Archive for the ‘low-residency’ Category

The Low-Residency Question


By Kim Winternheimer

Deciding between a low-residency program and a more traditional course of study to pursue your MFA can be difficult. Low-residency programs are fairly new to the scene, offering writers who can’t commit to a program that requires living on campus the opportunity to pursue their creative writing goals. Aside from a few residencies each year (two sessions a year on the campus where the program is offered is typical) writers in low-residency programs live as they normally would. Many of them have fulltime jobs, kids, and attend to the 20-30 hours a week their MFA program demands of them when time allows.

The pros and cons associated with pursuing an MFA in creative writing vary greatly, and the dialogue about whether low-residency programs are worth their salt is a source of discussion among MFA applicants who are faced with the difficult decision as to which program is right for them. As an editor for The Masters Review, I see stories from MFA students pursuing both forms of study. While The Masters Review showcases all new and emerging writers, our flagship publication is an anthology of ten stories written by students currently pursuing their MFA, MA, or PhD in creative writing. While we do see stories from students in the latter two categories, the majority of our submissions are from students enrolled in MFA programs. Last year, The Masters Review published four stories written by students in low-residency programs. Four stories we claimed were among the best in the country. Four stories that were screened and chosen by New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Groff. While we had submissions from many highly ranked fulltime MFA programs — stories from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Michener Center for Writers, and UC Irvine, just to name a few — it does make a strong case for those pursuing an MFA remotely: that although the programs differ in structure, there is absolutely no difference in terms of the quality of writing.

Now, this isn’t a case against the schools and programs that offer full-residency. Those programs have proven time and again to churn out writers of extremely high merit. My only point is that our publication is a very clear testament to the quality of stories being produced from writers who are able to pursue their degrees remotely. That improving your craft through a program which allows you to live a very real writer’s life is just as valuable as some of the more traditional options. In fact to me, the very definition of a low-residency program mimics the life of an aspiring writer. You write when you can, you carve out minutes, hours, and nights to tend to your craft . . . then you get up in the morning and you go to your real job. I don’t mean that to be cruel. I simply mean that most emerging authors aren’t sustaining their lives with fiction, and one of the clear pros I see to a low-residency program is the ebb and flow of developing that sort of balance to your life.

Of course there are cons to choosing a low-residency program, just as there are cons to pursing a graduate degree on campus. One such criticism is that low-residency programs don’t provide the focus on teaching necessary for graduates to land a job. While most remote programs don’t require students to teach in order to receive funding, and therefore don’t focus as tightly on aspects of teaching, there are many excellent schools that do provide this concentration. I would tell someone who really wants to teach to look into those programs. He won’t have a hard time finding one. However, this does bring to light one of the greatest differences between the two programs, which is the issue of funding.

Many fulltime courses of study provide students with funding in order to offset tuition. Usually students are required to teach undergraduate classes and engage in a certain number of work hours for the university in exchange for this reduced tuition. This is a fantastic way to reduce the cost of pursuing a graduate degree and give students a working example of what life is like for the creative-writing teacher. It’s a win-win for the universities as well as for the students.

Unfortunately for low-residency programs, logistics get in the way. Because students aren’t on campus and are generally unavailable for work study, they aren’t able to ‘earn’ a reduced tuition. There are an increasing number of low-residency programs that will allow students the opportunity to work for the university, however this isn’t a common construction and it isn’t as widely available as most students would like. The bottom line is, pursuing your MFA remotely does tend to cost more. However, total tuition costs are less than many traditional graduate programs and low-residency students have the added benefit of continuing to work for their current employer while they pursue a degree.

One can go into a lengthy discussion about what works best and what doesn’t, the fact of the matter being that both programs produce truly wonderful writers. Talented writing can and is being nurtured through remote programs and I am continually amazed at the quality, ingenuity, and sensibility behind that writing. Anyone considering a low-residency program who is nervous about the quality of their degree should look carefully at the many highly qualified low-residency schools. Take into consideration that from our perspective, in comparing the two programs, the end product – your writing – is the same.

Program Profile: Pacific University Low-Residency MFA

A special thanks goes out to Pacific University’s MFA program for being the first in a series of profiles we’re doing on MFA programs around the country. We spoke with Pacific University professor Marvin Bell, who shed some light on what makes Pacific’s program just so special.

Generally speaking, what do you think is unique or beneficial about a low-residency program?

The age range. These are writers who can keep their paying jobs, and their home lives, and can still be smack dab in the midst of a serious writing community. Some have been in the game for a long time. They know the score.

Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program is consistently ranked among the best in the country. What do you think makes Pacific’s program so special?

The faculty. Spirited writers known for strong, individual literary voices. Then, their energy and, not to be slighted, their sense of fun. Also, a beloved director who engages the faculty on every matter.  It is the opposite of micro-managed. To the contrary, we plan and ad-lib on behalf of the students. The faculty attracts unusual and talented students. The graduating students invariably break our hearts when, unbidden, they use up some of their reading time to thank their teachers, speaking specifically of how each made a difference to them. We neither ask for, nor expect, such public thanks, yet they continue to do it, often speaking with great feeling.

Would you describe Pacific’s MFA program as highly literary or broader in focus?

Literary in the best sense, whether the writing is sociopolitical, or surreal, or bravely personal, or of a style never before encountered, or just a good version of “mainstream.” How a piece is written is what brings back a reader for another go.

What aspect of Pacific’s program are you most proud of?

The spirit and variety of students and faculty, of course. But also, and you may smile at this, the dignity maintained by the program, which does not lean on applicants or bribe them or make unworthy promises. It’s high class and the opposite of laborious. The program maintains a focus on the excitement of writing and the possibilities.

Most MFA applicants know they’ll be focusing on their own writing. How much of Pacific’s program focuses on other areas related to craft? For example, applied criticism, reading other work, and literary tradition are listed as other areas of study for MFA students at Pacific.

There are craft talks and classes at the residencies, of course. There is a reading requirement, too, with the intention that the student learn to read, not like a scholar, but like a writer. Students write about their reading, and talk books with their teachers, from start to finish. The student even includes the bibliography of his or her reading in the thesis.

I understand you were Flannery O’ Connor Professor of Letters at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How is it different teaching in a full-residency scenario as opposed to a low-residency one?

The age range and, thus, the life experiences of the students are different. Also, the combination of intense residencies and periodic interchanges is a very different dynamic. Students sometimes make a leap in confidence and verbal nerve between packets. I didn’t realize until I signed on how effective this sort of teaching can be, or how much I would enjoy this particular MFA. It’s a kick, it’s a hoot, it’s a workshop in the best sense of the term—that we are all in this together.

I know this can be difficult to define, but can you describe what Pacific looks for in applicants? What makes an ideal candidate?

It’s all about the writing sample.  Sometimes, the personal statement is of use, if only that it reveals a mind and one’s ability to write prose. But in the end, it’s all about being a writer, not a critic or a scholar or even a teacher.  The ideal applicant shows in his or her writing an interest in language and the influence of having read good writers. But then there are applicants who may not have written or read much but whose language knocks your socks off.  That’s big.

If you could provide a piece of advice for current or upcoming MFA students, what would it be?

Welcome the influence of good writers. Write more than required. Be a writer every day, whether or not you write that day. Understand that the good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff. Don’t let anyone turn the excitement of writing into mere labor. Write with abandon. Avoid those who encourage you to write like them. Jonathan Williams, the poet who founded Jargon Press, once said that “the trouble with American poets is that they each want everyone else to write like them, but not as well.” Read writers who write differently from you. The poet Jordan Smith once said to me, “I have learned that, when I read a book of poetry and hate it, a year later I will love that book.”