Writing Can Be Taught: PW's M.F.A. Survey 2014
In addition to the traditional players, PW spotlights a number of programs rethinking what it means to get an M.F.A.—either by excelling at the old model or offering writers an entirely new way of studying a craft no longer considered unteachable.In a recent post on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Junot Díaz (Cornell ’95) writes, “These days you got fifth graders that can talk your ears off about M.F.A.s.” He’s being hyperbolic, but maybe only a little. In a publishing climate where a collection of essays like “MFA vs. NYC,” published by highbrow intellectual magazine n+1 (run, notably, by a bunch of M.F.A. grads) can get nearly as much media coverage as newly minted Pulitzer winner Donna Tartt, it’s pretty safe to say that not only are M.F.A.s everywhere—they’re inextricably woven into the fabric of the contemporary world of American books.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa is widely considered the first institutionalized creative writing program. Established in 1936, the program has nurtured so many poets and writers that are now household names that it’s almost silly to begin to list them all. Jane Smiley, Paul Harding, James Tate, Ann Patchett, Charles Wright—there’s a high chance that a book by at least one graduate or faculty member from this intensely competitive program (it accepts an estimated 2% of total applicants, making admission more competitive than top-notch medical schools) lives on your bookshelf.
Graduate-level writing programs began to appear across the United States, booming particularly in the 1960s (corresponding with a surge in government funding for the arts), when respected and still-running programs like UNC-Greensboro, Brown University, the University of Oregon, and San Francisco State University began welcoming writing students and professional writers-turned-professors into the academic fold. By the 1990s and early 2000s, you’d be hard pressed to find a major university that didn’t offer a creative writing curriculum of some kind, if not an M.F.A. program proper. M.F.A. degree-granting programs have continued to thrive—new ones, like those at Arcadia University and the University of Arkansas–Monticello, an online-only program—pop up every year.M.F.A. grads are writing the books on the new and notable tables at Barnes & Noble. They’re teaching high school poetry or running your local newspaper or posting reality TV recaps on New York magazine’s website or editing stories for this very publication. Natasha Trethewey, U.S. poet laureate, has an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Even TV characters are getting M.F.A.s: according to the season two finale of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, protagonist Hannah Horvath is headed to Iowa for season three. Any critic of M.F.A. programs, like it or not, is, necessarily, a critic of America’s literary culture and the publishing industry at large. The literary world is populated by writers whose M.F.A. applications can be interpreted as major career turning points.
As programs continue to proliferate, they develop new ways to compete for the attention of potential candidates. While Iowa, Cornell, the University of Texas–Austin’s Michener Center, Columbia, and such institutions will always have their allure, many programs are changing the structure of their curriculums to appeal to nontraditional writers and students, or those resistant to limiting coursework to just one genre. In addition to the traditional players, this issue of PW spotlights a number of programs rethinking what it means to get an M.F.A.—either by excelling at the old model or offering writers an entirely new way of studying a craft no longer considered unteachable.
Getting in is the hardest part. To Google M.F.A. acceptance rates is to open a Pandora’s box of anxiety—blog after blog tracking acceptances and message boards with strings 100 posts deep bemoan the less than 5% acceptance rates typical at many programs.
The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program is designed to help writers gain coveted acceptances to their first choice M.F.A. program. This open-enrollment program circulates upwards of 5,000 students annually who enroll in a wide variety of short-term creative writing courses that range in price from $530 to $3,500, depending on duration and faculty involvement. These classes can help writers hone their craft and prepare them for the intensive environment of the M.F.A. Lou Matthews, a longtime faculty member, has seen many students leverage their training at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program into M.F.A. gold. “A fellowship at a top program is worth in excess of $100K,” said Matthews. “Two students in two years, Rachel Kondo and Darri Farr, have gotten full rides at the Michener Center. That’s a three-year package worth about $150K—not a bad return on a $1,400 investment for two of our courses.”
The University of Wisconsin–Madison Continuing Studies’ Writers Program also offers a comprehensive array of courses and retreats to help writers improve their craft, often before applying to an M.F.A. program. Its Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat draws more than 130 authors from around the country who partake in five days of rigorous craft discussions and master classes with titles like “How to Create Non-Stereotypical, Three Dimensional Characters” and “Best Words, Best Order: A Poetry Workshop.”
What if you want to study writing without uprooting your family or leaving your day job? Low-residency programs are an increasingly popular choice. Typically, these programs require students on campus for 10 to 14 days twice a year; in the interim, students and faculty correspond via email or postal mail, exchanging comments on each other’s work and sometimes engaging in group chats. Warren Wilson College is the oldest such program, boasting graduates like poet Cornelius Eady, as well as New York Times bestselling novelist David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle).
Fairleigh Dickinson University’s two-year low-residency program offers a degree in one of five disciplines: the standard poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as writing for children and literary translation. During two 10-day residencies, one held annually in England and the other on FDU’s campus in New Jersey, students participate in a smorgasbord of literary events and meet with faculty and fellow students—the rest of the year they are in constant, one-on-one contact with mentors and classmates online. Program director René Steinke adds, “We are the only low-residency M.F.A. connected to a well-regarded literary magazine with a 57-year history [the Literary Review, for which PW’s director of digital operations Craig Morgan Teicher serves as poetry editor]. Students have the opportunity to work on the journal while they are in the program.” Alumni of the program include James Weatherall (The Physics of Wall Street, Mariner Books) and Mariya Gusev, whose translation of Sankya, a novel by Russian author Zakhar Prilepin, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books.
Like FDU, Converse College’s low-residency M.F.A. program is structured around two nine-day residencies that take place on its South Carolina campus. The program has seen graduates publish novels with Morrow and Simon & Schuster and poetry collections with Negative Capability Press. Its students fill the pages of major literary magazines like Colorado Review, Shenandoah, and the Southern Quarterly. Converse has recently developed the C. Michael Curtis Publishing Internship—a paid internship in which a fourth semester student works with the university press in all facets of publishing and marketing.
Because low-residency programs only require faculty on campus a couple of times a year, they are often able to draw first-rate writers hesitant to commit to full-time university life. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, recently joined the faculty at Southern New Hampshire University’s low-residency M.F.A. program, and the faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts’s two-year old program features more all-star names than many more famous programs, including Sherman Alexie, Ramona Ausabel, Melissa Febos, and Manuel Gonzalez.
To some, an M.F.A. curriculum that only focuses on creative writing workshops and craft classes can be too narrow. The University of Houston–Victoria’s program, which is also low-residency, requires students to take a substantial number of courses outside of the creative writing focus, with available electives on practical topics like editing and digital publishing (both courses are in the university’s publishing program), as well as English courses like British or American literary history and studies in Latino literature.
One frequent complaint about M.F.A. programs is that they teach future writers to read and write in an American tradition that turns a blind eye to the rest of the world’s literature. Schools like NYU and the University of Nevada have recently developed overseas programs to supplement their traditional M.F.A. with courses abroad. But what of schools that function as international low-residencies in their own right?
Cedar Crest College’s Pan-European low-residency M.F.A. program is the first of its kind. Over the course of two years (there’s also an optional three-year track) students participate in three residencies—in Dublin, Barcelona, and Vienna/Bratislava. Each year the residency locale rotates, so that students can study in each location. In keeping with its nomadic nature, this program is highly invested in writing about place—and each residency is tailored to take maximum advantage of its European setting.
In response to an increasing need for flexibility, some M.F.A. programs are taking up permanent residence online. In addition to its residential M.F.A. program, the University of Texas–El Paso offers a track that students can complete without ever setting foot on campus. All of the program’s courses take place over email and university-facilitated message boards, as well as the occasional Skype call.
The University of Arkansas–Monticello, whose first class will graduate this summer, is another online-only program. Eighteen students are currently enrolled in the M.F.A. program, undergoing extensive virtual creative writing training from faculty members Diane Payne (Burning Tulips), and Mark Nichols, among others. The program does offer graduate assistantships to offset tuition costs, and students can earn up to six credits by attending writing conferences nationwide or completing publishing internships in their community.
Since Iowa’s earliest days, most M.F.A. students focus on a single genre, defying literature’s long history of writers who excel across disciplines—D.H. Lawrence would have needed six or seven M.F.A.s to cover his output. Chatham University’s program in Pittsburgh, Pa., allows students the option of a dual-genre focus and the possibility of an additional concentration in such novel (in M.F.A.-terms) categories as travel writing, publishing, teaching, and nature writing. The M.F.A. program at Stony Brook Southampton also encourages students to take workshops outside of their main genre, something few other programs allow, let alone promote.
Pacific Lutheran University’s M.F.A. program, called the Rainier Writing Workshop, is a three-year low-res program with four residency components. All students are required to participate, in their second-year, in “outside experience” that they design themselves. These second-year projects are implemented with the help of the program staff and have included organizing book fairs, internships at local presses, month-long residencies at writing centers, and international travel that enhances current projects. A number of PLU faculty teach in more than two genres, and PLU even allows students to turn in mixed-genre theses. The University of Wyoming’s program is similarly flexible in terms of permitting students to write across genres. Students apply within one of three genres—poetry, nonfiction, and fiction—but once on-campus they are encouraged to pursue classes outside their creative-writing comfort zone. Other special features include the Eminent Writers in Residence program, which will bring Dinaw Mengestu to campus in 2014. And best of all? UW fully funds every student accepted, including tuition waivers, annual stipends in excess of $11,000 in addition to a summer stipend, and funding for travel and publication submission costs.
Fully funded programs are the holy grail of M.F.A.s—most aspiring writers are advised not to go into debt for an M.F.A., a degree that’s doesn’t necessarily promise a future job or a book deal. Programs that can afford to bankroll their students are the ones wading through the largest piles of applications every year.
No doubt because of the extremely competitive nature of admissions, many fully funded programs have an outstanding roster of writer-alums. Cornell’s M.F.A. program, which accepts around six students a year, awards each M.F.A. candidate a stipend of more than $25,000 annually. Students can also apply to stay on for two additional paid years as post-degree English lecturers after their two-year M.F.A. is completed—according to the administration, most students take advantage of that opportunity. Junot Díaz, Tea Obreht, Lorrie Moore, Melissa Bank, and Stewart O’Nan are all graduates of Cornell’s program.
Other notable fully funded programs include Washington University in St. Louis, which offers full and equal funding for every student; University of Oregon, which offers health insurance waivers and annual stipends that increase by $3,000 in the second year; and the University of Virginia, where all accepted students receive the same $16,000 fellowship—essentially getting paid to be taught the art and craft of writing by writers like Rita Dove, Greg Orr, and John Casey.
In the last couple of years, the New School Writing Program’s faculty and alumni published more than 50 books. To celebrate the news, the M.F.A. program launched a new annual tradition—a book party to honor publishing achievements from grads and faculty throughout the program’s 20-year history. Many of those achievements occurred in the realm of children’s literature—the New School has long offered a popular writing for children track, in which M.F.A. candidates can enroll in children’s literature craft classes and workshops. New School alum Caela Carter has a second teen literary novel, My Best Friend, Maybe, forthcoming from Bloomsbury in June, a follow-up to her successful debut, Me, Him, And It. Jess Verdi recently published My Life After Now with Sourcebooks Fire, a highly praised YA novel about a girl who is diagnosed with HIV.
Hollins University, in Roanoke, Va., offers both an M.A. and M.F.A. in children’s literature and has just begun a new degree-granting M.F.A. program in children’s book writing and illustrating. This unique curriculum requires students to embark on an independent study of art in addition to English and writing courses; they will be instructed by notable authors, editors, and illustrators like Julie Pfeiffer and Brian Attebery, among others.
Programs to Watch
Between the Iowas and the up-and-comers, many M.F.A. programs continue to steadily graduate first-rate writers and attract award-winning faculty. The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., has long been counted among the very best M.F.A. programs in the country. Established in 1947, the program has nurtured writers like John Barth (who later taught there), Chimamanda Adichie, David Lipsky, and ZZ Packer. No more than four poets and four fiction writers are accepted every year, and each incoming student receives a full-tuition scholarship and a teaching assistantship. Program alums make waves in publishing almost every year—Bloomsbury just released alum Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, in May.
Columbia College Chicago has also seen a sizable number of grads publish early and well. The program offers an M.F.A. in one of three core tracks—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—but all students also take a range of specialty classes during their time on campus, in subjects like science fiction, historical fiction, and even playwriting. Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, is among the faculty, as well as Jenny Boully, Gary Johnson, and more. But perhaps most notably, Columbia College’s program provides a range of publishing opportunities that help alumni get noticed. Graduate students run a lively blog, Marginalia*, that gives prospective students a taste of what they can expect if they choose Columbia. The program publishes an annual fiction anthology called Hair Trigger, composed of student writing and edited by students as well, providing twofold experience. The anthology has racked up 26 major awards, and the students that appear in its pages have gone on to win over 100 awards of their own. Finally, the department-run F Magazine is devoted to novels-in-progress.
For writers who also have a pronounced interest in small press publishing and literary magazine editing, the M.F.A. at Boise State University offers strong programming. Boise is home to Ahsahta Press, run by poet and teacher Janet Holmes. Over the past decade, it has become an increasingly important presence in the experimental poetry scene, publishing such well-known authors as Stephanie Strickland and Rusty Morrison. M.F.A. students not only help run the press, they can also complete coursework and obtain internships and graduate assistantships with the press and the program’s literary magazine, the Idaho Review. The M.F.A. at Colorado State University offers similar academic opportunities to assist with a press, the Center for Literary Publishing, and a magazine, Colorado Review.
The University of New Orleans offers both a low-residency program and a two-year residency program. Students who decide to pursue a degree in fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, poetry, or playwriting while living full-time in New Orleans are given three free tickets to area literary festivals each year, where they meet with editors and agents and take master classes. These meetings must be working, because graduates have published books with Henry Holt, Doubleday, Vintage, FSG, and Hyperion, to name just a few of the publishers who have signed alums from this program.
Writers interested in studying near the literary hub of New York City, but who would prefer to actually live a little outside the city’s hectic streets might consider the M.F.A.s at Sarah Lawrence (in the suburb of Bronxville, N.Y.) or Rutgers-Newark, just across the river in New Jersey. Sarah Lawrence is riding high right now because faculty member Vijay Sheshadri just won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But the program boasts a large list of famous faculty members, including Myla Goldberg, Matthea Harvey, and Nelly Reifler. One of the features of the Sarah Lawrence program is a great deal of one-on-one time with faculty.
Though Rutgers-Newark established its M.F.A. program less than 10 years ago, three alumni (Christa Parravani, Evan Roskos, and Ryan McIlvain) published books in 2013. Director Jayne Anne Phillips (Quiet Dell) works directly with fiction students, along with fellow prose faculty Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow) and Anne Elliott Dark (In the Gloaming: Stories). The program is affordable and offers competitive financial aid to incoming students, including half-tuition scholarships, teaching assistantships (worth around $21,000 an academic year), and part-time lecturer positions. “The time that you’re able to devote to writing is invaluable,” Christa Parravani (Rutgers-Newark ’11), author of the highly praised memoir Her (Henry Holt, 2013), says of her time in the program. “The structure of having to submit a piece of my book every month helped me build a manuscript. I had the great fortune of working closely with Jayne Anne Phillips and Alice Elliott Dark while I was there. Without their feedback, I never would have gotten the book into shape. I just wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Both Jayne Anne Phillips and Alice Elliott Dark have M.F.A.s; the former from Iowa, the latter from Antioch University–Los Angeles, another low-residency program. This mirrored teaching structure, where M.F.A. grads teach future M.F.A. grads, is common in programs across the nation. It’s hard to imagine an American literary landscape without M.F.A.s and the stability they offer writers in the form of jobs, health insurance, and community. And why would you want to? Where the publishing industry has begun to falter, offering smaller and smaller advances and taking fewer risks, M.F.A. programs have come to pick up the slack, creating an environment where new voices are treasured and literature is as vital as ever.