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
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.
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.”