2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

What is a Low-Residency MFA?

Image: Siebuhr

My lucky lobster pen from Maine accompanies me on the plane to residency.
My lucky lobster pen from Maine accompanies me on the plane to residency.

This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about since I was given the chance to contribute to this blog. Most of the narratives you hear about an MFA are narratives stemmed in full residency programs. When I was applying for schools, there were some negative comments that were spouted out about low-residencies, and I almost missed out on a great opportunity because of a culture bias I internalized.

Before we begin, I want to say a couple of things. First, I am not in every low-res MFA program. I am in one. Stonecoast is my understanding of how things work. Second, I have never been in a full-res MFA program, so I cannot do a directly personal comparison of the two experiences.

With that in mind, what is a low-res MFA?

Residency 20 days a year. Home the other 345.  I didn’t move to another part of the country to go to my residency. I live at home in Omaha, and I commute to Maine every six months for my residency. In between residencies, I work remotely with an assigned mentor on my projects. You are assigned a new mentor every semester. So far, I’ve worked with David Anthony Durham (Acacia), Nancy Holder (Crimson Peak), and Michael Kimball (Undone).

What exactly do you do with a mentor? You and your mentor come up with a plan before you leave residency. The first two semesters, students work on packets. There are five packets a semester. Each packet includes 25 pages of creative writing and two annotations (or analyses of a novel). You must read two novels and write at least 20 pages every two weeks. After the mentor reads your packet, you sit down for a meeting with them, usually via email, phone, or Skype. After talking it through, you start on the next packet. There are no summer vacations, there are no days off.

Your third semester, you begin your third semester project. The project can be an analytical paper around 40 pages, or it can be a 25-page paper with an internship attached. There are other variations of this project that people have come up with, but the faculty recommends doing the paper. I just finished mine (Catharsis: The Writer’s Achievement in Pity and Fear in Film, Stage, and Prose).

Your fourth semester is your thesis.

So you can see how fast this goes. How much is expected of you as the base line. Except …

No teaching required. This is one of the things that is going to be a huge deal-breaker for those of you with no teaching experience and/or ambition of becoming a tenured professor. There is no teaching at most low-residencies. I’ve heard there is a TA-ship that you can do in your last semester at Stonecoast, and many students reach out to their communities to receive their own college classes and work that way through their program. But the curriculum itself focuses on getting better at your craft.

You get what you put into it. I think this is true of any program. Currently, I’m sitting in my apartment in Omaha. I am enrolled in my graduate program, but I’m not near a campus. I’m not close to my friends and colleagues. The closest one is seven hours away. If I stayed in my pajamas all day today and didn’t do a damn thing outside of my Hulu queue, who’s gonna know? Granted, I have a meeting at 1:30 with my mentor, but other than that, who is going to count me as absent? Who is going to get down on me for not showing up to that reading downtown tonight? That reading is optional. And who is really going to know if I read all of the required books for the upcoming residency?

Well, the thing is, I think we’re old enough to have figured out that when we cheat ourselves out of an opportunity, we’re going to end up dead last. The requirements are not the bar. People have won Hugo Awards before they graduate.

And honestly, this is how real writing is. You’re expected to reach out to a community, you’re expected to moderate your own self. So in some ways, while I’d love to be on a campus, I am being trained to enter the real world as a writer.

Why Stonecoast? I ended up deciding on a low-res program because, out of all the different sorts of programs all around the country, Stonecoast was the best-suited for me. My need to learn how to write what I write outweighed my want of a full-res. I want to write speculative fiction, and they have the All-Star Team for a faculty. James Patrick Kelly is my next workshop moderator in January. James Patrick Kelly. Theodora Goss, Elizabeth Searle, Ted and Annie Deppe … and then they know people, and that’s how I ended up mumbling my way through a conversation with Kevin Barry in Ireland. When I write my novel, I am getting critical feedback, but I’m also getting a sort of support that I didn’t see in the other programs where I applied. I’m writing a YA novel about an airship captain and a prodigious inventor in an alternate Civil War. And no one bats an eye. My classmates write selkie stories, fantasy mysteries with ghosts in the woods, crime novels, fairy tales, graphic novels, choose-your-own-web-adventures, podcasts … we are an imaginative, eclectic bunch. And a good chunk of us publish before graduation.

What are some downsides? I have had a strong education here at Stonecoast, that is not a downside. I personally wish we all could be closer together all year round and have a creative environment. Residency goes by so fast. But that downside can also be a blessing. You don’t have time to compete, you don’t have time to feel bad, you’re in with your friends and you’re learning a lot in two weeks. Your faculty members aren’t worn out from being on campus for a whole semester. They’re out living their lives, moving to different countries, publishing new best-selling books and writing plays in New York. They come with a much fresher attitude than if they only had time and location to teach.

What are some tips if I go to a low-res? Do not take up a full-time job. Get a part-time if you need to, but make school your priority.

Also, treat school like a job. Treat it like you’re going to a full-res. Use your extra time to submit to journals and publishers. Go to conferences. Propose papers and panels. Network on social media with other writers. Blog. Teach. Write. Read. Travel. But don’t put it off and do the bare minimum.

Keep in touch with your cohort and faculty throughout the year. Come up with spaces online to meet, try to help each other out as much as possible. Most people are not working on short stories, but longer novels. Swap manuscripts. Send each other playlists. Be kind.

Seek out projects. Seek out chances to get involved with your program. We have a journal that I didn’t have time to join, and I wish I had. We had an anthology that went out a year ago. We have representatives for each genre, we have internships, we have get-togethers at conferences.

Ask questions. Advocate for what sort of education and projects you need.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the program you chose for your own reasons is lower than theirs.

Some final thoughts. Stonecoast has taken me from Portland to Paris. It has given me the opportunity to share my ideas, become a better editor, talk to my mentors about that one time they conversed with Joss Whedon about how to write an action scene. Stonecoast has shown me my weaknesses and highlighted my strengths. The importance of an MFA program is finding the right fit. Find the financial package, the schedule, the right mix of teaching and writing that you need. Find a faculty you are passionate about (and who is passionate about you). See what accomplishments are coming out of their alumni. See how much the students grow. Decide if you can move to wherever they’re asking you to move on whatever stipend or fellowship they’ve given you. Love yourself, love your writing, love your program. It’s a degree of passion. Because God knows no one got an MFA to make bank.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.