Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing
"Pearl Abraham has singlehandedly envisioned a Manhattan-level MFA in western MA."—Annie DeWitt, Visiting Writer
Once a best kept secret among burgeoning writers, the Western New England University MFA in Creative Writing program is offically on the map.
If you are looking for a program to take your writing to the next level, to help you fine-tune your craft, and gain insight into the world of publishing, explore the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction). This a two-year, 48-credit curriculum program blending online learning with four short-term residency sessions (five days) held at our picturesque Western New England campus in the summer, and alternating winter locations elsewhere. The Winter 2016 residency was held in Dublin, Ireland.
Why Choose Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing?
This program offers a rigorous individualized curriculum without the demands of a full-time program. It covers all aspects of fiction writing through intensive workshops, classes in craft, courses in special topics, manuscript consultations, and individual conferences. Each term begins with an intense, weeklong residency consisting of inaugural lectures on literature, craft, and language; readings by a series of noted visiting writers; and panels made up of literary agents and editors. For updated information about upcoming residencies and visiting writers, as well as program news, visit our Facebook page.
What Will You Study?
With a student/faculty ratio of just 5:1, our low-residency MFA model covers all aspects of fiction writing through workshops, classes in craft, courses in special topics, manuscript consultations, and individual conferences. Each weeklong residency consists of inaugural lectures on literature, craft, and language; readings by a series of noted visiting writers; and panels made up of literary agents and editors advising on the business of the writing life. The residency offers a complete immersion in an inspiring writer's community; the two terms that follow each residency provide the necessary solitude and time for writing and thinking, working online under the guidance of an accomplished and experienced author. Upon graduation, students may expect to have a portfolio of substantial work with detailed responses from mentors, as well as letters of reference from these mentors.
Candidates seeking admissions to the MFA in Creative Writing should possess a baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution of higher learning. The review process will focus largely in the candidate's writing sample submitted with the application for admission.
There is no application deadline. Applications are processed on a rolling basis. Once an application is complete, an admissions decision will be released in 3-4 weeks. All new MFA candidates admitted to the program will be required to begin with a residency. Two will be offered annually—Summer (July) and Winter (January).
How are Courses Offered?
The Western New England University low-residency MFA program combines biannual, five-day residencies followed by individualized online mentorships. Established authors teach students how to read and think about fiction from a craft perspective. A fifth non-required residency is offered to graduating students at no tuition cost.
You will study with our noted faculty authors with publications in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including program director, award-winning novelist Pearl Abraham. The Winter residency is an immersive experience with visiting writers who work with students as mentors in the subsequent terms.
By Baylea Jones
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel White Nights in Split Town City. What was your inspiration for this novel—were you influenced by other authors and works; did you draw from personal experiences?
“‘A bit of both’—as the tea room I worked for in high school said on its lunch menu. I grew up on the last unpaved road in a rural town in Massachusetts in the early 1990s. If life were a Venn Diagram, I would say a large part the pie chart of my understanding of myself and language and the way people talked to, or at, one another came from this place. I think one of my largest senses of self was developed there. It’s no coincidence that I now live on a similar dirt road in the Catskills. I’ve always been drawn to physical removal and isolation. I never feel lonely when no one’s around. To me, rural living is the least lonely place. There is a sense of connection with the world and the ecosystem that surrounds us, which echoes my sense that some of the most powerful voices are not necessarily those that love urban living, though there are a lot of those too. This week I’m teaching Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in a composition class, of all places! Because composition, at its heart, is about everyday normal people writing about things they observe. I feel similarly about Jane Jacobs. She was not an architect or an urbanist or even a journalist. She was a woman writing about what she observed of cities and how people reacted to a sense of what she called ‘togetherness.’ I find real heart in writers who take permission. People who simply write about things because they can. In some ways, I feel the same about city dwellers like Sontag or Baldwin; that’s what endears me to them. Their sense of permission.”
In terms of fiction, I’m always taken by boldness and style. I must have read Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Christine Schutt’s Florida ten times while working on White Nights. I love the music these writers make.
Place (the last dirt road in a rural New England town) was essential in White Nights. As a southerner, the story had a “southern” feel to me with tomboy Jean akin to Jean ‘Scout’ Finch; other names like the Faulknerian Cash, Fender Steelhead, and Birdie, as well as objects: trucks, horses, fishing, woods, ‘squeeters’, marshes, and dirt roads. These names and nouns aren’t usually associated with New England (at least in literature), yet there is an authority and authenticity here. Is White Nights a marriage between the unsung, unwritten parts of New England and the romanticized literary “South”? Or, is it a meditation on misconceptions—rurality vs. regionality?
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this—a sort of desire to assimilate my work with the south. However, yours gets it best. To me, the voice of White Nights is about capturing a sort of rurality that is omnipresent yet often goes under represented in fiction. I think there is an element of truth to some of the talk about the outcome of the recent election. What most of educated, liberal, urban America (or any combination of those three) forgets is that rural America exists—they too want to have a voice. Even in the North, take a drive around Vermont, or New Hampshire. Or, check out Delaware County in NY, where I now live. As a die-hard progressive, while I may not agree with the politics of these places, I understand the kind of concerns the people here have and why, say a third-generation dairy farmer who has to sell his acreage to weekenders from the city just to survive as the price of milk plummets, might feel overlooked. ‘Dirty realism’ is not simply a trope ascribed to Southern writers like Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor. Also, this has everything to do with economic class. I always tell my students the best way to draw a character is to draw the outline of what defeats them. What they come up against. Their rotten lot. In many ways, that comes down to money. So much of perception and language is defined by the limits of what you are able to see or experience of the world. In many ways, it’s not where you live but how you live.”
Time was also a significant element of setting in the novel. The opening page immediately establishes context with the lines “This was the summer of 1990. The Berlin Wall fell. The Hubble Space Telescope launched. Mandela was released from prison...” How important was setting for you? What did you want to convey about that moment in time: the summer of 1990?
“I wanted to convey the sense that humanity was on a precipice that summer. This was right before the strange, strangled sound of dial-up internet invaded the home. The soul was still located in a kind of spiritual realism. I grew up in the age of no GPS or cell phone. My life was defined by how far I could ride my bike beyond the bridge. This was punctuated by the constant images of Operation Desert storm, and later the Gulf War, on the television that summer. There was a growing sense that the world was vast and incomprehensible. We were on the verge of new discoveries and new crises, both global and personal.”
Your sentences are sharp and deliberate—our girl was a bleeder; mother blew the house out; Fender could lean into the wind without falling over, propped up by reputation alone. I found myself getting stuck on the striking syntax. What is your approach to craft? How did this language and voice develop?
“I have had the pleasure of studying with many great masters of the craft including Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. In many ways, this book, for me, was all about trying to put down one viable sentence after the next. Prose that understands the sentence as a ‘theatre of experience’ is always the most exciting writing for me. I love innovators like Robbe-Grillet of Nathalie Sarraute. In many ways, I take Gary Lutz’s imperative from his essay ‘The Sentence is a Lonely Place,’ personally, ‘Words in a sentence no longer remain strangers to each other but begin to acknowledge one another’s existence and do more than tolerate each other’s presence in the phrasing: the words have to lean on each other, rub elbows, rub off on each other, feel each other up.’”
Your short stories have appeared in Granta and Tin House among others. How is your short story writing process different from your novel writing process?
“I think there is something about the shape of the story that is impossible to define, perhaps eclipses definition. That draws me to it. What can I say with the least amount of words? That’s usually my goal. To me, the use of the unsaid is profound. It initiates a kind of respect with your reader, a kind of confidentiality that in life, as a private person, I sometimes find difficult to replicate.”
This summer, you will be teaching and then mentoring students in Western New England’s MFA program. Do you have any writerly advice for them now?
“Gordon Lish once said, write with your ‘loudest voice.’ I think what he meant was, speak with authority. Even if you speak very softly. Even if you whisper. Write like your life depends upon it. It does.”
By Meg Granger
You were born in NYC, raised in the Connecticut suburbs, and then received your MFA from Columbia University. You’ve written: “One of my grandfathers was a newspaper publisher and the other a small-town GM dealer. I figure this is a good lineage for a writer.” Could you say more about your development as a storyteller?
“The operative word here in your question is ‘storyteller,’ which I would counterpose against ‘writer’ to some degree. I actually don’t think of myself as a storyteller, by which I imagine I mean someone to whom story comes first, or who, at a party, can unspool a great tale around which listeners warm themselves as beside a fire. I know lots of these writers, the great storytellers. But I am not one of them. If the question is about my development as a storyteller, I am still a work in progress and my value pedagogically comes from having work yet to do on that front. But if the question is about my development as a writer, then perhaps there’s more room for pride in my accomplishments. What I love is the composition of language—great sentences, great paragraphs—and my pursuit is of these. I follow the language where it wants to go. Writing, in the modern sense of it, is very distinct from the ancient and honorable art of storytelling, because it’s about the look and feel and sound of words on a page. That’s something I have worked very hard on over the years, and which I continue to work on. Developmentally, this writerly conception of the work comes from having been (and continuing to be) a very avid reader. The two things go hand in hand.
“Another way of answering the question would be: maybe I contain a little of each of the approaches I have sketched out here. My mother’s father was a newspaperman, and thus much attached to writing. My father’s father was a car salesman, and willing to tell any tall tale that amused or delighted.”
The Ice Storm, the story of a typical nuclear family in 1970s Connecticut, is told in limited thirds via an omniscient narrator. What drew you to the Hood family vs., say, the Williams family? What drew you to Paul, in the end?
“Well, Paul is me to some extent. I think that is well known by now. When Tobey Maguire played him in the film, he even incorporated an imitation of me into the performance at various points. As to the Hood family, they have all the dramatic possibilities I needed for the family at the center of the narrative. I suppose it could have been the Williamses, but that never occurred to me, really. The Hoods had some passing similarity to the Moodys of Fairfield County, CT, and that made them knowable to me. There was simulation and artifice to the imaginative work, but there was also documenting the past.”
As a follow-up question, the first two sections of the novel set up the pattern of these alternating perspectives. However, the third section breaks pattern by introducing a secondary character’s perspective; later you begin switching viewpoints more freely, and in the final pages, the narrator grows more prominent. What went into some of these bold craft decisions?
“Intuition mostly went into those decisions! The Ice Storm as a project was transformative for me as a writer. I went from thinking rather primitively about how to narrate (see, for example, my first novel, Garden State), to thinking more urgently. Basically, part three of that book was a process of illumination, or perhaps sudden growth, and it came out of just wanting to reflect some of how I thought about literature, which I had so far failed to do. More specifically, I killed a character in those pages and killing a character unleashed some inner purpose that I had not managed to find earlier in my career.”
Your short fiction collection Demonology was called “breathtaking” by The New York Times and New York Observer’s Nan Goldberg said, “It seems totally beside the point to ask whether these stories are good, or bad, or entertaining. They’re overwhelming. For me, the appropriate response to a book like this is an answering cry, a matching confession.” How do you respond to these reviews? What are your personal goals for any piece you write?
“I don’t, these days, pay attention to any reviews at all. Every now and then a few sentences sneak through the handsome wall erected to repel them, and I parse them like they are hieroglyphs in a way that’s totally unhealthy, which is why I stopped reading them. So I didn’t respond to that one, or any of the others.
“At the time I wrote Demonology I said my goal was to ‘save lives’ with my fiction, and that was facetious, but it’s a worthy goal. I suppose I have fewer goals now, as befits someone getting older. Now probably being read, continuing to work, having a few devoted readers, that all sounds pretty good. The particular pieces come and go, and some people like some of them and some other people like others.”
You presented your lecture “The Art of Revision” at our Winter Residency in the Berkshires. There, you shared a complete list of steps to take; at the end, your final step was to “Do all of the above 12-20 times.” Describe how or whether the process of writing differs from editing.
“Drafting is liberation, and editing is restraint. They are antithetical, but both very necessary. It takes me a long time to feel good about my prose, and I need both activities to get there.”
As a writer, you have explored many mediums, including novels, short stories, memoir, essays, and even song lyrics. What advice do you have for students of the forthcoming Residency?
“Dream big, but be teachable. Don’t be so sure you know what you need. Sometimes what you need is unfathomable to you, sometimes for a long while.”
Here's What Our Students Have to Say
The MFA program offers a unique, highly individualized educational experience. Each student arrives will goals and ambitions and leaves with a portfolio of work. Throughout the process, faculty mentors and visiting authors help them develop their talents to the fullest. Read what our students have to say about this transformative experience.
KODIAK Online Learning
Our User-friendly Virtual Classroom Desire2Learn is a state-of-the art Learning Management System used by major universities and colleges around the world. At Western New England, we call it KODIAK after the University's mascot. KODIAK makes it easy for you to participate in class discussions, view calendars, communicate with faculty and classmates, post assignments, and view grades.