Friday, February 11, 2011

An Interview with Cara Ellen Modisett: Goucher's Low-Residency Program in Creative Non-Fiction

Cara Ellen Modisett was the editor of Blue Ridge Country magazine for five years before shifting to a part-time position as editor at large while turning her attention to an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Maryland. She is a reporter and producer for WVTF public radio and has written the text for two books on the Blue Ridge Parkway, besides working as a collaborative pianist and as a writing and music teacher at the independent Community High School in Roanoke, Va. She completed undergraduate degrees in music performance and English education at James Madison University.
Cara shares with us her transition from journalism to creative non-fiction, and how a low-residency program played a role.
Q. Why did you decide to pursue an MFA given your successful journalism background?
A. For several reasons, practical and artistic, I guess! It was an extremely difficult decision to leave Blue Ridge Country magazine. I love the publication and much of my work as an editor, but knew I didn't want to edit forever - I went into journalism in order to write, and that's where my greatest love lies, in journalism. My other great love is music, and I knew that I couldn't pursue an MFA, play music and work full-time as an editor and have any sleep whatsoever.
I wanted to be a better writer, and I missed school, learning -- I missed being part of a community of students and teachers, and the intensive study and creativity that goes into academic work. My hope is to eventually teach at a university level, for the same reasons, and an MFA will (I hope) make that more possible.
Q. Why did you decide on a low-residency program?
A. Really, for financial reasons. It would have been too risky to drastically reduce my income over two years, plus pay a full-time tuition, though part of me would love to drop everything -- music, teaching, radio -- and do nothing but go to school! But I would miss the other work too much.
Q. What drew you to Goucher? What are the program strengths that you have experienced thus far?
A. A faculty member at Hollins University sent me a good resource for low-residency programs, and I researched 20-some. There was no question in my mind that Goucher was top choice -- I liked its focus on journalism and narrative, and its teachers -- faculty and visiting writers -- included names like Tom French and Susan Orlean. When I contacted Patsy Sims, the director, she was accessible and generous with her time, talking with me on the phone and answering all my questions, and putting current students and alumni in touch with me. They answered my questions honestly and enthusiastically, and I had a great sense of a community that was close-knit, encouraging and creative, not competitive.
My two-week residency at Goucher last summer confirmed these impressions. The design of the program creates that close community, and I made good friends during those two weeks. From the first day there, conversation was all about writing -- "What's your project?" is the most-asked question on campus, I'm sure. First- and second-year students alike were excited, wanted to share their work and their inspirations, but also weren't afraid to talk about their worries. Students keep in touch through e mail and social media, formally and informally. The mentors are warm and take a deep interest in their students' work. It was hard to leave Goucher after those two inspiring weeks, but the program's semester structure, in which students communicate with each other and their mentors regularly through Blackboard, 
email, phone and snail mail, helps us keep up our momentum.
Objectively, the program is well-designed for a working writer, as is its intent. We complete our program in two years, generally, working with four mentors and small groups during that time. I just got back from a mini-residency in Buffalo, N.Y. with my spring semester mentor and five other students. We are required to do a 45-hour internship during those two years (I'll be interning at Shenandoah, the literary journal at Washington & Lee University) and a craft paper, and at the end of the two years the goal is to come out with a 150-page manuscript.
The range of experience among students also creates a great community -- some of us have had years of experience, multiple books written and published, jobs with publications including the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Some of us are fresh out of undergrad programs. We have sports writers, memoirists, historians, newspaper editors, essayists, teachers, investigative reporters among us. Last summer, a student and a teacher each had a book on the New York Times bestseller list. 
Q. Has your writing changed since starting Goucher?  
A. Enormously. I have moved from being a magazine journalist, confined to 500-word columns and 1,500-word features, to an essayist, a transformation I never would have predicted. I started the program expecting to do a journalism-based project, in the realm of travel writing or human interest, and at the end of my two-week residency I realized I would be writing essays -- both personal and reported. Reading the work of Adam Hochschild and Lisa Knopp (both of whom spent time with us at Goucher, lecturing, reading and talking) turned around my idea of writing. I'm finding my writing is freeing up, that I'm thinking differently, my brain's going in directions it's not gone before. Madeleine Blais and Diana Hume George, my first two mentors, have encouraged me in this turn toward essay. Writing has become exploration, meditation, philosophy for me, in a way. I'm looking at language, ideas, place, structure, history, myself, differently.

Contact Cara through the Blue Ridge Country Blog: RidgeLines.

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