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.

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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!