We spoke to John Fleming, Director of Creative Writing at the University of South Florida. Take a look at what they have to offer MFA students and pay particular attention to Mr. Fleming’s advice for incoming students. He offers some valuable insight for writers in any program. Thank you, USF, for such a thoughtful interview.
What do you feel is the essential uniqueness of USF’s MFA program?
Its openness—to people, to forms and genres, and to the possibilities of writing. The USF MFA application does not require you to apply in a single genre; if you have a specialty and want to submit only fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or comics, that’s fine, but if you write well in multiple genres, you’re free to include samples of your work in those genres. Students who begin the MFA program in one genre frequently get turned on by the possibilities of another. Sometimes they switch their focus. We also have students writing hybrid theses that mix word and image or multiple genres. Our openness stretches into sub-genres, too. In addition to writing traditional literary works, our students work in Young Adult, New Adult, Speculative Fiction, and experimental forms of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry while making use of both still images and videos. We’re one of the few programs that offers courses and allows theses in comics/graphic narrative. Finally, and most importantly, the USF MFA is known for the openness of its students and faculty. Faculty here are generous with their time and are dedicated to helping students improve their work and succeed as writers. Students socialize with one another and with faculty, and the atmosphere in our workshops is supportive and constructive.
Your program really seeks to support the careers of its graduate students. Could you describe that process and mission a little more?
As with most MFA programs, our first concern is with the art and craft of writing. However, we’re also mindful of the writer’s need to sustain herself and her writing. We feel an ethical responsibility to prepare our students for life after the MFA.
For those interested in teaching, we offer pedagogy courses in composition, creative writing, and literature. MFA students all teach creative writing courses in their second and/or third years. MFAs who choose to focus on pedagogy can graduate with training, mentoring, and teaching experience in composition, creative writing, and literature and be well-positioned for the academic job market.
Students interested in publishing careers gain experience in our Literary Editing and Publishing course. Students in the course produce our literary magazine, Saw Palm, reading submissions, communicating with writers, reviewing art, working with InDesign, and organizing a release party. Publishing professionals–agents, editors, publishers, book reviewers, and copyeditors–Skype in or visit the Literary Editing and Publishing class in person. As part of the class, students embark on a substantial final project designed to advance their presence in the literary world. Some start their own literary magazines, edit anthologies, develop writing-related websites, write book reviews, blogs, or columns, or conduct interviews with writers. They begin projects that carry them beyond the semester and often beyond the MFA program.
We also have a graduate internship program that places students with literary agencies, publishers, websites, and local businesses and organizations for course credit. This program is fairly new and expanding rapidly. Sometimes students suggest a business they’d like to intern with, and our graduate director arranges the internship.
In addition, we offer graduate certificates in Professional and Technical Communication and in Digital Humanities. MFA students are able to complete these certificates without difficulty while also pursuing their MFA. Some of our students also get valuable training by tutoring students in the Writing Studio as part of their Graduate Assistantship.
For graduating students looking for jobs, the MFA faculty hold mock interviews and review resumes and letters. Students with completed book-length manuscripts consult with faculty on query letters and on searches for agents and editors.’
Would you describe USF’s MFA in fiction as highly literary or broader in focus?
The USF MFA fiction workshops have grown beyond a strictly traditional literary focus to include Young Adult, New Adult, Speculative Fiction, Horror, and other fictional genres. We recognize that, in a good writer’s hands, works in these genres can have every bit of the craft and complexity as literary fiction. This is part of the atmosphere of openness I mentioned above.
For potential future students, are there any suggestions you have for them as they put together applications? Any values or big ideas they should seek to grapple with or emphasize?
Always the most important part of your application is the writing sample. Revise your work endlessly and send us your best. In your Personal Statement, tell us who you are as a person and writer, what you’re interested in working on, and why you’re drawn to the USF MFA program.
If you could provide a piece of advice for incoming students, what would it be?
Remember to keep your focus on your writing. An MFA program is a wonderful opportunity for a writer to focus for three years on writing, surrounded by others on the same journey. There will be days when you feel the squeeze of teaching, grading, coursework, and extracurricular obligations or opportunities, and you’ll be tempted to put off your writing. Don’t do it. Put your writing first and let everything else fit itself around that. You’ll only have the MFA experience once; make the most of it.
How does the environment of Tampa and South Florida play into the experience of pursuing an MFA at USF?
USF and Tampa have a thriving literary scene. At USF, we feature the USF Visiting Writers series, with writers in poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, and comics coming to read from their work and meet with students. We also bring in prominent writers through the USF Humanities Institute. Two student-run reading series, Read Herring and 6×6, take place at local bars and coffee shops. We’re lucky to have three other writing programs in the area—at the University of Tampa, Eckerd College, and St. Leo University. These programs regularly bring in visiting writers and hold public events and writers’ conferences. Culturally, Tampa has a thriving downtown with museums, theaters, performing arts centers, professional sports teams, a long riverfront walkway, fine parks, rentable electric boats and water bikes, many excellent restaurants, and a trolley system. Some of the country’s most beautiful white-sand beaches are a short drive away. Ybor City, next to downtown Tampa, is our Cuban- and Italian-flavored old town that encompasses the old Tampa cigar factories. At night, Ybor City becomes a hotspot for nightclubs and restaurants. For theme park fans, the Busch Gardens roller coasters are visible from campus and DisneyWorld is less than an hour away.