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What an MFA in Creative Writing Can Do For You

If you've ever contemplated getting your MFA in Creative Writing, this is the episode for you.

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Find the full transcript at the end of this page.

Episode notes

We've got a panel on the MFA in Creative Writing experience with three members of the Lesley University community: Boston Poet Laureate and Lesley University MFA in Creative Writing Interim Director Danielle Legros Georges, Associate Director Janet Pocorobba and alumna Heather Hughes, an associate editor at Harvard University Press.

The three authors writers talk about Lesley's low-residency MFA program, diversity in MFA programs, and what an MFA program can and can't do for you. A Q&A with the audience rounds out this episode.

Recorded at the Boston Book Festival by Studio 125. Listen to more recordings from this year’s festival.

Check out all of our episodes on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

  • Transcript


    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast from Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. Today, we have a special episode recorded at the Boston Book Festival. Three members of our Lesley community participated in a panel called, what an MFA program can do for you. Today, you'll hear from our MFA interim director, Boston Poet Laureate, Danielle Legros George as well as Associate Director Janet Pocorroba and alumna Heather Hughes, who is an associate editor at the Harvard University Press.

    Danielle Legros Georges: Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon, everybody. [laughs] Okay. A sign of life, which is really nice. My name is Danielle Legros Georges. I am the interim director of the Lesley MFA program in creative writing and I'm really pleased to welcome you to this afternoon session. Can you hear me, okay?

    Audience: Yes.

    Danielle: I'm going to be moderating this panel on which I'll be sitting and which includes the lovely Janet Pocorobba, who is the Associate Director of the MFA program in creative writing at Lesley, a memoirist, and essayist and Heather Hughes, who is a graduate of the Lesley MFA program who is a poet and an essayist and an associate editor at the Harvard University Press. I'm really glad that you too have agreed to sit on the panel entitled, what an MFA program can do for you and…

    Janet Pocorobba: What it can't.


    Danielle: We're really going to just talk about our experiences as folks who have gone through MFA programs and for Janet and me, folks who are currently working at an MFA program. We're thinking about this in broad ways and not especially discussing the Lesley MFA program, although we want to encourage you to think about it too as you're thinking about your MFA journeys. I'm going to ask Janet to speak first.

    Janet: Sure. Good. I was going to make that little disclosure that I work in an MFA and I teach in an MFA and I went through an MFA, the Lesley MFA. [laughs] I say that just so that you know and that an MFA program has been a big part of my writing life, my writing development, my experience, my whole identity really as a writer. I did it the MFA way. [chuckles] Not everybody does, you don't have to. You don't have to get an MFA to be a writer.

    I remember the first time I was asked, "Why do you want to get into MFA?" I was sitting in- it was the Lesley MFA office with a director at that time, and I'd seen him on a panel at GrubStreet about MFA programs, probably much like this one, talking about the Lesley program and I said, "Hey, I'd like to hear more." He said, "Come on by." I went to his office one day and I sat in the chair next to his desk and he was like, "Why do you want to come here?" I was like, "Oh, no, [laughs] it's like trick question or." I had articulated it to myself, but I wasn't really sure and me being me, I was like, "Well, there must be a right answer. What is it?" I just said, "I want to be a better writer." He's like, "Oh, okay. That's a good reason." [laughs]

    We talked for a little bit and I remember he had some documents on his desk and he was talking about the program and talking about these craft annotations, and writing craft, and it was very exciting. He was like, "Get these documents." I remember sitting there and wanting to see those documents so badly. I just I was like, "Show me the key. Show me what this is all about." He didn't but I learned quickly that there is no key to becoming a writer or becoming a better writer. Not at all. There's no silver bullet. I guess the first thing I would say in terms of what an MFA can't do for you is two things. It can't offer any kind of silver bullet in terms of your writing or your writing career.

    Great things may happen but there's no guarantee so to come in thinking you're going to solve something about your writing, or writing life with an MFA, I might say, "Be careful." The other thing that I think is, it can't make you a writer. If you don't have that hunger [laughs] to see what those documents are, to get in there and learn all the craft and to know about yourself that you love language, you love playing with it, you've been doing it, you want to study it, you have to have that real appetite and know that that's something that you do, you're a writer. I wouldn't go to an MFA to find out if you are a writer. Can I do this? Because it's not easy? It's not easy to be a writer, it's not easy to graduate from the program, it's quite intensive.

    I would say, those are a couple of things that it can't do for you. I'll just mention one thing that I think it can do for you before we move on into the bigger conversation we're going to hear from you too. The one thing that I think you can get from an MFA that is really unusual and really rare and you may never get it again, [chuckles] is really sharp writers reading your work and reading it with a level of seriousness and commitment.

    That means your faculty, but it also means your co-writers, your peers, the fellow people in your cohort or your workshop. There's something about being in that community, where everybody is taking it very seriously. Having a lot of fun. It's not dour in any way but it's this I think level of commitment that it can really seal for you and I think when you see that level in other people and then they're mirroring yours, it becomes really powerful in terms of propelling you through the degree and then after the degree which you're going to need to keep propelling yourself somehow.

    I think that that is no small thing because I think after you graduate, it can be really hard to find those readers who as invested. I think the only comparison to that would be an editor, an editor who's going to publish your work because there are agents who will sit with you and go through your work and tell you to do a bunch of stuff and then you do it and they say, "Well, we're not going to take it anyway." [laughs] Someone who is invested is what I mean and wants to get in there with you and take responsibility. The level of seriousness and commitment to the work, I think is a great reason to go and that's a good reason you would find it there if you're looking for that. I will stop there.

    Heather Hughes: Hi. [chuckles] I'm going to talk only from the student perspective because that's my perspective on the MFA. I want to talk a little bit about how I came to an MFA and how I decided to do an MFA and specifically why I went into a low-residency program. Low-residency programs have really burgeoned in the last 7 to 10 years in a way that they didn't exist as an option before. I'm somebody who comes from a working-class family. I'm the only person in my immediate family who graduated high school. No one in my family, we didn't have a word for first-generation college students when I was an undergrad so I didn't know that that's what I was.

    I didn't know how many things I didn't know about how to go to college, because I was such a good student all through my life that I didn't know that college was actually about a whole lot of things that are not academic at all. In fact, those things are I think, even more, ramped up in the graduate study that the academics are one component but all of these other pieces of being in a graduate program are equally important, and in some ways, possibly more important than the academic components, especially for writers. I didn't know any of those things even after graduating from my undergraduate program.

    I still didn't know that I didn't know those things because I didn't know I hadn't missed out on those things at all until much much later in life. I was an English and a journalism major. I had been talked out of being a creative writing major by my family because it was not practical and there are no jobs in that, which is a very working-class family attitude to take. I think there are probably people in this room who know what that's like, either personally or from friends. I always thought it wasn't for me and then I eventually got really claustrophobic about not feeding my writing life and not feeding my academic life further.

    Because I work in a university, I got a totally separate master's degree. While I was doing that master's degree on the very very cheap, thanks, university, I was feeling even more as I was doing this very serious academic writing and working on a thesis and doing that research. I was feeling even more that gap in my creative life and that I wasn't doing that work anymore, and how important it was to me as a person to be doing that work.

    I entered my final year of my master's program where I was writing a bilingual, 100-page thesis in Spanish and English, and decided that if I didn't start doing creative work, I was going to go crazy. Even though I had always said, I was never going to do an MFA, I had done a short workshop course with Steven Cramer, that was the founding director of the Lesley program.

    I really respected what he had done there and the structure of it and the professors that he had attracted to the program. I went to an info session, and I just said, "You know what, I'm just going to send in the application and I'm not going to think." If I get in, I'm just going to go even though it's completely insane to work full time and be in two graduate programs at the same time. I just said I'm going to do it and I did [laughs].

    I overlapped those two things, which I don't necessarily recommend, but that is a thing that an MFA and particularly a low-residency MFA can do. It can fit around the rest of your life, both in terms of time and money, it's very flexible to do a low-residency MFA. Because it can fit around the rest of your life, I didn't have the struggle that I saw so many of my friends who did full-time MFAs have which was figuring out after graduation, how to go back to work and then also be a writer, because as much as people talk about the preciousness of that bubble of the MFA and doing nothing but writing for that time, that was never a viable option for me.

    I could not have ever done that and I would not have felt safe making that choice. Personally or financially, the risk would have been too great for me. The fact that low-residency MFA programs exist, and are robust and have great faculty and great students, allowed me to do something that I would have not imagined possible for myself, then allowed me to keep doing the work, because I had this foundation of, "Well, I'm already juggling everything." [laughs] I'm just going to keep juggling everything, which I think it answers, in some ways is part of what an MFA both can and can't do for you.

    The biggest thing that I will say to close out my remarks is also in that overlap of both what MFA can and what MFA can't do for you. I wish I had gone into my MFA program with much more targeted and very specifically articulated goals and ideas about what I wanted out of it, instead of that broad conversation that Janet was talking about, about why do you want an MFA. A lot of us would say, to be a better writer, to meet other writers. They're all true and they're all good answers. They're honest and they're things that we need, but there's a lot of other answers underneath that, that I wish I had dug into more.

    An MFA can't do those other things for you unless you articulate them for yourself, but it can get you toward those other goals and those more specific goals, I think if you do.

    Danielle: After I speak, we're going to open it up to your questions and comments. I attended an MFA program at NYU. I was 30 years old when I decided to apply to an MFA. I've been writing most of my life actually since I was in second grade and Mrs. O’Brien asked me to write an essay on Harriet Tubman, but I was not somebody who called myself a writer.

    When people asked I said, "Yes, I write, but I'm not a writer." But at 30 years old, I decided to take myself seriously as a writer and allow myself the moniker and once that happened, really wonderful things started to come to me, like people who told me about fellowships that I could apply to which I did and got. This is just before I applied to the MFA. Applying to the MFA program was a part of naming myself as a writer and that naming really changed my life. I attended a traditional MFA program. I went to classes once a week, or twice a week. That's the traditional model, there is the low-residency model that Heather mentioned, that the Lesley program is, which I think is also a super model.

    The low-residency MFA, for example, can allow you to continue with your life, though you'll have a more intensified one. You won't have to move or take up residence at or near a university. You can continue to have a family and full-time work. Low-res programs tend to appeal to what are called non-traditional students, often older students. They accommodate people's lives and faculty are custom to adult learners, working with adult learners.

    What an MFA program can do for you also is give you the critical language with which to speak about literature and the arts, the analytic language. It helps you to develop these analytic skills or hone them. Language to talk about art, culture, cultural trends, global trends, historical trends, and movements as a result of the work, the critical work that you're doing in the MFA program.

    Part of why I attended the program was so that I could write but also so that I could develop the critical language with which to defend my work in the world. Here I am a black woman, writing texts that may not have been when I was in my own MFA program 15 years ago. [laughs] May not have been as popular on the critical landscape. I needed to be able to defend my work, I needed the skills, the tools, to be able to know how to talk to people who might not be able to see the work as having a particular value. That for me was an important part of attending, why I attended an MFA program.

    Work in an MFA program is not divorced from what's taking place in the world. You're reminded of the challenges in the world because MFA programs are microcosms of the world. The dynamics that play in the world exist in MFA programs, you bring your isms to it and your colleagues and your peers and your faculty members bring their isms to it. You're going to have to like work all of that stuff out and you work it out through the writing and through the discourse, through the critical work that you do.

    The MFA program or MFA programs give you an opportunity to, while you're dealing, raffling if you will, with the issues that make their themselves into the program. They also give you the opportunity to make work that can ultimately change the world. It's a large statement but think about your favorite books or works of art, books that have changed your life. Can anybody name one?

    Participant 1: Of Mice and Men.

    Danielle: Yes. Of Mice and Men, right. Other texts, yes?

    Participant 2: [crosstalk]

    Danielle: Hold on. There were two people speaking, quick. Yes, up front. Yes. nice and loud, please.

    Participant 2: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

    Danielle: Okay. Then back here.

    Participant 3: Like in sixth grade [inaudible 00:19:25]

    Danielle: Okay, right. Other texts that have changed your life, yes?

    Participant 4: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

    Danielle: One more time, please.

    Participant 4: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

    Danielle: Yes. Junot Diaz. Yes. For me, Toni Morrison's Beloved shifted my life. The other texts we want to throw up there that have changed.

    Participant 5: [unintelligible 00:19:52]


    Danielle: Yes, absolutely.

    Participant 5: [inaudible 00:19:58]

    Heather: Yes.

    Danielle: Okay. All right.

    Participant 5: You read his essays [unintelligible 00:20:02] . We get a lot of that.

    Danielle: All right. An MFA program can give you the space and the tools you need to make the books that change the lives of people in the world, that change culture. That's what an MFA can do for you. Janet mentioned the community you can find in MFA. I'll echo, I'll reiterate that. You'll find community among your peers in your areas. Our program at Lesley happens to have six concentrations, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, writing for young people, writing for a stage and screen, and we have this wonderful new concentration called graphic novels and comics. You'll find camaraderie among folks who are working in your concentrations but then across the concentrations as well.

    You will find community with your faculty members and also among the writers whose works you read across time and space. Writers who inspire you, blow your mind, piss you off so much that you have to write the response text. You'll learn about the local and broader literary landscapes and communities, you'll learn about residency opportunities to which you can apply and of which you get taken care of if you're admitted for two weeks in the woods of New Hampshire, for example. You'll learn about calls for work, fellowships, literary prizes. You will confront your fears and limitations and overcome them, we hope.

    You will find fear, and fire, and water, and air. That's potent me now in MFA program. I'll stop there and we'll take comments and questions.

    Janet: Can I just say one thing about community?

    Danielle: Yes.

    Janet: Do you mind if I just talk a little bit about that because it's so huge? When I was thinking about preparing the panel, I was like, "Wow, when I did my MFA, it was 15 years ago, and the world has changed quite a bit especially the digital world." I was thinking about how many communities there are online and places where people are getting together and workshopping and sharing such information. I think one of the reasons people love MFA is it is this totally analog experience. There's nothing like the feeling of actually being with people and leaving a workshop together after some really interesting craft discussion and just going to lunch and talking craft. You meet people who are speaking your language.

    Again, it's a pretty rare thing that you provide for yourself but that person to person experience I found very, very precious. Just the other thing that I was thinking about is just how we all need each other. I find that I have to have people doing this in my life to pull me forward because there are days where I'm just like, "Oh, God, it's going terrible, or it's going great for me and not great for her." We need to pull each other through I find and you find those people sometimes in an MFA program. I also wanted to say you can find your rivals. Rivals? It sounds like, "What's that?" But I think healthy rivalry can be really nice too.

    You find people who are doing what you want to do, and they lead the path and you're probably leading the path for somebody else. Again, it's just surviving in the arts I find very difficult. Financially, emotionally, finding the time and the energy to do the work, especially if you have jobs and families, and finding people who- like I have a colleague, and she's really the only person that I can call and talk about sentences. We were just talking about no one can use independent clause well anymore. It's so geeky but that's our language. We're prose writers and I wouldn't have found her probably anywhere else. Finding your people is I think just so valuable. Don't you think?

    Danielle: Yes, absolutely.

    Janet: We're going to ask you if you have a question to go up to the mic and speak into it.

    Participant 6: Just some practical information about maybe what an average low-residency schedule looks like. Like the year how long does it take in a range of cost? Thank you.

    Danielle: Typical low-residency programs are the same length as traditional programs so about two years. Some students take three years to go through them. We have two residences during the year at Lesley, one in January and one in June of nine days a piece and so our faculty and students work on or engage in workshops, seminars, panels, and so on during that nine-day boot camp if you will. Then they engage in long-distance learning during the course of the semester. That's what our low-residency program looks like and it's not unusual. Costs are going to depend on the institution, of course, and some institutions have scholarships. We have scholarships. Students apply for financial aid or can apply for financial aid as well. Have I answered all the questions?

    Heather: There's also two other kind of financial things that can be folded in or not folded in with low-residencies, which is where you're going. Travel is, I think, almost never included, except possibly there are some low-residency MFA programs now that have an international component and I think some of those are folding the travel in because the whole entire group is traveling. Usually, travel costs are something you have to bear yourself for the residency periods. Where the residency is what the institution is will determine also whether or not you are paying a room and board or what type of room and board.

    If you are, for example, out in the woods of New Hampshire, you're essentially staying on campus and you're paying a dorm rate to stay on campus and that's part of your tuition and all of that. Lesley is here in Cambridge. I live in Somerville so I got on a bus and went to class and went home and looked at my dirty dishes at the end of the day and was very sad about that. I also often had other students in the program both while I was there, and after I graduated staying with me so some people were not having to pay a housing cost at all, or took me out to dinner, which is a pretty modest housing fee. That's something to bear in mind with low-residencies that there's another little financial component to them.

    Janet: There's definitely a cost involved. I have heard people make arguments like, "Why would you get into debt if you're going to live an artistic life because you're not going to make a lot of money?" That is valid I guess. Most people I know even very accomplished writers are teaching at least or doing something else to make some money. I think it's very hard to make a living just writing unless you're Stephen King or something or Toni Morrison. Everyone has their own level of comfort with that and money but it's a tough one, because you may get into that doing this, but the value of what it could bring you could very well be worth it. I always think money is money. You can always make money but to really find something of value, that might be with you your whole life. That's how I tend to think of it but it does cost.

    Danielle: There are a few MFA programs that cover student full tuition. They're extremely competitive.

    Janet: Residency, right?

    Danielle: Residency, yes.

    Janet: Yes, there is that option. Do they require teaching?

    Danielle: Some of them do.

    Janet: Yes, you're right.

    Participant 7: My question was, you talked about things that you didn't know about college life that factor in even more so at the graduate student level that's beyond academics, and I was wondering what kinds of things?

    Heather: Well, on academics/other level, I didn't realize how important things like office hours with your professors are. I never went to office hours because, in my head, that was a thing you did if you were like, "I don't understand the material." It wasn't a thing you did just because it's valuable to have that connection with your professor and for them to know you as a person. I just didn't have that model in my brain in any way, shape or form and nobody ever told me. I didn't do it.

    I was even older than Danielle, I was 34 when I started my MFA and I still feel like I didn't take advantage of my mentors to the extent that I could have because I never quite- I took more advantage of them, certainly, but I just never learned that language for how to approach people in those ways. It always felt like I'm taking up their time or like they have better things to do and I'm a good student. I think people who go to graduate school are often people who just like the school in some capacity.

    In some way, maybe you're good at a niche thing or you feel like you're good at most of it, but you're a good student. I never learned that kind of a thing. I didn't network with other undergrads very much. Partly that was about, I was working full-time even as an undergrad and so actually the bulk of my friends from undergrad are people that I worked with, not very many people in my classes or the dorms I lived in. My friends came from my work life, even if they were in the same university as I was, they were still my friends from work, we didn't overlap really in our study lives.

    It really was when I went into an MFA program that I, even though I was not on campus with my fellow students for more than a couple of weeks out of the year, we were constantly in touch. I went in as a poetry concentrator. I know the poets who were in my group very well. I knew all the poets who were in different semesters. They call them cohorts, Lesley cohorts very well. I also knew a lot, there was a lot of what Danielle was talking about cross-genre interplay. I don't know how much of that happens in a residency-based program, because I do think you spend more time in the incubator of your genre when you're on campus with those people all the time, but certainly my experience of a low-residency was a lot of cross-genre pollination which I really wanted and was a valuable thing to me, and that I would not have thought to seek out on my own. I hope that answers your question.

    Participant 8: Hi. That's actually part of what my question is about. You talked about the concentrations that exist in your MFA program. Poetry, fiction, screenwriting. What advice would you give to writers who want to work cross genre, cross-medium and is there space in these programs to do that?

    Danielle: It's a great question. I'm going to ask Janet to speak a little bit. I think it's doing the work in the critical component of the program allows you to do the cross-genre, yes to do that cross-genre work, and I think many MFAs allow you to take critical courses. Some of them have you remain within literature. Our program has this very wide interdisciplinary studies component, and I think maybe one or two others have that, so I'm going to punt it to Janet.

    Janet: As Danielle said, our program at Lesley does have a space built in, so you are actually completing credits for three of your four semesters in something that is not your major, your main concentration. We have a wide variety of opportunities to do cross-genre work and that's exactly what a lot of people do in their interdisciplinary work. You can also do other things like study pedagogy, you can do publishing courses, do internships. There's a wide variety, but we do have a lot of students doing cross-genre and it's a great opportunity to do when you're studying.

    Some students will take cross-genre throughout their studies and have a minor almost and just complete a whole second work in another genre, and that is available if you want to do that.

    Danielle: One final comment too, is to find faculty members who have a great understanding of the flexibility of the genre that they're working in. I think of a book like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is a genre-bending text, although many would categorize it poetry. Not that Claudia was working on that text while she was an MFA student, but I imagine if she had been, she would have been in poetry, but with the support of faculty who got what she was doing to allow her to do that prose poetry visual work that she was doing. Finding the faculty in programs who can support the kind of work that you want to do.

    Participant 8: Thank you.

    Janet: Thanks.

    Participant 9: Hi. My question relates to networking opportunities that you guys maybe had in a grad program or an MFA program that you might not have had. in-- I've done undergrad creative writing but I didn't really feel like I got a lot of networking opportunities out of that. I was wondering if you could maybe speak to specific experiences and then for Danielle specifically, I was wondering as a fellow non-white writer if you felt like you've got ever pigeonholed into very white spaces in those kinds of instances. I see you.


    Danielle: I had to fight my way out of them.

    Participant 9: That was just like a follow-up, but generally I'm wondering specific opportunities, but I'm just curious if you could speak to that also specifically.


    Heather: Who was the first question?

    Janet: Should we start with the small question? [crosstalk] No, it's a good question.

    Heather: I guess I would say, when you're in a grad program, the stakes for everybody are a lot higher. Undergrad is very easy to say, even if it's your major, it's not the real thing you're doing. I think that networking is just very different in grad school because everybody is pretty serious about what they're doing. What that seriousness looks like is different for everybody, so I don't want to paint it as if there's like one way to be a serious writer in any way, shape, or form. Everybody who's there is taking it really, really seriously. In that sense, the networking is different. I think grad programs are aware that students need those opportunities and try to actively create them.

    Almost any traditional residency or MFA program has things like reading series and often there's internships or students are working on literary journals or something like that where they're interfacing with a lot of different authors. This was unrelated to my MFA, was related to other coursework I did separately, but I interned at Agni for a while, and that put me in touch with a lot of people, and then professors. Even professors that I never studied with.

    One of the fiction professors at Lesley two years ago said, "Hey, a friend of mine is starting an online journal and needs poetry readers, do you have some free time? Would you be interested?" Just because we had sat in the dining hall and had a meal together a couple of times, and he was like, "I think you're all right." Those kinds of opportunities come up and professors know that their students are serious and they know how seriously you take your work and they're looking for ways to involve you.

    Janet: Cool. We bring agents and editors to campus. Some programs have different views about that and don't want you to think about publishing, but we used to have these big publishing panels at our residencies and they were tough because it was just this far away panel and they'd all be saying how hard it was to get published and everyone would just leave depressed. We started and we changed it up so that now you get to sit in a room with an agent or editor and read some work aloud and get some instant feedback. Just to personalize it and to start a conversation about craft and your writing. Often it comes, like Heather said, through peer opportunities later offering stuff.

    Danielle: When I was going through my MFA, I did have the feeling of #MFA is so white.


    Danielle: That label sort of emerge much later or more recently but what I did do was network with faculty members. While I was in the MFA program, I was also working with faculty members in Comparative Literature and Africana Studies. People like and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o who wrote, Decolonizing the Mind and Kamau Brathwaite and Paula Marshall, who was in the creative writing program. Well, sometimes I didn't find always understanding among my peers. I could find connections to my teachers and so that was a way of networking.

    After I emerged from my MFA program, there have been more people of color going through MFA programs. I think that has cracked things open a bit. There's more of an experience among writers of color- the MFA experience among writers of color. Networking with those folks who are either in MFA programs, in your program or in other programs that you can connect to and people who have gone through the experience to connect to.

    Participant 9: Cool. Thank you.

    Danielle: Sure.

    Participant 10: I also, sorry, have two questions. One is a little bit of a follow-up. I was wondering if you could speak to the critique that some MFA programs have a tendency to produce homogenous writing and then after that is a little different speaking about going through an MFA later in life rather than right after Undergrad. How you think that experience differs as a writer and for your growth?

    Danielle: Critique of MFAs making homogenous writing.

    Heather: I've had a lot of fields.

    Danielle: Okay. Alright.


    Janet: You've had a lot of what?

    Heather: I have a lot of fields.

    Danielle: All right. Go for it.

    Heather: I'm going to say something that I think is a controversial statement to make as somebody who's deeply in this ecosystem. Because I'm not only a writer, I work in publishing. Although I don't work in fiction or poetry publishing and I'm in a literary journal world. I'm in a lot of different writing hats. Maybe it was true 20 years ago when MFA programs were really blowing up a little bit in like the '80s, the '90s, from what they had been which was a handful of programs and very small ones that they were producing a lot of samey, same writing. I think that speaks more to at that moment historically, who the populations as both students and teachers of those programs were. Which is very samey-samey. I think we all know who the samey-samey is. [laughs] As Danielle just said, that's changed really dramatically and it's constantly changing.

    There are demographics that are tied to that. Here's a component that's tied to both parts of your question. Low-residency MFAs, I think are awesome because there's a lot of people in them who are not coming-- There are people who are coming right out of undergrad but there's also a lot of people who are not. I was at Lesley with people who were 22 and people who were in their late ’70s at the same time and all across the spectrum in between.

    That said, the people who were on the older end of that spectrum for very clear material reasons in the US are basically white people. The people who are of younger age groups, not so much. It's a much, much broader group of people in that sense so I don't think MFAs are really churning out homogenous writing and I think a lot of that is because MFAs are not homogenous in the ways they used to be. They're simply not. There are more women. There are more black, brown, indigenous. Lesley has a lot of international students. People fly from all over the world actually to come into Lesley.

    Someone in my cohort was coming from Mali, so it was not homogenous in those senses. What I do think is still very homogenous is publishing. When we talk about the products of MFA programs, we're often not talking about the things that people are writing who have just received an MFA. We're talking about books that have been published by people who are known to have obtained an MFA somewhere and the people choosing those books actually are often the same people who were choosing books in the '90s.

    Those jobs have not turned over that much and there's not that many of them. The people who are as selling and marketing those books are a very homogenous group of people by and large so that's not an answer you're going to hear a lot of people give to that question but I think it's a big factor.

    Danielle: Well, I think yes. This is very interesting and there's a lot of ways to look at the question. Like the same kind of writing, like churning out the same kind of story or the same kind of writing. Even craft wise, so speaking of it even craft wise, workshop is the model, is the MFA model of pedagogy. It's not the only model there is but it's the one that's dominant here in this culture.

    It's a group of people getting together and that can be really great when you come up with ideas that are like better than one person could come up with and you figure out somebody's story but it's a lot of voices in your work and it really does force you to be more clear about your work and what you want to say and what is your vision. Very funny, I have a friend who is a graduate of MFA [chuckles] and she got into the program and her submission manuscript was about a dog.

    I think it was King Arthur's dog or something and the director was like, "We want to accept you into the track, you can't write about dogs." [laughs] She's just like, "Okay." Then went to workshop first semester, submitted a story about dogs. It wasn't the novel about King Arthur's dog but it was a story and it had dogs in it. Now she's a dog handler and she'd been doing it for like 20 years.

    Like often the writer can't speak in a workshop, which you can feel different ways about that [chuckles] but everybody went around and it was all like, "Oh my God, like you don't know dogs." [laughs] Everyone was getting down on her about this dog thing and she was just like, "Oh my God." She was just very confused because it was her material. Everyone's like, "Don't do dogs." [laughs] Now she's like making money writing about dogs.


    Danielle: It's actually becoming her thing and so I felt a little bit sad that she had been guided in some ways not to be like, "How can we help you do what you want to do? Okay. Maybe if going to do dogs you can't be sentimental or you can't necessarily go to King Arthur." I don't know but they didn't really work with her as well as they might have I think and she came around to it because she was solid and you're just going to write what you got to write about so you stay with that. It was funny though. Additional questions? Thank you.

    Participant 11: Actually, it's a weird follow-up because I have a real, was it like, were you getting that from that article that came out a year ago or two that was about the Iowa city workshop and stuff like that and how that flattened literature. It was this long article about-- Actually, it was all these things that just made me connect to my mind. Is there currently a culture of like negativity? There's a lot of this culture of negativity thing that's in a lot of fields. Like I work in nonprofits and there's this like bring down idea of culture and community culture of you have to critique everything, you have to find the negatives and take out everything out of there and stuff like that. You have to break down silos.

    Is there that culture currently in MFA programs because it's like you have different things like pigeonholing and things like that? We want you to write this way or this way or we're looking for this and this like currently in publishing. Is there in MFA right now, there's this like we're looking for this and you have to be like this and this and this or not can accept you, or is there now more of stratification or acceptance of different ideas then more so than in the past?

    Janet: Great question, yes.


    Heather: It's a deep question. We know it's good when you just are having a pause.

    Speaker 3: It's funny. There’s a Mr. Rogers quote, the guy that wrote the book that I was reading, he was saying that about our culture right now that we're so in conflict with each other. That's what's going on right now. I think then after that we all went coocoo a little bit, we are trying to get on campuses, what happens is that science is trying to stop people who [inaudible 00:51:20] these people and then everyone is picking on everyone, it seems like the people in who are already want to be in power. It seems that's the problem...

    Danielle: It hasn't been my experience that there's a general culture of negativity associated with MFA programs. I think the work we do is work that that takes place, is work of critique. There's that to consider. I also think that we're experiencing a really exciting moment in contemporary American literature. We're hearing voices we would have never heard 30 years ago, 50 years ago, maybe even 25 years ago. There's such a richness and a great diversity in contemporary lit that I'm buoyed by that. I don't feel that it is negative. I don't feel a culture of negativity associated with literature today.

    Janet: Reading workshop I tend to really try to facilitate and guide students towards a yes and. I think it's Pixar. They talked about how they critique. Critique can be a bunch of negative stuff, and that's really tough. You don't really listen when it's just all a bunch of negative stuff. It's about building up the work and looking at the value of the work and what is it trying to be, and then having this more positive. I'm seeing that this isn't working, but this is and this is. I try to have this building on constructive critique. It doesn't become just a wrote, let's just analyze it to death and break it down and criticize everything.

    Sometimes students will tend to just go there because it's an easy place. The person before them said this in the workshop and they just thing repeat it and it's a negative that goes around the circle, and I'll stop that. It's like we've got to just build this too. We can't just say a bunch of negative stuff if that makes sense. I think that's rude.

    Heather: Yes. I would agree and say at least within MFA I don't think there's a culture of negativity or negative critique. I think there is a strong culture of critique and that it's actually benefiting the MFA landscape overall, although your mileage may vary in any individual programs. Programs should be really well researched for those reasons. I do think there is resentment in larger parts of the culture about some of the ways that voices are being heard, that have not been heard previously. I think poetry is really ahead of other genres in this. I think the way you know this is because you can time your watch by like how long it's going to take for the next person to write to the Washington post about how poetry is dead.


    Heather: Really what they mean is very specific poetry is dead. They mean, they're not opening up a poetry book and finding the next Auden. It's like I really like Auden and Auden is great, but we don't need to keep perpetuating 7,000 Audens. What I want is Claudia Cortez and Eve Yeung, and Dennis Smith, who's somewhere around here doing something awesome today.

    Also, I want those people. I already have Auden. I don't just want more Auden, but there are people out there who really only want to read Auden for the rest of their life and are actually mad that there are people out there who are not just making more Auden.

    Danielle: On this note, we're going to try to end on a note of positivity.

    Janet: Yes.


    Danielle: Thank you for having attended this session. I want to wish you all the best in your MFA seeking journey, in your writing lives. Feel free to contact the Lesley MFA program if you're interested in thinking about talking to us about low-residency program and of course, there are some wonderful MFA programs here in the Boston area and beyond. All the best you and thanks for coming out.

    Heather: Thank you audience.

    Danielle: Thanks, guys.

    Heather: Awesome questions.


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