Saturday, October 23, 2010

Don't Tell Me What to Write: Choosing the Multi-Genre Program

I admit, I was a spoiled undergrad. I went to Sarah Lawrence College where there are no tests, no grades, and very few academic rules. I could study whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and it didn't matter if I had never tried the subject. It was that level of freedom and exploration that allowed me to try writing for the first time - I signed up for my first fiction workshop and my first playwriting workshop as a sophomore, having never written anything creative before. It was a life changing experience.

I spent the rest of my undergraduate career studying writing, and when I decided to apply to a MFA program, I was looking for the same level of creative flexibility. It turns out that can often be difficult to find. Most graduate programs are divided into categories: fiction and poetry are in the Writing Program, playwriting is in the Theatre Program, and screenwriting is part of the Film School. Those limitations just didn't work for me. I knew I wanted to write both plays and screenplays, but I had no desire to get a theatre degree or attend film school. I just wanted to write, not direct or act or edit or design.

So I went in search of multi-genre programs. I already knew exactly what I wanted my thesis project to be (a pilot script for an one-hour dramatic television show), so I needed a program that would support that project and had the faculty to teach me how to write it. I also wanted a program that would allow me to take classes outside of playwriting/screenwriting. Plus I wanted the opportunity to pursue Independent Study if the standard courses were not enough. My criteria definitely narrowed my selection of schools, but it was important to me to find a program that would work with me to accomplish my goals.

Ultimately, the program that worked for me was the MFA at Southampton College. I took workshops in creative non-fiction and screenwriting, and I also took classes in Women's Literature, Southern Literature, and Fiction into Film. It was exactly what I needed, and my relationship with the program continues to be strong and productive.

What are you looking for in a MFA program? Would love to hear from you, so leave comments!

*Shameless Promotion* Applications are available for the new Florence Writers Conference, sponsored by the Southampton MFA program. Study fiction and creative non-fiction for 10 days in Florence, Italy! Go to for more details. Deadline: November 1st, 2010.


WanderingTree (Sequoia N.) said...

Although many programs don't directly have any info about openness to other forms on their websites (playwriting, screenwriting etc.), I found that if you talk to a faculty member or student, you'll discover that a lot of programs do allow you to take classes in other departments (and some even might encourage it). Your post also indirectly brings up another issue that people should think long and hard about: Do you want to spend the next 2-4 yrs in a studio oriented program or an academic/lit oriented program? Do you want to be left to your own devices or do you think you could benefit from a more structured atmosphere? With regards to more academic/lit oriented programs, you may have to do a little more research. While most of these programs don't explicitly require a formal background in English, you might find after some sleuthing that there are a few programs that just might hold it against you (albeit prob. to a min. degree) if don't have enough English classes (or even an English degree) under your belt. Read how things are worded on program websites and think about how much power a particular MFA program may have over a graduate school at a particular institution.

When I applied to MFA programs, I was looking for places that would be open to a variety of styles/genres (esp. surrealism/ magical realism/ fabulism/ literary speculative fiction etc.) and structural experimentation. I wanted to belong to a cohort that was diverse stylistically and challenged the term "MFA writing". I wanted a program where I would have the freedom (and ability) to explore how literature intersects with other creative disciplines/fields (video art/ computer programming/ graphic arts etc.) if I wanted to. I know I didn't want a hardcore lit curriculum but also wanted the freedom to take lit classes (or classes in other depts) should I decide I wanted to continue on to do a PHD.

Sally Jane said...

Excellent points, Wandering Tree! You're totally right, some programs are more like conservatories, and some are more like a MA with a writing component. I think that you get so much more out of your graduate program if you go in with a clear idea of what you want. If I hadn't known exactly what I wanted my thesis to be, I would have been so lost.

Rebecca said...

I am currently applying programs. I know that I am concentrating in poetry. However, I have a great deal of experience in writing in other genres. I explain it in my statement of purpose because it's part of my process as a writer and it's a type of writing I enjoy. I'm not much for rigid specialization for creative or expository writing. That said, would conflating all types of writing with poetry hurt my statement of purpose? Is there a disciplinary snobbery within MFA programs?

Claire Dawn said...

I am interested in programs which allow both creative writing and translation. So far I've found two.

Low-res at Vermont College and a new residential at Queen's College of the City University of New York.

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Sally Jane said...

Rebecca: Good question. Personally, I think showing that you are well-rounded writer is an asset, but then again, I'm not the head of any poetry programs, so I'm not sure what the general consensus is on that. Anyone out there got any input?

Claire Dawn: Thanks for the info!

Dissertation: Thanks!

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