of classic literature, contemporary literary fiction and poetry, and the craft techniques of those works make one a better mystery writer or science fiction writer? At the very least, I think it makes one a better reader.

In truth, I graduated with the MFA degree, and while my program was imperfect, as all academic programs are, it was an important, even life changing experience for me, and I am grateful for the writers I read, met, worked with and studied while in that program. I have no regrets. My failures as a writer are my own, but to this day, 25 years since I completed my degree, I’m happy to give my MFA program some of the credit for my few successes. This is why, in part, I’ve never given much credence to the anti-MFA crowd. In fact, I’ve never believed the arguments made by those detractors hold up to close scrutiny. For instance, the often made argument about MFA graduates all sounding the same with no distinct voice makes little sense when one considers the variety of writers publishing today. Some of my favorite authors hold graduate writing degrees, and I think any close reading of their books demonstrates that each has his or her own voice. Would anyone argue that Denise Duhamel, Sandra Cisneros, Albert Goldbarth, Natasha Trethewey or Ellen Bryant Voigt lack a distinct poetic voice? Or would anyone agree that Robert Olmstead, Alyson Hagy, Laura van den Berg, Thomas E. Kennedy or Tayari Jones are limited to writing the same story in the same prose sentence?

As for the argument that there is something cruel or petty about MFA workshops, I can honestly say that I have never, either as a student or as a teacher, been in a workshop that was mean-spirited. I’ve certainly been in workshops that were tough, where the critiques were not always flattering, but the responses, even those I didn’t agree with, seemed to me honest reactions to the work. Besides, don’t we study the craft of writing in order to receive feedback that we hope will help us improve? Aren’t we looking for the kind of tough line edits that fewer and fewer editors take the time to do? Ultimately, good works often come out of these workshops. As Eric Olsen, co-author of We Wanted to Be Writers, a book about the Iowa MFA program, states concerning the experience of workshops: “If you throw a lot of talented folks together in one place and give them the freedom to work and play together, not always nicely but nicely often enough, good things are going to happen.”

And, of course, there is the complaint that MFA programs don’t always produce writers who go on to have successful publishing careers. Do music schools and art schools always develop great musicians and artists? Does the Ph.D. Physics program at Princeton only produce Nobel Prize winning scientists? Most alumni of MFA programs don’t confuse their MFAs with a certificate to publish.  I’ve always thought that the pursuit of the MFA degree should be done to improve one’s writing and one’s appreciation for writing. Publishing is always going to be a matter of taste and, to some degree, talent. Of course, luck plays a part too since we all know plenty of writers, with and without MFA degrees, who possess marginal talent or ability, yet manage to publish successfully.

Ultimately, I can’t help but think the unfortunate truth is we are living in a culture where anti-intellectualism plays a significant role in our public discourse, and at least some of the bashing of all kinds of university programs today has something to do with the anti-intellectualism permeating our culture. There are few places to turn in the U.S. for serious engagement with artistic and intellectual ideas. Sure, we have book club blogs, we have Goodreads, Amazon and the like, but these, for the most part, like Top 40 radio, are designed to promote and praise the least offensive, least original, least demanding works. Unfortunately, book clubs for literary fiction barely exist. Likewise, there are few outlets for those wishing to meet and discuss their interests in contemporary poetry. No, if I’m going to wring my hands in worry, it is going to be over the state of publishing, the disappearance of independent bookstores, diminishing library budgets, and the interference by politicians and corporate types with academic freedom.

If I had my way, we’d live in a country where people gathered in bars, cafes and town squares to recite great verse and stories, where they would run out to buy the next Tracy K. Smith poetry collection as quickly as they do the latest George R.R. Martin novel. But the truth is, in the U.S., this kind of serious engagement with reading and writing happens primarily in the classrooms and living rooms of MFA faculty, students, and alumni—and you can count me as grateful for the existence of programs like ours.

 

To read Part I, click here.

To read Part II, click here.

 

An Interview with Rick Mulkey, Part II

Today we’re publishing the second part of our interview with Converse College MFA Director, Rick Mulkey.  In this section, Mulkey goes beyond the details our program and talks about the future of writing and the obstacles emerging writers face.  And don’t forget if you like what you read, we’d love for you to join us in January 2018 for our next residency.  The application deadline is October 1st, so don’t miss out!

 

Writing, Career, and the Converse Low Residency MFA: A Conversation with the Director Part II

Q: There are a lot of differences for a writer starting out today and a writer starting out 30 or 40 years ago. How do you prepare writers for navigating the professional marketplace and the publishing world?

Mulkey: My first response, and students don’t always want to hear this, is to focus on the
writing, focus on the work. It is more important than anything else one can do. If a student writer works hard at the writing every day, developing craft, reading other writers closely and obsessively, then the career part will not be as hard as most individuals think it is. Having said that, however, the minute any of our faculty discover a student writer doing something exceptional, we’re going to do whatever we can to make sure good people know about this talented writing student. Our faculty want to be mentors who help a writer of talent become known. This, of course, is why it is 18865025642_a7972da364_kimportant to have the kind of faculty we have here, professors who are both good classroom teachers, but also active writers who not only have a relationship with other writers, but with a whole community of people in the writing and publishing world, including editors and agents. Some individuals might think if you come to a college town in South Carolina, you are going to be cut off from that literary world, but because our faculty writers are so active in that national and international writing community, and because our program provides access to editors and agents at each residency session, our students have access to the publishing world in ways many programs simply don’t. Many of our students leave the program having signed with an agent they met with at a program residency session, or with a book deal or other publishing opportunity that started because of the recommendation of a faculty member.

The program also does an outstanding job of connecting those students to the professional, business-oriented worlds of writing and publishing. We work with our students on internship opportunities with magazines and nationally recognized independent presses. Our student/alumni edited national literary journal, South 85 Journal, provides valuable training and opportunities to our graduate students. Plus, as I mentioned previously, we offer a couple of teaching assistantships each year, providing traditional and online classroom teaching experience. And, of course, because we are a low residency MFA program, these are all opportunities that our students have access to while working and writing from their own homes. So our students in the Midwest, New England, and Pacific Northwest have the same opportunities as local and regional students in the Southeast. None of these activities will necessarily make one a great writer, but these opportunities help the students understand something of the professional world they may enter, and often these internships, and editing and teaching opportunities result in jobs after graduation.

Q: What are some of the obstacles that stand in a writer’s way?

Mulkey: Well, most prospective student writers, like so many of us today, certainly don’t read enough. I can’t stress how important it is for them to read regularly and to read widely and critically. No one can be a successful writer without reading actively and obsessively. In this age of technology where tweets replace newspapers and books, it is too easy to overlook the importance of informed, careful reading. Students should know the best contemporary writers, but they should also know that body of literature that precedes them. The best student writers I’ve known have always been some of the best and most avid readers, too. Beyond that, however, the greatest obstacle is lack of perseverance. Desire and energy make up for many shortcomings in terms of natural ability. Yes, it helps to have talent, but willpower and drive are what carries one through those periods of isolation in the second year of work on that novel, or the thirtieth revision of that poem, and through those disappointing rejections that inevitably show up in the mailbox. But real writers persevere through those obstacles. The best advice I can give is if you can’t imagine living a life without writing and reading, then put all your energy and enthusiasm into doing it, and write every day.

To see Part I, click here.