Monday, August 31, 2009

First Impressions

by Christopher Cocca

Hello fellow MFAers and MFA hopefuls!

My name is Christopher Cocca and I'm starting my MFA in fiction at The New School as of today. This evening was our orientation sessions, and I wanted to share my first impressions as I get ready to hop a bus back home:

Waiting for the session start and sitting with 70 or so other first-year students, I thought:

I wonder who else is scared.

I wonder who else assumes everyone else in the room has their shit more together.

I wonder who these new peers are, and which of them will be friends. I wonder where the ones I know from blogging and facebook are sitting.

I wonder who else is a spouse or parent.

I wonder what we'll do here.

A few minutes later, Bob Kerry greeted us with what I thought was a frank (in a good way) and encouraging welcome. Among other things, he talked about his life as a reader and congratulated us on taking this step.

Linda Dunn spoke next and welcomed us as part of The New School's long tradition of believing in the power of literature, words and education. She talked about the kinds of things the program looks for in applicants, and stressed the importance of taking a broad view of literature and in finding writers who reflect that value in diverse ways.

Robert Polito shared a poem from Jason Shinder's "Stupid Hope" and, later, "Lament For the Makers" by Frank Bidart:

Not bird not badger not beaver not bee

Many creatures must
make, but only one must seek

within itself what to make

My father's ring was a B with a dart
through it, in diamonds against polished black stone.

I have it. What parents leave you
is their lives.

Until my mother died she struggled to make
a house that she did not loathe; paintings; poems; me.

Many creatures must

make, but only one must seek
within itself what to make

Not bird not badger not beaver not bee


Teach me, masters who by making were
remade, your art.

Fitting, and for me as a parent making sense of taking time for art (even making art in the first place), a bit of serendipity. Writing well and making something worth having spent this time on is, in fact, a way of loving my son in a way that no one else can.

Robert stressed our program as community, and finished by thanking us, welcoming us, and telling us to enjoy. As my first night in the city ends, I feel thankful for this opportunity and excited about what we will do here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Week 1 Update

by Emily May Anderson

So, I made it through my first week. It went a little something like this:

Monday, English 501: Intro to Graduate Study at 9:05am. Intimidating as heck, but encouraging too. That sounds weird, but that’s the only way I can describe it. I don’t feel at all prepared for this class, but I think that’s the point; by the time we’re done with the class, we will be prepared for the rest of our graduate study. We’re getting a crash course in theory, research methods, and how to write seminar papers. I’ve heard a nasty rumor that one of the professors (it’s co-taught by the MFA director and an older, very smart, very professorial medievalist) kind of has an issue with the MFAs in the class, like he doesn’t think we belong there or are “worthy” to be in his class with the MAs. Now I know I am as smart as anyone there so I’m taking it as a personal challenge to do really well in the class and prove him wrong. So, anyway, that was Monday morning. We got out a little bit early, so I got lunch with a couple people, then stayed on campus, did a lot of reading, then taught my first class at 4:40. It went okay; I felt nervous and I think I talked too fast, but it went fine, and I let them out about ten minutes early.

Tuesday, went to campus at 10:30, since I supposedly had Office Hours 10:30-11:30. I read the writing that my freshman had done in class the day before and was really impressed, then heated up my lunch, then went to The Writer in the Community. I didn’t know really what to expect with this class, but I am now really excited about it. We’d had an assignment before the first class to type up a page or so about our ideas of community and teaching writing in non-academic communities, so after the instructor introduced the class and went over the syllabus, each of us read and/or explained what we’d written, and we talked about them, then we decided what kind of projects we wanted to work on this semester and broke up into little groups and started talking about that. I wrote a bit more about the class on my blog earlier this week. That was my only class, so I went back home afterward, went for a nice 4 mile run, and then did some course planning for Wednesday and Friday.

Wednesday my class was Poetry Workshop with Robin Becker. Robin is scary but really great. There are 8 of us in the workshop, including two people I hadn’t met before. We talked extensively about the syllabus, then talked about our respective backgrounds and writing interests, got our assignments and then let out early. Sarah, the other first year poetry MFA, and I went and had lunch, then I putzed around my office for awhile before teaching again at 4:40. It went well, and I was much less nervous than I had been on Monday. The lecturing/writing on the chalkboard thing went well, and a few of the students seemed genuinely excited and interested when I told them that Elizabeth Alexander is going to be reading here in September. The Poetry Workshop has a chapbook focus; we’ll be reading a lot of chapbooks and we’ll be putting our own together in the second half of the semester. Each week in the first half we’ll read and respond to a chapbook, or chapbooks, in two ways: we’ll write a prose response/review and we’ll write a poem in some way inspired by a piece in the chapbook, either formally or in terms of subject or etc. Each person theoretically should get to workshop each week. I read the first chapbook and started my prose response that night.

Thursday I packed my lunch and met my neighbor Nicolette and an MA named Grace for lunch around noon, then we went to our Teaching Seminar. Talked about how the first two days had gone, got a few ideas for Friday and the first major assignment, then Grace and I walked over to check out the rec center. It’s not included in our student fees, but it’s super cheap to join as a student: $99 for the whole year and that covers multiple locations on campus, all the classes, pools, etc so I want to do it. But oh yeah, I had no money (this had been a theme of the week – I was still waiting on my student loan money so that I could buy books and groceries and pay bills and pretty much have a life). I was supposed to come home and go running again, but it was chilly and damp and I was feeling exhausted and disgruntled, so I didn’t. I think I drank some more coffee and tried to write.

Friday I spent the day carefully reading and taking notes on all the articles for 501 that were online (there were a lot of them – they made me feel stupid – I did not like them, but then again, I was grouchy anyway). I went to campus, in the pouring rain, just to teach class, but it went very well; the students were talking and interacting, and the time went super fast. That night Enru (my roommate), Nicolette, and I went up to Grace’s apartment and just chilled and watched a movie.

Today, I borrowed the books for our intro class from Enru and did that reading (not as bad as the articles, thankfully!), then we ended up having four of the girls over for dinner, so I frantically cleaned and cooked and showered. We had a nice time though, and one of the girls mentioned that she’d already gotten her paycheck direct deposited (we officially get paid the last day of the month) so I checked my bank account after they left and saw that not only had I received my paycheck but I’d also received the loan money. So, I paid a bunch of bills, and I get to buy books tomorrow!

Oh, and I also wrote the poem for Wednesday :) I’d tried to do it before and come up with something finished but very bad, so I started over tonight and it just worked.

So, in summary: it was a busy week. I’m only IN class for 12 hours a week, but there is a very definite balancing act I’m going to have to master of prepping to teach, reading/writing for my academic classes, reading/writing for workshop, AND still managing to run and have some sort of social life. I feel good about it though; I feel like I can do it, and I feel (after only a week) that I definitely belong here, I don’t doubt that for an instant, not even when I’m waiting for a bus in the pouring rain or sitting at my table glaring at an article about the Affective Fallacy.


By Casey Tolfree

Orientation was yesterday. I went down early to pick up my books and I.D. and all that fun stuff. I bought an Adelphi sweatshirt and decal for my car. I may be a graduate student but I'm all about school pride. If I'm going to spend the next two years commuting an hour to a school and pouring all my money into it then I'm going to be attached to it.

I got to campus way too early though. I was afraid there would be lines - there was one small one when I picked up my books but otherwise everything was smooth sailing. It didn't help that it was down pouring outside. I didn't bring in my umbrella because I thought that the rain would stop but it only got worse and worse. After sitting in the lounge surrounded by freshmen parents (it was apparently freshmen orientation too) for about 30 minutes, I finally decided to buy an umbrella. I wasn't going to get my newly purchased books soaked.

So, 15 dollars later I have my umbrella, start my walk to the car and drive over to Something Greek. A great little Greek life store my sorority uses for most of our purchases, paddles, jackets, etc. I picked up a new decal for my car. Zoey (my car) is going to be decked out.

Anyways, I finally get to the store four minutes later and it's stopped raining. Great.

But anyway, orientation. It was nice. I got to meet the teachers in the program. They each read some of their work and then spoke very briefly about the ways to succeed in the program. Reading life, community, etc. I loved meeting my new classmates though, my future community. I felt like I haven't had that community for a long time and the people I met seem nice enough, funny enough, interesting enough.

Tuesday's the first day of classes. Genre Development and Playwriting. I'm both nervous and exciting for this new experience. I'll update you then.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Has It Really Only Been A Week?

by Keely Hyslop

My first week of classes is over and done with. Over all I'm feeling pretty excited and energized about being an MFAer. There's still some free-floating nervousness, but mostly there's just intense joy at being back on a college campus and back in workshop. Just the hustle and bustle of students coming in and out of their classes, jostling for books, and struggling to cram down lunch before the next class fills me with glee. If I needed proof I was a nerd I think I have it.

But let me start from the beginning. Monday was orientation, a fairly informal meet and greet/ panic over the fact that you don't have any classes because the recent brutal CSU budget cuts has decimated the class schedule. I was lucky in that I signed up for my classes the same hour I was allowed to register so I had a full schedule, but many people who had delayed in registering had no classes at all. Maxine Chernoff, the department head, was kind enough to put together a list of all classes in the creative writing and English departments that still had spaced and other professors chimed in about projects they needed assistance with that would give a grad student credit.

In every class the budget cuts have been a looming shadow. Mandatory staff furloughs are a required topic of conversation for the first class, so it's impossible for students to bury their heads in the sand about the issue even if we wanted to. It's interesting and strange observing the different ways that different professors handle the topic. Some professors stick to the book and simply tell us what days the class will be unable to meet because the professors aren't allowed to teach. Other professors seem to be hinting at the need for direct student action. One professor even went so far as to admit surprise that more students weren't rioting. Sometimes I get the impression that the campus is a powder keg ready to explode with frustration. The academic and the activist in me are of two different minds on the topic. The academic of course wants to just keep her head down and get as much out of her education as possible, but the activist in me reminds me that these budget cuts are unjust, particularly to the professors and the undergrads, and that it is everyone's duty, even busy grad students to rise and meet injustice whenever one encounters it. Reconciling the academic and the activist has been a major tension in my writing in the last couple of years, why shouldn't it be a major tension in my life?

Here's a link to a student made documentary on the CSU budget crisis if you'd like to know more:

Even though I felt sheepish doing it since there were some students who had no classes or in complete schedules, I still did a bit of shopping to make sure I was taking the classes I wanted to be taking. I made one change. I decided to take the Fourteen Hills class where you get to work on the staff of a literary magazine instead of taking the Writers on Writing lecture, which was a series of author readings, which quite frankly I can already get just from bumming around the city's used bookstores. I also decided to drop the intro to composition class in favor of taking a graduate instructional assistant position.

So this quarter I'll be taking 12 units: Fourteen Hills, an MFA Poetry Workshop, a process course on the persona poem, and a graduate instructional assistant course (leading an undergrad group in workshopping for a course called American Poetics). I'm also debating applying for a part time tutoring job, though I think I'm going to think it over for a few days. I'm doing ok financially for a few months at least, and I don't want to bite off more than I can chew, plus my writing schedule is still erratic. I really want to carve out a designated time for working on my poetry, rather than how I've been doing it: squeezing it in whenever I have an empty space in my schedule. I can already tell that if I keep shrinking my free time, but consider my free time and my poetry writing time to be synonymous, I'm going to have a problem.

This is kind of an abrupt transition, but I really wanted to talk about my first poetry MFA workshop. My first MFA workshop was quite simply divine - the highlight of my week. In a stunning display of dramatic tension building the professor, Paul Hoover, sent out an email the night before informing the class that we would be bringing 15 copies of one of our own poems, as well as a poem by a poet we admired to read to the class. This, from what I can tell, set off wide spread panic throughout the class, which gave us something to bond over in the halls before workshop started. We began the workshop by reading and discussing the poem by someone else we'd brought, which I think everyone really enjoyed. There's a certain intimacy that develops when you're discussing your favorite poem with other poets. (I brought Jack Gilbert's Failing and Flying, by the way. My favorite poem is technically The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot, but this is my favorite poem that was written semi-recently.) It was a good beginning because it put us at ease before we began to workshop some of the poems that we, ourselves had written. Sharing a poem that was incredibly personal to me (one of the occupational hazards of writing from experience) with a room full of strangers was pretty intense, but they were gentle and fair with me. I think the poem was well-received, and even if they hated it, I have a good feeling about this group. I think we're going to be able to approach one another's shortcomings with compassion and a focus on tapping into unrealized potential.

And that's all for now. Sorry I've been a bit absent on this blog lately. I'll try to be more present in the discussions from here on in. I love this blog because it makes me feel like we're all in this together.

Happy writing everyone! Have a nice weekend!

George Mason Orientation

I had orientation last night!  It was a longish deal, with a reception for all of the GMU grad students, followed by remarks in a big auditorium, followed by an English Department orientation followed by an MFA orientation.

The reception was exactly the kind of thing I suck at --- standing around with a bunch of strangers making small talk.  The conversations all involved the same questions, mainly “Where are you living?” and “What classes are you taking?”  You notice I don’t mention asking about genre.  Know why?  Well, I’ll tell you why.  When we arrived they gave us those sticky name tags.  On them were both name and genre.  Name in big letters, genre in tiny letters.  Now I hate name tags.  Mainly because I have a huge chest and people always end up leaning over toward my boobs and I find that embarrassing.  But last night, even more embarrassing, was that I found myself doing it to other women, because of course I wanted to know everyone’s genre.  So there I was leaning over people and staring at their chests.  If only the genres had been in a font that was a little bigger, we wouldn’t have been all up on each other.  Oh well.  The good news is that everyone was really nice (although I confess to feeling old and wondering if at 38 I am the oldest), and my fear of meeting new people evaporated pretty quickly.  Even if it hadn’t, I would have been ok, because I already have a friend that I met through the MFA Blog before coming to school and she is hilarious.  We went around to all the little tables that groups had set up and took their loot.  We got balls from the athletic centers and luggage tags from the study abroad office.  

Next they packed all of us new grad students into an auditorium (which we had to walk to, up a huge-a$$ flight of stairs) where they had several people speak to us about the graduate school experience.  You are from many countries. . . GMU has top programs in. . . there are many resources here to help you. . . this is how I found balance in my work/school/family life. . . blah blah.  You know the drill.

Next, I went to yet another building for the English Department orientation, which consisted of about 4 people introducing themselves so that we would know who they are.  I don’t remember any of them, although their titles sounded important.

Finally, came the good part.  I went to yet another building for MFA orientation.  Here I counted 30 of us, including fiction, nonfiction and poets.  It was exciting to all sit in the same room together.  Our program director gave us handbooks and a ton of information about classes, thesis committees, building community, independent study, projects, etc. Here, better than the balls and luggage tags from the all-grad orientation, I got something awesome!  A grey t-shirt that says “Mason MFA Writer.”

So, as of last night, that is what I am.  A Mason MFA Writer.  I couldn’t be more excited.   

Thursday, August 27, 2009

1st week at UNCG

by Whitney Gray

Well, I've finally gone through all of my classes, met with professors and learned about my job duties. It's been a long week, and I'm glad it's over. Now that I know what my days look like, I can start planning my time for homework, reading and writing.

I've written a post about my first week over at my blog, so I'll spare you the cross-posting. I hope everyone has had a great week so far! I feel like I have been waiting forever for school to start. I moved to Greensboro so early, I had moments where I had to remind myself why I moved up here. I almost forgot it was for school!

Introduction and Other Bits and Pieces

Hello all!

I thought I'd take a minute from reading and finally introduce myself! My name is Raina Fields.

I started my first year of Virginia Tech's MFA program in poetry this week. I graduated from Loyola College in Baltimore in 2008 with a B.A. in music and writing. I spent a year working for The Philadelphia Orchestra before I started graduate school.

I'll admit I did get tired of the same sort of urban life in Philadelphia and Baltimore and was drawn to the sort of small-town life that Blacksburg would offer. So far, it's been great. My life has been in full-speed this entire summer. I bought my first car, stopped working, packed my things and moved into my first apartment. The first couple of days in Blacksburg, I was too exhausted by the move that I fashioned cut up trashbags into a shower curtain and slept on the floor. The ten hour drive from Philadelphia (thanks to the U-Haul trailer) was just too much. Haha!

This week has been full of emotions, wavering from "Omg! I am so happy and blessed to have this sort of opportunity! I am up and ready to take full-advantage of everything presented to me!" to "What?! Why am I doing this to myself? Is it time for bed, yet?! Was I really on campus for 12+ hours today?!" It's all in good, clean, educational fun, though. As everyone is telling me, this is the time of transition and it will get better.

A bit about the program: We have seven new MFA students, 3 poets and 4 fiction writers. I believe we are all signed up for 18 feisty credits of English and Graduate School courses. My schedule this semester includes courses in Teaching Composition, New Media Writing, Poetic Forms, as well as a Poetry Workshop, a series of Graduate TA workshops, and Library Research workshops. My Teaching Composition course is 6 hours and includes students from the MFA program, MA and PhD in composition and rhetoric programs, which is pretty interesting! There also some experience teachers in the classroom, so everyone is pretty varied on the teaching spectrum, but we're all excited and ready to learn more to impart on our students!

While we don't teach this semester, we do get to assist in teaching a course and then next semester, we are given our own classroom! WOW! Haha! Also, this semester, we work in the Writing Center, assisting students in their writing papers and projects.

So far, I have to say my favorite course has been New Media taught by Ed Falco. It's been really interesting learning the basis of hypertext writing. We also have some great reading coming up, including Carole Maso's Ava and Nabokov's Pale Fire, two precursors to the hypertext writing movement. Yesterday in class, we all did a "exquisite corpse" and had to write a line based on a picture we were given and we linked certain words in the lines to other students' lines. It was fun and interactive and I love that! Our final project is that we all create our own hypertext writing. Wow! We even get to use Dreamweaver! I love technology :)

I'm also really excited for my Poetry Workshop tonight. I'm sure it will be fabulous! The thing I'm most nervous about is my current lack of creative writing. I'm in that stage where I haven't written a poem in a long time. I'm contemplating by giving introductions as "Hi I'm Raina! I used to be a poet! I hit my peak and now I'm struggling through graduate school pretending to be a talented writer! What's your name?!" I can only be proactive and do one thing and write, so that is a challenge I (and the program) has and that's what I will do. But in the meantime, PRAY FOR ME! Haha!

Well, it's back to reading Aristotle's Poetics! Best of luck to everyone who already started! I can't wait to read your stories :)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Class!

by Jonterri Gadson

So I had my first class: literary journal editing with Jeb Livingood. He actually wrote on the syllabus that this is one of few English classes that can enhance your resume so that was nice to hear. We're going to be learning Adobe InDesign and our final project is to design a book/magazine and have it printed on demand so we'll actually have a hard copy of our book/magazine. I did a search for jobs asking for knowledge of InDesign and there are about 2800 nationwide, 140 in VA. That's cool.

I just have to come up with a project. I could do like a lit journal and get my friends and associates (all of you) to lend me poems/stories that I can use (you'd keep the copyright and all that so you could publish elsewhere and all that). Or I could come up with something completely original. Past students have done cookbooks, put together a book of their own work, a children's book, and even compiled their writing samples all together and made a portfolio of their own work. If anyone has any cool ideas, please do not hesitate to share! The crazier (but somehow still simple) the idea, the better!

So 2 other 1st year MFA poets are in the class with me. It was nice to see their familiar faces upon entering the class. The class is a mix of grad students and upper-level undergrads.

What I loved the most about the class was how Jeb used technology to enhance his lecture. He didn't lecture at all, really. We talked about the future of publishing. It was all very hands-on with examples of Meridian (UVA's lit mag) in various stages of the printing process. He also used youtube clips and recordings from NPR. He made me excited for when I'll get the opportunity to teach. I definitely want to use technology that way, if possible. Those who have started teaching, how is technology being used in your classrooms?

It's crazy now to be in class and really pay attention to how it's being taught. It's like learning about story structure and not being able to read the same or screenwriting changing the way you watch movies, I guess. Except I haven't learned anything about teaching yet lol.

I don't have my poetry workshop until next Monday. I have to drop off copies of my poem this week so it can be workshopped on Monday. I'm ready/anxious to see how the workshop goes. It's what I'm here for!

Please share any ideas that pop into your head for what type of book I might do.

Good luck to everyone who hasn't had orientation or classes yet. I can't wait to hear about it!

Shocking my students...

I had a strange day teaching today. I finished, ran to my office hours and immediately confided in my desk neighbor. I just couldn't believe what had happened. How could I not have expected this? Basically, anatomy was brought into the classroom when I wasn't quite ready for it. I think I handled myself as well as I could have, but this just reminds me of how much I underestimate students and their knowledge--assuming that they know too much.

Anyway, if you want to read about it (or laugh at my embarrassment!), here's the linky:

Shocking my students

Hope you are all having a fantastic week! I'm treating myself to a movie this Friday--Halloween II! What are you wonderful people doing to reward yourselves for a job well done?

Monday, August 24, 2009

UVA Orientation Day

by Jonterri Gadson
So, I was about 10 minutes late for orientation today. That sucked but things happen. I like to set low expectations and then totally surprise everyone when I actually do what I'm supposed to do lol. At UVA, the MFA orientation is more of a meeting between all of the faculty and the students. It's pretty informal but fairly informative. I don't mind this format at all.

After introductions and departmental info, we split up by genres. So all of the poetry people got to meet with Greg Orr. The 1st and 2nd year poetry students will workshop together. There are 10 of us. All 5 of the entering poets this year are female! So there are 2 male poets in the program all together. Pretty interesting.

So Greg released the 2nd years so he could have a moment with just the 1st years and basically tell us everything we really needed to hear. He told us to expect a breakdown in our writing, but that it's a good thing that will ultimately lead to growth. That was comforting. He said it's common. He explained to us that we don't have to turn in a poem each week for workshop. We can workshop as little or as much as we want, which was a total surprise. I can definitely see the difference between undergrad workshops and graduate level workshops. In undergrad, we were required to have a new poem each week and we were given assignments on types of poems to attempt each week. Now, we don't get any assignments and we can share as much as we'd like. There are no texts for the workshop. This is a totally different approach than I expected. We have the option of signing up for weekly conferences with Greg in addition to the workshops, which is great and I will definitely be taking advantage of that. Oh, I will also be taking advantage of the opportunity to workshop right away so more news on that next Monday.

After the meeting, we went out for drinks and that was great. Today was my first time meeting anyone from my program in person though I felt like I knew some of them already from Facebook. I've always gravitated toward people with a passion for writing and it's nice not to have to seek them out, they are right here! That's one of the best things about MFA programs.

Up next for me--literary journal editing class tomorrow night with Jeb Livingood! I'll let you know how it goes!

Fun fact about Charlottesville: There are random displays of art in the medians and on hills. I like this. I feel like people in this city should understand me because of this lol.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ready As I’ll Ever Be

by Emily May Anderson

Tomorrow, at 9:05am, I will attend my first graduate class. Tomorrow at 4:40pm, I will teach my first English 15 class.

This is so exciting and scary!

Last week was very busy. I got on the bus at 8:36 every morning and orientation started at 9:00. We were mainly in one particular room; the location of the building was convenient but the desks/chairs in the room were horribly uncomfortable. Not just not comfortable, but truly painful. We had lectures about the Composition program and English department policy, we got course syllabi and rosters and schedules and keys and lesson plans and all sorts of information. We heard from faculty and current graduate teachers about how exactly they conduct the first week of classes. We graded some practice papers and spent a whole morning discussing them - by the far the most fun and helpful morning of the week. We had people come in and speak to us about diversity issues, sexual harassment, the Writing Center, the Counseling Center, the Women’s Center. We got a tour of the library and free lunch that day. We spent one morning and a separate afternoon in a computer lab learning about all sorts of technology issues. It was exhausting, mentally and physically.

But we socialized too. Except for the day the library gave us lunch, we were on our own for an hour to an hour and a half, so we got to eat with our classmates, or run errands with them, and just talk and get to know people. Thursday night, two of the other new MFAs and I walked over to the milk and cookie party. All the new MFAs were there and quite a few of the returning ones. We chatted and ate cookies and it was nice and relaxing. Friday night, my roommate and I and our neighbor drove out to a party at one of the faculty member’s houses; there was very good food, and I think all of the new students were there, along with a few returning students and a few other faculty people. Some wine was drunk by me, and much fun was had. Maybe 1/3 of us new folks convened at Mad Mex downtown after the party wound down and enjoyed some more laidback talking and drinking. Saturday was the EGO party. N cooked dinner for my roommate and I, then we went to the party. It was packed and hot and loud and crazy, but less so than the last time I’d been to that house (same house that hosted the first party of recruitment weekend). I got to talk with a few of the older students I’d either not met, or not spoken much with, before; and got to bond with a few of my fellow newbies. Some people got drunker than I had yet seen them, and I got drunker than I had been since moving here, but not too drunk. Four of us were singing along to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” in the car on the way home though. Fun stuff!

Everyone here, from the new students to the returning students to the faculty and staff, really is ridiculously nice, and, for a group of academic people, remarkably social. A handful of folks skipped the party last night, but most attended, and I think everyone there had a good time.

Today, I finished prepping to teach for the first week – I have outlines for each day, and I wrote out a full script for Monday and Wednesday, though I may not even refer to them; it was just helpful to write it. And I cooked a big pot of soup so I can eat leftovers this week, and I picked out an outfit to wear for my first day of teaching. I am as ready as I’m gonna get, and I am excited to get started and see how it goes!

I was thinking yesterday that I feel a little bit like I have lost sight of being a student this past week and just thought about being a teacher, but since our orientation was for teaching, that makes sense. I know that things will balance out, but since teaching is so new to me, I’ve wanted to/felt like I had to put in a lot of effort to feel prepared. Once I get through the first week and see how things go, I’ll have a better idea of how my time will distribute itself. Oh, I just can hardly wait to get started!

The Countdown Begins!

By Casey Tolfree

With only nine days left before the beginning of the program I'm finding my brain very scattered. My writing is scattered too. I know exactly what's happening in my current chapter and yet I keep typing the wrong male leads name or I just seem to not be able to concentrate and yet I'm still writing and it's still coming out okay.

For some reason my brain has turned to the idea of finally getting a good copy of a synopsis for this YA novel I wrote a few years back. (The starting paragraphs are on my blog if you want to check it out). I think I have a more solid idea than I've ever had before. I've had a tough time working on anything related to that novel, mainly because I wrote it with my best friend and as I'm attempting to plow on to the sequel, she's not. I started the synopsis and she won't even read it. It's a difficult situation. Yet it seems to be coming together finally and not at the expense of my working novel either.

I feel like the program is not really the issue though. I am so excited to start graduate school; it is everything I've waited for a year and a half (well, minus a boyfriend but I have that now too ;) ).
I guess the real issue is the entire work situation I'm going through. I'm pretty positive that I'm keeping my job because I am scheduled to cover an event on Saturday and if I got laid off but my last day would be Friday. Fingers crossed. Bottom line is I'm tired. I want one job. I don't want to get up at 5 a.m. and not get home until 11 p.m. Add school into the issue and wham, it's enough to drive a girl crazy.

How are the rest of you employing yourselves while going to school? Any advice for defeating the overwhelming feeling that is pressing in on me? I've never been so excited and so worried at the same time.

Nine days and counting...someone save me.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

First week's over!

YEA! Unfortunately, it looks like this weekend is going to be too short. Labor day is on the horizon...just a few weeks away, but I think that weekend my house is going to be filled with visiting boys, so it may or may not be much of a break. But I won't talk about that now!

Anyway, I just posted a blog about some of my first week reflections. This is less "comparison/contrasty" compared to my last entry about assistantships/orientation. These are just some general reactions/ideas about what I'm doing!

Have a great weekend! Here's the linky

First Week Reflections

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another introduction

by Whitney Gray

Hi everyone!

I'm thrilled to find this blog. I think it will be a great resource for all of our future classmates. I spent a lot of time on the blogs and they were very helpful when it came to obsessing, meeting new people and finding answers.

I'm an incoming poetry student at UNCG, and I'm five days away from starting classes. I'm only a little freaked out that school is starting so soon, but I know in time I'll relax. I've had the chance to meet many students (old and new) and faculty members. I'll be doing some office work and some teaching, and really, I'm happy to do anything as long as my free ride is reserved!

I graduated in 2008 from Mercer University with a B.A. in Creative Writing, departmental honors and I ran the school literary journal. UNCG will be a great fit because they offer a lot of opportunities to get editing experience. I took a year off to work yet another writing internship, and eventually I ended up in retail yet again. The year off and steady paychecks were nice, but I'm more than ready to get into the classroom and to work out a steady writing routine.

I think that's enough from me! If you're the kind of person who likes excessively long blogs, feel free to stop over at my blog. I've set out to chronicle my years as an MFA student, mostly for my benefit, but also so my friends, family and professors can keep up with me. And hey, if I help an interested applicant along the way, that's great too.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Where does the time go?

By Casey Tolfree

Hey bloggers!
I wanted to give you a quick introduction before I start posting on the blog. I'll get to more in depth stuff later but I've been at work since 5:15 a.m. (I'm a Starbucks barista) and I really just feel like showering and maybe trying to get some writing in before I go back to work.

I'm starting the MFA program at Adelphi University in Garden City in two weeks. I'll be studying fiction though I'm taking a playwriting workshop this fall which should prove interesting.

I studied journalism as an undergrad and am currently a sports reporter at a local paper. I thought that journalism would provide a more stable workforce but if you check out my blog (justsurvivingmfa.blogspot) you'll see I was very wrong.

I'm a novelist. I've written one young adult fiction novel (unpublished of course) and I'm working on a general fiction novel right now. I've also written a novella and numerous short stories.

I'm really excited to start my program though after getting my books ordered, I am definitely a little concerned about the amount of reading and writing I'll have to do and work two jobs but I guess I'll figure it out.

Anyway, I'll be back later at some point to post something a little more interesting but in the mean time check out my blog: Just Surviving.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Getting Oriented, Part 1 - The Numbers

by Emily May Anderson

So, after two days of orientation, I must say that I feel much more prepared to teach than I did last time I posted. I promise to come back and reflect more fully on the orientation process over the weekend (in other words, when the orientation process is complete), but for now, here is an overview of Penn State’s orientation for graduate instructors…

22 – MA/PhD track students in orientation
6 – MFA students in orientation
0 – difference in how we are treated

1 – section/course of freshman comp we will teach this first semester
24 – max number of students in the course we will be teaching

15 – hours spent in orientation over the first two days
22 – hours scheduled for orientation later this week
3 – books to be used in the class (a rhet comp text, a grammar manual, and a PSU-specific collection of student writing)
484 – pages in the instructor binder of helpful material
2 – types of syllabi provided to us (1 ready to give students, 1 fully annotated for instructors with suggestions for exercises, and references to the binder, etc.)

1 – full week of orientation
1 – credit hour class that will guide us through teaching this whole semester
4 – new students per “teaching mentor” (an upper level PhD student who’s been successful as a graduate instructor and will meet with us once every couple weeks and answer any questions we have)

Those are all the number I can come up with right now, but suffice it to say, that orientation is a LOT of information, but that the support/training we have as instructors is multi-layered and will be ongoing throughout the semester. It seems pretty comprehensive.

We got our keys, office assignments, and course schedules yesterday so I got to see where I’ll be teaching and where my office is. We grade our first sample papers tomorrow. Exciting stuff! Oh, and I'm teaching on MWF from 4:40-5:30pm, kind of an odd time frame, but we'll see how it goes, I guess.

Anyway, I’ll report back again after the week is over. My brain is a bit full right now. Hope everyone is having good luck with their preparations, moving, settling, orientations, classes, or wherever you are in the process!!!!

Re: Fielding the first round of feedback.

by Marita Siddal

I know that many of you traditional MFA students are all abuzz with settling in their new, campus-accessible abodes . . . As much as I wince to interrupt such merriment . . . You might be interested to know that meanwhile, your low-res cousin has already received the first full blast of feedback for the semester! And, honestly, it kinda blew me away. If you'd like to hear my humble account of how my dear VCFA adviserr tenderly laid bare -- or rather, stripped naked -- all the shortcomings in my first graduate school submission, check out today's post on my individual blog.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

MFA Applications Will Kill Your Soul (But Don't Let That Stop You)

By Wahida Omar

Hey everyone. I know I'm way behind in the posting game. But my fellow Chroniclers have been doing such a great job! No shortage of MFA reading material here.

I arrived in Minneapolis on July 26th, and spent the first couple weeks house sitting and looking at apartments. I found a great little pad, and I just moved in this past Monday. My things arrived from Arizona on Friday. A few of my future classmates are here already too, and we've been having a great time hanging out and poking around the city.

So I've been super busy, but things should start slowing down a bit now---at least until orientation week starts, on August 31st. I have lots of ideas for stuff I want to talk about here, and my fellow first years keep inspiring me with all their awesome posts! I promise you haven't read the last of me.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from a post I wrote on my personal blog back in June. Some of you may have read it already, but I figure it's a good starting place for my posts on this blog. It's really, really long, so I'll just leave a snippet here and then include a link.
SO, for months now I've been meaning to post a list of things I learned from the MFA application process. But I just didn't have the strength. Now that I'm safely far, far away from that soul-crushing process, I think I'm ready to give it a go.

Here's the knowledge-like substance I gleaned from the whole torrid affair.

1) MFA APPLICATIONS WILL KILL YOUR SOUL. But pleeeease don't let that stop you. It doesn't feel like it now, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Or insert uplifting cliche of your choice here.
I go on quite a bit after that! You can read the rest of the post here.

I know some of our writers here have just arrived in their new cities, and some are about to start orientation. Good luck! I'm sending you all my very best settling in vibes.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Orientation evaluation/Teaching Load

First, just as a friendly reminder since I assume most of you haven't memorized my biography, I already have a M.A. from Northern Arizona University. Because of this, I entered the Georgia College & State University MFA program on the two year track and am able to teach my first year. I just wrote an entry comparing the teaching load/orientations of the two programs. It's longish, so I just wanted to send you a direct link to my webpage if you're interested:

If that link doesn't work for some reason or another, you can just go to and it's the second one down.

Hope you are all well. Advice: Airborne yourself during orientation week. I've been dosing myself with vitamins. New people make me sicko!

Links of Interest to MFAers

by Jonterri Gadson

Hey all! My car is stuffed and I'm hitting the road in the morning. Here's a few links I've read over the last week or so concerning MFA programs and preparing for them:

Saeed Jones delivers Part Two of his How to Work the Workshop series. Some great tips. I'm sure a lot of us have workshop experience already, but I still found these tips really helpful.

Nancy Rawlinson gives “Writing Advice: The World Doesn’t Give a Rat’s Ass about Your MFA”

Claire Light and Barbara Jane Reyes on the “MFA Industrial Complex” (ummm… Barbara Jane Reyes wrote 2 poetry books while doing her MFA!)

All of these links have helped to get me in a better mindset about entering my program in a few weeks. Feel free to post any links to good reads for us all in the comments or just any info/inspiration/encouragement/tips.

I'll be on the road for the next week. Wahida has admin access to the blog. She can add new contributors or make updates if anyone gets any ideas.

Share your good advice in the comments, please!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Which faculty members are you excited to work with?

by Marita Siddal

Seems as though most people here considered MFA programs holistically rather than following a particular established poet to their teaching grounds in hopes of becoming a singular protege. Even so, I'm sure plenty of us have faculty members who get us particularly revved for the semester! I'm intensely curious to know who intrigues each of you (and why).

(Fiction writers, any advice would be appreciated as well. The way VCFA works, I'll pref a few faculty members and then I'll be assigned to one as my mentor next semester -- and I'm not as familiar with the in's and out's of critiquing fiction as I am poetry.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What Classes Are You Taking?

By Jennifer Brown

Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was applying to MFA programs (ok, just last year, but it feels like a million years ago), one of the things I was really curious about was what classes new students actually take.  I thought we could all comment with our fall class schedule so that those applying could get a sense of what is taken at our schools. . . remember to name your school!

Spam Warning

Hey all,

Just a quick note about the spam warning that now appears. I submitted the form to have blogger people check the blog and clear the warning. I think the blog was tagged as a possible spam blog by blogger's software after I added the links to each of our programs (way to go Tory! kidding!). They said this should be done in no more than 2 days.

Also, did you know we have a recent comments widget in the sidebar? Well, it broke today too, but I think it has something to do with the spam warning. So hopefully that will be working again soon.

Lots of great posts today so far! Don't be afraid to post or comment!

How did you choose your MFA program, or did it choose you?

by Emily May Anderson

When it comes to deciding on an MFA program, there are a lot of factors to consider: location, funding, faculty, course offerings, reputation, alumni, etc. Today I want to share how I chose the schools to which I applied and how I ended up at Penn State.

About a year ago, more or less, I started researching MFA programs on the internet. I found the old U.S. News rankings, and I found the blogs and statistics and rankings put together by Tom Keeley, and Seth Abramson. I got Tom’s book and read his advice on the topic and read the summaries of all the programs. Then I started making a list. I went state by state through all the programs listed in the book and wrote down the ones in locations I could see myself living; I think I had 20 or 30 to start with. Then I looked at the statistics for each of those programs, eliminated the ones that didn’t offer much funding or that just didn't appeal to me for one reason or another. I then had a list of about 15. Some people apply to that many programs, but I knew I did not have the money for more than ten, so then I went directly to the program websites. I read what the programs said about themselves, what the students said about them, and I read between the lines, trying to get the programs vibe from the way they presented themselves online. Some websites turned me off because they were so difficult to navigate or because they didn’t have much information; other websites (University of Wisconsin, West Virginia University, and University of Alabama, in particular) really gave me a good vibe. I eliminated a few more schools by logical means, and then made my final cuts through pure intuition, and ended up with a list of 9 schools. I couldn't have explained to you how one school beat another and made it onto the final list.

I applied to one top ten program, five mid-tier programs, two lesser-known programs, and one very new one. Seven of the nine were in what I consider the Midwest though only one was in Ohio, and the list was about evenly split between schools in urban areas vs. smaller towns, as I’m equally comfortable in both. When the results were in, I’d been accepted at three programs, waitlisted at one, and rejected by the top tier program, three of the mid-tier programs, and one of the lesser-knowns. I eliminated the school at which I was waitlisted, because the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t think I would be happy in the location.

So, how did Penn State come out on top? Several reasons. They notified me early, they offered me full funding, and basically they made me feel wanted. I went out to visit for their English department recruitment weekend in mid-March, before some schools had even notified their acceptances. That March visit was the clincher for me. As I learned more about the program, I felt like it really was the perfect program for me, in ways I hadn’t even been aware of when I applied. See, as much as I love the creative aspect of writing, the expression of it, the ART of it, I also love the study of literature and the academic aspects of it all.

Penn State has a large, very well-respected English Department and a very small MFA program. A fellow MFA acceptee and I were discussing things before the visit, and we shared our fears that the MFA program might be overlooked a bit, might tend to fall through the cracks of the larger English program. But during the visit, I got the sense that it most definitely was not so. MA/PhD students and MFAs all seemed to socialize and study together, and the faculty members were equally attentive to the MFA candidates and those who’d been accepted for the MA/PhD track. The MFA at Penn State is currently transitioning from a 3 year “terminal degree” to a 2 year program that will still offer the terminal MFA but is also designed to correspond to the MA and to prepare students who wish to go on for a PhD. And I do want to do that. I wasn’t sure of it when I was applying, but it was something I was considering, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I wanted to do it. I also connected really well with several of the faculty members during my visit, both the poetry faculty and some of the literature and theory faculty as well. And I was very impressed with the current students; they seemed smart and friendly and, even more important, truly happy with the program. I know people say that campus visits aren’t necessarily the best way to get a good feel for a program or its people, but the weekend was long enough, and filled with enough opportunities to talk in large groups, small groups, and one on one, that I think I could get a feel for how people really felt about the program and how they interacted with each other.

So anyway, I really got the sense that Penn State was a program where I would fit, and where I was wanted, and where I would be valued. In a certain way, I felt as though the people who’d read my application and chosen me for the program knew more about me than I knew about myself at the time I’d submitted it, like they saw my potential and what I was really suited for in ways I didn’t. I got a lovely email from the MFA director after the weekend, and I let my thoughts settle for a couple of days, then I accepted my offer at Penn State, and was absolutely thrilled. I really do feel like it’s where I’m meant to be.

And now, I am here. I moved into my apartment over the weekend. My roommate, an MA student, moved in on Tuesday, and I’m slowly getting settled and learning my way around. I am feeling desperately poor and a little lost, but I also looking forward to orientation next week when I will learn about my teaching assignment and start getting to know the rest of the new students. I am looking forward even more to the following week when I start classes.

If anyone has read this immensely long and self-indulgent post, here is my advice about applying to MFA programs: Do your research (the blogs I linked to earlier are excellent resources, as is Tom’s book, but also spend some time on the websites of programs you’re looking at) and make your final list with a good mixture of logic and intuition. I would also strongly recommend that you spread your choices out among the top, middle, and lower ranked programs; it’s such a subjective process, and you never know where you will really fit. Just submit your best application possible, and trust. Trust yourself, your writing, your statement, your choices. And trust the process, trust the people at the programs. They know what they are looking for, and in the best cases they know better than you do whether you fit at their program or not. It might sound goofy, but I believe that if we put ourselves out there and ask the universe for something, that we’ll get what we need. I didn’t get into my top choices, but I got into a place that I really think is perfect for me. And that is all the wisdom I can offer.

Helpful tips for applicants + cross-genre work, Cont'd

by Marita Siddal

I started to write a comment about Denis's provocative post this morning, then realized the length made my input better suited to a new post!

General note on researching programs

I'll begin with an old adage: It never hurts to ask.

I went through the whole MFA application process twice. The first round, I was accepted by a few . . . and upon further investigation, I didn't care for any of them! I'll attribute this in part to my own belated realization that I wanted to study fiction in addition to poetry, and none of the programs to which I'd been accepted would offer this flexibility; and in part because, well, I didn't care for them.

When I began my second round, I cut to the chase. I didn't want to wait until after I'd spent $40 to $75 bucks on each application before being admitted and speaking to faculty extensively, only to learn that the approach and the attitude of the program wouldn't "fit" me. So I contacted administrators directly to inquire about their programs.

I'll plead with you, please do not pester these hardworking people with a barrage of open-ended e-mails. Try, as much as possible, to have a consolidated preface about your artistic passions and what you'd like to learn through an MFA.

You'll then face a variety of responses:
  • The scattered, "Huh? We have a website . . . here are some links . . ." from poorly organized programs.
  • The scattered, "Huh? What'ya wanna know?" from poorly organized programs.
  • The somewhat pretentious, though somewhat justified, "Thank you for your inquiry. Here is a cursory, administrative-toned answer." from some of the highly competitive programs who are not concerned with courting you because they get the best applications anyway, and might legitimately be too busy fielding the flood of those applications to give you much individual time.
  • The warm and gracious, "We have solid answers to your questions. Also, why don't we put you in touch with a few of our faculty and alumni who could answer your questions with their personal perspectives in greater detail!" from organized programs who, whether or not they already have an applicant pool full of glittering young stars, would always like to do whatever is within their power to help aspiring writers reach their goals.
VCFA leapt firmly into the last of those categories, and my conversations with faculty and alumni quickly led to my realization that I'd found my MFA home. Lesley University is another very earnest low-res program that I considered.

This process did take a while. But in the end, I saved a considerable amount of time by preparing a mere three applications as opposed to seven the year before -- and happily enrolling and attending, rather than regrouping for anothe round of applications in the wake of disappointment. (I do realize that many people, the reputable blogger Seth Abrahamson included, would advise that you apply to many more programs than this. However, I was only interested in low-res, which narrows my options from the start. Anyway, my point concerns relative effort rather than actual numbers.)

Cross-genre / Dual-genre

Denis, I think we chose our schools for similar reasons! Though I did have to decide beforehand which genres I'll pursue, VCFA's dual-genre option allows me to work in both poetry and fiction. Students can also opt to incorporate CNF and writing for children in a dual-genre degree. If you look under the section entitled SELF DESIGNED STUDY on this page of VCFA's site, you'll see a hint of how dual-genre works. (I'd be happy to answer any further questions about it!)

Overall, I'm an extreme believer in genre fluidity. Exploring a spectrum of the arts can only infuse a person's work with more comprehensive and flexible perspectives, whether or not they end up pursuing the explored genres seriously.

The only aspect that would concern me about an entirely open cross-genre model is how it might affect workshops. I'm considering my own development as a writer here . . . I do know, had I applied to VCFA in poetry a year earlier and they had allowed me to study in both poetry and fiction, I would've been a pothole in a fiction workshop! I simply wasn't ready to pursue fiction on a graduate level at that point. I browsed the Hollins site and couldn't quite tell, can you workshop in any genre you like? If you are not required to pass through another competitive application process beforehand, seems as though this might prove to be a hindrance or at least a slight hiccup in workshops. Not to say that someone who applied in one genre cannot offer brilliant feedback in another -- simply that they might not have as much experience in it yet, to the extent that a classroom could feel disjointed.

I would agree that study without too much formal recognition of genre might file down the nails of of competitiveness, perhaps for a different shade of the reason Denis calls to our attention . . . Statistically, cross-genre might still yield the same number of students from one school submitting works of the same genre to a single publication. This might be best illustrated with an example: you could have 4 students who each submit both CNF and fiction to the Kenyon Review under cross-genre, instead of 2 submitting in CNF and 2 submitting in fiction to that same journal when students must stick to one genre in their studies . . . Yet the former scenario suggests a simultaneously unified and diverse community of writers, rather than a set of CNF writers and a set of short story writers. Though students might generate the same amount of competing work, I wonder if they notice as much when their program does not categorize so closely.

Cross genre work + helpful tips for Hollins applicants

by Denis Yurchikov

Part I:

How many of you are planning to do some cross-genre work at your respective programs? One reason I chose to go to Hollins was that the program is focused on letting its students do pretty much whatever they want. I'm not sure if it will be exactly like that in practice, but in theory, even though I applied in nonfiction, I'll be free to choose whichever genre I wish to study. I'm one of those people who wants to do everything. I started my writing career (if I may unapologetically call it that) writing poetry, took one poetry workshop class at Berkeley, then took 3 consecutive nonfiction workshops, and decided to apply to MFA programs in nonfiction. While taking nonfiction workshops, I also started writing short stories and have been thinking about an idea for a novel, which I want to work on while I'm at Hollins. I’m pretty sure I have something in the order of 100 poems sitting in a folder on my desktop, and I’d like to start working on those again.

I think cross-genre programs are a really good idea because, potentially, they reduce competition. If you're at a program like the Iowa NWP, you and your classmates will primarily be writing nonfiction, and most likely submitting the pieces you write to the same publications. I think that’s slightly counter-productive.

In a cross-genre program, there will still be some competition, but I believe that over all, there will be fewer people submitting in the same genre to the same publications, leading to a higher chance of publishing success, and less possible anger/jealousy.

I realize that this argument is completely unsubstantiated, but I still feel that in addition to reducing competition, cross-genre programs encourage creativity and the idea that being a writer shouldn’t mean being a writer in just one genre.

I haven't seen many cross-genre programs out there that I can specifically name. Can anyone suggest some besides Hollins?

Part II:

As many of us who applied last year know, finding information on programs can be really tough. Compounded with the number of programs applicants have to research, the whole process can be pretty time consuming. I wanted to share something that I didn’t find for a while last year, which will be useful for any new Hollins applicants this year.

If you go to the Hollins MFA website, you get a pretty good idea of what the program is about. I have to say that this is definitely one of the better MFA websites out there (just try navigating Emerson’s website). Still, there are a couple of things you should look at right away.

First, go to “The Writer’s Life at Hollins” to find information on the first and second-year students and the FAQ (or, Things that People Ask Us a Lot (TtPAUaL)). I think the FAQ is the most important part of the website, as it specifies what Hollins looks for in a writer. As far as I can recall, Hollins was the only school I looked at that had such specific details about the kinds of people the program values.

Back on the main MFA page, you can find a pretty good rundown of what’s required to apply (GRE scores optional), and the actual application, which I loved. The application was so easy.

So yeah, if you found the FAQ, you’re in good shape. If not, now you will be. Perhaps other people can share interesting tips/tricks or information that’s not widely available on their schools’ websites.

PS. Hollins took 15 students this year.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On Obsessions

By Brianna McPherson

Ladies and gentlemen, I need to be honest with you. I am a hobby freak. Just within the last year I made a short film, took a singing class, bought a new watercolor set, indulged in various paper crafts, jewelry making and am currently teaching myself how to play the baritone ukulele. I don't say these things to impress you. (As if anyone could be impressed by my clumsy string plucking or sloppy paper folding!) To be completely honest all this hobbying is kind of frustrating, expensive and time consuming. The worst part, though, is that after I hit one little success in my hobby I'm off to my next new thing and won't return to the hobby I had been working so hard to master for months, perhaps even years. I've been doing this since I started college, when I was presented with unsupervised free time and bank account. I bought scads of fabric for (mostly unsuccessful) dress making, piano charts for songs I still can't play, a Food Network cookbook that I have opened only once, a tennis racket that has spent most of its life in the trunk of my car, among many other silly and strange things.

So far in my life I have only run into a few "hobbies" that I just can't get rid of: writing, spirituality and feminism. If those three things occupy the majority of my time, energy, thoughts and money, then what in the hell am I doing with a henna kit and a "how to draw manga" book? I'm not exactly sure yet, but recently I have been affirmed in my obsessive search for an obsession. When I was applying to Hollins, I found a little passage on their MFA website:
[W]e are pleased to see someone’s got obsessions. Fly-fishing, quilting, medieval Japan, the Fibonacci series, Indian motorcycles, goats, progressive jazz, the Appalachian trail, whatever—if there’s something out there in the world a student finds compelling, we feel hopeful. If it’s several somethings, even better.
Now, I always knew a strong sense of curiosity in the world around you is a sign of life in a writer. Even better, there's a grad program out there that wants me to be more than a writing machine. That's a heavy task to take on. I've always felt uneasy about taking on the persona of "the writer." That label conjures up images of somebody hunched over their laptop, moodily jabbing the keys and screening phone calls with the thought don't they know I'm writing? While I have been known to lock myself in my room from time to time, I am not just a writer. I am a woman who writes and has way too many art supplies for her own good. Maybe one day all of the experiences of pricking myself with needles, setting off the fire alarm in my apartment building and my misadventures with the tennis wall will come together in an elegant and coherent essay, but for now I am happy that these a simply signs of a healthy writer's life.

Marita Siddal (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2012)

Halloo everyone! Looks as though I’m the first contributor who is enrolled in a low-residency program? Anyway, quick aside, I encourage anyone interested in the low-res MFA model to check out the Balance & Budget, or How I Chose My MFA Program post on my individual blog. Now to introduce myself . . .

I write both poetry and fiction, and thus far I’ve found my work cohesive in the subjects and themes I approach across both genres – and all the gray area in between.

The entire art world, even beyond creative writing, seems a gray area to me at times. One boundless space for my flurried (and perhaps oft confused and naive) explorations. I’ve been indulging my impulses in visual arts intermittently over the past few years – some amateur photography and mixed media, a couple of introductory art courses and a film minor during undergrad, etc. I have plans to explore poetry off the page with a few simpatico faculty members during my time at VCFA. Many of my primary artistic influences aren’t from literature at all – classical sculpture and Magritte and the film lineup at E Street Cinema, Beck and Thievery Corporation and Spoon and Franz Ferdinand.

I don’t spend a terrible lot of time reading, honestly, for someone who is already a month into her MFA program. I don’t find that this impedes my work at all. Lately I get through an individual book of poetry or fiction plus a gleaning of an anthology or two each week – or maybe that is a fair amount, I’ve always been an exceptionally fast reader so I can’t be too sure. My long-standing heavy favorites are Ted Hughes, Hemingway, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. I try not to let my admiration of Adrienne Rich turn into worship, and I think Tory Dent is one of the most under-appreciated poets of our time.

I delve into other arts extensively whenever I write. I'm always searching for intriguing vantage points in films, which I then turn inside out with words. I find that my own lyricism really wakes up when I enjoy beats rising alongside Beck’s voice sailing urgently through the lines “Now I'm a seasick sailor / on a ship of noise / I got my maps all backwards / and my instincts poisoned / in a truth blown gutter / full of wasted years.” Who wouldn’t want to rip the veil away from the truth of words after that? I also count myself very fortunate for living close enough to the nation’s capitol that I can check out the galleries and museums any weekend I want. On and on, I can’t explain enough how I want the array of arts to melt together. For me, the process feels akin to throwing Aztec chili powder into a mug of dark hot chocolate.

As for the “who what when where why” of my writing . . . I’m invested in what you might loosely call women's issues. The tortures and joys of intimacy, and the manner in which society views a woman’s image are central passions. I'd say that I have equal interest in poetry as supreme pleasure and introspection and poetry as a voice for activism. I’ll lay my darkest “secret” bare here, as I believe it is relevant: I struggled with an eating disorder for much of high school and college. My own experience and my emerging desire to help erode the societal pressures that may pose the same descent for others, all this has been pivotal in my life as a writer. I identify with the confessional poets to an extent . . .

I’ll finish with a quick statement of intent, for those readers who made it through the entirety of this meandering exposition: my overarching aim within my pursuit of an MFA is, naturally, to absorb all I can about craft and form from my mentors and my fellow students – all the while retaining my raw honesty and energy.

Friday, August 7, 2009


by Jonterri Gadson
I refuse to waste the time that the MFA gifts me so here’s my list of goals:

1. Write the best poems I can write - That’s the number one reason that I chose the MFA because I want to gain more exposure to poets, poems, and poetic techniques so I can use these things to write my own best poems. Plus, everything else follows from this: publications, future employment, the meaning of life. I just need to write my best poems and see what happens.

2. Keep to a writing schedule- This is something I started ahead of time. I spent 2-4 hours in the library every weekday over the summer. The library had a summer reading program so my son participated in that for a few hours while I sat in the café sipping iced mochas and writing (everything but poetry, see Jennifer's "Were You a Writer Today" post) like a mad woman. This library time has been the highlight of my summer. I can’t wait to get to Charlottesville and scope out a good place for my writing sessions. I need a not so busy coffee shop with free wifi, Universe, okay? I really don’t care where I do it as long as I get 3 hours a day in. Our class schedule is very light at UVA the first year(1 poetry workshop + 1 elective & no teaching the first year) so I have no excuse not to meet this goal.

3. Enjoy myself- This could actually prove to be the hardest one for me. I have family obligations and not a lot of free time, except on weekdays during elementary school hours like (8am-330pm). So my plan is to make myself available for lunch/coffee dates with any of my classmates. I’ll be the go-to girl for anything anyone wants to do in the daytime. Also, success is fun, so what really still matters is that I accomplish #1 on the list.

What are some of your goals?

The Summer Before the MFA

by Eric Tanyavutti

I like to be prepared. If there’s anything that decades of procrastination and laziness has taught me, it’s that events in life (my life, at least) tend to be less painful if I prepare. (Strangely, I do not apply this rule at all to my writing time or writing space; in fact, I tend to do exactly the opposite. But that’s another subject.) Yet if there’s anything this summer has taught me, it’s that there is no amount of planning and organizing that could’ve prepared me for the enormous task of getting ready for grad school.

After compiling my to-do list a few months ago, I was crushed by the enormity of it all. There seemed to be too much to do and far too little time. My fiancée and I had timed it out such that we had to move twice -- once to her new place in Chicago, and a second time to my new place in Champaign -- in the matter of weeks. We were downsizing our large two bedroom apartment to a more affordable one bedroom (in both places). Less space, which means less stuff. Less stuff, which means throwing things away. And throwing things away, things that you seem to always have a sentimental attachment to, is never pleasant. I also needed money to save as much money as possible, so I stayed at my place of work perhaps several weeks past when I should’ve. Working 40-50 hours a week while trying to move, study, write, and prepare is an inhuman prospect at best. Most nights after work was spent on the couch, simply vegging out. There was also the studying. Like Jennifer so eloquently covered in the last post, I spent more time preparing for craft classes, reading craft books, textbooks, handbooks, chapbooks, than I did writing in the whole summer and before, probably all the way back when I started to seriously consider applying to grad school. I don’t think I’ve been a writer in over a year. And still, even with all that preparation for grad school, I do not feel anywhere half as prepared to class and teaching as I want or intend to be. It’s a horrible feeling.

And then there were all the little things. The frantic rush to “use” my health insurance one last time before leaving my job for good. Thanks to that, I now have a hole in my head where an impacted wisdom tooth used to be. Forwarding addresses. Closing accounts of old utilities, opening a half dozen new ones. Spending hours in line at the DMV to get the license and passports renewed.

So I close with this. It seems to me that this summer has been one of the most stressful I’ve had in a while. Where I had (mistakenly) thought after getting accepted, “Gee, now the hard part’s over, thank goodness I can finally relax,” I’ve actually found it to be a ton of work. Is this the experience others have been having? How have you been coping (or not)? Has the amount of work and preparation surprised you (or not)?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Were You a Writer Today?

By Jennifer Brown

Writers write.  Am I a writer?  Well, not today.  And not yesterday either.  Did I burn out from the whole MFA application thing? Am I blocked?  Am I just lazy and waiting for school deadlines to kick my ass into gear?

You see, I’ve done very little work since I wrote the stories I submitted with my MFA applications.  I haven’t written what I would consider a full story at all since the apps.  I’ve completely re-written one of my application pieces in accordance with a workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and started submitting it.  And I’ve written two pieces of flash.  One of them is being published online with Clockwork Cat in the winter edition so I consider that a successful piece of work.  But I had great hopes for myself this summer that weren’t to be.  I quit my 50-hour a week stress-filled job a while ago, hoping to really get some writing done before school starts --- “really get some writing done” as in really write some new stories.  But aside from the two pieces of flash, it hasn’t happened.  A busy schedule didn’t exist to get in the way. . . so why?  Why aren’t I producing? 

I think the truth of the matter is that this whole MFA thing has me scared.  What if what I write isn’t good enough?  What if the students in my program or god forbid the professors look down on my work as “horror” (people sometimes describe it that way).  What if people think it is too flowery?  What if I got into school because my application stories were great but now I can’t do it again?  What if everything that I write from here on out just all-around sucks?  What if I write something and it isn’t perfect?

Ahhh, wait!  There it is!  What if it isn’t perfect.  There is the problem.  And I’m blogging about it here because I have a feeling that the I’m-Afraid-It-Won’t-Be-Perfect monster will plague more than a few of us as we begin to write work to share in our respective programs.  Sometimes I’m able to tell myself “0f course it won’t be perfect” and calm down and write, and sometimes I’m not able to do that. This subject is on my mind in part because of a wonderful quote fellow MFA Chronicles contributor Jonterri has on her Facebook page.  I think there is an antidote  to the I’m-Afraid-It-Won’t-Be-Perfect monster in there, so I’ll just quote it:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.

~Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille

Beautiful wisdom.  I think I’m unblocked and ready to enter my program with courage.  Thanks to that quote tomorrow morning I’ll be able to answer the question “Are you a writer today?” with a big yes.  I think I have a story in me that wants to get out --- even though it probably won’t come out perfect!  

Brianna McPherson (Hollins University, 2011)

Hi! My name is Brianna McPherson and I will start my MFA program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia in three weeks. Three weeks! Gulp. I have so much packing to do! Ahhh! Anyway, after that small moment of panic, I can tell you that like my classmate, Denis, I am concentrating in nonfiction.

A little bit about me: I am 22 years old and hail from a small town in Ohio called East Liverpool that is more famous for its toxic waste incinerator than creative writing. I recently graduated from a small liberal arts school in central Ohio called Otterbein College where I majored in English and minored in Women's Studies. In my writing I seem to be preoccupied with gender, religion, spirituality and self-censorship. I'm still trying to sort out how all of those fit together.

Let me tell you that I never, ever thought I'd be contributing to a MFA collective blog. When I was applying I felt like it was all an exercise in futility because no school would want me. I thought of myself as so anonymous, so small, since I didn't come from a large school or have a lot of "life experience" as was discussed last post. Here I am, though, and I'm so excited and proud to say that I am a first year MFA student. I've wanted this since I was a plucky little freshman and now it's finally here!

Another thing I'd like to talk about is the glorious and beautiful genre of nonfiction. In the interest of full disclosure, when I first started dreaming about the MFA I thought I'd apply for fiction or even playwriting. It wasn't until I took a nonfiction workshop my junior year that I knew that nonfiction was the genre for me. Not to knock the other genres represented here, but I feel like nonfiction is a bit of a red headded step child in the MFA world. There are far fewer options for those seeking a concentration in nonfiction. Fortunately, from what I hear, there are more now than ever before, but they are still a little scarce. Also, while talking to others about their undergrad experience, they weren't even taught nonfiction as a genre! What a travesty.

As for a "blog", I'm unsure about pluging anything, though I do make posts in an acient livejournal and a blog that I'm trying to revamp. I'm looking forward to reading all your posts and best of luck as your begin your programs!
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