Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, which won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002, will be reissued in paperback this fall. Recent essays appearing in River Teeth and Harpur Palate have been honored by Pushcart nominations and her writing has been published in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Literary Mama, Mississippi Review, Wondertime, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.
Okay, the big question first: When is someone “ready” for graduate school in creative writing?
My stock answer is that would-be applicants should wait until they have a firm sense of the project they want to tackle; i.e., they should have a draft underway and be committed to completing and revising that manuscript to defend as a thesis at the end of the program. “The thesis is not the book,” I always reassure my near-deadline MFA students (in the Ashland poetry and creative nonfiction low-res program) and MA students (in Ball State’s Creative Writing program)—but the thesis should certainly be a giant step in the direction of that first book.
That is really good advice. I wish I’d had a firm sense of my project before applying. Did you?
Unfortunately, no. This was not my own degree of readiness when I entered the University of Alabama’s MFA program way back when in 1995; I enrolled as a writer of (thinly veiled autobiographical) short stories and exited with a reasonably polished memoir. The luxury of conceiving and beginning my Big Thing in the midst of my writing program was granted by the fact that while graduation from Bama is possible in three years, they’ll actually keep (read: fund) their students for four fat years. If I’d been in a two-year program, I would have run out of time. That said, the problem with my know-your-project advice is that MFA candidates might feel locked into a project that changes (or evaporates!) as they move into new writing relationships with professors, peers, and texts in their programs. We go into graduate writing programs to challenge ourselves as readers, thinkers, and writers, so new directions should certainly be encouraged, right?
Oh yes. I think that inevitably, the project you think you’ll work on in grad school shifts and morphs and changes. So, does that mean it doesn’t really matter when you go?
Here’s a better stab at a one-size-fits-all answer. You are ready for an MFA program when you’re ready to be there, when spending hours at a desk with a laptop or pencil rearranging words into sentences seems like the only thing worth doing. You’re ready to enter a graduate writing program when you’re writing. Regularly. A lot. One indicator to me that a student will not succeed in a writing program is when she believes that a writing program will make her write. I’m not writing now. There are too many distractions. But when I’m admitted into a program, well, then I will write! Probably not. In graduate school, there are distractions galore: coursework, sometimes teaching, an infatuating peer group of like-minded writers; if you’re not writing now, I tell these students, you will struggle. Do something else for awhile. If you’re waiting tables and writing, then it might be time to put in some applications.
That’s very good advice. Okay, so to shift a little, what kind of writer is best suited for a low-residency program as opposed to a regular residency program?
Discipline and self-motivation are incredibly important in any graduate writing program, but strike me as particularly essential in a low-res student. In many ways, a low-residency program most closely emulates the lives of out-in-the-publishing-world writers. In most programs, students submit three or four “packets” of writing to a professor/writing mentor during the course of the low-residency semesters—a practice similar to the way in which writers submit writing to editors or agents for review and critique.
For those reading this who are interested in pursuing a low-res program, describe what that means, “low-res,” and what kinds of residency models are used?
Low-residency models vary; a quick search on the AWP site brings up thirty-seven low-res options. If you’re the kind of writer who prefers a one-on-one relationship with a writing mentor, you can find that. If you’re a writer who needs more community and peer-interaction, look for a program that supplements the packet-system with an online learning community with the kinds of discussions and workshops you’d find in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Another key difference among programs is the number of residencies. Ashland’s program uses a one-residency model (two full weeks in summer with an astounding line up of visiting writers to supplement the core faculty), but more common is two one-week residencies, one in summer and one in winter. Think about what works for both your schedule and your learning.
Who are your low-res students at Ashland? What kind of lives do they have?
Multiple high school English teachers, a retired pharmaceutical industry executive, a literature professor, a social worker, a registrar at a private college, a self-employed writer, a bartender/filmmaker, a newspaper journalist, and the owner of a computer consulting business, to name a few.
So for someone contemplating applying to a low-res program, what’s the upside? What are the downsides?
A low-residency program grants students with unmovable families, careers, and homes the opportunity to be part of a writing community. The primary disadvantages, as I see them, are the general lack of funding and financial aid for low-residency programs and the fact that because students aren’t funded through teaching assistantships, writers graduate with no teaching experience. If a teaching position at a university is your goal, and you’re not already teaching, then a low-residency program probably isn’t going to be the best place for you.
Stay tuned for the second half of the interview next week!