2015, Archives, October 2015, The MFA Years

An Inside Look With Chelsea Biondolillo, University of Wyoming ’13

Image: Jimmy Emerson

What was it like living in Laramie? How far does your stipend go there living wise?

Living in Laramie was conducive to writing, which is to say that there’s not a whole lot else to do during many of the long winter nights. It gets cold there, -25 and more, and the wind is such a constant, you might find the natural volume of your voice ratcheting up a notch. Winter makes summer all the more amazing however, and you will cram a lot of living into your (partially funded) summer break between years 1 & 2.

Throughout the year there is a minimum of nightlife and an abundance of nearby outdoor adventures (rock climbing, camping, hiking, caving, river kayaking, birding, wildlife watching or hunting, fishing, skiing, snowshoeing–plus you can rent almost any gear (except guns, of course) from the school’s outdoor program, including hiking boots–though I’d recommend you bring some with you). The town was much more pleasant toward students generally than many other college towns I’ve lived in.

I was easily able to find an apartment (and a second and a third, because I’m restless) that I could afford on the stipend and all three were within walking distance from campus. There is a tiny, expensive natural foods store and a great once a week farmer’s market from May to October, otherwise there are 2 grocery stores convenient to most parts of town and a giant discount store at the edge of town for all your household needs. For big box stores, Cheyenne is 40 minutes east of town and for more exciting food or nightlife options, Fort Collins is 45 minutes west. I took out loans so I could do a bunch of traveling, but there were several folks in my cohort who did the whole thing on the stipend.

How did the program equip you for and support you during your teaching assistantship?

We had a week long “colloquium” before classes started which was specifically a crash course in the freshman comp syllabus–we talked through exercises and practiced delivering lectures. We also talked generally about classroom management. Every section follows the same syllabus, which was detailed for us in a manual.

During our first semester of teaching we also all took a section of pedagogy–which was not specific to our composition program, but spoke more generally to teaching theory and praxis. We had to practice-write a teaching statement and letter of application for a teaching job in that class, and I used both of those documents when it came time to apply for actual jobs. We also met with a “mentor group” once a week which was a small mix of first and second year MAs and MFAs and one faculty mentor. Since we were all following the same syllabus, it was easy to preemptively discuss tricky days or workload management tips as they arose. Every semester that you taught comp, you had the mentor group meetings.

On day one, I felt woefully underprepared, but having had other day ones since, I now realize that I was incredibly ready to teach. Sometimes the mentor group tasks seemed annoying and a burden, especially in the second year when we were all over-confident pros at teaching composition, but by then we are providing a service to the incoming cohort, and thinking about it that way helped.

There is often competitive opportunities for second year students to either teach in a creative writing course or work in writing center to fulfill their GAship requirements. I did the latter, and really enjoyed the experience.

What was the workshop environment like?

It is a small cohort carefully selected by the committee with one another in mind. In my group, all of the nonfiction writers were working in wildly different directions and on different topics (from mixed media memoir to poetry/cnf hybrids, from literary journalism to experimental forms, etc), and yet everyone was supportive and invested in everyone else’s work. During one semester, we even had an extra “off campus” workshop so that we could workshop together more. Several of those folks are still among my best and closest friends and we still read one another’s work.

I also felt very supported by the faculty across genre, and not just in the creative writing department, but several lit profs, and closely affiliated faculty were also champions of my work and helped me in and out of class on several projects.

My cohort has gone on to teach, to PhD programs, to residencies and fellowships, and to tons of great publications (including at least a couple books that I know of so far). That’s just in the last two years.

While there, I took workshops in flash nonfiction, a general nonfiction that included experimental forms, and a poetry/nonfiction combo class that was really invigorating.

What was your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

UWyo doesn’t have a literary journal, but they have some other great opportunities. There’s a book arts class taught once every two years by a creative writing professor and an art professor, the local public radio affiliate has been very open to providing opportunities for internships to writing program folks, and environmental studies program (which offers a dual degree option, including an extra fifth semester, to MFA students) has a journal that has employed students.

The program is also really open to electives from other departments. I took a sewing class and an American studies class on nature, in addition to my environmental policy and science courses (two of which were taught in whole or in part overseas).

I was amazed at the breadth of visiting writers that came to the program and worked one on one with us. In nonfiction, my work was read by Maggie Nelson, Colson Whitehead, John D’Agata, and Joy Williams. These folks all read, too. Other visiting writers that I remember from my 5 semesters included Sherman Alexie, Camille Dungy, Ed Roberson, J. Michael Martinez, Charles Baxter, John Brandon, CA Conrad, and others. We held a student reading every month which was well supported by the community. And each spring, there is a series of “career focused” Q&A sessions that include visiting speakers from publishing, literary agencies, artists residencies, etc.

The faculty sounds incredibly supportive! How did working in different genres inform your nonfiction work at Wyoming?

When I came to UWyo, I was super committed to being an “environmental journalist”–and I have definitely done some of that. But by having the opportunity to work with so many awesome faculty in both the English department and affiliated programs, and several of the visiting profs, who taught mini workshops or courses, I was able to broaden my writing practice. For those two and a half years, I gave myself over to the art of writing, rather than just being hung up on the business of it. It was revelatory. Now, my work skews much more lyric than journalistic, and I feel a greater connection to it.

At Wyoming, I found a passionate and engaged faculty who wanted to know me and help me be a better writer. The small cohort contributes to this, but the people make the program. I took a lit course from an amazing poet and learned that theoretical discussions could be beautiful. I took a course on digital poetics from a poet/essayist that confounded the hell out of me (both the course and the professor), but without the course or the professor, I’m not sure my thesis would’ve included an essay with floating text boxes and collaged footnotes (which was later published, then listed as a notable in Best American Essays, 2014). When I was short-listed for a post-MFA teaching and writing fellowship, it was another poet, who I’d never taken a course from, but in whose office I had often lingered talking about hybrid works, who gave me the personal recommendation that helped inch me into the final three.

And finally, when I got the much coveted call from an editor interested in one of my projects, the combined prose faculty (visiting and permanent) all rallied and helped me navigate finding an agent and book proposal samples salient to my work.

The program isn’t a fit for everyone. Laramie is small, cowboy-town living–which was tough for some folks more used to the luxuries of big metro areas. The program is small and tight knit–for folks who are prickly or sullen brooders, this could be a downside. But some things that I expected to be frustrated by: isolation from the literary community, geographic isolation… were quickly dismantled. In Laramie, I met an NYC agent who helped me write a book proposal and an editor of an independent (not too small) press who later read my manuscript. I had one-on-one conferences with amazing authors. I produced and sold a news story to NPR. I traveled overseas three times. Plus, I learned bird taxidermy, sewing and how to identify animal tracks in the snow. And I wrote a whole book!


Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press). Her work has appeared in OrionBrevityGuernicaPassages NorthDiagramHayden’s Ferry Review, and others. She is the recipient of an O’Connor fellowship and the Carter Prize for the Essay, and her essays have appeared as Notable selections in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and currently teaches nonfiction workshops at ApiaryLit.org. She keeps a journal at http://roamingcowgirl.com

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