Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing
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 Meg Granger
You are a prize-winning author, but you also teach, model, direct, and act, even perform improvisational comedy. Humor itself can be found within the darkest parts of your works. So, is there any sort of interconnection between these activities for you? How do your varied interests influence your writing?
It’s all storytelling. I’ve performed and written since I was a child and the point of both those activities was to tell stories —some of which I shared with other people and some of which I preferred to explore privately. In writing, my storytelling tools are words and my pen/laptop; when I perform I tell stories through my body and voice. Theatre is all about rhythm, engagement, clarity and intention —I tend to focus on those elements when I’m writing literature, rather than the look of words on a page. My writing is also quite visceral and kinesthetic, and I love to explore characters through their voices, so I think my writing and performance practices really feed into each other on that level. I modeled for art students for about five years, the same period I was acting professionally. The modeling was a pragmatic choice to support my acting practice, but it was a type of performance too, so not unrelated. I also liked being around visual artists, and learning about their processes. Ultimately my first novel came from modeling for artists in prison. The men sometimes told me stories and the first germ of Lucy’s character in HellFire came from a chat in an art class. From 2001, my theatre work was very much influenced by a director, Ciaran Taylor, who really helped me bring out the mischievous and comedic side of my creativity. This fed into my writing too. I haven’t done much directing recently, but again, I see it about using my own and other people’s energy to tell stories. Facilitation and teaching to me is all about encouraging others to tell the stories they want to tell, in the ways that are truest to their deepest, most integral intentions.
Your debut novel HellFire takes on many topics from political issues like poverty, oppression, and crime to personal issues such as gender, fear, and reflection. Though your piece begins in the 1960s, the social and individual problems you present are still relatable for today’s reader. How did you achieve balancing the importance of these topics and their relatability to the modern reader in your writing?
I wrote HellFire in 2002-2005, during the height of the Boom in Ireland, when I was working intensely with people who were disadvantaged and who, at the time, were generally being rendered invisible by the dominant narratives in Irish society. I suppose a sense of unfairness about that marginalization was what drove the book on some levels, and I don’t believe that unfairness is limited to time and place. Inequality, disadvantage, exclusion and ‘otherization’ are part of every socio-economic era, so perhaps that’s why those themes might be relatable to people outside Ireland and outside the novel’s timeframe. As a woman I’m also very aware of the exclusion practiced in our society towards women. Lucy is a girl (as opposed to a woman) for most of the story but she’s a girl who’s raging, active, and destructive (of herself as much as others); I’m sure my own frustration at being pigeonholed into certain roles as a woman played a part in that energy. However, my main motivation was wanting to understand Lucy and her story; I was interested in her. And as long as I could stay interested and curious I imagined that at least some readers would too. I wrote the first draft very much for myself and Lucy; when it came to editing it, Patricia Deevy, my editor at that time, was remarkably insightful and helpful in allowing me to see where I needed to clarify my intentions so that they could be more visible (and relatable) to readers.
Though your life has not exactly mirrored your character Lucy Dolan’s, you have worked in prisons and lived and went to school in Dublin, where you have engaged with the type of scenes and characters Lucy encounters in HellFire. What was your process of getting to know Lucy herself and then staying true to her while writing from her first person perspective? How much of yourself and your voice is within her?
Lucy’s voice came to me first of all in a very short story, which emerged directly out of a conversation I had with a male prisoner in Portlaoise Prison. It was shaped further by other encounters; I still remember watching a talented young female Dublin actor do a short one-woman piece and realizing, ‘Ah, Lucy’s energy is like that.’ In 2001, I wrote a 20-minute monologue based on the first short story and I performed Lucy in that. For rehearsals, I spelled the text in my script phonetically so I wouldn’t trip myself up by playing Lucy in the wrong accent. I was then commissioned to write a full-length play and, thanks to some excellent mentoring from Jocelyn Clarke and Karin McCully (both dramaturgs at the Abbey Theatre at the time), eventually realized that the material I’d come up with would be better served in novel form. There is a mystery at the center of HellFire. While I was working on the second draft of the play, I started trying to find out the truth behind that mystery using intellectual tools. Trying to analyze what might have happened, I stalled pretty quickly. Then I thought, why not try to find out what happened by writing in Lucy’s first person voice, phonetic spelling and all? Three months later I had 400 pages of closely written longhand script and realized that this wasn’t really a play. With Lucy, my way in has always been through her voice. There’s a lot of me in her, though those bits are probably the most private aspects of myself—the aspects that I perhaps feel least comfortable acting out in public as myself.
In HellFire, you deal with dark scenes including Lucy’s heroin usage and the price she is willing to pay for her next hit, including when she pays her dealer Nayler for heroin by witnessing him have sex with her own mother. Writing scenes like this requires guts and you don’t shy away from the grit. Where is the boldest you personally think you have ever gone?
Writing for me is best when it’s a bold activity, but only when the boldness comes from an honest place. It’s an opportunity to dig into the yucky parts of human experience and cast light on them. I’ve always been fascinated by the shadow-side of stories, but I’m also interested in redemption, in the cathartic possibilities offered by exploring the darker aspects of the human psyche. We avoid pain in real life, yet any time I’ve learned something, it’s generally involved going through some pain. I know I’m onto something rich when I come up against a tough choice with a character. It’s when I feel like saying, ‘Ew. Do I have to write that? Do I have to make them go through that?’ I’m always encouraging emerging writers to embrace those difficult stages of writing: the pain, the shame, the doubt, the fear. The good stuff comes out of that. If that’s bold, then yes, I think writing should always be bold, and the bolder the better. In my new book (Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, which will be out next spring) I had to go through a lot of collective angst around my German ethnic identity (my Dad is half-German). Being to any extent German in the second part of the 20th century raises really gnarly psychological questions. I found writing a way of exploring that, but it was tough at times. I had to keep checking that I was writing for the right reasons; that I was working with the emotions and thoughts the subject brought up in a way that was responsible and fair. I have made some technical choices in my writing that have been perceived as bold—voice, structure, tone. But to me the boldest thing I can do is keep asking myself: is this needed? What is the point of this scene, or this character, or this story? What is happening here?
HellFire is set in Dublin, but Dublin is much more than a setting in this piece, as it plays an integral role from the vernacular and lifestyle to the shaping of your character Lucy’s story. The Dublin you paint is discernibly dark. How has your own exposure to Dublin affected your portrayal of it? Is there anything in particular you would like the students of this residency to take away from your city?
I grew up in a Dublin (1970s-1980s) which was in the throes of a recession and was only starting to emerge from a very oppressive Catholic theocracy. The Dublin of my childhood was grubby, ragged at the edges, and discernably disadvantaged—there was very little money about and the place felt materially backward, poor, and provincial. But it was hugely interesting culturally. During the 1980s the independent theatre and filmmaking scene really started to explode and I graduated in a Dublin where a lot of talented young people had decided to stay instead of emigrate, so it was a very exciting place to be. I was very aware of the class divide in Dublin; it’s a city that is stratified economically, but not so much geographically. For all the talk about Dublin’s north side versus south side (and that is a socioeconomic reality—the north side is generally poorer than the south side), it is still a village-based city, with people from different classes often living on the same streets, though not necessarily mixing socially. There was a big working-class community in my secondary school and also in the Dublin Youth Theatre, where I hung out as a teenager. I guess I’d like the students to come away with a sense of Dublin that goes beyond the heritage image of Stephen’s Green, Irish pubs and the tourist trail. Explore the back streets, be aware of the new ethnic communities that are reshaping the city’s image; Central European, African, Middle-Eastern and other groups, enjoy the city’s enduringly grubby and gritty identity. It’s important to remember that, like Amsterdam or Marseilles, Dublin is a port town, settled and re-settled by waves of invaders, sailors, traders and black marketeers; where you get port towns, you always get a certain spikiness, conflict, and darkness.
Since you will be teaching the fiction workshop this residency, is your critique as crisp and biting as your work? How would you describe your critique style?
I guess I would describe my critiquing style as rigorous, forensic, and generous. I like to come to other people’s work from a place of honesty, clarity, and curiosity. I try to be clear and precise about the elements that resonate with me strongly, the things that make me want to keep reading a student’s text, and why that is so. I also try to be honest about the places that I am unclear about or troubled by and be curious, rather than prescriptive, about examining why this is so. Before I express a constructive opinion or fix or suggestion to the writer, I try to find out what the writer has intended in the places that bother me. Perhaps they want me to be unclear or troubled. In which case, my response is exactly what they’re looking for. However, if they want a different response, then it’s likely there’s a problem in the text and then there’s work to do—and that’s the point of a writing practice, isn’t it?
By Christy Crutchfield
Your memoir My Dead Parents begins with your discovery of a love letter your father wrote to your mother. You immediately wanted to investigate the parents you thought you knew. When did you know you wanted to write a book about your past and your discoveries? Was it a product of your investigations or a catalyst?
The book was the product of my investigation. For a long time, my research was purely for myself (and the readers of my Tumblr). I thought about writing a book, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find a book’s worth of information. I decided to pursue one after I wrote an essay about my project for BuzzFeed and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Having a book deal allowed me to do research I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford.
Your book is a memoir, but you also have an MFA in fiction from Columbia and several publications. How does writing nonfiction differ from writing a story or a novel?
For me, writing nonfiction is very different from writing fiction. My fiction is quite spare, and I like to leave a lot of things unsaid and create a sense of uneasiness. With nonfiction, however, readers need a lot of description and detail, and they need to understand how everything connects. Of course, I didn’t include every detail of my life, or my parents’, but I did have to connect all of the emotional and logical beats of our stories. (I also had to start using adjectives, which my fiction purposefully lacks.) If I left something unsaid, my readers would be confused and there would less emotional payoff in the end.
Nonfiction lacks the freedom of fiction, and that required a lot of adjustment. I couldn’t make anything up, add useful or interesting characters, or blow up the plot when I got stuck. I had to work with what I had and constantly find ways to add narrative drive to exposition and elevate content-heavy sentences to prose. If I’d been writing a novel or story, I would have been able to change parts of the book that I feared weren’t interesting or just left them out completely. I struggled with the confines of nonfiction for a long time, but now that I’m writing fiction again, I’m overwhelmed by all the possibilities available to me.
Nonfiction writers have to be brave because they have to be honest. Your book not only shows us darker moments from your relationship with your parents, but you also show moments in your own life where you know you were wrong. Did you come across challenges writing about your family, especially since both your parents were dead? What about challenges writing about yourself in such an honest light?
I wouldn’t have written this book if even one of my parents were still alive, not because I would have been afraid of hurting or offending them, but because it took them dying for me to be interested in them at all. That said, their deaths provided important distance and perspective, and as I was committed to being as honest as possible, knowing that I wouldn’t upset them was a relief. Writing about them was still challenging, however, because I couldn’t turn my questions to them. I had to rely on other people, and their memories and impressions, to tell me what I didn’t know or understand. If other members of my family, and my parents’ friends and peers, hadn’t been as generous as they were, the book wouldn’t exist. And though I spent a year researching the book full-time, I still have lots of questions that only my parents could answer. As they’re no longer around, I’ve had to accept that there are things I’ll never fully understand no matter who else I talk to, and I worked hard to make this uncertainty a part of the book.
When I started the book, I knew I’d have to interrogate myself as rigorously as I did my parents. That’s only fair. There were many things I would have preferred to keep to myself. For example, I’m deeply embarrassed that I slapped my mother when I was a teenager, but I put it in because showing who I’d been and what my mother dealt with was important. It’s painful to share such unflattering information, but I made a point to treat myself as mercilessly as I did everyone else because I thought my readers would sense if I wasn’t being honest. And I knew that some people would bristle when I said that I was relieved when my parents died, or find this or other sentiments offensive or distasteful, but I was committed to sharing my feelings because I wanted to speak to people who had experienced similar things. I was willing to risk alienating certain readers because I wanted to give voice to a less-traditional experience of grief.
I found your discussion of addiction from a loved one's perspective particularly compelling. You take us through the guilt and helplessness you felt when dealing with your mother's addiction. You also show us your frustration and your own weakness when it came to your mother's bargaining. I think we're used to reading stories of triumph when it comes to addiction—and stories of unending patience—but your memoir speaks to the complications. Did you have an intentional message about addiction when writing these chapters?
I did not have an intentional message, I simply wanted to present my experience honestly. Many addictions do not end in triumph, and dealing with an addict is infuriating, confusing, and very painful. I wanted to show this side of addiction and share all contradictory feelings a loved one endures. I hoped that people who’d gone through similar things would find comfort in seeing their experiences represented.
What's your teaching style? What can students in your workshop expect during the residency and beyond?
My teaching style is dynamic and attentive. I meet every student where they are and make sure that I understand their goals for specific projects. My aim is to help them achieve what they want and to teach them skills and approaches that will serve them now as well as in the future.
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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