• What Is a Workshop, Anyway?

• The Low-Residency Experience
• Creative Writing Ph.D.s
• Do Poets Need M.F.A.s?
• PW Talks to Author Matthew Thomas
• M.F.A. Program Spotlight
Special Report 2014
M.F.A.s and Ph.D.s
For Writers Are Everywhere
M. F. A. U P DAT E
P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 24
Photo: A workshop class at Fairleigh Dickinson’s low-residency M.F.A.
espite the ubiquity of the work-
shop model, critics of M.F.A.
programs have long argued that
being read and critiqued by
other beginning writers may
not be the best way for aspiring
authors to hone their craft.
Writers who have been through
workshops, however, tend to
disagree—and their increasingly noteworthy publishing track
records indicate that the workshop can, and often does, lead to
published books and powerful, inventive writing.
The typical graduate-level writing workshop has three ele-
ments. There’s the workshop instructor, a published author who
directs the discussion and keeps the trains running on time; the
writer whose work is being critiqued; and the rest of the class—
all writers who, when they themselves are not being critiqued,
function as a crack team of critics. Depending on course size, an
M.F.A. student might workshop 15–25 pages of prose two or
three times a semester; while poets in smaller group sometimes
workshop as much as a poem (or even two) a week.
Workshop prep for both students and faculty consists largely
of reading and critiquing. Proponents of the workshop argue
that this teaches writers as much about craft as writing does.
What goes on in a creative
writing workshop anyway?
The M.F.A. Workshop:
From Red Ink to
Published Book BY JULIE BUNTIN
The workshop is the core of the creative
writing M.F.A. Most graduate programs
in creative writing require that students
enroll in at least one workshop per
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M. F. A. U P DAT E
Authors, Poets,
Hofstra’s MFA in Creative Writing program offers
a challenging and exciting program of study
integrating literary scholarship and focused
instruction in writing. Students may concentrate in
playwriting, fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction,
exploring the art and craft of writing while
grounding themselves in the rich literary traditions
that offer exemplary models of these forms.
One new feature of the MFA is the availability of
teaching fellowships, allowing students to work
with a faculty mentor while teaching general
creative writing or a genre-specific undergraduate
Erik Brogger
Julia Markus
Phillis Levin
Martha McPhee
Core Faculty
Patricia Horvath
Creative Nonfiction
v For more information, visit
Hofstra is launching the 11th season of the
Great Writers, Great Readings Series. Fall 2014
visiting authors include Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey
K. Eugenides (November 10) and Belinda McKeon
(December 3). Visit hofstra.edu/gwgr for more
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David Grand (standing) and Jeff Allen, faculty at FDU, with a student
shops she attended at NYU with helping
her to realize that the first draft of the
novel needed to be completely reimag-
ined. “Unfortunately and fortunately, my
first M.F.A. workshop revealed to me
that my novel made no sense. It had no
structure, no plot, no order. In the sum-
mer between my two M.F.A. years, I
restarted the book from scratch. My
workshop readers helped me preserve the
book’s essence and redesign the book’s
Brittany Cavallaro attended the Uni-
versity of Wisconsin for her M.F.A. in
poetry; it’s an intimate program that
accepts only a handful of students in each
genre and opens for applications in
poetry only every other year (during off-
years, it accepts applications in fiction).
Cavallaro’s poetry cohort at UW-Madi-
son consisted of six other writers. “We
had all of our workshops together,” she
says. “In short, they saw every single
thing I wrote for two years. My cohort
didn’t just see my poems as individual
pieces (though that was a consideration);
they were also always able to speak to
how my project––and later, my manu-
script––was evolving. If it seemed like I
“Contrary to popular belief, if you are
really interested in being a writer, then
you must be a stellar reader, and this is
truly what the M.F.A. is for—to make
you a better reader,” says Scott Cheshire,
who graduated from Hunter College’s
M.F.A. program in fiction and whose
debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles,
was published by Henry Holt in July.
“Cynics will scoff at this and they are
welcome to—‘M.F.A.s are banality
machines, etc., blah blah....’ ”
While a writer’s work is under cri-
tique, he or she is usually barred from
speaking, a practice that mimics the real-
world relationship between writer and
reader—if, e.g., a reader is bored by the
opening paragraph of a book on the new-
release table at Barnes & Noble, there is,
after all, no writer present to explain the
thought process behind that long-
winded description of the weather.
Workshops attempt to address such
problems when stories, poems, novels,
and memoirs are in their infancy.
Rebecca Dinerstein, whose debut
novel The Sunlit Night sold to Blooms-
bury for a rumored six figures (it will be
published in June 2015), credits work-
M.F.A. in
• Low-residency program with online workshops
• Week-long residency spent abroad in
Edinburgh, Scotland
• Manuscript-length thesis and publication plan
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P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 28
also began in workshop, while she was
enrolled in the fiction track at Kansas
University’s M.F.A. program. “When my
book was being workshopped, it wasn’t
even conceptualized as a book yet, just a
bunch of short ‘stories,’ as I was calling
them at the time because I was too
chicken to face the fact that they were
memoir,” she says. Once Krug owned up
to the fact that her stories were really
nonfiction, she learned that the process
of workshopping nonfiction comes with
unique challenges. “It can be hard for
your classmates to comment on the ‘nar-
rator’ if they know the narrator is you,”
says Krug. “It can also be tough to hear
criticism of your actual life rather than
just a fictional story.”
Krug’s next book, an essay collection,
will be published by 99: The Press in
2015. She credits the workshop process,
in part, for her publishing success. “My
workshops gave me a lot of moral sup-
port, helping me believe that my writing
did affect readers, and that it was worth
it to keep at it, keep querying editors,
keep revising... all of it,” she says. “If I
didn’t have that belief instilled from my
workshop teachers and classmates, I
don’t know that I would have pursued
making a book.”
M.F.A. workshops help writers man-
age the delicate balancing act between
the process of writing—which is incred-
ibly isolated and individual—and the
necessity of writing something people
want to read. “I think of workshopping
as a way to read your own work through
the eyes of others—a scene that you
write gets refracted by those around
you, and suddenly you have several dif-
ferent readings of it, each with a differ-
ent momentum for how it might be
retooled or reshaped,” says Kleeman.
“Even misreadings are valuable because
they help you find something in your
material that you wouldn’t come up
with intentionally––they help you
think beyond yourself.”
Cheshire dismisses the view held by
many critics that M.F.A. programs are
“banality machines” that generate uni-
form and predictable writing. But it’s
hard to take these critics seriously when
authors with M.F.A.s are responsible for
works as disparate as, say, Paul Hard-
ing’s Tinkers and Junot Diaz’s The Brief
Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Harding is
an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate;
Diaz attended Cornell; both titles won
Julie Buntin is a freelance writer living in New
York City.
Rene Steinke’s fiction workshop at the FDU residency


was just rewriting an earlier poem, they’d
tell me. If a poem felt like it could be in
that collection, they’d tell me that, too.”
Cavallaro’s first full-length poetry col-
lection, Girl-King, will be released by
University of Akron press in February
2015. When she began the program, she
was coming off a nine-month writing dry
spell. Her first workshop kickstarted her
writing, and she produced nearly 40
poems that initial semester. “Not all of
those poems made their way into the
manuscript, but they formed its spine,”
she recalls. “Nearly every poem in the
manuscript was workshopped, and the
ones that weren’t were looked at by my
friend Jacques J. Rancourt, who had been
in all my workshops and who is my first
and best reader.”
The opportunity to find a best reader
in a grad-level writing workshop is one
of the great benefits of M.F.A. pro-
grams—writers often talk about rela-
tionships made in workshop that have
transcended the classroom and become
part of their processes. “The best thing I
took from workshop was getting to know
other writers whose minds worked
entirely differently from mine and whose
minds I coveted,” says Alexandra Klee-
man, who attended Columbia’s M.F.A.
program from 2010 to 2012.
Kleeman started an extracurricular
writing group with people she met in
workshop, including Sara Novic, whose
debut novel is forthcoming from Ran-
dom House. “I wrote the first half of my
book in workshop, almost like a serial-
ized novel—my classmates would often
be reading new chapters as fast as I could
write them. I didn’t revise substantially
during my time at Columbia because I
was still moving forward with the plot—
instead, I treated the workshop as a place
to get feedback on what was working and
not working,” says Kleeman. The manu-
script eventually became the draft of her
first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like
Mine, which will be published by Harper
in Summer 2015 and was sold as part of
a two-book deal that includes a collec-
tion of short stories.
Louise Krug’s memoir Louise: Amended
M. F. A. U P DAT E
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P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 30
M. F. A. U P DAT E
The teaching market is becoming increasingly competitive, and many
M.F.A. graduates are still stuck in the kinds of jobs they’d gone to grad
school to escape.
creative dissertation with an academic component. You also
have to take four semesters of coursework.”
The University of Kansas awarded Krug a teaching assistance-
ship while she worked on her Ph.D., which required her to teach
two classes in exchange for free tuition and a small stipend. Most
creative writing Ph.D. programs offer funding packages that
include teaching fellowships that help students bankroll their
years of study. Krug hopes that her Ph.D. will help her land a
university-level teaching job; she’s been on the job market since
last spring, working as an adjunct at Kansas in the meantime.
A recent search of the Association of Writers & Writing Pro-
grams’s online database of creative writing programs yielded
only 28 Ph.D. programs in creative writing across the U.S.; if
the lens is widened to include programs in the U.K. and Canada,
another seven more can be tacked on. While that may seem like
small potatoes next to the 100+ low-residency M.F.A. programs
currently attracting students, and even smaller potatoes next to
the hundreds (literally, hundreds) of full-time programs churn-
ing out writers at a university near you, there’s no denying that
the Ph.D. program is slowly and steadily insinuating itself into
the academic creative writing marketplace. As recently as 20
years ago, creative writing Ph.D. programs were rare, only
offered at a handful of forward-thinking schools like the univer-
sities of Houston and Ohio. Now there are enough to warrant
their own Poets & Writers ranking—among the top 15 are the
Ph.D. programs at Utah, USC, and Florida State.
Williams sees the creative writing Ph.D. as here to stay.
“Probably, in about 15 or 20 years, all of these M.F.A. programs
will be Ph.D. programs. It’s degree inflation, maybe, but it’s not
going anywhere.”
Doctor of Creativity
The M.F.A. in creative writing is considered a terminal degree, and therefore qualifies gradu-
ates to teach at the college level. But Ph.D. programs in creative writing have become an
increasingly attractive follow-up to the M.F.A. for writers looking to improve their chances of
landing competitive tenure-track teaching positions—or for those who want to buy more time
to work on their projects without the pressures of a day job.
s his M.F.A. at University of Ari-
zona came to a close, poet Jerry
Williams was looking for more
time. “I wanted a couple more
years to focus on my writing and
not have to go back into the reg-
ular work force.” Like the major-
ity of students who go through an
M.F.A. program, Williams wasn’t
graduating with a published manuscript. He knew that the
teaching market was becoming increasingly competitive and
many M.F.A. graduates were still stuck in the kinds of jobs he’d
gone to grad school to escape. “I didn’t want to tend bar,” he
says. “Or worse.” He was awarded a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State
in 2006.
While Williams was enrolled in Oklahoma State’s program,
he published his first book, Casino in the Sun (Carnegie Mellon
Univ.), which, along with the Ph.D., helped him land a visiting
professorship at Roger Williams University. Now Williams is
a tenured professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He says
that when he makes hiring decisions, he tries not to weigh a
Ph.D. over other kinds of experience, but does admit that the
lit-heavy course load is good preparation for teaching. “It’s more
academic,” says Williams. “The Ph.D. program is more like a
lit degree with a creative dissertation. You’re reading 4,000
pages a week.”
Louise Krug just finished her Ph.D. in creative writing at the
University of Kansas, a process she found more academically
rigorous than her M.F.A. “To get my Ph.D. I had to take—and
pass—comprehensive exams in three literary fields and write a
M. F. A. U P DAT E
Award-Winning Core Faculty
• Suzanne Cleary
• Denise Duhamel
• Albert Goldbarth
• Rick Mulkey (Director of the MFA Program)
• Marlin Barton
• Cary Holladay
AppliCAtion DeADlineS:
February 15 & october 1
the place
for Your
next Book
is Here
• Robert olmstead
• leslie pietrzyk
• Jim Minick
• Susan tekulve
• Richard tillinghast
• Dan Wakefeld
Recent Visiting Writers, editors and Agents: C. Michael Curtis of The
Atlantic, Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency, Jillian Weise, Melissa Sarver of
Folio Literary Management, Dorianne Laux, Ed Falco, Chuck Adams of
Algonquin Books, Keith Morris, and Jeff Shotts of Graywolf Press.
P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 32
Have you seen any changes in the kinds of
students applying and enrolling over the
last few years?
In the past few years we have seen a marked uptick in
the number of very talented and promising students of
color, and students from diverse backgrounds, applying
and matriculating. We look forward to building on that.
What do you tell your students about embarking
upon a “career”—as artists or as anything else—
after receiving their degrees?
The biggest single thing I tell all my students is, try to separate
out what you’ve been told you should care about, as opposed to what
you actually need in order to live a satisfying, fulfilling life as a
writer. For instance, there are some writers who are very ambitious,
and who want to publish a lot and be known and read all over the
country. Those writers won’t be happy unless they try to have that.
We try to help them get there. Other writers are quieter, both in
their work and in their personalities. So maybe they want a differ-
ent kind of publishing life, a life where their work is read, but it’s
more private, or more focused. That’s a fine way to live, too. Some
people want to teach; others have other interests or careers already.
I think it’s my job as a professor in our M.F.A. program to help
students sort all this out.
When people ask you, “Why should I get an
M.F.A.?” what do you say?
If you are at the right time in your writing life—truly ready to
listen and grow and change—and if you pick the right program, it
can be intensely accelerating. As my colleague, the poet Brenda
Hillman, says, an M.F.A. is incredibly efficient: you should be able
to get all the main tools you need as a writer in a two-year period,
at least if we are doing our jobs!
A longer version of this interview appears at
M.F.A. Spotlight: St Mary’s
Poet Matthew Zapruder—author, most recently, of Sun Bear (Copper Canyon,
2014)—is on the core faculty of St. Mary’s creative writing program, based in Mor-
aga, Calif. He talked with PW about what makes the program stand out.
What makes St. Mary’s different from
other programs?
St. Mary’s is small, with deliberate aesthetic diver-
sity: we look for as wide a variety as possible in the
backgrounds of our students, as well as in their writ-
ing. Our cohorts in each of the three genres (poetry,
fiction, nonfiction) number just eight students in every class. But
the program also has some of the desirable qualities of a larger
program. Each year, in each genre, a visiting writer teaches work-
shop. Also each year, in each genre, we have well-known, published
writers who are also experienced teachers as visiting craft instruc-
tors, as well as editors who come in for a few days and meet with
the students.
Does St. Mary’s have any kind of aesthetic focus
or area of specialty?
The faculty, and our visitors, and of course our students, reflect our
aspiration to aesthetic diversity. We have people with lots of vary-
ing interests studying here: both self-defined “experimental” writ-
ers and more traditional writers. In fiction we have people writing
so-called “literary” stories and novels, as well as YA and fantasy,
though in my opinion those things are just as literary too!
Also, St. Mary’s as an institution, and our M.F.A. faculty, have
made a serious commitment to social justice, diversity, political
change, and particularly ecological consciousness in writing, or
ecopoetics. It matters that we are out here in the Bay Area, on the
West Coast. It feels different to be a writer out here, so far from the
traditional East Coast cultural centers, and so close to the Pacific
Ocean, with its history of liberation from traditional values and
roles and innovation and experiment of all kinds.
More recently, the political and cultural activities in Oakland,
which is where so many young artists and writers and musicians are
going, as well as the presence of McSweeney’s and Narrative and
Zyzzyva and The Rumpus, and so many other exciting new publish-
ing ventures, continue to make the Bay Area a center for literary
M. F. A. U P DAT E
P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 34
M.F.A. Spotlight:
University of
Colorado Boulder
Noah Eli Gordon, a poet and author, most recently of The
Year of the Rooster (Ahsata, 2013), is on the faculty of the
University of Colorado Boulder creative writing program.
He talks with PW about what makes his program special.
What makes the M.F.A. at University of Colorado Boulder’s different
from other programs?
As a three-year program, one where students have the opportunity to teach creative writing
courses without the burden of first having to slog through time-consuming rhet./comp.
classes, we’re something of an anomaly: folks here dive—or are lovingly pushed—right in,
yet they’re also supported with enough time to learn to stay afloat. Our program is small
and focused, driven by the energy of our active and accomplished faculty and the camara-
derie among our students and the burgeoning local literary scene, a loose conglomeration
of innovatively bent writers working across genres and in different communities here in
There is just so much abuzz at CU-Boulder, especially in the field of small press
publishing. I teach an annual publishing workshop course in which our M.F.A. students
run Subito Press, learning the ins and outs of how a press works. At the same time, as
a kind of career seminar, we meet with various folks who’ve landed jobs in the literary
arts just outside of academia: a letter-press printer, an agent, a book designer, a publicist.
As editors and publishers, our faculty is closely tied to numerous important interna-
tional presses, including FC2, Counterpath Press, Subtio Press, Letter Machine Editions,
and more.
M. F. A. U P DAT E
Western offers a 25-month low-
residency MFA and 13-month low-
residency MA with July intensives
in the heart of the Rocky Mountains,
including annual attendance at our
conference, Writing the Rockies.
Concentrations include Genre
Fiction, Screenwriting, and Poetry
with an Emphasis on Versecraft. We
also offer a Certifcate in Publishing.
We are the new home of THINK,
a national journal of poetry and
criticism. All programs focus on
craft and include both manuscript
review and rigorous study of genre.
Fiction Faculty: Russell Davis,
Michaela Roessner, Diana Pharaoh
Francis, Candace Nadon, Stacia
Recent Visitors: John Helfers,
Robert McBrearty, Diana Tixier
Screenwriting Faculty: JS
Mayank, Bob Shayne.
Recent Visitors: Sam Robards,
Joel Thompson.
Poetry Faculty: David J. Roth-
man, David Yezzi, Ernest Hilbert.
Recent Visitors: Kim Bridgford,
Dana Gioia, Simon Jarvis, Dave
Mason, Marilyn Taylor, Fred
800-876-5309, Ext. 7
David J. Rothman, Director
WWW. P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY. C O M 35
Does CU-Boulder’s program have any kind of aes-
thetic focus or area of specialty?
Our program does pride itself on a tradition of innovation and
experimentation; however, for us, those terms include a historic
underpinning: we recognize that much of what we now consider
canonical became so precisely because of its [authors’] willingness
to explore and explode the boundaries of what one might do with
writing. Along with workshops, our faculty members teach seminar
courses on an ever-changing and wide range of literary topics. I
recently taught a course on the art of the poetry book review, while
my colleague Marcia Douglas taught one that examined the politics
of language and the ways in which voice and linguistic concerns
inform narrative and community across the black vernacular tradi-
tion in the U.S., as well as local dialects in the Caribbean, Africa,
Asia, and Ireland.
What do you tell your students about embarking
upon a “career”—either as an artist or anything
else—following their degree?
I’m a little more interested in helping to cultivate, facilitate, assist,
and otherwise germinate the desire of those folks who have a calling
to become artists, rather than anyone setting out on a career path.
Is there a difference? Yes, the calling is about sustaining a life in
art—ongoing, endless, deeply fulfilling. But we do all need to sup-
port ourselves, right? The guest speakers I bring into my publish-
ing workshop course offer a few examples of various occupations
and career paths for those wanting to keep a foot in the literary field.
Sure, I wish I could help land our graduates wonderful jobs teach-
ing in M.F.A. programs themselves, but the reality of the market
makes that an uphill trek; however, as long as I can make folks
aware of that fact, I’m happy to offer guidance.
When people ask you, “Why should I get an
M.F.A.?” what do you say?
I tell them that it could be a rare convergence of sympathetic
energies, of developing camaraderie and friendships, a chance to
test the waters so to speak for one version of the kind of life they
might really want. There’s been a trend as of late for professors in
various writing programs to disavow their academic affiliations,
as though they’re somehow pure artists, free from the confines of
capital. If it’s cool to pretend you don’t get paid to talk about your
art, then I’m happy to be totally unhip, because I love my job at
M. F. A. U P DAT E
Bring Your Writing
to the World
MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University
Fiction Nonfiction Poetry
Writing for Stage and Screen
Writing for Young People
Ranked #4 in the Top 10 low-residency
MFA programs by Poets & Writers
Sara Farizan’s journey as a published author began with the
MFA in Creative Writing, which she credits for helping bring
her young adult novel to life.
Sara Farizan ’10
Author of If You Could Be Mine, winner of two Publishing Triangle
awards and the young adult Lambda Literary Award.
The New York Times Book Review
Farizan’s prose is frank, funny and bittersweet.

107GSASPA15.indd 1 8/18/14 5:11 PM
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P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 36
Why Writers Love Low-Residency
An M.F.A. No Matter Where You Are
For many people, traditional M.F.A. programs are impractical. Most graduate writing pro-
grams take two to three years to complete, and many award students teaching fellowships
and/or positions on university-run publications that make keeping a full-time job difficult,
if not downright impossible.
prooting everything to spend a minimum
of two years dedicated to the craft of writ-
ing might sound like a dream come true for
the typical aspiring writer, but for a grow-
ing number of M.F.A. students, practical
concerns outweigh the attractions of resi-
dency writing programs. These students have found a solution
in low-residency M.F.A. programs that are conducted largely via
Skype, email, and postal mail, in addition to annual or biannual
seven- to 14-day residencies where students meet face-to-face
with mentors, peers, and visiting writers.
Eric Paul, a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-
res M.F.A. program in the poetry track, was attracted to the
low-res model because of its flexibility. “As a working musician,
I’m required to tour regularly,” says Paul. “My travel schedule
can be quite rigorous—the low-res allowed me to work remotely
and have the ability to balance both schedules.” FDU’s program
hinges on two 10-day residences—one in held in England and
the other on FDU’s campus in New Jersey—and Paul is quick
to point out that faculty was very responsive between residen-
cies. Chris Timmins, another graduate of FDU’s low-res pro-
gram, says, “During the 10-day summer and winter residencies,
the faculty made themselves exceedingly available, whether or
not you enrolled in their workshops. Every single professor
offered me thoughtful advice, answered questions about craft
and the industry, and offered to share their contacts. They were
never shy about sharing a drink and talking off record.”
Pattie Flint, an editor at Medusa’s Laugh Press who attends
Cedar Crest’s Pan-European low-res M.F.A. program in poetry,
applied because she was seeking one-on-one feedback. “I already
had a solid writing community and respectable job in the pub-
lishing industry,” she says. “These were two of the biggest gains
to be had by a residency-based M.F.A., and it seemed superflu-
ous to give up the community and career that I already had. The
low-res format is more conducive to realistically simulating the
M. F. A. U P DAT E
Authors Zadie Smith (top) and Lydia Davis read at Shakespeare & Co. for
NYU’s low-residency M.F.A. students in Paris.
M. F. A. U P DAT E
modern writer’s lifestyle, while still providing me with an
incredible education.” Cedar Crest’s program is one of the few
that features residencies in alternating European locations; in
addition to creative work, students complete coursework in
cultural studies that enhances their experience at each location,
an aspect of the program that Flint says has given her work “new
flavor and vitality.”
Perhaps it because low-residency M.F.A.s aren’t bound to a
traditional campus that universities have been thinking globally
about where to host the hallmark residency portion of their
programs. Recently, NYU launched a low-residency program
that takes students to Paris twice a year, where they can meet
and study with Nathan Englander, Colson Whitehead, Chris
Adrian, Helen Schulman, and other notable writer-faculty
members in person after engaging in a rigorous course of study
conducted primarily through email. “Paris is an amazing city,”
says Richard Larsen, a current student in NYU’s low-res pro-
gram on the fiction track who is about to embark on his thesis
semester with advisor Darin Strauss. “The opportunity to dis-
connect from the real world for ten days in Paris, twice a year,
and spend that time with your colleagues, faculty, and visiting
authors talking about and living nothing but writing is almost
surreal. Or, perhaps better stated—it is sublime.”
For students and graduates of low-res M.F.A. programs, dis-
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tance isn’t an obstacle to building strong creative relationships.
In fact, in some cases, the lack of face time and on-campus struc-
ture—which doesn’t come close to real-life conditions for writ-
ers—can even help students establish strong and enduring writ-
ing habits. “Fairleigh Dickinson’s low-res M.F.A. allowed me to
balance my job with the program’s reading list, assignment
deadlines, and my own writing, which amounted to empirical
training for ‘the writer’s life.’ I wrote, and still write, weekday
mornings before my 9 to 5 and one day on the weekend,” says
Timmins. “Rather than sorting this schedule out after a full-
residency program, I’ve graduated with a productive structure
already in place.”
Writers who want to hone their craft and knuckle down on
their book projects without leaving home can choose from over
100 low-res programs nationwide. Warren Wilson College,
which holds its two 10-day annual residencies on its campus in
Swannanoa, N.C., is the oldest such program, and is widely
considered the model for most low-res M.F.A. programs. With
its roster of bestselling alumni (including David Wroblewski
and Robin Black), Warren Wilson holds the coveted number
one spot on the Poets & Writers low-res M.F.A. rankings. Other
standout programs include the well regarded and long-running
Vermont College of Fine Arts low-res M.F.A., as well as pro-
grams at Bennington and the University of Southern Maine.
P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 38
Author Matthew Thomas with
his three year-old twins.
Tell us about the moment you learned you’d
landed a million dollar deal for your first book?
It was extraordinary. I was teaching, and I was in between classes
when I got the call from my agent [Bill Clegg]. How much it sold
for didn’t really sink in at first, because I had to go back to work.
But as it sunk in, I was overwhelmed—and grateful—because it
changed my life. More than anything, though, I was happy that I
was going to get to publish this book. And I was still feeling espe-
cially happy just to have finished it.
You spent 10 years writing the book. During that
time did you think about how you would publish it?
No, I really didn’t think about the publishing process, because I
always felt I had so much work to do on the book. Reaching out to
an agent always seemed so premature. Besides, I wasn’t writing short
stories or anything else, so there wasn’t anything that might have
made an agent interested me in the first place. I suppose could’ve
given somebody the first half of the book and tried to generate inter-
Success Story
In his blockbuster debut, We Are Not Ourselves, Thomas tells the epic story of
Eileen Tumulty, a daughter of Irish immigrants in Queens, N.Y., as she chases
the American Dream. Early reviews have been strong; the book received
a starred review in PW, which dubbed the effort a “definitive portrait of
American social dynamics in the 20th century.”
Thomas’s personal story is rather epic as well. The 39-year-old
author honed his craft in two writing programs, and later
worked as a school teacher while he finished his first novel—
which he wrote by hand, toiling in obscurity for 10 years.
“I started writing this book by hand, and then I would type
it out,” he says. “But I found that I was editing so much as I
typed that I was taking one step forward and three steps back.
So I went back to handwriting. I would fill up a 70-page note-
book, and then I’d have the stress of carrying these things
around! But my desire was to get to the end of a draft. And
handwriting afforded me some locomotive energy, and tremen-
dous fluidity.”
Thomas’s hard work was rewarded last fall with a seven-figure
deal from Simon & Schuster—a sum virtually unheard of for
literary fiction, much less literary fiction debuts. Days before
his August 19 publication date, we caught up with Thomas and
talked with him about his craft, his M.F.A. experience, and his
journey from obscurity to the verge of literary fame.
M. F. A. U P DAT E
PW Talks with author Matthew Tomas
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P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 40
est, but that idea entered my mind only to the degree that sometimes
I felt like a man in the wilderness—nobody was reading this, not
even my wife. It helped that I had a full-time job as a teacher. Had
I been in a freelance situation, I might have been more desperate.
But, as shackling and time-consuming as a full-time teaching job
can be, the psychic safety-valve of a paycheck allowed me to work
on the book without having to answer to anyone. And that was
tremendously freeing, as counterintuitive as that sounds.
Tell us about your M.F.A. experience.
I did an M.A. first at Johns Hopkins, back when it was a one-year
program. Now, it is an M.F.A.. I studied under Alice McDermott,
Stephen Dixon, Jean McGarry, Judith Grossman, Tristan Davies,
and the great poet Greg Williamson, among others. It was just
astounding. From there I was able to spring into an M.F.A. program
at Irvine, and I began to write this novel for my final submission
there. I had been writing short stories, and some of those yielded a
little bit of fruit, pieces of which found their way into the book—re-
ally small portions and heavily edited, at that. But at Irvine I was
working through material that was sort of circling the drain of what
would become this book, which I was working up the courage to
What were the most valuable parts of the M.F.A.
experience for you?
It was the time to write. The stipend. And it was the community
of peers, which is often referred to as the biggest benefit of M.F.A.
programs. I think that is probably true. You learn as much from
your peers as your do from your instructors, because they are all
working writers, although at different levels of craft. But everybody
is involved, and in a serious way. And, you actually learn how to
read in an M.F.A. program, which is as important as learning how
to write. By that I mean learning how to articulate your response
to what you read in the language of writing rather than the lan-
guage of criticism. Most people come into the M.F.A. knowing the
language of undergraduate English lit. criticism, which doesn’t
allow for a nuanced understanding of what makes a sentence work,
or how sentences work in concert with other sentences. In a creative
writing program, you learn to think like a writer at work.
Do you think you would have written We Are Not
Ourselves without your M.F.A. training?
I don’t think I would have written it as well, or as fast. Now, it took
me 10 years to finish, so I suppose you can say there was nothing
was fast about this. But I learned more in the first half-hour of
listening to Alice McDermott than I ever would have figured out
on my own in terms of nuts and bolts, craft minutiae. And Geoffrey
Wolff would just toss off these bon mots about writing that were
gold, and I just soaked them up.
Did your programs address how to approach the
publishing side of things?
No, and there was something beautiful about that. The most we
got about that at Hopkins was when Stephen Dixon gave us a list
of literary magazines. It was a mimeographed list with his hand-
written notes in on it. Steve types everything, so imagine a type-
writer list with pen edits made over time, then copied, and then
given to us. And the conversation about the list was maybe half a
class. At Irvine, too, they were very careful not to talk about the
business, maybe because Hollywood is so nearby and there is a
potentially pernicious influence on the making of the art. They
were scrupulous about not talking about the business side of writ-
ing at Irvine, and I appreciated that. I don’t think you need to have
that conversation with your writing teacher.
Speaking of Hollywood, did you ever think of
writing in any other form than a novel?
No, no, never. First of all, I am in love with the form of the novel.
And if I had given up the form of the novel, I would have lost the
chief virtue the novel provides the artist, a virtue that no other form
offers, which is access to interiority. There is nothing like the inte-
riority with characters that you get in a novel. Yes, there is a lot of
competition for a reader’s time, but I think writers compete best
with other media by writing the best novels they can write, the best
short stories, or the best poems. These forms will always have their
What was it like working with Mary Sue Rucci,
your editor at S&S?
Mary Sue is a tremendous editor—she is a tremendous reader first
of all and is gifted at articulating her objections efficiently and, how
should I say this, humanely. She sees what’s wrong, and is also en-
thusiastic about sharing what she loves—and that is great to get
from an editor. There was a whole section that I wrote at her advice.
And she did some wonderful, careful pruning, and a great line edit.
You do hear a little about how editors at the major houses don’t
edit. But that was not my experience.
Now that the book is out in world how do you
feel? Any pressure from getting such a big
In terms of pressure, I felt much more while I was writing. I was in
my 30s, with no publishing history, a job that I loved but that I
didn’t want to do for 30 years. The pressure I felt was ever-present,
and enormous. There wasn’t really a day when I was free from it.
So, whatever pressure I might feel about the advance, it is nothing
compared to the terrifying feeling I felt while writing this—that I
might slip through the cracks.
What are you most looking forward to now?
Writing the next book, which I am working on now. And I am
excited to hear from readers. In the beginning I did sort of mourn
the loss of the world that I had created and could inhabit. But I
wrote for so long in vacuum that the very idea of having readers is
such a miracle to me. It will be fun to interact with readers and have
a conversation about the book. I’m excited.
M. F. A. U P DAT E
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Jason Ockert, Alan Michael Parker, Jeff Parker, Corinna Vallianatos, Jennifer Vanderbes
P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY ■ A U G U S T 2 5 , 2 0 1 4 42
Why Poets Get M.F.A.s
et’s take it as a given that
no one studies poetry for
the money and fame, or at
least not just for the (piti-
ful) money and (marginal)
fame. You can count the
number of poets in the United States
who make a living off of their book sales
on one hand. Bestselling business writer
Daniel Pink and others have argued that
the M.F.A. is the M.B.A. of the 21st cen-
tury. It’s true there are more and more
programs every year and, thus, more
newly minted M.F.A. graduates. And
anyone who’s read a profile of Steve Jobs
knows how vital aesthetics and creativity
have become in the new economy, how
they drive innovation. Whatever people
say about an M.F.A. in writing—and
they say a lot—such programs are cer-
tainly hotbeds of creativity.
Former Maine Poet Laureate Betsy
Sholl notes, “It’s a degree for people with
a passion for [this] art, who value writing
over huge salaries.” Getting an M.F.A. in
poetry seems to require that one shed
most practical considerations about the
future. Of her M.F.A. students at OSU
Cascades, Arielle Greenberg (My Kafka
Century) says, “Some of them want jobs,
but I do my best to quickly disabuse
them of that.” When asked why they do
M. F. A. U P DAT E
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Join a community that includes
36 graduates who published books
in 2013. Concentrations are offered
in fction, nonfction, poetry, and
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An Impractical Degree?
Poet Keetje Kuipers chose her program based on
funding opportunities.
WWW. P U B L I S H E R S WE E K LY. C O M 43
it, graduates of poetry M.F.A. programs
talk about a compulsion to make little
machines made of words. They want the
time, feedback, and inspiration that an
M.F.A. offers and a more intense engage-
ment with the craft.
Poets choose programs based on repu-
tation, faculty, location, and the opportu-
nities it affords (like teaching or intern-
ing at a literary magazine or press). Fund-
ing is also important: Keetje Kuipers
(Keys to the Jail) notes that she choose the
University of Oregon over a program that
promised connections because it was fully
funded. She didn’t want to pay the price
if she found that she didn’t want to write.
Once they begin a program, poetry
students often encounter some surprises.
They find that the poet mentoring them
is not who they supposed it would be.
They find community in unexpected
places, including (gasp!) with fiction and
nonfiction students. They find their
work changing in unanticipated ways—
and not only due to the influence of their
teachers. Columbia M.F.A. Lytton Smith
(The All-Purpose Magical Tent) says,
“Being shown new ways to construct a
poem weekly by my fellow poets made
the M. F. A. invaluable. I’ m sure I
wouldn’t have written my first book
without [the program], as much as my
saying that will annoy a certain segment
of the poetry world.”
Every poetry program has its workshop
horror stories whether real or apocry-
phal—a poem in the voice of a stray kit-
ten, a teacher who picks favorites, another
who belittles students—but most M.F.A.
poets give good reports about the care and
high standards with which teachers and
students read their work and the relation-
ships that can form as a result.
And what happens once the thesis is
handed in? Greenberg hopes her students
will have found community more than
connections. Sholl (Rough Cradle) says,
“There are connections, and then there is
the work of writing well.”
It is clear, though, that many gradu-
ates benefit from doors that are opened,
even just a bit, by colleagues or teachers
during or after their M.F.A. experience.
Kuipers says, “My professors and pro-
gram directors seemed to be waiting to
see who would put in the hard work
[after the M.F.A. was over]. I had to earn
their help, but I got it eventually.”
Regardless of what happens after grad-
uation, the community created in an
M.F.A. program can confer something
more lasting. Vermont College grad
Marita O’Neil, says, “The friendships
that I have because of the M.F.A. get me
through the difficult days.” ■
M. F. A. U P DAT E
people won't
realize that
writing is a
I shall try to
tell the truth,
but the result
will be fiction.
MFA in Creative Writing
MA in Publishing
Double Degree: MFA in Creative Writing
and MA in Publishing
Suburban Philadelphia
Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is the author of Death of a
Ventriloquist and a freelance writer and teacher
living in Maine.