Kevin Bailey, Consultant
Have you ever considered pursuing a graduate-level degree in creative writing? If so, you’ve perhaps heard of MFA programs (Master of Fine Arts in Writing). An MFA in Creative Writing is a terminal degree (i.e. the furthest one can go in the field). There are two main styles of MFA programs: high- and low-residency. Despite this, information sessions on MFA programs tend to focus mostly, if not entirely, on the more traditional, high-residency programs. I interviewed recent Spalding MFA graduate and writer Martin Jennings in order to get some insight into the less-frequently-discussed low-residency MFA experience and, thereby, open up new opportunities to creative writers seeking graduate study. As a side note, writers can also achieve a terminal degree in creative writing by completing a PhD. The following interview, however, is specifically about the MFA process with a special focus on low-residency schools. Bear in mind that not all low-residency MFA programs are the same.
First off, why don’t you let us know what the difference is between a low-residency MFA program, like the one you recently attended at Spalding, and a high-residency program?
Sure. There are some key differences. The main one is that while you’re in a low-residency program, you do not stay on campus for two years and live in that area, as you would in a high-residency. For low-residency, you do most of your work from home, while staying in touch with your professors and regularly turning in packets of new and revised work. During the residency period, you have your lectures and workshops the same as you would at a high-residency program, except it occurs over a ten-day span, so it’s very intensive.
Early on into your MFA program, I remember you telling me that Spalding had helped you develop your own voice as a writer. Do you still feel that way, and if so can you explain that in a little more depth?
Yes, I do still feel that Spalding helped develop my voice. They were very encouraging in my low-residency MFA. The instructors were particularly interested in seeing students experiment and try out different styles, themes, and perspectives in their stories. And I was lucky enough to have had mentors who were very knowledgeable and able to point out new (to me) writers and books. One writer whose work I was introduced to was Nicholson Baker. He was recommended to me in my last semester at Spalding. I remember thinking, “How haven’t I heard of him before?” I saw my own voice, though much less refined, in his writing. My mentors were very perceptive and able to take what I had written, show me my strengths about my particular style, and also instruct me about things I could do better, so as to make my work more cohesive.
Were there any other changes that occurred in your writing style/lifestyle while getting your MFA?
Yes, there were quite a few changes on both fronts. As far as my writing style goes, I did a fair bit of experimenting with different types of stories and different narrators, subject matter, varying lengths (including a lot of flash fiction and longer stories) – just to get a feel for how you go about writing each type, what the differences were with each, and what they had in common. I found myself somewhat favoring the smaller, more concise stories.
And as far as the lifestyle changes go, since I was responsible for turning in 35 to 50 pages of work each month, comprised of both new and revised work, I had to find a new way to incorporate writing into my everyday life. And this was in addition to working a full time job and managing other responsibilities. So writing became more a part of everyday life.
How did the low-residency program work for you in ways that a high-residency program might not have? By contrast, is there anything offered by a high-residency program you feel you may have missed out on?
The volume of work that I produced in my low-residency program, based on what I hear from people who have done the high-residency, was much greater. You get more specialized attention on your writing in a low-res program, and you’re producing so much material, you get into the habit of writing on a regular basis. Spalding did offer experience in academic writing, but that was not the main focus – rather the creative writing work was. I think you could say that low-residency MFA programs are designed for people who want to become better writers, as opposed to people who want to have careers in the teaching or in the academic world. Generally speaking, high-residency programs seem to have greater teaching experience options – there seems to be more opportunity for it. This can provide you with job experience. There were workshops in low-residency that focused on creative writing pedagogy, but again, this was not the primary focus of the program. And I would be remiss not to point out that low-residency programs are generally not as well funded, which means you often have to take out loans or pay out of pocket. And it isn’t cheap!
What were some preconceptions you had about getting an MFA that didn’t pan out?
That I would graduate with sort of a collection of short stories that were ready to be published as such. That by the time I finished – after two years – surely I would have enough pieces to flesh out a full collection and achieve great critical and financial success. This wasn’t the case. I did graduate with a lot of strong pieces that have gone on to be published, but it is a much more intense and lengthy process than you imagine going in.
I also had a fear that I would come out with cookie-cutter pieces of writing after having been exposed to a specific program and set way of doing things. Fortunately, that didn’t come through at all, and I was allowed to experiment and find my own style of telling stories.
Finally, any cautionary words/suggestions for writers considering a low-residency MFA?
I do have some. I would caution writers to make sure that what they want out of their program is to become a better writer, not to secure a set of marketable job skills. The low-res program will teach you to be a better writer, and while it may offer some positive job-related skills, producing better writers is the primary goal of a low-residency program. The focus is always on the writing, not on securing you a job.
Martin Jennings graduated from Spalding in the Fall of 2015. His work has been featured in multiple publications since his graduation, most recently his story “Bodies of Water” in Sick Lit Magazine and “Hammer Space” in Under the Bed Magazine. Martin writes, works, and lives in Louisville.