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.


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.


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.




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.


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!

AWP 2018 Is Almost Here! (And it’s in balmy Tampa.)


While it seems that January residency just ended, we are nearing the end of February and hurtling toward March.  And that means…the AWP Conference, that will be held this year in Tampa, Florida, March 8-10, 2018.  Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, that’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs‘ annual conference, a massive gathering of writers, educators, publishers, and everything, well, writing.

AWPWe are so excited to be participating in this year’s event.  If you want to stop by and say hello between panel discussions and catching up with fellow writers, we’re at Table 221, and we would love to meet you.

In addition to sharing information about our program, we will also be hosting three signings (at our table) during the convention. These signings will feature both faculty and alumni.

March 9, 2018

Friday:    11:00 to 12:00 – Leslie Pietrzyk will be signing her new novel, Silver Girl.silver girl cover 2

         2:30 to 3:30 – Denise Duhamel will be signing her book of poetry, Scald.


March 10, 2018

Saturday: 11:00 to 12:00 – Gabrielle Brant Freeman will be signing her book of poetry, When She Was Bad.




Application Deadline Approaching, Plus an Exciting Announcement!


Have you been thinking about sending in your application for our June/Fall Residency/Semester?  Have you been putting it off?  Well, now is the time to get those transcripts requested and those writing samples ready because applications are due to the MFA office on February 15, 2018.  Not sure what all is required to apply to our low-residency program? Click here.  We have already received some fantastic applications, and we want to read yours too.  Still have questions or concerns you want to discuss with a real live person?  Then call or email the MFA office, and we will get you all the information you need to feel just as excited about the application process as we are.

Contact Info:

Rick Mulkey, Director, 864.596.9685,

Sarah Gray, Associate Director, 864.596.9550,

Paula Cash, Administrative Assistant, 864.596.9678,


And NOW for our exciting news!

Up until now, if you were pursuing an MFA through our program, you had to choose one genre for your entire course of study.  While you certainly got to dip your toes into other genres during the craft lectures and readings, a poet who likes to write short stories as well, didn’t have an option to workshop those stories.  So, applicants to our program had to pick a direction and stick with it.


We are now offering a second option.  For those students wishing to pursue a minor in a second genre (fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction), they can now choose to study an additional semester in a second genre.  Here is how it will work:

The second genre option (minor) reflects the MFA program’s continued mission to develop strong writers and highly prepared higher education faculty.  Many college-level creative writing programs and departments today are seeking writing faculty with backgrounds in writing and teaching in multiple genres. The newly approved second genre option provides enrolled Converse MFA students the opportunity to study a second genre in addition to the major genre of study. Students applying for approval to study in a second genre will enroll in an additional semester in the MFA program and complete an additional 12 semester hours.  For students enrolling in the second genre option, the total number of graduate hours would increase from 48 hours to 60 credit hours. This new option gives our students who are interested and equipped for graduate level work in a genre outside of their primary genre of study an opportunity to develop as a more well-rounded author, and will help our graduates excel in an ever more competitive publishing marketplace and in the academic job market.

Second genre students who are admitted will complete a full residency and mentoring semester in one of the three second genre options (fiction, poetry, or nonfiction). During the second-genre residency/semester which will take place in the student’s 3rd semester, students participate in the residency workshop in their second genre of interest (fiction, poetry, or nonfiction); and during the mentoring semester immediately following that residency, students complete creative and critical craft work in that second genre under the guidance of a mentor with a specialty in that genre. Again, this option adds one residency and one semester (a total of 12 credit hours) to a student’s total program of study and earns the student recognition in a second genre in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction which is documented on the final transcript. The second genre emphasis will lengthen the program for those second genre option students from four full semesters to five full semesters (including residency sessions at the beginning of each semester). The five-day, Graduating Residency requirements will not change, but will continue as usual and will follow the student’s final creative thesis semester.

Since it is highly important for students to first establish themselves and make positive progress in the MFA program and in the study of their primary genre before broadening out, enrolled MFA students are eligible for the second genre study option only during their third residency/mentoring semester (in other words, before the Critical Essay semester; both the Critical Essay and the Creative Thesis must be completed in the student’s primary genre in the final two semesters of the program).

Second Semester Converse MFA students intending to enroll in a second genre may apply for admission in a secondary genre residency/semester by one of the following dates: February 15 for students enrolling in their third semester during the summer residency/fall mentoring semester, or October 1 for students enrolling in their third semester during the January residency/spring mentoring semester. To apply for the second genre option, students submit a writing sample in the genre of interest (10 pages of poetry or 15 pages of nonfiction or fiction) along with a brief cover letter indicating the student’s desire to study a specific second genre. This is sent to the MFA director who then consults with relevant faculty. Director and faculty approval is required for this option. Students are expected to write at an appropriate level for graduate study in that second genre.

The MFA faculty are very excited to offer this new opportunity to our students. While not all of our students will be interested or prepared for second genre studies, and many students will recognize that focusing on a single genre will be their best path, we are pleased that this is now an opportunity for our students who have the ability and desire to pursue graduate studies in two genres.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us and we will be happy to discuss the optional emphasis and whether it is a good choice for you.


January Residency’s Over, and We’re Gearing Up for Summer!


It’s still cold outside (though NOT as cold as it was during the January residency), and some of those winter germs may have temporarily wiped out part of the MFA office, but we are back and getting excited for the summer residency.  And the deadline is JUST AROUND THE CORNER!  February 15, 2018 is the deadline for applications for the June/Fall 2018 term, and we can’t wait to hear from you.  We’re already loving some amazing applications, but we want yours too.  Whether you’re a poet, or fiction writer, a YA enthusiast, or a lover of memoir, there’s a place for you in our program.  But just in case you’re still not convinced, here’s a little photographical round up of our January residency, where we met some exciting new students and said farewell to some talented graduates.


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First Day Fun


Visiting Writer, Gary Jackson (Poetry)


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Celebrating New Year’s Eve with a reading by faculty member, Leslie Pietrzyk


Fortified with doughnuts and courage, faculty member, Tommy Hays, gave the early morning lecture on New Years Day.

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Keeping warm while they work.

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And our fearless leader, Rick Mulkey, gave a beautiful reading of some of his latest work.


Our amazing graduates — Congratulations!


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And you can’t have a graduation celebration without a little music and dancing.


So be sure to get your application in by February 15, 2018, so that you can join in on all the fun and be a better writer in the process.  We want to see you there!


We’re Back! (And we want you to join us!)


It may seem like the summer residency just ended, but here we are again, taking off running on our January 2018 residency.  Last night, we welcomed returning students, faculty, and all our new students.  One day in, and all the newbies are already starting to feel like long-time members of our MFA family.

Our very first reading of the residency featured two of our accomplished faculty who had books come out in this year (2017), Robert Olmstead (fiction) and Denise Duhamel (poetry).  Their beautiful work made for a great start to what is shaping up to be an exciting residency.


If you’re kicking yourself for missing out on the deadline for January’s residency, the good news that we are having an open house/info session on Saturday, January 6, 2018, from 3:30 to 4:30 in the Montgomery Center’s Barnet Room.  This is a wonderful opportunity to meet some our stellar faculty and get more information about our program.  Don’t forget the deadline for the summer residency is February 15, 2018, so please join us next Saturday.  We can’t wait to meet you!

Read Like an MFA Student

You love to write.  You’ve been scribbling poems or stories in notebooks and on napkins since you were a kid.  Maybe you worked on the school newspaper or do technical writing for your job now.  Maybe you already have a book (or multiple books) published.  Either way, you want to learn more.  You want an MFA.

So, the research begins. Do you go for a traditional studio degree, which requires you to become a full-time student and possibly relocate for two to three years, or a low-residency MFA where you meet up for residencies with faculty and your fellow students and then do the rest of your work from home?  And if you decide to go with a low-residency, how do you choose which one, and what is it really like?

This is where we come in.  We understand that this is a big decision, that you’re taking a leap of faith when you choose to pursue an MFA, choose a school, begin a new chapter in your life (have I exhausted all the cliches in the world yet?).  That’s why we try to offer options for those potential students that are still on the fence.  If you want to get a feel for a residency at Converse (there are two a year, January and June, ten days each) without actually registering as a student, we offer something we call an “Immersion Residency,” where you attend a residency, participate in workshop, listen to lectures and readings, and basically do everything the other students are doing except for making a semester plan or earning academic credit. We also offer Lecture Passes (there are full and half passes), that give you the opportunity to attend craft lectures from our exceptional faculty in all genres.

These are amazing opportunities to dig in and live like an MFA student for ten days, and these not-for-credit options are not offered at every MFA program.  But even with these sneak peeks, you may still be curious about what the rest of the semester is really like.  How much reading and writing is required?  How do I communicate with my faculty mentor?  And while many of these questions can and will be answered at the residencies, I think it’s helpful to get a glimpse into some pieces of real-life semester plans.  If you follow us on Instagram, you’ll know we’ve been doing a series called #readlikeanmfastudent.  We have featured books that were actually assigned to students in previous semesters and give you an idea of the kind of reading you’d actually be doing.  Of course, there are response papers and actual writing in your genre due over the five semester packets, but it seemed like it might be fun and informative to take a look at the wide breadth of the readings assigned to students.  So here goes.

Craft books.

Several of the books assigned for your semester reading list will include books on the craft of writing.


Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, YA, or poetry, you’ll be assigned several books each semester that take a deep dive into the craft of writing.  You will learn how to take apart what you read in your genre, analyze it , and determine what techniques the author used to accomplish specific structures/effects/moods/etc.

Genre Books

This is the fun part.  You and your faculty mentor will sit down together to create your reading list of books in your particular genre.  Which books you choose are often partially determined by what you are writing or a particular area in your writing where you would like to improve.  Are you working on a collection of linked short stories?  Then you may choose several of these as part of your reading plan.  Do you write narrative-style poetry?  Your faculty mentor will be able to recommend tons of great books that use that structure/style.  The great part is that, unlike when you’re an undergrad and you’re at the mercy of whatever your professor assigns, you will work with your faculty mentor to choose books that you want to read.

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Critical Paper Reading

In our program, every third semester student writes a critical paper.  Maybe you want to focus on some specific area of craft within your genre.  Or perhaps you’re interested in a particular trend or element that you find interesting.  Either way, you’ll be constructing a reading list that furthers your research for this project.  Here are two examples from our #readlikeanmfastudent Instagram series.


Perhaps you’d like to read everything written by one specific author and then analyze an element of their writing.


Or maybe you’re interested in writing that is from a specific geographical area and would like to take a deep dive into the literature of that people and place.  The above photo shows a reading list of books that are either written by Appalachian writers, set in Appalachian settings, or in most cases, both.

Whatever direction you decide to take in your critical paper, it’s a fun opportunity to explore a topic that you are passionate about.  Your subject is not dictated to you by your faculty mentor, which makes the hours of research and reading seem more like fun and less like academic drudgery.

Meet & Greet Info Session

Does all this targeted reading and the writing that results from it sound like the kind of thing you’re looking for? Then come by during the upcoming January Residency for an Information Session where you can meet some of the faculty, ask questions, and get a feel for the Converse College Campus.   Join us on Saturday, January 6, 2018, from 3:30-4:30 pm in the Montgomery Building’s Barnet Room.  We would love the chance to meet you and answer any and all questions you may have about any aspect of the program, from application/acceptance to the Summer/Fall semester, to the possibility of joining us for an Immersion Residency or Lecture Pass.  Here’s hoping we see you there.


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.



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.

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



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.”