Students Speak: Russell Carr (Fiction)

This week’s student is soon-to-be graduate, Russell Carr, from our fiction group.  We are so glad Russ chose our program, and he will be greatly missed as he goes off into the world to write wonderful things.

Thus far in our series, we’ve had first and second semester students, so we thought it was time to hear from somebody who knows the ropes, who’s done the work, and who can speak to what the entire program has to offer.  We couldn’t think of a better example of a graduating fiction student than Russ.

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Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

So far, I’m writing short stories.  I’ve always enjoyed them, and they are a great way to learn how to shape a story.  They’ve been on various subjects, but mostly related to my experiences in the military and as a physician.  I’ve written some set in the Iraq War, some about a psychiatrist’s experiences in a hospital in America.  A few are not connected to me at all, but explore experiences I’m curious about.  Some of the writers I idolize influence my style:  Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolf, Anton Chekhov.

I’m also interested in creative nonfiction, and have recently been approved to pursue a minor in it at Converse, which is a great opportunity to me.

 

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

I’ve always valued education.  When I finished college in the mid-1990s, I don’t think there were many MFA programs.  At the time, I also mistakenly thought that writers teach themselves to write from reading literature.  I had no idea how important a community is for becoming a good writer.  I think, without the structure of a program back then, it was easier for me to give up and put off writing to pursue something that seemed safer, like medicine.

Then when I started getting serious about writing again three or four years ago, I tried to teach myself but found it frustrating.  There’s so much information out there.  It was hard to determine who knew what they were talking about.  I was also realizing that, like medicine, you have to learn how to do it from experts.  I participated in a few workshops and recognized that I got much better feedback from experienced, published writers.  I wanted more sustained interactions with them to critique my writing and also to guide me toward the best ways to improve.  I read more contemporary writers and realized that almost all of them graduated from an MFA program.  That’s when I started looking into them.

I chose a low residency programs because I’m a physician with a full-time position and a wife and child.  I needed something with flexible hours that would not require me to give up my main source of income or disrupt my family.

 

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

I’ve learned from this experience at Converse that I cannot write alone.  I need good feedback.  I hope to continue to get that feedback from faculty and peers through semester writing assignments and residency workshops.  I also hope to develop close friendships so that we can support each other through the difficulties of sustained writing and so that we can form a safe community to share our work after graduation.RussEdited

 

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace?

I’ve found that all of the Converse faculty are open to questions about publishing.  They describe pitfalls they’ve experienced and ways that worked well.  The faculty are approachable in informal settings throughout the residencies, such as meals or after readings in the evenings.  Those are great times to ask them what they think works or their opinions about publishing.  It is also nice to watch them promote their own work.

The program also brings an agent each semester to the residency who lectures on publishing tips and interacting with agents.  Students in their second year can meet with her individually to pitch a project or to ask questions.  I met with one to ask questions about the timing of short story publication in relation to seeking an agent for larger works, and she graciously offered her perspective.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

Everyone at Converse is supportive. No one there is competitive with each other. I’ve made great friends who are also interested in making long-term connections with other writers. All students and faculty are accepted for where they are as writers and everyone wants to help you improve.  The faculty are all very approachable and take their work with you seriously.  I also like that you as the student design your coursework.  With your mentor’s input, you choose what books you will read and what your third semester critical paper will be.  For mine, I wanted to return to my college major in Russian and examine what can be learned about writing craft that doesn’t translate well in Anton Chekhov’s short stories.  My mentor embraced the idea.  I’ve found that the faculty are excellent teachers.  They challenge students to do their best, to pursue what is risky for them.

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Students Speak: Christine Schott (YA)

This week’s featured student, is first semester Young Adult (YA) student, Christine Schott.  Already a professor and an expert on medieval studies, Christine joined our YA program in January, and we couldn’t be happier to add her to our MFA family.

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Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

I’m a bit omnivorous at this point, still trying to find the genre that best suits me.  I like everything from historical fiction to high fantasy, though I would love to find out if I’m capable of doing magical realism, but I haven’t found the right story to tell yet.

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

I teach literature at the college level, and I sort of fell into teaching the creative writing classes as well.  I was surprised to discover that they became some of my favorite courses to teach, so I started looking into MFA programs because I wanted to have the professional qualification to give my students the best education in writing that I’m capable of giving them.  And it had to be low residency because I wanted to keep my job while I was learning how to do it better!  Converse offered the best opportunities for the best value of all the programs I looked at.

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

I just want to learn everything!  I love hearing people talk about how they approach their craft–both professionals and fellow students–and I greatly value the feedback I get from workshops and mentoring.  After pursuing writing as a hobby for so long, essentially in a vacuum where my only reader was myself, I can’t express how amazing it is to be surrounded by people who not only love the craft but want to help me improve.

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace?

This is only my first semester, so publishing isn’t my primary goal just now, but my own undergraduate students often ask me about publishing, and I’ve never had good answers to offer them.  But even after one residency, I’ve already had conversations about publishing that have dramatically expanded my understanding of the marketing side of writing.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

I was amazed at my first residency when I met the faculty and my fellow students, who came from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, and who were all eager to give me much-needed advice and encouragement.  It’s an ideal environment for growing as a writer and as a member of the writing community.

Thanks so much, Christine!  We are so excited to have you with us, and we appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions.  Check back next week for another edition of Students Speak, where we will feature a different genre, a different semester, a different student’s perspective.

Introducing Our Latest Series: Students Speak

We are excited to begin a new blog post series called, Students Speak.  So many of our accepted applicants want to get a chance to talk to actual students and alumni of our MFA program, to feel like they’re getting a more complete picture of  how the program works and feels.  What’s the residency really like?  Is the workload manageable?  Do you think you made the right decision by choosing Converse?

Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing interviews with a few of our current students, male and female, newbies and seasoned veterans, so you can get the skinny on the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program.  This week, we begin with second semester poet, Zoraida “Ziggy” Pastor.  Ziggy travels from Miami to Spartanburg twice a year for residencies, and we’re awfully glad she makes the commute.

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Tell us about your creative work—do you have a preferred genre or aesthetic? Are there forms you want to try?

My preferred genre is poetry. I have been writing poetry since I was 13.  My middle school was located across the street from the library. That’s how I discovered Emily Dickinson; that’s when I wanted to be like her. And so, I started writing awful poems, emulating her style in my old composition book. I have tried my hand at fiction, but find it too constricting. I can’t keep up with all the characters and plot development. I lose hope early on with what I am writing. But I find poetry freeing. I enjoy journaling and dabble ever so lightly in memoir.

Why did you decide to pursue your MFA? What did you find most attractive about our low residency program and the low residency format? 

I first heard about an MFA degree back in 2010 or 2011. My friend and favorite librarian, Chris Canella, who passed away, told me he was doing his MFA at Florida International University. He told me about the degree, tZiggy_Denisehe pros and cons. Since I had always written poetry, that made sense to me. I looked up programs etc. I have always wanted a Master’s degree; I just didn’t know in what . My top choices were English and MFA. With English, it was required to have BA in English, which I don’t have; my BS is in Journalism and Psychology. So that option went out the window. I took some non-degree seeking courses and online writing course to improve my writing.  In my creative writing non-degree seeking course, I met Denise Duhamel (pictured above with Ziggy.) She challenged me. She nurtured me and paved my MFA path. It was a long road. I had many stops along the way i.e. unemployment, new job, etc. Eventually I received an email from Denise about a writing conference, Writers in Paradise. That helped me put together the manuscript I submitted to Converse. Denise recommended the program.  I like the low-residency model because I get out of town just when I need a change; I focus on my writing. With this model, I don’t have to move, uproot my life.  It is very self-directive, no GRE, and everyone is so nice.

In what ways do you hope your writing will be further developed by our Converse core faculty, visiting faculty, and students? Do you have any writing goals you hope to accomplish?

I am looking to grow my writing, to write better, more effective poems. I am praying I get a book deal and that more journals pick up my poems. I have seen my writing grow. I am writing more successful poems, with less telling and more showing. This program really honors my voice. I am guided, but given liberty to choose books, topics, to write where the muse leads me.

In addition to your work on writing craft, how has the Converse program helped you in terms of navigating the publishing marketplace?

I’ve gotten some things published in a chapbook entitled, Bear Echoes, and one of my poems, “Royal Flamenco Dancer,” is featured in Best Emerging Poets of Florida.  Other than that, most of my poems remain in notebooks or in Word documents. Rick [Mulkey, our director] told me not to worry [about publication yet], to just focus on the writing and to not be in a hurry to publish.

Why would you recommend the Converse College Low Residency Program to an MFA applicant?

I have recommend the program to a friend. This low residency model is great for people who have families and steady jobs, and it doesn’t require a GRE. The faculty and staff (Sarah, Paula) are so great and so kind. It’s like a big family. Because the program is small, you really connect with your teachers and classmates. You are guided and kept company. You make lifelong writing friends.

 

 

That’s it until next week.  Many thanks to Ziggy for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions.  Check back next week to see what a student from a completely different genre has to say about the program.  Until then, keep writing!