Monday, July 09, 2007

Writing Courses

Two years ago at this time, I had no idea that MFA programs existed. No joke. A couple of my friends had mentioned that I might be interested in applying to these programs. So in the spring of 2006, I started with Stanford’s website, naturally, to research MFAs. I called Stanford to inquire about the “Stegner Fellowship” and other programs and the woman on the phone suggested that I buy the MFA Handbook.

The book mentions getting immersed in the local writing community, like taking a class. So in the summer of 2006, I enrolled in a creative writing class at San Francisco State University’s College of Extended Learning. In the fall, I enrolled in another writing course through Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program that was taught by a Stegner Fellow.

By taking these classes, I wanted to gain a sense of what the workshop environment was like (I was a Public Policy major), improve my writing, and possibly, if I did well in the class, ask the professor to write a recommendation for me. Basically, I wanted to see if I could thrive in this environment, and if it was something that I wanted to apply for and spend the next two years doing. Looking back, I also think that I learned how to conduct myself in a workshop, become an effective reader and critic, and thus, doing a favor for my future classmates at Notre Dame.

I’m not saying that everyone should follow the same path, but I do encourage folks who were not writing or English majors to look into what the local university or college offers. Also, if someone is thinking of applying to MFA programs and they are not straight out of undergrad with strong ties to their professors, then these classes might be a way to build a relationship with a professor. I didn’t think that my Econ prof from 1997 would be so keen on writing a recommendation for me.

Do any current or former MFAers have similar experiences with local writing courses in the cities they were living in prior to graduate school? Any prospective applicants considering enrolling in a course or have done the same? Was the experience valuable? If so, and if you recommend the course or school, then spread the word and let everyone know.


Gustavo Llarull said...

Hey Mike,

Just a marginal comment. I've had the opposite experience. I'd never ever taken a writing class or even sat in on a workshop before I applied to MFA programs. I was lucky I had a couple of trusted friends who are very good readers. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a class or got involved in some way with a writing community, like you did. When I visited UMass, I sat in on a couple of workshops for the first time -- and loved it. A caveat: for all I know, I might end up hating workshops, ha! After all, it was a three-day visit. But I doubt it. To have that kind of feedback sounds amazing. But anyway, to go back to your main point, I do remember the last stages of the application process – I was bothering my friends, begging them to read my latest version of the writing sample as soon as they could, dying to get some feedback. So, for this and the other reasons you discuss in your post, I strongly agree with your suggestion. Prospective applicants are well advised to take a class before application time.

Seth Abramson said...

Gustavo and Mike,

I too had an unusual path to the MFA: not just in the sense of having a degree and career in a totally different field (law), but also in the sense that I'd never taken a creative writing course at the time I applied to MFAs (and still haven't). I've never even taken a course in my field (poetry), with the exception of one English course in college on Romantic Poetry (at a time when I hadn't started writing poetry yet, and had little to no sustained interest in the Romantics; nor was the class the catalyst that started me writing, as that event [entrance into law school] wouldn't happen for several years yet). One thing I *can* say is that when I started writing poetry in 1998, I joined an intermediate on-line poetry workshop (The Gazebo, at The Alsop Review), and for 2-3 years that was the perfect hothouse for my writing, at least at that stage in my development (whatever that means). Those who, like me, live and work in areas less likely to have large, vibrant, cohesive artistic communities (in my case, NH, until recently) should consider on-line workshops if they're just starting out. While eventually any workshop can become too insular--and the critiques begin to sound repetitive and rote--on-line workshops are a good spot to get basic grounding in a discipline. I've also found that the poetry blogosphere (ever growing) is a good place to learn about new talents and in some cases to read work people are doing "in the moment" (even if there's no chance for a back-and-forth).

I agree with what's been said above, however: some formally-structured class or seminar is preferable. How can you know whether or not you want to be in (or would benefit from working from within) a community of [poets/writers] if you've never been in that setting? It remains one of my primary fears re: my upcoming MFA experience.


polly said...

After finishing the MA in psychology but before applying to my MFA program, I took an undergrad class in children's literature that I thought was going to be a lit course, but turned out to be writing as well. I went from there to a similar workshop at Gotham Writers, a pretty well-known outfit in New York with many in-class and on-line offerings at all levels, and at Gotham worked up to advanced classes in nonfiction (memoir and feature writing). I agree whole-heartedly that this was my introduction to the workshop process, and starting the MFA would have been much more awkward and less satisfying at the outset without the skills and protocols in place. Adult Ed type things are low risk -- there's no grade. The instructor can be a crap shoot -- the kiddies' lit course was OK, but no more than that -- but I was fortunate to hit on a brilliant Brit who is a retired career newsman and editor (The Guardian, Conde Nast)for the nonfiction courses, and I have stayed with his workshop even after beginning the degree work. A lot of my stuff starts out with him, then goes to the program workshops a couple of draft levels ahead.

Luck, I know -- but you take it where you get it. There are some fantastic people teaching in these commercial courses, or in the Adult and Continung Ed programs at the local colleges.