Monday, November 16, 2009

What I Didn't Know About My Program....

by Jonterri Gadson

...or what I thought I knew and now realize I was wrong.

1. You can take cross-genre workshops. It's Spring registration time and I've thought all along that it wouldn't be possible to take a fiction workshop. Well, I was wrong. They offer workshops apart from the regular MFA workshops that we can take outside of our genre. Only in poetry & fiction because that's all that's offered here at UVA.

2. Because of the fellowship, should you desire federal student loans for any reason, you will not be able to get them. So it's wonderful to receive so much aid and all of that but it hurt to find out that I couldn't get additional loan support to offset my moving costs as I expected. Unless I took out a private loan (I chose not to). This is something I think all future applicants should be aware of, just in case. Sometimes your funding can put you so close to the school's expected cost of attendance (which is what they base your federal financial aid off of) that you will not qualify for federal aid.

3. There's not really much pressure to write. I felt like part of the reason I wanted to go to an MFA program was so someone would be breathing down my neck for a poem each week. Yeah, that's not so much happening. Turning in a poem to workshop is totally optional. So the discipline still has to be there which I'm okay with. Plus, with additional unexpected stress outside of the program, I might have cracked under this type of pressure this semester. So, everything worked toward the good.

4. I wouldn't have time to spend with classmates. Uh, yeah. Not true. There's at least one day every week that I see people from the program outside of workshop and that's nice. Having a weekly MFA reading at a bar helps a lot with that. I don't know a ton of single parents who feel like their social lives aren't lacking, so this is kinda big.

The only big question that remains unanswered is who will be the new hire to replace Charles Wright.

What about you guys-- any surprises, wrongs righted, myths demythified about your programs?


  1. JayTee--this is a GREAT post! I'll have to come up with my own list. I'm sure I can look back at my journal and read what my expectations were.

    I do want to say that I'm glad to see you mentioned the fellowship/financial aid problems. I, too, encountered this problem. No one told me that if you get a fellowship (or some type of funding that doesn't require repayment), you can't get additional aid. This is a very important point you've made.

  2. One great thing that I found out about George Mason’s program recently is that second year students have the opportunity to apply for TAships. Meaning that if you aren’t funded coming in, you have another chance to apply for funding your second year.

    On another note, my experience with pressure to write has been different from Jonterri’s. I have felt a geat deal of pressure to write. I have a 2-4 page mini story due each week along with pastiches for my setting class. So I’m writing about 4-8 pages per week, and then I have a full story due at the end of the semester for two separate classes. . . so that is two full-sized stories that I need to finish. This may not be a lot for some folks, but it definitely is for me. But I will say it has been good for me and for my writing. I learn a great deal from being forced to produce.

  3. Great topic. I had no idea about the loan restrictions. I'm grateful to know now. Thank you!

  4. Yes, Kerry! Totally ignore your financial aid award letter when you get one and ask exactly how much additional support you can really expect. I didn't find out until this little tiny amount of money was disbursed when I was expecting much more based on the award letter.

  5. Yes, excellent topic.

    It's interesting that you don't feel too much pressure to write, except the pressure that you apply yourself.

    It's funny, though, I think that the self-pressure is probably true for most programs, studio or lit-heavy--either you're going to make yourself write or you're not. Work can be mandatory or optional, but it's up to most of us to prioritize and make sure the writing happens (at least, that's how I feel at a lit and work-heavy MFA, but one where I feel I'm producing work I'm proud of, and having a break-through or two).

    Did you have a really product-oriented undergrad workshop experience, JayTee?

  6. Josh: In undergrad I took two advanced poetry workshops that required me to turn in a poem each week for workshop. Yes, some weeks I wrote some crap but I ended up with enough decent pieces to make my writing sample for MFA programs.

    You are right about self-discipline. Even if I was required to turn in a piece each week, I would still have to discipline myself regarding the amount of work I put into the piece.

    When I first found out that turning in a poem each week was optional and that there weren't any assignments as far as things to try or subject matter suggestions or anything, I felt a little lost. Now, I'm enjoying the freedom I have to just explore. But I definitely think I benefited from having had a more intense undergrad workshop experience first.

    I just don't know that I'll ever be completely satisfied with my productivity. Either I'll wish I was writing more or I'll wish that the many pieces I'm producing are of a higher quality. Can't win. :)

  7. Another great topic J :)

    The financial aid stuff, even if you are just
    getting loans, is a bear! Think you gave some valuable tips for others who will be applying.

    In some ways, I wish the timing of the seminars in my program (low-res so very diff from you guys) had been different and that I had known, in more detail, about the graduation requirements very early on in my experience. I think I would have put together a better thesis but I think they wanted us to focus on just writing when we started out.

    I'm just end focused! I can't help it!

  8. I like the idea of submitting a poem a week. In fact, I think the only reason I would enroll for an MFA is that pressure breathing down my neck to produce. I know that's something good to look out for. I'm also surprised about the fellowship vs. scholarship stipulation.

  9. This is a great topic. I think the conversation brought up about where the pressure to write comes from in MFA programs is an interesting one. U of I's program is not literature heavy at all -- we're only required to take one official lit seminar in our three years, and even that's a loose-ish rule. But you're inundated with a lot of other work-related stuff; just like any grad program, I expect that they kind of just throw you in the deep end of the pool right off the bat in terms of non-writing related work.

    So what I frequently find is that on my gigantic "to-do" list, when it comes to studying, is that everything seems to take a higher priority over writing. Papers, teaching, lit mag meetings, everything. I think a lot of it has to do with having a very definable and specific consequences to doing (or not doing) everything that isn't writing. Writing just doesn't have that, at least not immediate consequences.

    If there's any pressure to write, it's going to be self-motivated. Unfortunately, I'm not a very good at motivating myself!

  10. One thing I didn't anticipate about my program was how many of my colleagues would be married/LTR. We're a somewhat close-knit group, but all the coupling makes me feel a little odd since I am not only single, but gay, and there is an odd shortage of gay men in the English department here.

    I am also a lot busier than I thought I'd be. Reading for The Journal and a poetry prize, plus teaching, studying, writing research papers, attending readings, holding office hours, etc can be pretty draining.

    That said, I feel no pressure to write but that's probably because I tend to produce work rapidly in short spurts. I agree that despite the impositions of workshop, it is on individuals to motivate themselves to actually do the writing.


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