Guest Blogger: A Poet (and Alumna) Bares Her Soul

Once again, one of our own, alumna, Gabrielle Brant Freeman, has graciously shared with our blog.  I have to say that I’ve yet to be turned down by a student or alum.  The Converse MFA family is strong.  Now sit back and read this beautiful piece by Gabby, and then get your application in by October 1, 2017, so you can change your life as well.

Baring your soul, changing your life, and other consequences of the MFA

by Gabrielle Brant Freeman

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Almost exactly seven years ago, I was sitting in my office at the university where I teach freshman composition trying to decide between applying for PhD programs or applying for MFA programs. My office mate kept trying to steer me towards an MFA. She had recently completed hers in YA literature, and she had only glowing reviews of her program. “Gabrielle, it will literally change your life,” she said. I thought she had to be exaggerating, but ultimately the low-residency model worked best for me. I applied to Converse and got in.

Flash forward seven years. My life is, quite literally, completely changed.

After my first workshop resulted in me throwing away every poem in my packet, I realized that I had been writing, what little writing I actually did, without purpose. I had been writing because I liked the idea of writing, not because I had to write. I realized I had been holding back.

For this blog post, Sarah asked me to write about how I mix visual art, poetry, prose, and music. To address that, I have to say that seven years ago, I had painted, but I didn’t paint. I had written, but I didn’t write. I wasn’t yet brave enough to put my whole self on the page or the canvas. Giving other people a window into your soul is a scary thing. Even if the poem or story isn’t about you, it comes from you. It’s a part of you. It belongs to you. Until it doesn’t. Until you put it out into the world to be judged.

I decided that first semester that I was going to stop worrying about that judgment. I was going to take risks. I wrote a poem about women and sexuality called “Whore” that I, admittedly, wasn’t ready to read out loud until last summer. I wrote a poem about a lesbian version of the Orpheus myth incorporating opera which I sing at readings. I created and participated in public writing and art challenges for myself using social media not only to get drafts down on the page, but also to keep my sense of vulnerability open. Writing or painting or singing for an audience, no matter how real or perceived, makes me accountable. Someone at Converse once said that an audience chooses to spend some of their limited time listening to you, reading your words. Don’t waste their time.

Right now, in part because of the events of the past year, both public and private, I am writing about women in America and the restrictions and constraints we live with every day. These poems are difficult for me to write, my brain keeps saying you really shouldn’t write that, and that lets me know that I am taking necessary risks. I have done some photography and painting on this subject, but it is mostly coming out as writing right now. And that is possibly the biggest change I have made. I trust my instincts, and I act on them.

If something comes into my mind as an image, I paint, draw, or take pictures. If it comes as a line, idea, or concept, I generally take to the page. I resist the voice in my head that says you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. And when it’s done, I send it out.

In the past seven years, I have rediscovered my creativity and my passion. I have given myself permission to be creative, to be passionate. To be my authentic self. And, oh yes, I have changed. Baring your soul will do that.

b&wsmileheadshotGabrielle Brant Freeman’s poetry has been published in many journals, most recently in Barrelhouse, Cider Press Review, Grist, One, Rappahannock Review, storySouth, and Waxwing. She was nominated twice for the Best of the Net, and she was a 2014 finalist. Gabrielle won the 2015 Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition. Press 53 published her first book, When She Was Bad, in 2016. Gabrielle earned her MFA through Converse College. Read her poems and more at http://gabriellebrantfreeman.squarespace.com/.
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Facebook Live Info Session/AMA!

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Every day we get questions: How does the low-residency program work?  Where will I stay?  Do I have to be published? Am I too old?  Plus LOTS more question besides.  Well, on Saturday, September 16, at 11 am, you can have all these questions answered and more during our very first Facebook Live Info Session.  If you have already “liked” our FB page, a notification should pop up on your smartphone when we go live.  If you haven’t liked our FB page, then what are you waiting for?  Go to http://www.facebook.com/ConverseMFA and click on the “Like” button.  If for some reason you can’t watch us live (and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t immediately clear your schedule for this 😉 ), no worries because the entire video will remain up on the FB page for later viewing, and you can always private message us your questions on FB, or you can email me at sarah.gray@converse.edu, or call 864-596-9550.

While we have had information sessions in the past on campus, this time we wanted to broaden our reach, make it so that people who don’t live close enough to drive here for an hour-long session can have the same experience as locals.  I am an alumna of the program, a member of the very first graduating class, in fact.  That meant that when I was accepted into the MFA program here, I didn’t fully know how things would work and what a residency would look like even as I signed on the dotted line.  So I’m very happy to be able to talk about the program and answer all the questions just generally have a good time chatting with you all.  I hope to see you there!

Sarah Gray, Associate Director

 

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…

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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South 85: A Journal and an Opportunity

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At Converse, our low-residency MFA is not just about reading and writing and studying and writing and revising and writing some more.  (Though it is a lot about that.)  We also have other opportunities for students to grow as writers/publishers/editors and more through our online literary journal, South 85.  Founded in 2012, our semi-annual online journal is fully staffed by students and alumni who lend their talents in more ways than just reading submissions.

Debby DeRosa, the current managing editor, has grown the journal to include reviews, more artwork, and even a blog.  With even bigger plans for the future of the journal, the opportunities for any of our MFA students who would like to participate are endless.  As DeRosa said, “Not only do we have plenty of writing (blog posts and reviews), reading, and editing opportunities, but we welcome and encourage input of how we can improve in other areas.  The journal is truly the collective effort of our students and graduates.”

So, as the application deadline creeps steadily closer (October 1, 2017!), be sure to check out the current issue of our journal (and the South 85 blog too, while you are at it.)  We think you will be impressed by the quality of the work and excited about the opportunity to collaborate with such a professional and talented staff.

Creating Your Own Writer’s Retreat

We are honored with yet another guest blogger, the fabulously talented, Susan Tekulve, fiction/creative non-fiction faculty here at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA.  In this week’s blog, she shares with us how to carve out a little space of one’s own for writing.  Enjoy her suggestions and consider setting aside some time in January for some writing with kindred spirits at our winter residency.  Application deadline is October 1, 2017.

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Shaking Off the Village: Creating Your Own Writer’s Retreat

By Susan Tekulve

One September, I went to live and write in a 1917 camp house at the base of the Seven Sisters Mountain range in Montreat, North Carolina. I needed to finish a novel set in the Southern Highlands. I’d taken three years to write two thirds of this novel, but the story I’d begun so heartily had started to fade.   I worried that I’d lose all the unfinished pages if I didn’t devote myself entirely to them for an unbroken space of time.  For a full year, I’d saved up money and crusaded for a four-month, unpaid leave from my job. By the time I’d secured the leave, however, I had no money left for an “official” writers’ colony, and I’d missed all the deadlines for writer’s residencies that gave out scholarships for room and board.   So I arranged a one-month contract with the owner of the camp house in the mountains of Western North Carolina, about two hours north of my house in South Carolina. Though the characters in my novel are from Southwest Virginia, they have a native intelligence of wilderness and mountains that aren’t too different from those in Western North Carolina.  I wanted to walk the paths my characters might have walked, listen to the Appalachian cadence in their speech. I kept my writing expectations simple; I planned to walk and read, and to work on one troublesome chapter that I’d revised six times over the last three years.  I had the idea that retreating to a place that resembled the home mountains my characters inhabited would unlock the narrative that had been giving me fits, and jumpstart the rest of the novel that I so desperately wanted to finish.

The cove community of Montreat was settled by Scottish Presbyterians in the late nineteenth century, and it resembles a lower highland village. The churches, schools and house foundations are cobbled with golden river rocks.  There are no sidewalks in this settlement, not even a traffic light.  Laurel trails sidle a creek that runs the entire main street, leading to its center, which is a lake that’s lodged like a dark emerald at the foot of the Seven Sisters mountain range and their father mountain, Greybeard. The Seven Sisters and their father are surrounded by an older range of the Blue Ridge Mountains that extend along the main crest of the Eastern Continental Divide.  Summers, the colony brims with schoolchildren in bright, matching t-shirts bussed in for Bible camps, and on weekends adults gather there for spiritual retreats. But September is off season in Montreat, when only the locals and a handful of retired Presbyterian ministers remain. Occasional hippies saunter over from the neighboring town of Black Mountain to hike the trails, hunt mushrooms, drink home-brewed beer on the summits.

On the day I arrived, the fall leaves in the canopies were beginning to show off, their reflections flaming on the lake’s calm surface.  Two enormous white swans patrolled the lake’s rim while male wood ducks gathered on the shady banks, their teal feathers and red eyes surreally bright as they preened and fought over the single dull female.  The lake at the center of the colony was named providentially, Lake Susan.  The house where I would live all month was called Cook’s Cottage, and the owners advertised it with the enticing phrase: “We Sleep Thirteen.”    Shingled with green cedar, the cottage was shaded by pines that endlessly sprinkled needles between the paving stones leading up to the front porch. The family who owned the house had always rented it to the church groups that flocked to Montreat for the Bible camps.  The year before, however, the campers who rented the house kicked a round of holes into the walls, and a small kitchen appliance had gone missing. By the time I approached the owners to see if I could rent their old family home, they’d already decided to keep the house for themselves and rent to an individual tenant on a monthly basis. They spoke of their house as if it were alive, like an aging relative whose care no longer could be entrusted to strangers. “We’re tired of patching up holes in the walls,” they said.  “We’ve come to believe this house wants a writer living in it.”

Moving in, I saw that Cook’s Cottage had kept its promise.  It was equipped to sleep exactly thirteen people. I wandered through each room, counting beds of several makes and sizes.  In the front bedroom, three iron cots were lined in a row.    The master bedroom held a queen-sized bed with a headboard carved from birds-eye maple, and a green apple tree grew right outside the window beside it.   In the sewing room at the back of the house, mid-day sun filtered through pines and half-drawn shades, casting a mystical blue light over two more box springs with mattresses.  All of the rooms were filled with board games with half the pieces missing.  None of the windows possessed a lock.  The entire cottage smelled of the woods and damp, as if it were already becoming part of the earth.

I spent my first day in the house unpacking. In addition to some clothing and linens, I’d brought three boxes:  the first was filled with reference texts on herbs and wildflowers, a slender volume of Thoreau, and a wilderness guide called How to Stay Alive in the Woods; A Complete Guide to Food, Shelter, and Self-Preservation That Makes Starvation in the Wilderness Next to Impossible.  In the second box, I’d stacked books that inspired me, ones that I always keep close by when I write. I added to that a few more books by authors that I’d always wanted to read.  I topped this box off with notebooks and pencils, and a hard copy of my manuscript.  In the third box, I placed my computer, blessedly disconnected from the Internet, and a few writing talismans— a dog eared postcard of a quilt I’d seen once at the Wichita Art Museum, a tapestry of women pictured in various domestic chores, woven with seashells and constellations.  It was called “Women’s Holy Work.” Near my pencil holder, I placed the postcards beside a bowl of stones I’d collected off mountains and shores from around the world. After arranging heavenly and earthly items that made me feel at home and secure, I spent the next several hours in the house wandering through the labyrinth of beds, acquainting myself with the space and light of each room, testing and eliminating mattresses.  “This one is too small, this one is too hard,” I chanted beneath my breath until I settled upon the middle room filled with the queen-sized bed for my sleeping room.  I chose the sewing room with the mystical blue light for an office.

I called my landlady and asked her permission to move a few beds.  Then I began hoisting a few of the excess mattresses over my shoulder, carrying them down the back stairs to the basement, which housed the eight remaining beds promised in the rental ad.  As I stacked the extra mattresses on the beds in the basement, I discovered the family’s old library— several ancient copies of the Bible and the Quran, Treasure Island, The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a book called Where There Is No Doctor, an old medical counselor filled with home remedies used by people living in developing countries.  I carried these books up to the blue sewing room, placing them on a wobbly bookshelf beside my own books.  I scavenged a table from the front room to use for a desk.  Muscles aching from hauling books and mattresses, I fell asleep just after dusk, listening to the woodland noises outside my open window–acorns dropping on the tin roof, the apple tree’s branches swaying, unseen animals moving beneath ferns and hedges. Dozing, I dreamed that a giant raccoon had crept in through one of the unlocked windows in the middle of a storm.  All night, the dream raccoon nested just beneath my pillow.

I woke before dawn the next morning and did not try to write.  Instead, I dressed and put on my hiking boots, heading toward the lake and trail access, vaguely planning to “christen” my retreat with a hike into the mountains.  The smallest summit of The Seven Sisters is called Tomahawk, and it tops at 3700 feet above sea level.  Its antique trails had been re-blazed and graded recently by Eagle scouts.  I decided upon a lower trail along the Blue Ridge called Lookout Trace, a hike described on my map as “a little burst of energy,” a moderate half-hour climb to its summit. At the time, I was under the influence of Henry David Thoreau, who suggests that a good walk allows us to “shake off the village,” free ourselves of worldly engagements.  He claims that the art of walking purchases the freedom and independence that are the capital of poets and writers, a commodity that no money can buy.  He writes, “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return–prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” I had no intention of sending my embalmed heart back to my husband.  The kingdom I’d left behind was hardly desolate. I simply wanted to sharpen a basic skill that had come naturally to me when I was younger–the ability to let go of what Thoreau calls the “daily palaver” that muddies up the senses, and prevents our minds from remaining open to the sights and sounds that keep us in touch with the world around us and ourselves, the sensations that feed into our writing.

The best way to recover this skill is by walking, the kind of aimless sauntering that sets your mind ambling.  The beginning of Lookout Trail was a steady climb through a rhododendron tunnel, cobbled unevenly with petrified tree roots.  As I reached the old trestle road, the halfway point, the gentle grade gave way to four-foot sandstone steps arranged like a giant’s staircase that required rest and more oxygen after climbing each one. The rising sun flickered through the understory, mingling with the blue shades of night lingering on the path. Bear musk wafted across the path.   I began to feel very alone and foolish for being up here alone, but the quest for truth and the freedom to write fiction don’t always co-exist with common sense. Climbing steadily above the earth, my mind remained more fully within my body than it had been for a long time.  I felt newly awakened, independent.    When I hit the bare rocks near the summit, I scrambled the rest of the way up, pulled by the promise of a vista. I scooted out onto the ledge, where spruce and fir grew as if out of air, bristling against the deep blue sky. On the other side of Montreat Valley, the Seven Sisters reclined like the smooth backs of women, all leaning toward their father, Greybeard, a dark, outlaw mountain fringed with clouds.

Thoreau believes that the art of walking is a direct dispensation from heaven.  Sitting on the unearthly summit, I felt as though I’d been given something that I could not purchase.  Later, I learned that I had climbed 700 vertical feet in the last half a mile of the hike, reaching 3,621 feet at Lookout Summit.  I felt a pleasant loosening in my mind and body, the hitches of both opening.  I could see everything around me with more clarity.  I had been lost and blessed by a few hours in the woods.

It took a few more days before I was ready to write. Every day, I walked and read until one day I simply drifted to my desk in that little blue room.  I started by editing the early chapters of the novel.  Then I moved onto revising the “troublesome” chapter that I charged myself with finishing. Around the time the fall rains started, the rest of the chapters of the novel poured forth in a relatively short amount of time.  Two days before my lease ended on the house, the thunderstorms moved in.  As black clouds glided over the ridges, and cloud tendrils rose like the smoke of ancient fires from the ridge clefts, it felt like the mountains were telling me to go. So I went.  I brought home a draft of a finished novel, and enough energy to sustain me as I continued to revise and submit my book for publication over the next year.

 

A Few Tips for Creating Your Own Writing Retreat

 

  • The place you choose for your retreat doesn’t need to be far away, elaborate, or expensive.  It simply needs to have a bedroom that is separate from your workspace, preferably a place to cook simple meals.  Talk to people who own cabins or guesthouses near you.  The best, more affordable places tend to be found by word of mouth.  Also, it’s not always possible, or feasible, to get away for a long stretch of time.  Ask around.  You may know someone across town who would be willing to “loan” you her place one day a week.

 

  • Choose a place that speaks to you, preferably one that your characters might inhabit.  There were many times when the plant and animal life of the Western North Carolina mountains found their way into my novel while I was writing it.    For instance, those enormous swans on the lake and the mystical sewing room found their way into a chapter.  I also received visitations from a doe that led her two fawns beside the window of my sleeping room every evening so that she could spy on me while her fawns grazed on the shade grass at the side of the house.  She made it into the novel, along with the trails I walked, and many other sights and sounds of the Appalachian flora and weather that I became attuned to while living there.

 

  • Keep your expectations simple. Don’t tell yourself that you’re going to write an entire novel, or an entire book of poems, in one month.  You’ll only intimidate yourself out of writing anything at all.  Try bringing one chapter, or a story, that you’ve already been working on, and start with that.  Keeping your goals simple will decrease any timidity, and, most likely, you’ll surprise yourself by far exceeding your expectations.

 

  • Treat yourself to a trip or meal into a nearby town every 2-3 days. If you don’t take periodic breaks, you might risk “undoing” all the good work you’ve completed. I happened to be living near the town of Black Mountain, which hosts several family-run restaurants, so every 2 or 3 days I’d treat myself to a meal at one of the local restaurants.  I am decidedly an extrovert, so this satisfied my hunger for food and my hunger for the company of other human beings all at once.

 

  • Stay connected with people who understand what you are doing. I don’t remember how, but my most disciplined writer friend and colleague, Leslie Pietrzyk, found out about my mountain retreat.  She sent a handwritten note, via my husband, who hand-delivered it during one of his visits.   It was a lovely note of encouragement.  I sent her a thank you email, describing the details of my day, the daily sights and sounds that had astonished me or fed my writing in some way.  Looking back, my emails detailing the minutiae of living in a mountain camp house were probably pretty boring, but Leslie wrote back to me every few days, offering encouragement, insights, and stories of her own.  I recall not having very good cell service, so I had to stand on the back deck of the house, and lean out over the railing while typing my notes to Leslie while the doe and her fawn spied on me, coming closer every day.  These “conversations” were as valuable to me as the quiet, meditative stretches of time I spent “shaking off the village,” freeing myself from worldly concerns so that I could create a fictional world.