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.
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.
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.