Tag Archives: mfa

Sundress AWP Roundtable 1: The MFA Years


Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

Our first roundtable is comprised of J.R. Dawson, Minda Honey, contributors, and Caitlin Neely, founder and editor, of The MFA Years, a blog which follows first and second year MFA candidates and explores their experiences.


How has blogging for The MFA Years affected the way you perceive and experience the MFA?

J.R. Dawson: I guess that when I’m going through my program, I’m not just thinking about me. I feel like I’m thinking about the whole culture, my other friends in other programs, and those who may be interested in the program I’m in. It makes you see the whole picture instead of just going through school for your own benefit. The MFA culture is its own little world, and being able to blog about it for an audience means that I’m a part of that world. It also comes as a responsibility. I have to represent my program well and I have to be honest about uncomfortable things in my own life in order to do my job and give the reader a real tool to use. For example, I wrote about something really personal back in May, and it was so very uncomfortable, but it helped people who were in the same situation. It was good to see that by “walking through the fire” and being honest, I connected with readers.

Minda Honey: I would not say that blogging has affected my perception or overall experience. I used my blogging as a way to give potential MFAs an idea of what the experience is like rather than as a tool for me to explore the experience in real-time. Any writing to gain further understanding of my experience would likely occur in the months or years following my graduation from the program. So, I believe my experience to be fairly on par with what it would be like had I chosen not to blog about it.

Caitlin Neely: Before this, I was not an avid blogger. But I was also never good at keeping a diary as a kid. Blogging about my MFA has been great. It helps me process what I’ve done, accomplished, and how I’ve changed. It’s also helped me connect more to my program. They’ve shared a few of my posts on the UVA Facebook page and I’m glad they enjoy reading them!

What tips do you have for students who are interested in blogging about their own experiences?

JD: Don’t just write about you. People read blogs in order to connect and learn. Write about the larger scope of what is going on with you in your life. Thinking about your audience is what separates a blog from a diary.

Also, don’t try to be someone you aren’t. All of us wish we were as witty as Allie Brosh, few of us are. Just be you.

Finally, proofread. You are in a writing program. If you have a typo or a grammatical error, that looks bad for your program.

MH: Do it. The MFA Years recruits every year in the spring and you always have the option of blogging independently from your own corner of the Internet. Be honest about your experience and your feelings, but also be mindful of any limitations your department might have concerning this practice.

CN: Go for it! Blogging is a great way to think about your MFA in a new way and to chronicle your experiences. Plus, it keeps you writing even if you’re experiencing writer’s block in other aspects of your life (we all know that feel).

My big tip is to always remember the internet is forever. Even if you take a post down later on or edit something out, there still might be ways for others to access it. That’s why I give my blog drafts 24 hours to sink in. I don’t hit publish immediately after I’ve written something. And proofreading is just as important!

Are modern MFA programs doing an effective job of communicating to potential applicants via the internet (social media, program websites, etc)? In what ways can they use the internet as a way to advertise themselves?

JD: I think some are and some aren’t. I think people are still learning that this generation that is now entering college and graduate school thrive and survive on the internet. I think that program websites need to be spotless, and I know that when I was applying for MFA programs, sometimes I ran into schools where instructions were a little hard to follow and not specific enough. Having a professional, informative, clear website is really important to us. And using twitter to communicate is also really great.

But I also feel like perhaps there’s a gauche way to use the internet. If I saw a pop-up ad for a program or a Facebook ad, I’d probably give it a side-eye. Maybe getting creative with webinars, videos, that sort of thing? I would have loved to see more of that when I was applying.

MH: I believe that there is opportunity for programs to enhance their web and social media presence. I recall that during the application process that some websites were difficult to navigate or just felt light on overall content. This is actually a role or roles that could be turned over to their MFA candidates and become a chance to gain social media experience much in the same way that a program’s literary magazine gives candidates the opportunity to develop literary mag experience.

CN: Some programs are doing a great job and others are not. When I was applying to programs, I couldn’t believe the number of times I came across a program site that provided next to no information. I’m talking funding numbers weren’t even mentioned and some of them were programs I knew fully funded everyone. I’m not sure why these places aren’t shouting from the rooftops how awesome they are and how much money they provide.

Twitter, Facebook, and websites are all great ways for programs to advertise themselves. I agree with Minda. Social media is something that could be handed over to interested graduate candidates. And (self-promotion alert) The MFA Years is always happy to interview alumni and current MFA students about their program.

Minda HoneyMinda Honey was raised in the land of bourbon, basketball and horse racing—Louisville, Kentucky. She is a candidate in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside, where she is working on her memoir, An Anthology of Assholes. Her writing can be found on Gawker and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She tends to her own little plot of the internet at www.mindahoney.com.

11655340_10101465223647081_1133941834_n (1)J.R. Dawson  is an MFA Popular Fiction candidate at Stonecoast. She holds an MS in Education and a BFA in Playwriting and English Literature. She is the founder of her alma mater’s Writer’s Guild and is past editor-in-chief of their literary journal. She has published plays, a short stories collection, and one really weird new age music demo that her parents made her release when she was fourteen. Dawson now keeps a blog, Ramblings of a Mad Woman, where she is currently attempting her Year of Writing Challenge. Follow her @j_r_dawson.

Caitlin NeelyCaitlin Neely is an MFA poetry candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Sixth Finch, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, Devil’s Lake, and others. She is the founder of The MFA Years and the editor for Reservoir Journal.

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Applying to the MFA: Known Knowns and the Importance of Place

If your application process is anything like mine, you’ll end up doing a lot of compatibility analysis (Figure 1). I’m only slightly dicking around. I didn’t actually crunch numbers like that, but the concept of compatibility was at the forefront of my mind when applying to creative writing programs—so was uglycrying and giving up on my current thesis when I started getting my rejections (Figure 2), so take all this cum grano salis. I’ve spent the past 2 years in a master’s program at Mizzou studying geography, and applying to a second round of graduate schools was no easier than the first.

Figure 1.

Chris Petruccelli Figure 1
That said, the best piece of advice I received when applying to geography programs was to apply to schools in cities I’d actually want to live in. I did not heed that advice on my first go around. To be clear, I love Mizzou, and my experience in the geography department has been amazing; however, take a gander at a map, find where Columbia, Missouri is and imagine having no car—only a bike. Word. That shit sucks. And even if I had a car, #whatever.

Having learned my lesson, applying to MFAs was equally dependent on the location of the program as the quality of the program itself. I knew I wouldn’t produce as much solid writing living anywhere in the Midwest compared to living and writing in places such as Fairbanks, AK or Nashville, TN. Hell, University of Alaska Fairbanks’s motto is “Naturally inspiring.” I dig that. Nashville has hot chicken—no further inspiration required. Ultimately, I knew I could probably live and write in three places: 1) Areas close to mountains/vast expanses of water; 2) Cities > 150,000 people; 3) Almost anywhere in the South.

Figure 2.

Chris Petruccelli Figure 2

But this isn’t about my lack of love for the Midwest, which in all honesty, is kind of cool. Another aspect driving me towards the MFA track is the fact that I no longer have any time for my creative writing. In the last several months, I’ve written one poem and that ain’t right. I love dendroecology, hiking up mountains and conducting challenging scientific research, but doing all that (as well as taking classes and fulfilling teaching assistant duties) in a span of two years and trying to write creatively has got me fried. Science and writing in tandem is possible, but in doing both, one is bound to take precedence while the other suffers. Right now, the writing must come first.

Picking up and moving to a far off place is difficult and expensive. But after living, studying and writing in Missouri, it’s foolish for me to not be where I want to be—a known knowns sort of thing. I’ll be moving to Fairbanks to work on an MFA at UAF after graduation after a quick stint back in Tennessee. I’m looking forward to holin’ up in a dry cabin after a day of skiing, hauling water from Fox Spring and finally sitting down at a desk to write as the aurora borealis does what it does in the sky.

Chris Petruccelli Chris Petruccelli‘s poetry can be found in Connotation Press, Rappahannock Review, RomComPom, and elsewhere. His chapbook Action at a Distance is available at etchingspress.org. In his free time Chris enjoys drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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Fourth Time’s A Charm

This fall, I will begin an MFA program at Eastern Washington University. I’m very excited to work with Willow Springs and experience the literary community thriving in Spokane. For two years, I’ll focus solely on my writing and the workshop process. I am incredibly happy and grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to joining the students at EWU.

The first time I applied to an MFA program was throughout the 2009/2010 school year, my last year as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. I was twenty-one years old and had just gotten married in November of 2009. I only applied to ten schools and was accepted to five of them. I chose to attend the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.

It was great to be able to work with many amazing writers and professors at UNH. I took a fantastic novel writing course and learned a lot in my semester there. I later left the program after the first week of the spring semester because I was going through a divorce. I couldn’t handle the emotional fallout and craft good stories at the same time.

Even though I left the program, I never stopped writing, and I never stopped wishing for a community of writers with which to share work. After I left New Hampshire, I bounced around the country. First I went back to Tennessee, lived there for a year, and then I moved back to Maryland in 2012 where I’ve been ever since.

In 2011 and 2012, I applied for MFA programs because I missed the camaraderie and community; the workshopping and writing, the drafting and development. Both times I applied I received acceptances, but there wasn’t any funding to go with those acceptances. I turned down my offers.

I met my boyfriend, Justin, at the Frederick Writer’s Salon. We’d both applied for MFA programs in the fall of 2012, and we’d both declined our offers because they weren’t fully funded. By the spring of 2013, when we started dating, we were working on writing projects together. We based our relationship on our shared desire to be writers. But we also had to find a way to live, so we both began “careers.” He works in communications for a local nonprofit. I joined AmeriCorps and worked for a year at the national nonprofit, Operation Homefront.

Since August, I’ve been working as a Communications and Marketing Coordinator for a local nonprofit. It has not been as fulfilling as I thought it would be. As much as I hate to say that, I’m glad to be leaving my current job for an opportunity at Eastern Washington. I plan to use my time in Spokane wisely, to connect with other writers, and to work with skilled faculty members on a variety of projects.

Now I just have to figure out how to move one boyfriend and two cats all the way from Rockville, Maryland to Spokane, Washington. I’m ready to begin the next chapter of my life.



Katherine Bell blogs with her boyfriend, Justin Eisenstadt at WeWriteTogether.net where they discuss a variety of movies, television shows, books and other pop-culture interests. You can find her fiction in the Blue Lyra Review, the East Coast Literary Review, and Connotation Press.

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“Genre and Identity: I’m a Poet, Right?” by Sarah Ghoshal


I’m a poet. In 7th grade, I had a student teacher who asked us to write a poem. I wrote a piece titled “Wedding Ring” about a man who had to pawn his ring to feed his family. (I guess I was always looking for the drama.) My student teacher, Miss Windsor, applauded the poem and I had my first moment of, “Hey, I wrote something and other people liked it.” I sent it to a vanity press, having no idea what a vanity press was, learned it would be published in a gigantic anthology, asked my mother to buy the anthology, saw my work in print on the page and POOF! I became a poet.

Years later, I have my M.F.A. in creative writing and I teach writing at a university. I have had an academic article published and I have a short memoir available on Amazon and yet, each time I submit my biographical statement to any press or literary magazine, I don’t really call myself a writer, but a poet. I tell myself this is because poetry is my specialty, but I wonder, if I were to be completely honest with myself, if I were to drink a bottle of wine and try to answer the question, “What kind of writer am I?” would I actually be able to do so?

To answer this question, one has to start with smaller questions and honest answers. It seems like it should be much simpler than it really is. What do you write? This should tell you what kind of writer you are, right? Theoretically. But it’s not quite so easy. One of the most creative parts of being a writer is being able to switch genres, to be multi-faceted, to be Langston Hughes. And the most important characteristic of a writer is being able to open one’s mind enough to invite the other genres in, the genres outside of the genre you started with at thirteen years old, the genres you dabble in but don’t really take seriously, the genres you were forced to learn in graduate school because your M.F.A. was in creative writing and not poetry writing because to not make all writers work in all genres would be to force a great injustice upon the world.


Alas, none of this answers the question of who we are as writers. When completing a study of M.F.A. writers’ relationships with writing, Jill Olthouse asked a group of writers “what they wanted to accomplish in their writing. The two primary goals were mastering the craft and discovery”(266). Typical writer answers, right? Vague and lofty but true to what we are taught, what most of us feel deep down inside when faced with the idea that we may have to define our art. We just want to discover the pieces, the poems, the stories, the articles that live inside of us and just haven’t introduced themselves to us yet. But when someone asks, “What do you write?” we can’t exactly tell them that we write what we discover. It might be true, but it comes across as uppity, snobbish even. We have to define ourselves on the creative landscape. It seems like it’s no longer enough to say, “I’m a writer.”

And forget being so wishy-washy about what you write if you want to build an audience for your work. Today’s world of social media and internet marketing actually requires that you separate genres to find people who care about what you write, instead of putting it out there and hoping to find readers who appreciate you as a writer and not just your poems or your articles or your books. I’m not sure Langston Hughes would have enjoyed writing in our digital world, where Stephanie Chandler, in her article, How to Handle Marketing When You Write for Multiple Genres, suggests that we must “master one genre first,” then “build both genres concurrently” and finally, “see if [our] genres converge.” And this is only for two genres! What if you want to write an academic article, finish the great American novel and write a collection of poetry? What audience to you market to then?

This is further complicated when you realize that it is not just the writer that can switch genres and muddy the waters of writer-identity, but the work itself. One genre can be revised into another genre with inspired or disastrous results. Making a flash fiction piece into a poem, a poem into a non-fiction short, an article into the prompt for a novel, a song into a literary translation – all of this is possible if we don’t marry our genres, take them to bed and tell ourselves we don’t believe in divorce. Lately, I’ve decided to step outside of my comfort zone – the zone of poetry, of stanzas and form, of words that may not point to anything important at all but sound like they do (because come on, all of us stick some beautiful nonsense into our poetry), of flow – and I’m not just writing in new genres from scratch; I’ve decided to transform poems into shorts. This changes the way I see the piece and all of a sudden, I don’t feel comfortable labeling myself as a poet in the biographical statements I send out to presses. The other day, I sent a children’s picture book manuscript out to an agent. It’s poetry, but it’s a children’s book. I created a chapbook of non-fiction shorts out of prose poems I reworked, reworded and re-envisioned. And the best part is that all of these little experiments might suck. Publication rejections may hail down on me, but I’m determined to be able to say, “I’m a writer,” and to not be identified by genre.

Every writer has a different way to describe his/her own identity as an artist. And one might argue that none of this even matters. After all, we are masters of what we choose to master, whether the genres “match” or not. But let’s keep this universal conversation among writers in mind the next time you say, “I’m a writer” and someone, some well-meaning person who doesn’t mean to piss us off asks, “What do you write?”


Works Cited

Chandler, Stephanie. “How to Handle Marketing When You Write for Multiple Genres.” Authority Publishing. 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.

Olthouse, Jill M. “MFA Writers’ Relationships With Writing.” Journal Of Advanced Academics 24.4 (2013): 259-274. Education Research Complete. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.


Sarah Ghoshal is a writer and professor. Her poetry has been published widely in journals such as Adanna Literary Journal, OVS Magazine, Shampoo Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Broad! Magazine, among others. She earned her MFA from Long Island University and currently teaches writing at Montclair State University. She has also published memoir and academic articles. Sarah is enjoying a renewal in her work currently and has work forthcoming in Stone Highway Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Winter Tangerine Review and an anthology inspired by Hurricane Sandy. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, her brand new baby, and their faithful dog, Comet, who flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

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