2017, Archives, March 2017, The MFA Years

An Inside Look With Robin Conley, Western State Colorado University ’15

Image: Alex Berger

Note: Thank you to past contributor J.R. Dawson for providing me with these questions!

How does your residency work and how it is paced?

Western State Colorado University’s low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program involves three summer session on campus in Gunnison, Colorado and non-residency classes online in the fall and spring between summer sessions. Each of the summer intensives are two weeks long and involves classes Monday to Friday with the weekend off. What you’re working on in class varies based on what year you’re in and what you’re studying. I received a dual MFA in Screenwriting and Genre Fiction, and while the two tracks were similar during the summer sessions, they had slight variations.

The first summer session was a chance to meet the professors and other students, to learn the system for online classes, and to get a quick refresh of some writing basics the professors expected us to know before diving into workshopping. The second summer session was the most intense one in my experience as both programs were completely focused on workshopping new writing. The teachers warn you of what you’ll be working on in advance before you arrive so you can get a head start, but it definitely keeps you busy. The final summer was focused on making sure you’re prepared to go out into your chosen industry and presenting your thesis. In the Genre Fiction program we researched markets, wrote query letters to agents and managers, and began to brainstorm our next novel ideas. For the Screenwriting track we workshopped during the third summer as well as had meetings with the professors about our screenwriting goals for the future. The screenwriting professors gave us advice about what contests to enter based on our plans and writing, suggestions for management companies and agents that might fit us, helped us practice pitching, and basically focused on answering all our questions about the screenwriting industry.

The final few days of each summer residency at WSCU you are done with classes and get to attend the Writing the Rockies Conference. The conference lasts about four days and involves seminars and guest speakers from all the MFA Creative Writing Program’s concentrations (Screenwriting, Genre Fiction, Poetry, and Publishing). You can choose which sessions to go to, and there is ample opportunity to socialize with the visiting agents, publishers, authors, screenwriters, etc. that show up for the conference.

How do you stay in contact with your mentor and your classmates during the semester? How do you work with them when you aren’t face to face?

For the online portion of WSCU’s low-residency MFA program you use an online system called Blackboard where there are discussion threads for students and professors to interact, as well as places to submit writing assignments and give and receive feedback. Each professor and class has a different setup, but usually there is some form of weekly live call with your professor and the other students where you can discuss your work or have writing discussions. These live calls helped keep us connected so it didn’t start to feel like we were just chatting with strangers in textboxes online. Some professors prefer video chat, while others just used a voice call system, but there was always some form of live element to the classes I was in. In both WSCU’s Screenwriting MFA Program and the Genre Fiction MFA Program the professors also gave me numerous ways to contact them including email, phone numbers, and even Skype, and any time I needed something outside of class I had no trouble getting in touch with them through one of these means.

As far as keeping in touch with the other students, the program starts with the summer session so we got to all meet in person and get to know each other that way first. Every year by the end I found we all naturally had exchanged phone numbers, emails, social media links and such with each other so we could keep in touch. During the summer you also get to meet the people in the other years of the program, and it really does become a big community where everyone keeps in touch and makes friends. I actually ended up making such good friends with someone in a different year of the MFA Screenwriting Program that we decided to be roommates when we both moved to Los Angeles last year. The other way many of the cohorts keep in touch throughout the semester is to create private Facebook groups or social media groups where they can discuss classes and writing. I know both my Genre Fiction cohort and my Screenwriting cohort did this, as well as several of the cohorts in years before and after me. It’s a great way to discuss class assignments, update each other on our writing, and really bond with your cohort.

Why did you choose low-res vs. going to a full-res?

There are a few reasons I chose a low-residency program over a full-residency program. At the time I was applying for graduate programs I was trying to avoid an expensive move to another state, but I didn’t want to restrict myself to only MFA programs in Michigan. I was also helping take care of my grandmother and her husband on and off at the time, and it was easier for me to stay where I was than to move and have to make other arrangements.

Beyond that, the main reason I chose the low-residency program was simply because WSCU’s Graduate Creative Writing Program fit exactly what I was looking for. A lot of the programs I found were focused on literary fiction or writers who were considering becoming professors at some point. I wanted to go into a program that offered some education about the business of writing and the publishing industry. I was also very interested in Screenwriting at the time, though I knew little about the actual act of doing it. WSCU’s Grad Program in Creative Writing offered me the opportunity to learn about the industry, and it offered me an out of concentration course in screenwriting. Of course, once I took that course I ended up doing a dual degree so I could study Screenwriting completely because I fell in love with it, but it was the Genre Fiction Program that initially drew me in. The biggest selling point for me was that professors in each of the concentrations are all professionals working in their industries. Russell Davis who heads the Genre Fiction Program was the President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and has published dozens of novels. JS Mayank who is Director of the Screenwriting Concentration directed a music video for Radiohead, has had his short film Emit played at festivals all over the world and won several awards, is represented by UTA, and recently sold a script to the Syfy channel.

Basically, the low-residency program had everything I was looking for as far as who the professors were and what they were teaching, and it allowed me to keep my job and responsibilities in Michigan while getting a vacation in the Rocky Mountains every summer where I got to do nothing but write and talk writing, and that was too good for me to pass up.

What do you do between school terms?

During the school year I worked part-time as a freelance writer, and between terms I would try to work full time when I could. I would also use the time between semesters to work on some of my personal writing projects or to get a head start on the upcoming semester. While the Graduate Genre Fiction track didn’t require as much prep because it usually had shorter pieces of fiction for assignments except for the thesis, the Graduate Screenwriting track almost always involved a full-length feature film or television episode. We were always given information about what our upcoming projects would be for the future screenwriting classes so we could create our loglines and project pitches before the first class started, and I spent whatever time I could between semesters preparing those materials because it made the semesters easier.


15645472_10104534721129422_1414859554_n (3)Robin Conley received a dual MFA in Screenwriting and Fiction Writing from Western State Colorado University in 2015. She lives in Los Angeles where she’s pursuing a career in screenwriting, and currently works as a writing professor and assistant publications editor. She is also the creator of the blog Author the World where she shares advice on both fiction and screenwriting.

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