We spoke to Eliza Hornig, Administrator of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College. Take a look at what they have to offer MFA students and pay particular attention to Ms. Hornig’s advice for incoming students. She offers some valuable insight for writers in any program. Thank you, Brooklyn College, for such a thoughtful interview.
I found the Fiction section of Brooklyn College’s MFA program very informative. You offer a very clear picture of how time pursuing an MFA through Brooklyn will be spent. Is your program unique in its structure? What makes Brooklyn’s MFA program unique in your eyes?
The fiction program at Brooklyn College is rigorous, intimate, and supportive. Our students receive extensive feedback from faculty members inside and outside of class; it is not unusual for a faculty member to critique a new draft of a student’s work months or even years after a workshop has ended. Our students have the unusual opportunity to take a novel workshop, if they wish. They are grounded in the essentials of craft with a first-semester craft course, which equips them to wrangle with difficult questions of voice, pacing, point of view, language, dialogue, uses of time, child narration, etc., over the course of the program. During their second year, students participate in one-on-one revisions and thesis tutorials, which offer them the chance to work closely with faculty members, practiced writers from around the city, and editors from major literary journals and publishing houses. Because we wish to prepare our students for the realities of the publishing world, we offer an editors’ panel each fall, and an agents’ panel each spring; after each event, students have the opportunity to meet with an editor/agent and submit a sample of their work for consideration. Our student reading series, held at Freddy’s Bar in the South Slope, gives students a chance to share their work in public, while our Intergenre Reading Series allows students to hear the work of established fiction writers, poets, and playwrights in an intimate setting. Just as important are the happy hours, parties, dinners at faculty members’ homes, summer trips to Brooklyn Cyclones games, and post-workshop drinks, all of which contribute to an extremely warm and congenial sense of community in our program. Our students tend to leave the program with lifelong friends and mentors—and, therefore, with lifelong support for their writing and publishing endeavors.
Your program makes mention of intergenre workshops. Can you describe those a little more? Many authors would like to learn about other areas of writing and I hear limited intergenre exploration as a criticism to other programs.
Each year, we offer an intergenre class, taught by a member of the MFA faculty and taken by students from the poetry, playwriting, and fiction programs. In these classes, students are asked to write in genres other than their own. (Topics for these classes have ranged from “Dictionaries” to “Modernism.”) The intergenre format allows students to learn about the practices, mindsets, and aesthetics of other genres; it sometimes results in cross-genre collaboration, and very often in cross-genre friendship.
Would you describe Brooklyn’s MFA in fiction as highly literary or broader in focus?
Although our students have gone on to write in a variety of genres—our alums have published literary novels and short story collections, young adult novels, children’s novels, mysteries, etc.—our program’s primary focus is on the creation of literary fiction.
I know this can be difficult to define, but with applications for the following year due soon, what does Brooklyn look for in MFA candidates? Specifically in their writing samples?
It is hard to define, but not necessarily hard to recognize. As Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” We look for striking prose, and for a command of language, character, and narrative. We look for confidence, nuance, and emotion. We don’t seek out any particular style or approach—in our opinion, excellent writing justifies its own means. Although the manuscript is by far the most important piece of the application, we also care about getting a sense of the person behind the writing. The personal statement, as such, is an important component of the application.
If you could provide a piece of advice for incoming students, what would it be?
Take advantage of the social resources that your MFA program provides. You’ll need willing readers (and friends with whom to commiserate and celebrate) for the rest of your writing life.
Many students are tempted to use their two years to polish and perfect an existing novel draft, for instance, or an existing collection of short stories. It’s often a better use of time for students to write a body of fresh new work—in doing so, students are often forced to take risks, try out different voices and styles, and discover new approaches to their writing practice.
How does the environment of Brooklyn and Manhattan play into the experience of pursuing an MFA at Brooklyn?
Students at Brooklyn College have access to all the city’s resources—to jobs and internships at publishing houses, magazines, and literary journals; to readings and book parties; to the Brooklyn Book Festival; to adjunct teaching jobs at various CUNY campuses; to wonderful independent bookstores and writers’ spaces; to panels, colloquia, and craft lectures. Our students, alumni, and faculty receive updates on many such events, opportunities, and resources via a weekly MFA newsletter. Some students choose to take copious advantage of these opportunities—our graduates have started successful literary journals, such as Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading; some students frequently give readings, write book reviews for lit blogs and magazines, and take on literary internships, to list just a few examples. (Our playwriting students are especially active in the Brooklyn/Manhattan scene—the directors of the playwriting program take special care to help students gain access to the New York theater world, and to help them find venues for producing their own plays.)
Many of our students, however, prefer to focus on their own writing during the program, and they only dip into the literary scene of Brooklyn and Manhattan on occasion. Our campus, located at the end of the 2 and 5 trains, provides a respite from the bustling city; students have the quiet and space to pursue their own work here, and it is quite possible for them to opt out of the literary scene if they wish. In this sense, I think that Brooklyn College students have the best of both worlds—they have access to the dynamism and opportunity of the city’s literary offerings, and also to the quiet, immersive, calm atmosphere provided by our campus.