MFA-landia (Or: a CNF mini-reunion)

Ten years ago this month I finished my MFA at the University of Michigan. Since I’ve been promising anyway to collect updates from some of the folks who have moved on from my local workshops to pursue MFAs of their own (as there have been a fair number over the years), I decided to take advantage of the anniversary to put together this post. If you’ve been wondering what some of your people have been up to since spreading their wings, here’s your scoop! I was recently in touch with these lovely creatures to ask them a few questions about what they’ve discovered about the benefits of MFA programs, writing communities in general, and other tidbits.

JAMAICA RITCHER

creative nonfiction & poetry

MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Idaho, in progress (December 2012)

Jamaica on the benefits of the MFA: “A major benefit, for me, has come from being in a situation where I have to write—and where I’m surrounded by other people who have to and want to write. I’m an older student; when I began the program I was coming off more than a few years of stay-home-parenthood and so it was really easy to tell myself I should do something more practical than write personal essays. The MFA program has been a space where I put writing first (or close to it). At the same time, I’ve had a teaching assistantship—and the demands that go along with teaching composition and rhetoric—so lessons about prioritization have also been important.

“Another very important benefit is the pool of knowledge and experience you get in any one room of MFA students and faculty. Everyone is coming at this from someplace different; no one has read the same books or authors; everyone has a slightly different aesthetic and it’s ultimately very mind-opening and exciting. I have learned so much and discovered so many wonderful writers that would have taken me much longer to encounter if I were going it alone.”

On workshopping: “My natural tendency, I’m afraid, is to feel intimidated by and competitive with other writers. It’s easy to second guess what I’m trying to do in a piece of writing or second guess my abilities in general. But in the midst of workshops—where you must always be writing whether in response to someone else’s work or to generate your own—there just isn’t time for that self-consciousness. Over the last few years, my attitude has shifted to where I feel better able to learn from other writers’ work rather than feel threatened by it—I’ve become more “okay” with myself and respectful of the process.”

What’s on her horizon: “Right now I’m working on a book about a distant relative who died in the 1920’s from an illegal abortion. The turn of the twentieth century was a fascinating time in terms of the history of the abortion debate—as a woman who grew up post-Roe v. Wade, I’ve taken for granted a lot in terms of my reproductive rights—though those right are increasingly insecure. I’m interested in the parallels between my relative’s life (her social and familial context) and my own, as well as the parallels between anti-abortion campaigns at the turn of the century and what we are seeing today. I initially accessed the story through poetry and I hope to have a chapbook together soon, but I’m moving back toward prose now.”

Jamaica recommends you read: “Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping… it’s a collection of these vignettes, one- or two-page little snippets in most cases, but the clarity of her writing and the way the vignettes come into conversation with each other is really amazing. Anne Carson’s Nox is also incredible. It’s a beautiful, brilliant, heart-wrenching work that is as much visual art as anything.”

Where you can find her work: “I haven’t sent anything out in a while now, having made a concerted decision not to add that pressure (of sending out work—which takes a lot of time in itself, and then dealing with rejections—or acceptances) until after I finish my degree. I’ve told myself this is the time for learning, and publishing will, I hope, come later.” (If you’d like to see some older work of Jamaica’s, check out this piece that appeared as part of NPR’s This I Believe series, or this essay at Literary Mama.)

EMILY CONNER

prose, essay, & doodlings

MFA in prose writing from the University of Alabama, May 2011

Emily on the primary benefit(s) of MFA-landia: “The people, the time, the forms classes. Alabama offers a 3-to-4-year program, and everyone who gets accepted gets fully funded. This means that students get a lot of time to experiment, to start over, to participate in other programs, and to just hang out with great folks without the (I’ve heard) bad blood that can come with more competitive MFA programs. Forms classes, which make up the majority of the course work (or they did for me), are the best: they’re usually geared toward reading a lot and writing new material based on a theme (“versiprose/mixed form,” “uses of history,” “farms”). Material is shared and discussed, but the focus isn’t on workshop so much as it’s on testing new forms and working on the fundamentals. MFAers are encouraged to work outside their genre focus, and these are really great classes to see what that’s all about.

“There are also a bunch of other extra things going on at UA, which can supplement course work, or sometimes replace teaching requirements. For instance, Creative Writing Club lets you work with high school kids, the Prison Arts Program allows you to go to Alabama prisons and teach creative things (writing, performance, etc.), Black Warrior Review lets you edit one of the best lit mags around, and the Book Arts Program offers printing and binding and papermaking classes that writers can take (and sometimes the writers go on to get their second MFA). I took an undergrad organic farming class as a second-year, and I’ve worked on the teaching farm ever since.

“Another of the best/worst things about Alabama is the teaching load: after the first year, MFA students are required to teach two classes per semester—freshman comp for the first year, and literature and creative writing classes are a possibility after that). It’s difficult to teach (and for most of us, learn to teach) and have the time to write, but the extra years make it feasible. And if you want the teaching experience, it’s an incredible opportunity—by the time I finished my MFA, I had taught 7 different courses.”

What Emily’s up to these days: “I’m still at UA working as a full-time instructor. I still work on the organic farm and now teach organic farming to undergrads. I’m still writing about living here (I’m from California, so it’s never not on my mind that I live in Alabama, a land of huge bugs, tornadoes, barbecue, and heat), though most of my energy goes to teaching and gardening.”

She recommends you read… “As I Lay Dying (I know–I want to recommend something new and more surprising, but I can’t stop thinking about this one…)”

Find Emily’s work at Devil’s Lake, Bellingham Review, & Matter Press.

JONATHAN DANIELSON

short fiction, sports writing, & (pretty soon) food reviews

MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco, in progress (December 2012)

On the MFA, Jonathan says: “Before the MFA, I spent years with ideas floating in my head, but not the adequate knowledge of how to best express those ideas. I would spend all my time just trying to get one story out, and I would never be entirely pleased with the results. I would over think, over analysis, and focus focus focus on that one story, and my writing would consequently suffer, which was a bummer. In an MFA program, I didn’t have time for any of that. I had to constantly and consistently churn out new material. This expectation allowed me to just write, and if it didn’t work out, that’s okay, because I would just write something else. This gave me space away from the issues I might have had with the original story I was working on. Then, after some time, when I sat back down to the original story, I would find that those issues had somehow worked themselves out. This, in turn, made the writing and rewriting process much more fluid. I found the primary benefit of the MFA was to train me as a writer: write and write, don’t narrow focus, and product I want will come.

“Also, I learned that I am a morning writer, who works best on a schedule. Who knew? This was very weird to me, because my entire life I was a night owl. Now, I’m usually in bed at a decent time, and at the computer (hopefully) daily by 8:30 or 9 for a good five or six hours.”

What he’s up to these days: “Currently, I’m finishing my thesis, which is a collection of short stories. It’s topping around 380 pages right now, so most of my time is spent doing that. I’m literally finishing the last story right now (actually, I’m doing this instead of working on it…procrastination!), and then I’m spending the next three months rewriting before I turn it in. After that, I’ll probably continue rewriting until I find a home for it. I’m also laying the groundwork for a story cycle concerning a small winery in the Sacramento area, and another story cycle which takes place in Arizona, where I’m from. I find it best to work on multiple projects at once, so if I start getting annoyed with one, I can jump to the other for a while.”

Jonathan thinks you should read: “The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor, just because she’s so good at everything… Vonnegut, who was influenced heavily by O’Connor… Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Etgar Keret. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell… it straight up made my head explode. And Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Because it’s the greatest novel ever written. Ever. And that’s just science.”

Find Jonathan’s work at the Toronto-based humor magazine Feathertale, in Fast Forward Press’ forthcoming anthology, and The Rambler.

SAMINA CHAUDHRY HITCH

poetry, fiction, narratives of all kinds, screenwriting, film, & music

MFA in poetry & fiction, California College of the Arts, in progress (May 2013)

Samina on the perks of her program: “1) a vast range of constructive (and deconstructive) criticism, 2) exposure to new genres (CCA is particularly awesome at this, especially cross-genre work), and, of course 3) a community of people who are kind and supportive, and who help you to justify that writing all day is “working” that is just as sacred as a paying job.”

On why community matters to writers: “I think an intensive writing community is critical to the survival of a writer (everyone says that, but it’s so true…all those lonely years of writing all night at my kitchen table…those nights feel tremendously different when there’s the buzz of knowing that someone will read it and workshop it the next day!). Tonight I read at a reading that was a phenomenal group of writers who had already graduated from CCA, and who had kept up their relationships and continued to host readings. That was amazing to see. I can only hope to have a similar experience of continued community post-MFA.

“Also, I think that writing communities can provide a real sense of audience for a writer—it facilitates an intimate relationship with other writers, who you get to know on many levels and in many dimensions. It personalizes writing, in a good way—to anticipate the comments of people whose work you really admire, I think that’s a great feeling. All of my instructors have been writers whose work I respect, and to be treated like a “colleague” to them both on and off campus is a really validating experience.”

What’s on her horizon: “After many years of thinking I had no sense of narrative, it turns out all of my work is very storytelling-oriented. I’ve been exploring different aspects of how to tell stories, without worrying so much about how they are told. I guess a lot of my work has branched off into fiction-territory, and particularly my screenplay has widened my sense of how to convey emotions and stories—but ultimately I think I have captured a distinct style that seems to carry through each genre. In other words, I’ve been broadening my horizons, and in doing so, I’ve come closer to feeling comfortable with my voice as a writer, and figuring out what parts of my writing are highly stylized, what works, what doesn’t, etc.

“I feel the most inspiration in daily life these days. Much of my work is becoming increasingly domestic—what is close seems to hold more big-ness; it provokes me to move deeper inward instead of fan outward and lose focus. Also, I seem to be obsessed with deer and certain birds.”

Samina thinks you should read: “Oh gosh. I’ll get back to you on this. I’ve been in such an abstract universe of photocopies, readers, screenplays and films—a tactile book? …maybe after my shoot I’ll have time to read one.”

Where to find Samina’s work: “I have a few poems I worked on with Ishmael Reed forthcoming in his lit mag Konch… and I am directing my film this weekend (see anarkaliblossoms.wordpress.com).

MELANIE MADDEN

creative nonfiction, poetry, press releases, doodles, & vector illustration

MFA in creative nonfiction, University of Arizona, joining the class of 2014 (“which doesn’t seem like a real year to me”) this fall

On the eve of her departure for MFA-landia, Melanie notes: “I get to quit my job (in 9 more weeks), at least for two years, to think mostly about writing”

On what she’d like to say about intensive writing communities, workshops, how she works best, & what’s ahead: “I know that just one workshop a week isn’t enough for me; here’s hoping the intensity of the MFA program won’t be too much!… I’m in limbo right now, but on the horizon is re-working the first-attempt memoir I began last year, and working it into a proper first book.”

On the one book she most wants to recommend right now: “The Rain God, by Arturo Islas, was a serious inspiration to me and a novel that I think not enough people know about. It’s been a few years since I read it and I think I’m due to read it again.”

Find Melanie’s work at melaniecmadden.wordpress.com (if you’d like to watch a video from a recent reading, check this out).

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