We spoke to Joshua Isard, Program Director for Arcadia University’s MFA in Creative Writing. Arcadia is a low-residency program in Philadelphia that allows writers the opportunity to work on their craft not only at home and through Arcadia’s online workshops, but in an exclusive study abroad experience. It’s a pretty special program. Take a look at what Arcadia has to offer MFA students and pay particular attention to Mr. Isard’s comments on literary vs genre. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Thank you, Arcadia, for such a thoughtful interview.
Generally speaking, what do you think is unique or beneficial about a low-residency program?
Low-residency programs are designed for students who can’t pick up and move to another location for their studies, or who wish to maintain their careers while studying. One of the major benefits of a low-res program, then, is that one can do just those things, which are generally impossible while enrolled in a full-residency program.
As a result, I think low-residency programs tend to resemble real writing life, the one we all have to lead after graduation. Students have to make time to write around their other responsibilities, which, save for the years many of us spent in our full-res MFA programs, is the way writing really is. So students not only get training in their craft, but also in the lifestyle they’ll have to lead in order to be successful.
What makes Arcadia’s program special? What would you tell students is an advantage of pursuing a low-residency MFA through your school?
Our program is one of the few low-res programs that utilizes online workshops. Many low-res programs still do little more than facilitate a correspondence between the student and the professor through the semester, and only hold workshops during the residencies. At Arcadia, we use online forums to conduct workshops every week, allowing students to get the maximum amount of feedback on their work. Additionally, since these workshops are asynchronous discussions, students can participate through the week during the time they have free: evenings, early mornings, lunch breaks—whatever suits the individual.
Along with the workshops, students do have one-on-one meetings with their faculty adviser every three weeks or so, meaning that they get personal attention as well as a consistent workshop environment.
Please tell us more about studying abroad with Arcadia. How does going abroad contribute to the writer’s experience?
Writers have long found inspiration through travel—Keats, Johnson, Hemingway, Chatwin—and Arcadia’s MFA program was designed to have an integral experience in that tradition. While spending their residency abroad, students have a workshop with a writer who lives and works at that destination (most recently, Edinburgh), and plenty of time to explore the area. This provides a broader, global perspective on language, setting, and trends in contemporary literature.
This residency is held in the summer between students’ first year and second year in the MFA program, and lasts for a week. In order to have the maximum time abroad, many of our students combine this week with their personal travels, and go elsewhere before or after the residency. Additionally, Arcadia has other study-abroad programs over the summer, and our MFA students often go from the residency to another Arcadia destination. In the summer of 2013, for example, several MFA students are going directly from the residency in Edinburgh to our writers’ retreat in Umbria, Italy.
So our students have the opportunity to visit multiple destinations, work with writers from different countries with different literary traditions from our own, and gain the global perspective that’s so important as literature develops in the 21st century.
Would you describe your program as highly literary, or broader in focus?
I don’t like the way people now use the term “literary.” It’s too exclusive, the distinction between literary and genre. The term implies that science fiction, for example, cannot be literary, but isn’t The Martian Chronicles literary? It’s certainly science fiction, but I would say that it’s a strong part of the literary canon. Doesn’t dystopian fiction often have elements of science fiction? And yet when we call a work “dystopian” it has more legitimacy in many people’s eyes than when we call it sci-fi.
Essentially, I think our vocabulary is off on this subject.
But, to our program, I would consider us a highly literary MFA program, yes, though our definition of literary has to do with quality rather than subject matter. We’ve accepted excellent sci-fi, fantasy, and YA writers, and rejected many mediocre “literary” writers. Quality is what makes a piece of writing literary: a genuine portrayal of character and plot, and the appropriate, refined style for the story. Whether that story takes place in contemporary Brooklyn, a galaxy far far away, or Jordan College is of no consequence as long as the piece is good.
I know this can be difficult to define, but what does Arcadia look for in applicants?
We want writers who know what they want to do and get reasonably close to doing it.
So, with a fiction writer for example, our faculty looks to see that the applicant makes good choices in representing character and story. Usually not the perfect choices, of course, but choices that show the applicant has taken steps to refine their piece. With a poet, our professors look for similar conscious choices in elements like word choice, form, rhythm, etc.
The analogy I use is that if the writer is shooting at a target, that they hit it. Not the bull’s eye necessarily, but the target itself, as opposed to missing completely. Additionally, we want to applicant to be aiming for his or her own target, not trying to please us. We don’t have a house style at Arcadia, we’re looking to help talented writers accomplish their own goals in writing.
Can you describe the curriculum somewhat? For example, how much of your program focuses on writing and to what degree to students focus on other areas related to craft? (Applied criticism, reading other works, etc.)
Our curriculum is very writing heavy. As I said above, students engage in workshops every week, and then also meet with their faculty adviser every few weeks to discuss their writing one-on-one. I would say that writing and critiquing peers’ writing make up the vast majority of the program.
However, students are encouraged to read widely, as the best readers make the best writers. Along with their adviser, each student makes a reading list for him or herself at the start of each semester. The list consists of eight to ten books chosen to help the student progress, and contains at least one volume of writing theory. Students discuss this reading with their adviser through the course of the term, but complete it at their own pace.
And then in addition to the workshops and practicums, each MFA student must take one graduate level literature course sometime during their two years, and also a craft course in their genre. The literature course can be any that Arcadia offers. The craft course is an exploration of writing trends in contemporary fiction or poetry.
So, over the two years students take three residencies, four workshops, four practicums, one literature course, and one craft course. This ends up being 39 credits. You can see a sample schedule of the way this could play out over the two years of the program here.
If you could provide a piece of advice for upcoming students, what would it be?
Be genuine in your writing. Don’t write to trends you see in contemporary magazines or books, don’t try and write what you think others want to read. Write your style and then find the people who love it.
And then at the same time be willing to change. We all need critiques, even after we’re students. I got a story from a friend of mine while I was writing this—he wants advice. He has an MFA and a published collection of stories, and knows that the best way to make writing excellent is to take criticism from people you trust.
So, find that dichotomy. Be confident in your style, but willing to change and refine it to bring out the best writing possible.