North Carolina State University is known for being extremely selective, producing high quality writers, and has been among the top-ranked MFA programs since its inception. Editor Arielle Yarwood asked what they look for in applications, advice for current MFA students, and for some insight into what makes North Carolina State University’s program so special. This is a great interview for any future MFA student or current applicant. Take a look!
North Carolina State University has been ranked highly for such a young MFA program. What do you think makes North Carolina excel?
Put simply, we are making good choices and turning out good writers who continue to write after graduation. Students are heartened and inspired to see that our faculty comprises working writers who are committed to their work, whose books are consistently in the spotlight, and who champion one another and urge each other on. We have a good sense of humor and love to laugh, even as we work at the serious business of writing. Our workshops are lively, challenging and rigorous, but the heart of the program is the hands-on, one-on-one time between students and teachers. We work hard for our students and our students work hard for us. We are all involved in an on-going and developing engagement with the art.
Additionally, Raleigh is a mid-sized city with an international airport, surrounded by the natural beauty of forests, rivers, lakes, with mountains to the west and beaches to the east. It’s a great place to live and work, lots to see and do, and NC State was recently listed as the fourth most affordable college in the country.
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?
A student’s course work is half literature, half creative writing. John Balaban teaches courses in Asian Poetries, Forms and Style. Wilton Barnhardt teaches the novel and scriptwriting, John Kessel teaches speculative, sci-fi and literary fiction and both Barnhardt and Kessel have taken students to Edinburgh, Prague or Oxford during the summer for special topics courses and overseas workshops. Jill McCorkle, our newest professor emerita, along with Lee Smith, directs thesis students year round. My specialty is contemporary American poetry. We have recently been given a new position for a regular Visiting Writer so we hope to add to our list of specialties. All our workshops include readings related to craft, including seminal poetics essays, complete works and individual books of contemporary poetry, fiction, essay and memoir. Close readings are a mainstay of the program—our required reading list is partly ours and partly up to the student, whose own list should reflect his or her particular literary interests. Students come away knowing how to read like a writer and how to write with a smart reader in mind. And they practice their skills. Our students learn to write by writing.
How would you describe the creative and educational environment at North Carolina?
NC State is a great place for learning. We’re in the Research Triangle along with Duke and Chapel Hill. There’s no want for every kind of art and literary event. We are surrounded by great museums, galleries, music, independent bookstores, films, literary cafes, a state-of-the-art library, and numerous arts organizations. We have a film studies department, The John Donne Journal is housed here at NC State, and many of our English faculty are publishing writers. The Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival is an annual event, bringing contemporary world poets to Cary, NC, and this year the North Carolina Literary Festival will be hosted by NC State where, among our own faculty and notable others, the guest writers will be Junot Diaz, Paul Muldoon, Karen Joy Fowler, William T. Vollman, and Richard Ford. We also boast one of the best reading series in the country as well (recent writers: W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Patricia Smith, Mark Doty, Barbara Raz, Gerald Stern. Tom Lux, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Li-Young Lee, Dorothy Allison, Kevin Barry, Rebecca Lee, Jim Shepard, Ron Rash) as well as a no-fee statewide fiction contest in the fall and poetry contest in the spring, judged by poets and writers of national reputation, that offers specific prizes to graduate and undergraduate students in addition to the grand prizes.
The faculty at North Carolina have varied specialties, including a science fiction writer and a former Sports Illustrated reporter among the novelists and poets. How would you say that North Carolina approaches genre?
Though our students must choose between fiction or poetry, more and more students are applying in both genres, hoping to get into one, and we are in talks now about creating a double genre major. As it stands, students from either genre are able to take one workshop outside their chosen field. I have a number of fiction MFA’s in my workshop every year, as does John Balaban, and the poets take courses from both John Kessel and Wilton Barnhardt, so in effect, there’s already an intermingling of the genres. Wilton has a great love of poetry. He teaches a 287 course which includes the three genres of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Our first year TA’s sit in on this course in preparation for teaching all the genres.
North Carolina’s program is very selective, with only about a dozen students per year. What would you say are the qualities that North Carolina looks for in applicants?
Well, I’m pleased to report that we were just awarded 3 additional TA’s this year, so we are now able to admit 7 fully funded students in each genre for a cohort total of 14. NC State believes in what we are doing here, and they support us 100%. We’re looking first for writers whose work is memorable, engaged and enacted, and who are seriously trying to say something, to get at or beneath or inside something important. We also look at a student’s statement of interest and background: where have they been, what have they done, who have they read and who do they want to read, what is their vision? That said, we are looking for students from every kind of background, and have attracted applicants from all over the country as well as from many parts of the English-speaking world; we’ve accepted students from California and Oregon, to New York and Florida, as well as the Midwest and here in the South. We also have accepted students from India, Scotland, Nepal, the Caribbean Islands, Pakistan, and Dubai. Some of our students are older, have spouses and families, others are straight out of an undergraduate program.
Our students tend to have high GPA’s and GRE’s, speak more than one language, have won awards and publications, have some teaching experience, have accrued life experience. And we’ve taken writers who come to us from Law or Medicine or business, who have never been in a creative writing workshop in their life. Much depends upon the all-important writing sample which is what we look at first and last.
If you could give one piece of advice to current or prospective MFA students, what would it be?
To current students I would say be aware of the value of what you’re doing, and use the time to read and write, to make lasting literary friendships and mentorships, and be open to all the university and your surroundings have to offer. To be given two years to immerse yourself in a place where what you do is valued is a great gift. For those thinking of applying to our program, I would say begin the process early so you can take your time and turn in the finest manuscript possible. Send us your very best work. Do not tell us your end goal is to be a teacher — we’re after writers. Take time with your letter of interest and tell us how you’ve come to your decision to apply, what you’ve done in preparation, why you are interested in NC State’s program and what you hope to gain from your two years with us. We want to feel like we already know you.