Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Low-Residency MFA and Me

Searching for information, and came across a few personal blogs -- those people talked about what they were doing in their search for an MFA program, and because of them I found a program I think I like, and besides -- this blog is very neglected, and it's still not even 6:00 in the morning, and I need to write some of this stuff OUT. OF. MY. HEAD. or it's going to drive me insane, so here it is.

The Low-Residency MFA and Me

I'm trying to remember why I started looking in the first place. For the last couple of years, my advisers, and most respected and admired instructors, and even my fellow students on some occasions, have spoken in some kind of huge, strong, clear theme of Grad School. It's come with a "duh - are you joking here?" face, and it's come with an "I hate to be the one to break it to you" face, and it's come with the "you'll see it when you're ready" face, and it's come with the "no, this is the truth" face ... but it's always come with the same message - the same answer to my constant whining worry, What Am I Supposed To Do With This Degree? Answer: go to grad school. (Or, go to grad school, silly. Or -- go to grad school, and it's obvious, so stop pretending you don't know the answer.) 

And yet, until this month, on the first weekend of the month, I couldn't see it. I couldn't see it until I found out, at dinner, in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sitting across from instructors, and near instructors, and in conversation with instructors, that the MFA in Creative Writing is a "terminal degree." (cue: semi-hysterical laughter -- really? We call it "terminal"? Perfect.) "What does that mean, 'terminal degree'?" I asked. "It means," she said, "that in that discipline, it's the highest degree people achieve. There isn't a PhD in Creative Writing -- so you could teach." 


So ... grad school? There's an idea.

Come home from Shakespeare in Performance (taken for credit), and write performance analyses. Write Graphic Novel analysis of Chris Ware's Building Stories (see below). Do an Improv on Twitter of Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, as a final project (freak out at the homework assignment that goes with it because formatting stuff out of Twitter and putting it into a document is horrid). Write final for the other Shakespeare course, and bash brains against the stones trying to make a coherent argument about Othello's fragmented self being his downfall. And then ... in a haze of brain mush and a stupor of wonder, notice that the three letters - M F A - are floating in the air around my head, like cartoon birds when the person's been clobbered. There it is. MFA. Terminal Degree. Teach. Teach. MFA. Google.

Find #1: Already considering Goddard, because a lot of people to go Goddard from Marylhurst, and because back in the day (a few months ago), their Transformative Language Arts degree looked -- purposeful. It looked purposeful. It looked like a Reason To Go to Grad School. It looked like a way to be of some use in the world. It looked like what it is -- brilliant. And it's the only domestic version of the cutting edge work happening in the UK, Australia, and Canada (all of which are a bit too far away for me to go for grad school) But it's not - right. I've been trying it on for a while, and it simply doesn't fit me.

Find #1a: Goddard's MFA in Creative Writing, out of their Port Townsend campus. Okay. Put that one into the Definite Possibilities pile. It's still Goddard, and it fits better.

Find #2: Bennington. This is, in fact, what I believe about a real Liberal Arts education. I believe this in my bones and cells and breath and pulse. The (retiring) president of Bennington said this at the close of a TED conference a few years ago, and it makes me want to follow her into battle.

And besides ...the motto of their MFA program is: Read 100 books; write one. ALSO exactly what I believe and how I want to do this.

Find #3: The ratings lists. In the past little while, the top schools emerging include Bennington, Goddard, and a few others, and so I looked at them all, and I started a bookmarks tab for keeping track, and I went back over and over (because on the Saturday after finals week I felt unable to do anything else) and one of them is a lot closer to home than Vermont. I live in the Pacific Northwest. Pacific University is only a couple of hours away from here. A low-residency at Pacific makes all kinds of sense. My teachers have suggested it. Top rated. On all the lists. This should be a good fit.

Except . . .  I need some cross-pollination, and it needs to be from a part of the country where sincerity and truth are not assessed by our cultural habit of earnest self-referential, self-conscious, self-amazed, and self-validated ways of knowing. I need someone to tell me something besides Find Your Own Truth. I don't want to be enabled. I want to be workshopped.

Find 3a: Now, whoever heard of this? "The Whidbey Writers Workshop Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) Program is the first in the country - and perhaps in the world - to be offered not by a college or university but by an organization of writers." Well, that's interesting. Info sent for. Local, but not, apparently, all about the self-reference, and there's a strongly pedagogical vein in this one. That's good. Available online writing samples, though ... not so good. Hm.

Find #4: The east coast is better at being sharp. Pointed. Rigorous. A couple of years of externally imposed rigor. Yes. That's what I want. Okay ... so what's there? So far, it's Bennington (crazy expensive), Goddard (weirdly west coast in the enabling department - but that might be a false impression - info packet sent for), and ... wait. What's this? Stonecoast. I've seen those ads. University of Southern Maine has a low residency MFA called Stonecoast. "A Top 6 ranked low residency program offering courses in Creative Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry, and Popular Fiction." Okay, that sounds good. "Monthly packets encompass original writing, revision, and critical essays and annotations as well as optional interdisciplinary research and internships in teaching, publishing, and community service/social justice." Oh. Yeah. That sounds very good. More info please.

So there it is so far. At the end of the month, I have appointments with advisers because next year at this time, I'll have graduated from college for the second time. This time, my degree will be accredited, and I will be prepared for grad school, and I want to go, so now I only have one more question.

Can a woman of my age who lives where I do become an employed MFA? Because - well - grad school's all fine and good on its own merits, but if I'm going to borrow all this money, I need a job when I'm done so I can pay it back.

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