Ashland University

Low-Res, High Motivation: an interview with Jill Christman (Part Two) By Cathy Day

Read part one of the interview.

Just ten or fifteen years ago, there were hardly any low-res programs, but they’ve grown exponentially. 

Not just low-residency programs. According to AWP’s statistics, in 1975, there were 24 undergraduate minors, 3 undergraduate majors, and 15 MFA programs nationally, now those numbers are 347, 157, and 184, respectively. It’s staggering, and only the numbers b/w 2009-2010 begin to indicate that we might be reaching saturation, leveling off.

Okay, this is something I think about a lot: Do you think there are more writers today because there are more programs? Or do you think that there are just as many people who want to be writers, but they are simply more visible now, because there are more programs?

That’s a terrific question, Cathy. Ever since we scratched on cave walls, we humans have had the desire to tell our stories. The narrative drive is strong in most of us. Think about it.  How many times—say, at the summer wedding of a friend—have you revealed that you are a writer by profession to another veggie-skewer-nibbling guest who is something else by profession—let’s say he’s a surgeon. How many times have you heard, “Oh! I have a story to tell! I want to write a book, too!”

Once I had a surgeon tell me this during a procedure.

Well, maybe that surgeon at the appetizer table or in the procedure room does have a book in him. But the transition and translation between a book-in-the-head to a book-on-the-page is not a simple task. Turns out, writing is not so easy. Writing takes training (which is not to say MFA necessarily—this can be done on one’s own with great big stack of books), practice, and a whole heck of a lot of work. I have a writer friend who tells these non-writer writers: “That’s great!  Write a draft of your book and I will look at it.”

Wow. That’s a great idea—and awfully generous, too. Do you have any snappy responses of your own?

I have only on one occasion had the opportunity and accompanying chutzpah to reply to a doctor who informed me—at a book reception in Minnesota—that he was “thinking about taking a summer off soon” so that he could write that book he had in him. My reply? “Wonderful! I was thinking of taking a summer off soon to do some surgeries.”

[Cathy laughs ruefully.]

I’m sure this sounds way too flip, but my point is this: For people with lives in full-swing who feel that need to tell their stories, that requirement to write and be heard, low-residency programs are a terrific way to become part of a vibrant writing community.

Okay, here’s my last question. Why do this? Why teach in a low-res program? You already have two jobs: one, being a professor, mentor, and colleague, an employee of Ball State University, and two, being a writer, the self-employed proprietor of your own writing “business.” What are the advantages of taking on another job? Mind you, I’m asking because it seems like almost every writer-teacher I know teaches in a low-res program, and I’m considering doing it myself!

When you lay out all my jobs here in a single sentence, Cathy, it makes me want to lie down and cry—or, at least, rest, but seriously, I ask myself this same question frequently. So why don’t I quit? Those two weeks every summer are vital to my engagement in the art and profession of creative nonfiction writing. My colleagues in the program inspire me, and we spend those weeks in close proximity: if I didn’t see them every summer, I’d miss them terribly. A typical day at Ashland consists of a morning run with one of my colleagues, a 3-hour workshop with fantastic students, a community lunch (where the topics range from manipulating multiple points of view in an essay to whether it’s a good idea to have key lime pie for dessert at lunchtime), afternoon craft seminars (hosted by faculty as well as visiting writers—again, on topics ranging from dealing with difficult material to syntax and setting, always with an eye toward the relationship between poetry, creative nonfiction, and truth), some afternoon writing and rest, dinner together, and an evening reading. It’s summer camp designed exactly for people like us.

It’s good and important to recharge your batteries.

I’m fortunate to teach at Ball State where I also enjoy a community of dynamic, hard-working, innovative writers who take their teaching and writing seriously, but I think it’s important to stretch myself as a teacher and a writer by getting this injection of new ideas and pedagogies every summer.  In the past few years, the Ashland program has hosted writers such as Nathasha Tretheway, Floyd Skloot, Debra Marquart, Brenda Miller, Tobias Wolff, Scott Russell Sanders, Patricia Hampl, Richard Jackson, C.K. Williams, and Bill Kittredge—to name a few—and this means I’ve had the opportunity to introduce Trish Hampl’s reading from The Florist’s Daughter, I’ve eaten dinner with Floyd Skloot as he shared the impetus and structure for one of my favorite essays, and I’ve sat weeping in the audience as Richard Jackson read a new poem that blew my sandals off.  It’s just an amazing experience, and as long as my family can swing it, I’ll do what I can to remain in this generative, supportive, inspiring writing community.  I guess the advice for students and faculty alike here is:  find a program with people you want to spend time with.

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Low-Res, High Motivation: an interview with Jill Christman (Part One) By Cathy Day

Photo courtesy of Tim Berg

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!