We spoke to Mahak Jain, Administrator of MFA Program at the University of Guelph. Browse through what they have to offer MFA students. Ms. Jain offers some valuable insight for writers in any program, and great advice about creating a supportive and constructive atmosphere for writers. Thank you, UG, for such a thoughtful interview.
What do you feel is the essential uniqueness of UG’s MFA program?
We are an intimate, innovative MFA, a satellite program of the University of Guelph located in Toronto, a city rich in literary diversity. Our small cohorts reflect the city’s diversity and the wide imaginaries of contemporary literatures. Our MFA program combines a focus on writing and reading, rooted in the belief that reading is essential to a writing practice. We offer workshops in four genres (Creative Nonfiction, Drama, Fiction, and Poetry): students have the chance to specialize and are also required to work outside their primary genre. They select a concentration for their thesis, but are welcome to take workshops in any of the four genres that we offer. As a result of these multi-disciplinary opportunities, many of our graduates have gone on to produce work in more than one creative field.
In addition to workshops, students have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a writing mentor of their choice as part of an independent study semester. Since the mentor does not need to be a part of our faculty, students are able to customize the mentorship experience to meet their unique needs. The mentorship opportunity is in addition to the thesis supervision undertaken during the second year.
Finally, we offer two reading-based courses that give students an opportunity to discuss a range of ethical, aesthetic and practical issues related to the writing life. Students are encouraged to examine the choices that writers make on the page and in the world. Discussions are augmented by visits from writers and other literary professionals including editors and agents. The readings for the courses include essays by writers on writing and primary texts in a variety of genres and hybrid forms.
Your program seems to really focus on examining how writers engage with the world. Can you explain that mission a little more?
Students in our program are encouraged to consider various intersections of writing and life. All writing takes place in some kind of personal and cultural context. The choice of one word over another can be both an ethical and an aesthetic act. We hope our students will be challenged to imagine more widely and to consider the various contexts from which their writing issues and into which it appears with more depth and complexity than ever before. The Plenary classes that bring together all students focus on generating lively discussion and even debate about contentious and topical issues.
Would you describe UG’s MFA in fiction as highly literary or broader in focus?
Most of the writing that is done in the program is literary, and our faculty is well suited to instruct and advise literary writing. However, we encourage a broad interpretation of the term “literary,” one that can encompass multiple genres and even hybrid forms. Our focus is helping our students develop their singular voices and become the best writers they can be of whatever project they choose to work on.
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?
The writing sample is the most important part of the application, but most applicants know this. It’s also important to choose your referees carefully–try to pick individuals who can speak to your potential and past as a writer, someone who is familiar with your writing and its growth. The letter of intent is another opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know the applicant. A strong letter of intent shows the individuality and uniqueness of the applicant’s personal interests and ambitions, past, present, and future. It can be helpful to enter the program with a particular project in mind but it isn’t necessary.
If you could provide a piece of advice for incoming students, what would it be?
Writing is a vulnerable activity in solitude, and the vulnerability only increases within the setting of a creative writing program. Sometimes incoming students enter the program with firm ideas about their goals. We recommend, however, that incoming students keep an open mind and leave room to be surprised. Most students find their ideas about writing and themselves as writers are transformed while in the program. Frequently, students end up working on different projects than they had planned. It can be scary to be so exposed during such a process of self-discovery, but that journey can also result in some powerful writing.
Your program has built a lot of partnerships in the city of Toronto. Could you describe how the city and those partnerships play a role in the student’s experience?
We have ongoing affiliations with such organizations as the Toronto International Festival of Authors and Factory Theatre. We hold Master Classes with visiting writers each year as part of the authors’ festival and offer play readings to our playwriting students under the auspices of Factory Theatre. We also host a monthly student-run reading series, Speakeasy, in a downtown Toronto bar, and have an annual set as part of the Eden Mills Writers Festival, held close to our home university, The University of Guelph, an hour west of Toronto. We encourage our students to take advantage of the many readings and theatre productions taking place in the city and occasionally organize outings to cultural events.