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!
How did you choose the title for Flowers?
The first draft of the manuscript included a lot of poems that I’d written for specific people, and Flowers seemed like a nice way of thinking about those poems. I ended up revising the manuscript quite a bit and took out most of the occasional and epistolary poems, but there were still a lot of poems that seemed to deal with immediate beauty,
so the title still fit. I also thought that the word “flowers” was due for something like this.
What have you been working on since Flowers?
Five or six years ago I told myself that I wanted to write good short poems, which for me would be anything under 25 lines. At that length my poems have tended to feel either truncated or of radically reduced scope, and then you read all these folks who do so much with so little, I mean this is poetry after all. So for the past year I’ve been trying to write shorter poems, though they’re all coming out to be like 25 to 30 lines, so maybe instead of short I should call the poems medium.
Medium poems—how’s that for an ambition?
Having some familiarity with the city, “Nashville” was cool to read, and I’m curious how your feelings about Nashville, as a native, come into your writing.
As an English major at a southern university I took the obligatory course in southern literature, which, though we read some fantastic stuff, was awful, partly because the professor took the position that contemporary southern writing, and at some level contemporary southern culture, was (or maybe should be) anti-technology and defiantly agrarian. Maybe or maybe not, but that was definitely not the Nashville countrypolitanism I grew up around. Nashville is a remarkable place that growing up in did nothing to make more comprehensible. There’s a complicated racial dynamic that loomed large in my childhood because I went to a virtually all-white private school that had been founded in the ‘70s specifically because the federal courts had recently enforced integration of the public schools through bussing. And then Nashville also has this hilarious campy side that’s both unpretentious and glitzy. The town is full of washed-up talent. It’s hard to know what to do with all that. In the poem “Nashville” I tried to make a record of words that struck me as indigenous to the Nashville I grew up in, as a kind of documentary.
*(Interviewed by Layne Ransom)
The In Print Festival of First Books starts tonight with a reading by the authors from their work. Tomorrow is day two of the festival, which features a panel where the authors, along with an editors from Artifice Magazine, will field questions relating to writing and publishing. Every year, the In Print Festival is a shining event greatly looked forward to, so we hope to see you there!
Debra Gwartney is this year’s nonfiction author for the In Print Festival of First Books, and also the star of our second excerpted interview from The Broken Plate. She is the author of the memoir Live Through This, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2009, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a former reporter for the Oregonian and worked as a correspondent for Newsweek for ten years. She teaches writing at Portland State University and is the mother of four daughters. Here is our excerpt of her interview:
What was your thought process on how to structure the book? I noticed the events were mostly chronological, but you use quite a few flashbacks. Why did you include flashbacks?
When I first began writing about this time in my family’s life, I found I could structure a fairly decent two- or three-thousand word piece. I wrote, and published, maybe six such stories and then I figured I’d just put those together and have at least a good hunk of a book. Um, no. That didn’t work in the least. I wasn’t after a book of essays—nor did the stories succeed as a book of essays—and yet the over-arching arc of a book-length memoir eluded me. After many failed attempts at discovering a structure, I finally one day sat down and wrote a list of the, say, ten integral scenes. Ten scenes onto which I’d hang the rest of the narrative. I didn’t worry that much about the chronology of those scenes (although of course I had to consider chronology eventually), because I was determined not to let the narrative get trapped in the plodding episodic, “and then this happened, and then that happened…” I was much more interested in the themes I was watching emerge organically from the text, and in glimpses of metaphor, which I tried not to over-think but let take shape as they wanted. Flashbacks would occur to me here and there as ways to deepen the meaning, to sharpen the symbolism, of certain sections. I felt the reader needed to know at least a little something about my younger self—my childhood, and my young adulthood—in order to relate to the woman who, as narrator, was ready to face her own responsibility in the conflagration of her family.
What’s the future in writing look like for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on another memoir, even while I have to ask myself how one person could have enough life experience, really, to justify two books about herself. I’d like to think I do, and so on I go collecting pages of drafts and continuing to research, in order to discover that “over-arching arc.” I’d like to write about growing up in the west, a fifth-generation Idahoan, my relationship to my region and my people, as well as my conflicted desires regarding place and family: to both celebrate and cling to my heritage, and to run from it as fast as I can.
*(Interviewed by Phoebe Blake)
We would like to thank the editors of The Broken Plate for allowing us to excerpt these interviews. We can’t wait for the new issue to be released at this year’s In Print. Here’s a breakdown of the In Print info as a reminder:
Wednesday, March 23, AJ 175, 7:30pm: In Print Reading.
Debra Gwartney, Paul Killebrew, and Tina May Hall will read from their recently published books.
Thursday, March 24, AJ 175, 7:30pm: In Print Panel Discussion.
The authors will be joined by James Tadd Adcox, editor of Artifice Magazine, for a discussion about writing and publishing.
As a bonus for attending this year’s festival, all In Print attendees will receive a FREE copy of the 2011 issue of The Broken Plate! There will also be a book signing and reception immediately following each event. We have one more excerpt in the works from an interview with poet Paul Killebrew, so keep watching, BSU!