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Low-Residency MFA programs

Categories: How to Improve Writing Skills, Writing Your First Draft Tags: classes/mfa.

What writer doesn’t dream of a chance to spend weeks at a time immersed in the pursuit of her craft, surrounded by like-minded peers, absorbing the words and wisdom of published authors?

Because writing conferences are often expensive and don’t guarantee face time with literary professionals, and traditional university creative writing programs can be too great of a time commitment, busy writers are heading off to burgeoning low-residency writing programs. These programs—a mix of distance learning and a small amount of on-site work—are aimed at writers in the real world who want to take their craft seriously, but have children, jobs and other responsibilities. Here’s an overview of four respected university programs that require no more than 20 days away from home a year, and provide a legitimate MFA in fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry in as little as two years. The following programs range from about $24,000-$31,000, not including books and other materials. For more information, visit the schools’ individual websites.  

Of course, a quick Internet search will reveal that there are many more low-residency MFA programs than those profiled here. Choosing the right program is ultimately a personal decision, and all of these programs are open for tours during residencies. Alumni and faculty are typically available to discuss the degrees in detail, including how to apply for Stafford loans.

ANTIOCH UNIVERSITY LOS ANGELES (ANTIOCHLA.EDU)

In 1997, established East Coast low-residency programs were thriving, but the West Coast was still behind the game. Poet Eloise Klein Healy, a longtime faculty member at Antioch University Los Angeles, felt the time was right and started the very first West Coast low-residency MFA program.

In its decade-long existence, Antioch has become host to one of the most thriving writing tracts in the west. Program Chair Steve Heller attributes its success to the school’s unique objectives. “Our goal is to educate the entire person, the writer in society, through development of craft but also social consciousness,” he says. Of all the MFA programs in the country, Antioch is the only one with an emphasis on community service and the pursuit of social justice in the genres of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City, students attend two 10-day residencies each of the two years of the program. Heller admits that the program doesn’t offer the kind of bucolic, dorm-life setting that other MFA tracts do. “We’re in a corporate office building with a nice courtyard. Our students stay in hotels. It’s an experience for adults,” he says. “We take them out into the community while they’re here and try to connect them with the local life in Los Angeles.”

The residencies are packed with seminars, lectures, readings and panels. Students are assigned different mentors every semester, with whom they work directly online (in addition to fellow students) through software called FirstClass. Heller says most students read and write analyses of five to 10 books per month, and the bulk of the work each semester consists of writing 20-30 pages of new prose a month, as well as revising a large portion of the material.

Another unique aspect of the MFA program is the student-designed “field study” project. “They’re given an opportunity to go back to their local communities and use their abilities as writers to serve those communities,” Heller says. One of his favorite projects was conducted by a student who taught teens in a Los Angeles correctional facility to write about their experiences. “He helped them begin to turn their lives around before they were paroled,” Heller says. After graduating, the student even started a nonprofit organization to keep the program going.

As a testament to Antioch’s emphasis on social justice, alumna and author Gayle Brandeis’ first novel, The Book of Dead Birds—which was her Antioch thesis—won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Brandeis has since published a second novel, Self Storage, and is working on a third.

“The program was an immeasurable help,” she says. “It gave me a much deeper, clearer understanding of the craft of fiction. Better yet, it introduced me to the people who continue to be my best readers today.

“There’s a very rich variety of educational experience that the program provides.”

BENNINGTON COLLEGE, VERMONT (BENNINGTON.EDU)

For writers seeking a full on-campus experience in the low-residency format, the Bennington Writing Seminars are reputed to have one of the most beautiful settings of all the programs, with white and green clapboard dorms and a large sprawling mall, surrounded on all sides by trees. The isolated and idyllic nature of the setting, which is sheathed in snow in the winter, contributes to what students call “the vortex”—a feeling of intense submersion that takes effect about midway through the residency, as participants reside in dorms and eat meals alongside faculty.

 Beauty aside, Bennington offers a two-year MFA program in fiction, poetry or nonfiction, with a third semester option to try a different genre. Some scholarships are also available, based on quality of work.

Though founded by poet Liam Rector, well-known nonfiction author (and longtime faculty member) Sven Birkerts was named Bennington’s director after Rector’s death in 2007.

“I’d say Bennington stands for the idea of the culture of letters—creative expression and deep reading as values in themselves, but also, in our times, representing a counter-thrust to prevalent social tendencies toward diffusion, speed, trends and poses,” he says. “One of our mottos is, ‘Read a hundred books, write one.’ ”

Twice a year, in January and June, writers fly in for 10-day residencies, where from morning until night they partake in lectures, workshops, panels and readings. Writers apply to work with different mentors each semester, and they must complete and send off a packet of new writing—ranging from 25 to 50 pages—every month.

Faculty member Sheila Kohler, author of Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, has taught in the program for the past seven years. “The students get more attention because every single month you submit this large packet and get this excellent feedback, which you don’t get when you’re just in a classroom,” she says. “The students also seem generous with each other; there’s not the same naked aggression you see elsewhere.”

During their two-year tenure, participants read up to 100 books, put together theses and give lectures before graduating. Alumna Tracy Burkholder, who graduated in 2005 with an emphasis in fiction, recently completed a novel she began while in the program. “It was amazing to be surrounded by people who were in passionate pursuit of the same things I was,” she says. “The intensity of long days filled with lectures, readings, workshops and discussions really created an inspiring atmosphere that helped sustain me when I went back home and settled in to the hard work of writing.”

GOUCHER COLLEGE, MARYLAND (GOUCHER.EDU)

In a beautiful, serene part of northern Baltimore sits Goucher College. The MFA program has a distinction that no other U.S. low-residency MFA program can claim: It offers one focus, exclusively on creative nonfiction.

Program Director Patsy Sims says the single-genre emphasis has enabled her to put together a larger faculty and attract some top writers. She cites recent faculty members Tom French—who won a Pulitzer for a piece he wrote for the St. Petersburg TimesNew Yorker writer Suzannah Lessard, and Richard Todd, former executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

French finds the single focus to be especially useful. “Good nonfiction employs many techniques associated with fiction, but it’s still a different form and requires a different rigor and sometimes an entirely different skill set,” he says. “At Goucher we have a faculty filled with writers and editors who’ve spent decades honing those skills and teaching them to others.”

Compared to other programs, Goucher offers slightly less in-residence time. During the two-year program, there are two weekend-long “mini-residencies” that take place in the spring—usually in the hometown of the students’ mentor—a set of two-week summer residencies and a partial final residency.

Goucher employs a software called Blackboard, which allows students to access the school’s online databases. During the semester, students work at home and send their prose electronically or via snail mail. They’re required to follow page quotas per semester, and they read six to eight books, including a variety of literary journalism, memoirs, autobiographies and essays, and write short, critical papers about the materials.

“We hope when they leave they’ll be able to pursue successful careers and be published,” Sims says.

Alumna Sheyene Foster Heller, now a teacher at Antioch University, intentionally sought out a program with a strong emphasis on creative nonfiction. She chose Goucher because it offered an intimacy that was in line with her shy personality and because of the faculty’s strong publications in the creative nonfiction realm. Updates on the Goucher website also note that three recent graduates have found publishers for their MFA thesis works.

QUEENS UNIVERSITY OF CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA (QUEENS.EDU)

Michael Kobre, on-campus director of the Queens MFA program, has a simple philosophy on why low-residency programs are proliferating. “There’s an enormous constituency of people who are passionate writers, but can’t uproot their lives for two years.”

The students in the Queens creative writing program range in age from 20 to 60, Kobre says, which lends itself to one of Queens’ ultimate goals: to build a community of diverse writers who can carry on outside the residencies.

“The paradox of writing is that it requires isolation, but it also requires a community of others who are struggling with the same questions and feel passionately about the art,” Kobre says. “Writing is a tough and lonely business.”

Students come for two seven-day residencies each of the two years. They stay in campus dorms during the May residencies, but must reside in a nearby hotel—where they get a special rate—during the January residencies.

The program also places enormous emphasis on the workshop format. “We may no longer be the only low-residency program that uses workshops in distance learning as well as in residency, but we were certainly the first one,” Kobre says.

The traditional writing workshop, of course, refers to the format in which students comment on one another’s work. “We emphasize the workshop model because, frankly, one of the best ways to develop critical instincts is by reading carefully and responding to someone else’s work,” Kobre says. “Any good writer has to be self-critical.”

Students read an average of 12 to 15 books per semester, not including the suggested reading or work by their peers.

Also departing from other models, Kobre says the creative writing MFA is primarily a studio program. “We do not devote the bulk of the third semester to an extended critical project,” he says. “Students have limited precious time for their own work. This is a lifelong passion of our students and we want them to devote as much time as possible to their own work.”

At the end of two years, the students finish the program by returning for a fifth graduating residency where they present their thesis, offer a public reading and lead other students in a seminar developed with the assistance of faculty advisors.

Jessica Handler graduated in 2006. She chose Queens in part because of its impressive nonfiction faculty, and because she lives nearby.

Her primary goals in attending the program were to improve her craft, get a better sense of critically reading work, and to scrutinize her own material. “The camaraderie was terrific and I’m a stronger, better, more self-aware writer after having gone to Queens,” she says.

Her labor paid off—Handler’s thesis, a memoir, is being published by Public Affairs Books in 2009.

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