Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing
Our winter residency will be held January 5-10, 2019 at the Spirit Fire Retreat Center in Leyden, MA.
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). Our mentors and visiting writers have published works of literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction essays, young adult and middle grade literature, memoir, and literary criticism. This is 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. The Winter Residency is held in the Berkshires or, in alternate years, in Dublin, Ireland at the Irish Writers Centre
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.
The MFA curriculum combines the creative collaboration of a residency with individualized, mentored study to offer students both a structured learning environment, and the freedom to work and explore the craft of writing independently. As part of the requirements for the degree, students complete many drafts and revisions, producing a substantial manuscript of original work in fiction by the end of the program. Students will benefit not only from learning from professors and working authors, but also the space to sharpen their own voice in the process.
By Erin Ford
Your settings and the characters really stand out, such as the Northern California desolation and the contrast between Rome and Ted in The Human Variable. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind your characters and the decisions they make?
“I’m so glad to hear the characters in “The Human Variable” stood out for you. Thinking about that story, I see how the characters come from a pretty accessible place inside myself: Ted, Rome, and Kathy are people from rural parts of the country trying to make their way in a big, bad world that wants to take away their time, their money, and maybe their love. I understand them, because I’m one of them (as most of us are), but I only knew the story was about that, or would be about that, from playing with the sentences. This seems to be the case always. My characters only ever come from re-writing a first paragraph over and over again, sometimes for weeks, or months at a time, until the sentences, both on their own, and in terms of how they relate to one another, feel as specific as possible. I have to make up the language and make myself at home in it. After that, the logic (or illogic) of the narrative takes hold a little. Then there’s the hard work and dumb luck and endless revising that’s required to make what happens next stay true to what’s occurred before, and still feel fresh and new. It’s sometimes maddening, and never easy.”
You’ve also had short fiction published in places such as Electric Literature and the New Orleans Review. Your novel, MOLLY BIT is coming out soon. What do you find different between writing short fiction and the process of writing a novel?
“A good short story is the hardest thing to write in the world. That sounds grandiose, but I think it’s true. That’s the main difference—that stories are more difficult. They really are. They’re little tricksters. A novel tells you right off it’s going to be difficult. It says, ‘I’m a big, hulking cultural product you have to contend with, and I’m never going away no matter what anybody says, and you have to deal with me.’ But the short story is a liar. It makes all the same demands the novel does, but acts like it’s no big deal. ‘I’m a story,’ it says. ‘You tell versions of me all the time.’ Really, it wants you to give your entire life and everything you know over to it—but with fewer gestures than the novel requires. Stories are cruel that way. They don’t care about you. You are writing in service to it. A novel is written in service to the characters (at least that’s the experience I had while writing mine). If you take care of them, and make them vivid and true, they tell you what the novel’s about. A short story wants the essence of life all at once. That’s the maddening part I mentioned before. You want the story to accept what you’re giving to it, but a lot of the time it will say, ‘No. Not that way. That doesn’t work for me.’ You might even ask the story how, but it never gives you a straight answer until the final draft—if then. ‘You’re the writer,’ the story says. ‘Figure it out.’”
According to Goodreads, MOLLY BIT examines the power and danger of fame and fandom. What else can you tell us about it?
“One of the novel’s major concerns is fame, yes, and, more specifically, how the pursuit and existence of it has distorted contemporary American life, as well as augmented our understanding and perception of reality. The novel is about a film actress, the title character, Molly Bit, who is both a true artist and a media object. One of the many challenges the novel presented was how to write about Hollywood, that Venus fly trap of a town, which has been daring novelists to write about it since the early 20th Century, and then eating them alive. It’s an absurd place, often horrific—especially for women. But it’s also wonderful and fun and alive. For many reasons, I’ve always taken actors seriously. I admire what they do. I can watch a terrible movie, but if there’s a good actor in it, and they make an interesting choice in a scene, I’m glued. This was how I came at the problem of Hollywood. It’s all the things all at once—heavenly, hellish, worthy of being satirized, as well as praised—but navigating that maze are talented actors, directors, and other artists trying to make work that will connect with and affect other human beings. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes that doesn’t. They are always up against and dependent upon ‘the industry,’ this big old ruthless American-made image factory. Hollywood is a liberal town because it’s a labor town. They make fictions there the way Detroit used to make cars.”
You’re a fiction editor at JERRY Magazine as well. What general tips can you give to writers who are looking to get published anywhere?
“The best advice I could give would be to get to know the magazines and journals you would like to be published in. Buy them, read them, pass them out to friends. Not only will you know what sort of work is out there, but you’ll see how your stories stack up. After that, send out story after story after story. You will get rejected. That is a given. It happens to everyone, even the celebrated. The process can feel pretty lonely and terrible at times, but there are real life actual human beings out there who want to read you. Get involved in other journals as a reader on their staff. Reach out. Participate. It’s a matter of artistic faith, in a way. To get the love, you have to put it out there, but the way it returns is frequently strange and unexpected, and different for everybody.”
You’ve been selected as a mentor for the upcoming term. What is your teaching/mentoring style? What can students expect?
“Each student is different, of course, and one of the advantages of Western New England’s low-residency program is that I’m able to get to know a writer and their work simultaneously. There are a lot of benefits to that mentor/mentee dynamic, but one in particular stands out for me. Even though writers in their work want to avoid cliché at all costs, when it comes to workshops and classrooms—because a shorthand is necessary in that environment—clichés get tossed around all the time. ‘Show. Don’t tell.’ ‘You’ve got an issue here with pacing and structure,’ etc. For beginning writers, these shorthand terms don’t quite make sense. They do generally, but not specifically—not in terms of their work, and their still-forming vision. I try to help my students find their own definitions for these terms. After that, the honest critiques I provide have the student’s language in mind, and we proceed. I’m always going to be concerned with language and the specificity of language. In the end, that’s all we have. No matter what genre you write in, writing well is the most important part. It’s from out of the sentence which all other aspects of fiction—plot, character, setting, description, pacing, the manipulation of time, point of view—grow. As for workshop, one of my undergraduates calls revising, ‘Going back to the lab.’ I really like that. Workshop is the lab. Nothing is sacred yet. It’s all an experiment.”
By Zubia Abbasi
You are often known as a war poet, and a lot of your writing has to do with your time/experience in Vietnam, but when did you start writing? Was it after you came back, or were you always compelled to write?
“I wrote before the war—poems to girlfriends, etc., but did not consider myself any kind of professional at it. The war changed that for me because I felt compelled to write after, to make sense of the war to myself, mostly, but then I began to publish. I didn’t write when I was over there because my mind was not in contemplative mode. I was told in high school that I had an imagination and could write, but like most teenagers, anything an adult said didn’t mean much.”
You have a lot of written works that include both poetry and prose, so what inspires you to write? And why poetry specifically? What pulled you towards that genre?
“I really don’t know why I chose poetry in the end. I also wrote fiction and published a story in the college literary magazine, THE TOUNGUE, in 1969. It was pretty good, I think, but I didn’t write another story for a long time. I still have it, and it had poetry in it. I’d invented a Vietnamese character among the enemy who wrote poems and, of course, wrote the poems and included them in the story.”
Do you think the art of writing poetry can be translated into fiction? Do you think it’s possible for the two genres to inspire each other?
“Sartre advised fiction writers to write poetry. It teaches a lot about economy and the integrity of the line. It is only recently that people have been encouraged to specialize. MFA programs are compressed into two years and students choose one or the other. There have been great fiction writers who were also terrific poets: Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, for example. Melville was not a good verse poet but his poetry can be found in his prose. There are sections of Moby Dick that can be excerpted as prose poems. His descriptions of the sea, of horizons, his extraordinary attention to detail are a poet’s.”
What advice would you give to a writer going through writer’s block?
“I don’t have it, but I would guess it’s a self-confidence issue. Some very good writers have suffered from it. I think everyone has something to say but not everyone is a writer. My problem is not being blocked, but of going on automatic pilot and writing stuff that is facile but not connected. Fortunately, these periods don’t last long. I also think writers, like other professionals, need to rest, need to have what poet Linda McCarriston calls “looking out the window time.” A time to live and to recharge one’s batteries. And there is this terrible neurosis some people have in a fallow period that they mistakenly think is a sign they’ll never write again.”
What would you say to a fiction writer who is intimidated by poetry? Or doesn’t find an appeal to its forms? Vice versa?
“I always say this about writing: writing is a physical act and it’s a matter of sitting down and doing it. Natalie Goldberg suggests that writing amounts to ‘keeping your hand moving.’ I think worrying about writing is not writing and the cure for it is to sit down and move your hand. People will end up writing what they do well whether it’s poetry, or prose, or drama, or creative nonfictions, or combinations of. There’s an unfortunate division of labor between poets and fiction writers. They often don’t even read each other. This is silly and sad for both are missing much. Also, it’s important to read widely and not just one kind of poetry or prose. All these intimidations and antipathies are made up in our heads.”
As a Veteran, you have travelled and seen parts of the world that most people have not, especially maybe undergrad and grad level writers. Do you think traveling has any effect on writing, or do you believe that a writer doesn’t need literal experience to come up with effective creative expression?
“I believe traveling is a necessity for everyone one and a cure for any kind of prejudice. I think traveling opens up rooms in the mind that would be otherwise closed. It is an absolute necessity, in fact. Edward Said quotes Hugo of St. Victor in Orientalism: ‘The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.’ It helps us see the wonder right where we are.”
What advice would you give to a writer who can’t necessarily travel abroad? What type of activity/hobby should they engage in to help milk their creativity?
“I think traveling within a single country is enough. Look at the U.S.: it is incredibly diverse, and few people get to see much of it. And I don’t mean traveling as a tourist: go somewhere and stay for a while. Imagine spending three months in New Orleans. How many cultures can you count?”
Do you think that writers should take “breaks”, or plow through written material until they come across “the one”? Or do writer’s ever come across ‘the one”?
“I think writers should take breaks like everyone else. Writing takes immense energy and is emotionally stressful. Take breaks, live your life, fall in love.”
What genre’s do you like to read in your personal time?
“I read everything. I read philosophy and anthropology in addition to literary reading. I read a lot about politics. I think it’s necessary for survival. And, of course, I read a lot of literature in all genres.”
Do you have any rituals you like to perform when you write? Before or after?
“Really good coffee before, and a nap afterwards.”
What are some editing techniques that you use for your own writing? When do you know that your work is finished?
“There is a Russian proverb: ‘Write drunk, revise sober.’ Which means, I think, that one’s first drafts should be unencumbered by doubt, concerns about grammar, or even coherence, and the subsequent drafts are about structure, refinement, word choice and nuance. I may do several subsequent drafts. Taking time is helpful here. I often put the draft away and work on something else. When I return to it I understand that my unconscious has been working on it even while I was doing other things, and that my edits are sharper. I caution writers not to submit pieces too early. Give them time to work on themselves.”
You have a recent prose poem on Vox Populi titled “Doug Anderson: I am always in love”. The poem reveals itself not through its “poetic” form on page, but through the use of rhythm, rhyme, and its stream of consciousness-type motion. Do you think that the sounds and form of a prose poem can also be applied in fiction writing?
“I intended that piece as a mini-essay, but others, including the editor, saw it as a prose poem. And yes, like prose poetry generally, it has sound and image associations that are poetic. I like prose poetry. I like books of it, like Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. And yes, I think poetry and fiction are interdependent and prose poetry can be inserted in prose. The older I get, the less I’m interested in binaries. Sometimes I think we create them just to have a problem. I rather try to let the writing be what it wants to be, and, as in the case of the above mentioned prose poem, sometimes the editor is helpful in locating it in a genre.”
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.
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