Home Team or Away? The Low-Residency vs. Traditional M.F.A.

Absolute Blank

By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Thinking about an M.F.A.? For the uninitiated, that is a Master of Fine Arts, which is one of the terminal (although hopefully not fatal) graduate degrees available in creative writing. There are a lot of things to consider: faculty, funding, football team, etc. Before you buy a new black turtleneck and a hundred reams of printer paper, you have a decision to make about location. Will you be moving away to submerge yourself in academia at a traditional university or staying put while enrolling in a low-residency program? Both require a book-length creative thesis and bestow the same degree, but that is where the similarity ends.

Background Image: CC-by-sa Joe Lewis/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by-sa Joe Lewis/Flickr

The Traditional M.F.A.

The first traditional M.F.A. program was started at the University of Iowa in 1936, and it remains one of the most prestigious. However, the entire concept of graduate studies in creative writing grew slowly for many years before a recent flowering. In 1975 the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a national, nonprofit literary organization for teachers and writers, listed 15 programs that conferred the M.F.A. degree. As of 2004, there were 109 and the boom shows no signs of slowing.

The programs vary in length from 24–48 credit hours (8–16 classes/workshops) spread out over two to three years. The traditional program is built around the writing workshop—one per semester. Most require an equal amount of literature classes, with the balance of the structured classwork in the “nuts and bolts” of writing craft and pedagogical practices. Nearly all traditional programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE (the grad school equivalent of the SAT), and a small percentage also require proficiency in a foreign language.

Traditional programs are what most people envision if you mention graduate school: small classes, literary criticism papers with fun terms like “deconstructionist,” college bars, sports, cheap apartments and cheaper beer. Although there are under-funded exceptions, most universities accept only enough students for whom they can provide a tuition waiver and some form of living stipend. Graduate students at traditional programs earn their keep and gain valuable experience while working on literary journals, acting as teaching assistants for large classes or solo teaching a section or two of Freshman Composition. These jobs are expected to take 20 hours per week, but may require more or less than that. It also might be in your best interests to note that it is called a “living” stipend, because that is all it allows. Stipends for liberal arts students are much lower than those in the hard sciences and are very often scraping the poverty line, although most do include some type of health insurance.

The attraction of the traditional program is uninterrupted time. The student gains a minimum of two years of complete immersion in a community dedicated to writing and literature, without the distractions of the real world outside the ivory tower. For those who have tried to balance a nine-to-five job with writing, grad school offers a welcome retreat. The teaching experience gained can also prove invaluable for those who plan to become professors. The workshop format gives experience in giving and receiving criticism, and also helps a writer identify and create a community of like-minded individuals who will provide useful feedback and support outside of class, and often long past graduation.

There are drawbacks. The workshop system, while tried and tested, ensures that a given student’s work will be critiqued only a few times per semester, thus more time is spent giving feedback than receiving. The aforementioned stipends are a sticking point, but for many it is the investment of time that is more difficult than a loss of salary. Mortgages, school-age children, aging parents, and spousal careers make it difficult to simply pull up roots and move to a college town for two years. For those people, the proper route may be a…

Low-Residency M.F.A.

The first low-residency program was created at Goddard College, a progressive liberal arts school in rural Vermont, in the 1970s. Today there are more than thirty programs, and new ones seem to open with each passing year. They are based at traditional, smaller colleges and universities, but the students spend the vast majority of the time at their home addresses.

Low-residency programs consist of four semesters, each of which is six months long. The semesters begin with a 7–10 day residency at the college, with a packed schedule of lectures, readings and workshops, and meeting face-to-face with a single faculty mentor. The faculty in low-residency programs may also teach in a traditional program elsewhere, as the low-residency model gives them as much freedom as the students. After the residency everyone returns home, and the real work begins. Rather than classes, low-residency students follow an individualized course of study with their faculty mentor for the remainder of the six months, corresponding by post, email and perhaps phone. The student and mentor agree on a reading list and short critical assignments, but the largest part of the work is very simple: large packets of writing due to the mentor at set intervals throughout the semester. A typical expectation might be five packets of 35–45 pages each, delivered at four week intervals. The mentor responds to each with direct feedback, and subsequent packets will contain a mixture of new and revised work.

The typical low-residency program suggests that 25 hours per week will be required to complete the semester. The attraction, obviously, is the ability to remain at home and perhaps continue working at least part-time in another career. For many, this model more closely parallels the life of a working writer than does the seclusion of a traditional program. The direct feedback and individualized attention of a single mentor are also powerful selling points.

The drawbacks to low-residency programs are mostly related to cost and experience. The tuition averages $6,000–$7,000 per semester with additional costs for residency travel and lodging, and there is virtually no grant or scholarship money available. Since most low-res students are a part of the workforce, however, the effects are comparable to traditional programs. In other words, if a real salary minus the cost of a low-residency program is greater than a small stipend at a traditional program, the student may still come out ahead. Low-residency programs also have no way of offering teaching experience, so those who wish to teach college in the future will be at a disadvantage. Finally, although there are intense periods working with other students at the residencies, without a workshop system and months of shared classes the formation of a supportive writing community may not be as strong or immediate as in a traditional program.

Home team or away?

So, what’s it going to be? Are you joining the bohemian neighborhood or staying home? Will you spend a few years in the ivory tower, or a few hours a night locked in your own basement? No matter which you choose it will be a strenuous trip, from which you will emerge with a new sheepskin and a book of your own. Whether you choose to play for the home team or climb onto the bus for the away game, two years to focus on your writing is a fine game to play.


Final Poll Results

Summer Camp: The West Virginia Writers’ Workshop

Absolute Blank

By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Writing can be a lonely job. It takes place in basements and attics during the gray months, on dining room tables littered with bills or breezy park benches with only bare trees to witness the verbal assaults. Warm weather returns and some writers emerge from their dens. They grimace at the sunlight, stretch, and begin their yearly migration to a summer escape. This year, I joined the herd. The question was: Where to go?

A quick web search and perusal of a popular writing magazine gave me a hundred possibilities scattered across the country and the world. Read the fine print to be sure you are getting what you want. Of course, all generalizations are wrong (including this one), but there a few guidelines. University-sponsored events will focus on literary fiction and poetry, while those backed by a journal will deal with works it would likely publish. Genre conferences are available and while some believe they are full of romance, to others they are a mystery. There are writing retreats—bucolic escapes that provide time alone to focus on your work, which are usually self-directed. If your daily writing life is made up of stolen minutes between meetings and/or loads of laundry, you may want to try a retreat. Personally, I’d had enough navel-gazing to last until autumn and I was looking for classes, workshops, and readings. Then I had to narrow the focus further: choosing craft over publishing, accessibility over mega-stars. It is entirely possible to attend a huge conference where your favorite best-selling author reads and your dream agent haunts the bar. Getting to talk to them, however, may be another story.

Background Image: Mike McBride/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I hit Morgantown on a day late in July to attend the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop (WVWW), a conference held on the campus of West Virginia University. The humidity slapped me like a wet towel as soon as I open the car door. Morgantown, like most of occupied West Virginia, is built in a steep river valley and the three available acres of flat land were developed long ago. I tried to count the steps up to the dorm where conference attendees were housed, but I lost track (and briefly, consciousness) at 117. I dropped a quarter on the way up and it rolled to Cincinnati.

After checking in to my blessedly air-conditioned dorm room, I headed off to the first item on the agenda: a welcome lunch. Fifty writers sat around tables, eyeing the buffet. We were welcomed by the Director of the workshop, James Harms, a dead ringer for Harry Anderson of “Night Court” fame. Professor Harms also doubles as the head of the Creative Writing program at WVU. Emboldened by his resemblance to a TV judge, I cornered him for a few questions and he laid out the bare facts. The Workshop seems to ebb and flow with the economy, but has grown steadily to its current level. The pull is regional: Ohio, West Virginia and a few souls from the Mid-Atlantic States. The main draws seem to be the price (underwritten by WVU), and the fact that it only runs for a long weekend. Those two factors definitely affected my decision. A few of the conferences I considered would have required a home equity loan for financing, and a note from the Centers for Disease Control to explain my sick time away from work. The WVWW is aimed at beginning to mid-level writers, but several published professionals return year after year for the camaraderie. For its investment the University gets a recruiting bump for undergrad and MFA programs, and Morgantown gets the cachet of being a place where poets and writers gather.

The afternoon set the pattern for the next three days: a reading from a faculty member, in this case Mark Brazaitis, the winner of the both the Iowa Short Fiction award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize. Then a craft class, followed by the title event: the workshops. Brazaitis was my workshop leader, and I was sweating. I’d read his stuff before attending, and he’s good. My last workshop was many moons ago in college. I have a thick skin, but I was more concerned about saying something stupid than getting shot full of arrows myself. We’d received the fiction submissions in advance, and they covered the gamut of genre and ability. Mark laid out the ground rules for the workshop, which were straightforward. The author read a page or so to refresh memories, someone else summarized the entire piece, Mark would ask a few pointed questions, then we were off—chiming in and attempting to balance negative comments with positives. The class was kept small: ten participants.

The time flew by as we discussed the work in front of us. I should have realized that the quality of the discussion would be strong. Writers who leave their homes and use personal funds and vacation time to improve their craft are already driven to succeed. They may not be household names yet, but they are careful readers with insight into the writing process, and therefore excellent workshop members. I got more good commentary in a half-hour than I could shake a stick at, and took home ten sets of their personal notes on my work. As an added bonus, I didn’t say anything stupid.

Dinner was followed by more readings, then socializing. There was imbibing. On we went: sleep, classes, workshop, readings. Rinse and repeat. The classes covered submitting work to journals, starting and maintaining a writing group and how-tos on writing nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews. If you’ve ever wanted to ask editors questions point-blank about the submission process, this is a place to do it. One of them handed out cover letters received (sanitized of names) as examples of what not to do. I was pleased not to find any that I recognized. Apparently, borderline psychotic handwritten notes on a cocktail napkin are unacceptable. Who knew?

While the structured events were excellent, I may (as in college) have learned more outside of class. All of the faculty members were approachable and available for questions and comments. They moved easily from podium to desk, attending each other’s classes and blurring the line between teacher and student. I learned that there are other people out there working in rural voids, without much chance for feedback beyond what’s offered on the internet. There are also healthy, disciplined writing groups in towns small and large. We’re all re-writing and submitting, trying to improve our work and tell our stories. It’s comforting to know. It may not make us sane, but at least we’re not alone. Contact with that sort of group energy also recharges the writer batteries. Now when I am getting lazy and start to think “good enough,” I consider putting that work in front of the workshop group and it makes me take one more hard look before sealing the envelope.

The final event of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop was an open mike reading. I’ve never read from my own work before. It was a rewarding experience, but even better was hearing the work of the other participants. It was a reminder that writing does not have to be serious, just as truthful as possible.

I’ll be going back next year, to West Virginia or perhaps somewhere new. Summer camp was a lot of fun this year, and it was well worth the investment of money and time. I didn’t come home with a macramé ashtray or a canoeing badge, but I do have new friends, dedicated writers who will look at work via email. I saw a poet dance to the music of her own words. I sweated on the steps and at the workshop table, and I trimmed a little fat in both places. I wouldn’t want to go to camp year-round, but my short stint in the summer made me eager to climb back into my basement for another few months.


West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.

Next year, maybe Sewanee if I can swing the $$$ and time.

Something in between at Hollins

I would also suggest the Speakeasy message forum at Poets & Writers. It requires registration and a login, but along with other good writing message boards it has one devoted to conferences, workshops and retreats.

Final Poll Results

The Writer’s Notebook

Absolute Blank

By J. Walke (jaywalke)

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ll begin with a confession: I have a stationery problem. It started small, ring binders mostly, but as the years went by I began to hit the hard stuff: leather covers, gilt edges and heavy stock. I had outdoor journals for writing in the rain, little pocket cheapies for a quick thrill, and others so pretentious they refused to go out of the house unless I wore my blazer with the leather elbow patches. All of them, however, shared the same difficulty—they arrived empty. That creamy blankness daunted me like a young boy facing a centerfold. It was beautiful and I knew I was expected to do something with it, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. So, the fear of creating something trite or useless kept me from writing anything.

It took a Rorschach test to snap me out of it. I received an expensive journal as a gift and refilled my fountain pen to write something inspiring on the first page. I hovered too long and a drop of ink fell, creating a blot that soaked through to the second page. It was ruined. It was a catastrophe. It was a giraffe with a glandular problem. Turned sideways it was the profile of an angry woman. She set me free. Since the beautiful blank page was “ruined” I had permission to fill it without worrying about how it would look. I had finally gotten past the notion that I had to write something worth reading every time my pen touched paper. My notes would never see publication, at least not in a recognizable form. That is what the drafts are for, and the time at the computer. The purpose of my notebook became collection rather than creation.

Background Image: Garrett Coakley/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Do me a favor. Take out your notebook (I am assuming you have one, be it gilt-edged or not). Lay your pen across the top. Now put a screwdriver and a hammer next to them. They are all simply tools. Do you lament the screws unturned, the nails unpounded? Perhaps you shouldn’t sweat the words unwritten. They are everywhere. Say it with me: “They are everywhere. “Life offers you a multitude of truth at every turn, but (and here is the magical part) it is your job to capture it. Best of all, there are no rules on how you go about it! No grammar, no spell-check, no outline necessary and it need only make sense to you. Just grab them; the bits of conversation, snatches of reality, pieces of pain. Scribbling and doodling are encouraged. Write down story ideas before they evaporate, argue with yourself, list life goals, books to read, and what you need from the grocery store. Cut out a page with a penknife to leave a love note on your significant other’s windshield. Write imaginary letters to Attila the Hun and your favorite auntie. It is just a tool, and you can’t use it incorrectly unless you try to be someone you are not. A straight read of your notebook may well get the relatives together for an intervention, but you can’t worry about that because it is not for them. It is yours, and you are busy pouring ink onto your life to preserve it until you need it.

Let me elaborate on that last thought. Imagine a canvas. It’s modern. If you mailed it, it would be post-modern. It’s white, objectively speaking, with no frame. Closer inspection reveals three tiny red dots lounging in the upper left corner. Can you see it? Now, answer a question for me: Is it still a white painting? Why? Do the red dots make it red, or do they simply point out the whiteness? This is the part in the show where you ask yourself: What does this have to do with writing? The point, if there is one, (and I think by this point we all hope there is one) is that miniscule dabs of color can create art. Just as a few red blotches can make you realize the value of white, a few drops of reality can ground your fiction in a manner impossible by imagination alone.

That is where my notebook serves me best. I steal dots for my art. When I see things that move me, or read or hear words that are alive I try to capture them in scrawl. Here’s a representative puddle of my brain leaking onto the page:

  • NYT printed on leftover cockroach DNA
  • 45 billion billion molecules in one cubic centimeter of air
  • energy is liberated matter
  • chiropractor’s office: purple carpet, lime green walls, stuffed rhino collection, elevator music—”Please sign in and get ready for a superspectacular adjustment!”
  • graffiti on a newspaper machine—”LIES”
  • graffiti on a telephone switchbox , white paint only one foot off the ground—”Mutate or die”
  • heard from one aisle over – “You best stop messin’ with them snack cakes. You know I’ll whup you in the grocery store.”
  • “Laughter is the psychical discharge of energy.” —Freud.
  • Ducklings following their mother across the busy road during commute. Confused, scared (anthropomorphism), trapped on the concrete median. Wanted to stop. Hesitated and went on. I can’t stop thinking about them.

Any of these could be the basis for a story. It is obvious, for example, that my home town has some opinionated gnomes with spray paint. Even if the bits do not stand alone, they are grist for the mill of other works. It is not the normality of life that is memorable, it is the strangeness. Which character is more vivid: the drunk, bald man in a white sweater, or the drunk, bald man who eats the dip at a party by scooping it up with his hand? [That little tic, by the way, is courtesy of a fellow at college who was possibly raised by raccoons.] The important thing is that they moved me, and when I finally sit down to write I want to use them to move my reader. They are the notes that ring true and convince the reader that they are indeed listening to a fellow traveler on this wobbly voyage.

So, here is the homework assignment: take a notebook with you everywhere. Carry two writing utensils. Live with your senses wide open, and when something makes you laugh, cry, vomit, love, hate, bridle, sweat, whatever… write it down. Do it for a week. Then sit at your computer and leaf through the ramblings. Ignore the chocolate smears and drops of… is that blood? Where have you been? Never mind, never mind… just give it a shot. Remember, you can’t be wrong. Now get out there and do your job—collect some truth.

I can’t promise this will work for you as well as it does for me. There are no guarantees. However, even if it doesn’t work, look on the bright side: you have a neat new notebook and you have finally stopped eating dip with your hands.

Final Poll Results

Start a Writer’s Notebook

A Pen In Each Hand

By Jaywalke

Take a notebook with you everywhere. Carry two writing utensils. Live with your senses wide open, and when something makes you laugh, cry, vomit, love, hate, bridle, sweat, whatever… write it down. Do it for a week. Then sit at your computer and leaf through the ramblings. Ignore the chocolate smears and drops of… is that blood? Where have you been? Never mind, never mind… just give it a shot. Remember, you can’t be wrong. Now get out there and do your job—collect some truth.