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…

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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.

 

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.

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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.

 

An Interview with Director, Rick Mulkey, Part I

We are excited to share this three-part interview with our fearless leader, Rick Mulkey, founder and director of the Converse College MFA in Creative Writing program, and a stellar poet in his own right (check out one of his 15147729934_fd3ff6de66_kpoems here).  Rick is a charismatic leader, an engaging lecturer/reader, and a passionate advocate for the creative writing MFA degree as a vital instrument in shaping better writers in a space that is safe and nurturing.  In Part I, Rick talks about the Converse MFA program specifically and gives a more in-depth explanation of how our program works.

And don’t forget to check out our Instagram account beginning this Sunday, August 6, for the first in our daily series of faculty profiles.

 

 

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

 

Q: Rick, the MFA program at Converse College is nearly a decade old now. Can you talk about it, and what makes the program unique?

 

Mulkey: Certainly. Its structure sets it apart from traditional residential programs across the country. It’s a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and the only low residency program in South Carolina. The various types of genres our students can major in is another quality that sets us apart from many MFA programs. We offer five genres for students to select as a major: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult fiction writing, and environmental writing, and that makes us the only program in South Carolina that offers all of those options, and one of only a few programs in the U.S. to offer all of them. Also, we do something few low-residency programs do. We offer a limited number of Teaching Assistantship opportunities for second year students, and many of our first year MFA students receive a small merit-based work scholarship. We are also a program that believes in the idea of studying the art of writing while preparing for the business of publishing. We do this through our classroom workshops, lectures, and mentoring studies with award-winning faculty, but also through our regular opportunities to meet and work with New York agents and commercial and literary press editors.

 

Q: Can you define “low-residency?”

 

Mulkey: Sure. The first low-residency program that I know of was at Goddard College in Vermont, and it started decades ago. In fact, the program was initiated by a graduate of the Converse College undergraduate program, the award-winning poet Ellen Bryant Voigt. Low-residency programs were conceived as programs for individuals who had perhaps given up on writing or were struggling to complete their writing because of the responsibilities of jobs, families, and daily life, and then they had gone back to writing and wanted to study writing without having to give up those jobs or move families. In our program writing students include writers with families and full-time jobs, but also recent college graduates who come to us directly from their undergraduate degree programs. These students, ranging in age from 22 to 70, come to us to study with some of the most recognized and critically-acclaimed writers in the country. And they work with these experienced writers from their own hometowns in a one to one mentoring relationship. In order to create a catalyst for this semester-long mentoring experience, our program holds on-campus residencies of about ten days twice-a-year. During these residency sessions, everyone in the program, students, faculty, visiting agents and editors get together. We hold workshops, there are lectures and seminars, readings, so student writers leave energized both to revise their writing and to start new work as well. It is an intimate, group experience, followed by an intimate student to faculty mentor experience. The result after two years, four mentoring semesters, and five residency sessions, is the completion of a book-length work of prose or poetry, and the MFA.

 

Q: Why do you think an aspiring writer should choose the creative writing program at Converse College?

Mulkey: I’ve thought about this a good deal because this is something that prospective students often ask. The answer that always comes to my mind is that Converse students and graduates are strong writers who become even stronger writers while studying at Converse. When I see student writers in a classroom at Converse, I think these students should feel they are at a graduate writing program as strong as any in the country, and I want to make that clear to everyone, the students and the larger community. One way we’ve done this at Converse has been to show them the caliber of the poets and writers who want to come and work with our students. So our students sit down in classrooms and conferences with and are mentored by outstanding writers, winners of National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Drue Heinz Prize, Guggenheim Fellows, and Cave Canem Prize winners.  As a writing student at Converse, you’re going to have opportunities to engage in some very exciting dialogue with outstanding writers, editors, and agents. And this quality is represented by the excellent publications of our students and alumni. People here at Converse have known about the outstanding quality of our program for quite some time, but I think, in recent years, it’s becoming clear to many outside our program that something exceptional is happening here. If you have a Converse College MFA, you’ve acquired a very valuable and respected education, one that can help open doors in publishing, higher education, and elsewhere.

To see Part II, click here.

Meet the Faculty on Instagram

Beginning on Sunday, our Instagram account will be featuring/introducing our super-talented faculty. So be sure to check in each day next week to learn more about our favorite poets, fiction writers, and creative non-fiction writers.  And if you’re not on Instagram, no worries.  Each day’s post will pop up in our Facebook and Twitter accounts as well.

And if you are a student/alumni of the program, feel free to share your favorite pics of faculty to Instagram (or Twitter) with the hashtag, #ConverseMFAfaculty!

See you soon on Instagram!

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