What was it like living in Athens? How far does your stipend go there living wise?
Athens is very much a college town (for better and for worse). I actually received my BA from Ohio University so I had already lived in Athens for 4 years. It’s a beautiful campus and town–rowdy undergrads aside. I loved Athens, but I think it could be a difficult place to move to as a graduate student because the majority of the town’s population is 18-22. That can make meeting people outside of the department hard. OU is known for its party school reputation, and at first, it might seem like there’s nothing else to do besides going to bars. That’s certainly not the case.
All of the students in the program are fully funded. PhD candidates make more than MA students, but I found that our stipend went a long way in Athens. Rent can be notoriously high, but everything else in town is relatively inexpensive to accommodate the student population. Actually, housing was really the only issue I had since I knew I wanted to live outside of the party scene. Unfortunately, that meant my rent was pretty expensive. In addition to our stipends, students also receive travel funding to go to AWP and other conferences or professional events. My flight and most of my hotel bill for AWP was covered by the department.
How did the program equip you for and support you during your teaching assistantship?
If there was a downside to my program, it would have been the teaching. I taught three classes each year, or a 2-1 load. Things have changed since I graduated so I can’t speak to how much things have changed or stayed the same. We had a week-long orientation in the week before Fall semester. Everyone took a pedagogy class in the fall which was an extension of the work we did during our orientation.
We were all given a curriculum, syllabus, and daily schedule. The curriculum was controversial, and I often felt like I was meant to espouse approaches to composition I didn’t necessarily agree with. I struggled with that during my first year. Fortunately, in our second year we were able to pretty much do whatever we wanted. I always felt supported in cases where I had an issue with a student. MA students only teach composition; there just aren’t really opportunities to teach workshops.
What was the workshop environment like?
My experiences in workshop were mostly positive. Students are required to take at least one workshop outside of their assigned genre. I was grateful for that requirement because I think my in-genre writing was stronger as a result. Workshops usually had around 10 students. In the spring, I took a nonfiction workshop on digital composition. Again, this pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and I think that’s always a good thing for my writing. Otherwise, the workshops weren’t really organized around specific topics or themes. We were just encouraged to bring in our current projects, and those working on longer pieces were supported. The best thing about the program was how supportive my classmates were; this isn’t a competitive, cutthroat program.
What was your MA experience like outside of the classroom?
OU has countless writing events and activities. Our most notable event is the Spring Literary festival. This year, Robert Pinsky, Marie Howe, Dorothy Allison, Brian Doyle, and Charles Johnson gave lectures and readings. Graduate students had lunch twice with the writers. It was always my favorite week of the year.
Other visiting writers came to OU, usually three writers throughout the year. For example, Roxane Gay and Elena Passarello were the visiting creative nonfiction writers during my time in the program. Students had the chance to workshop manuscripts one-on-one with the writers, attend readings, and have lunch with them.
There are two literary journals that students have the opportunity to work with: New Ohio Review and Quarter After Eight. I read for New Ohio Review and represented the journal at the AWP bookfair. MA students mostly serve as readers and PhD students have opportunities to apply for other positions with both journals.
In addition to my TA-ship, I worked at Ohio University Press part-time. I started the job during the summer before my MA, but I stayed on to earn some extra money and learn more about publishing. I worked in publicity and marketing. Although this wasn’t a department sanctioned position, I thought it was an important opportunity for me to gain experience in publishing.
Why did you choose to pursue a MFA after completing your MA?
Two years seemed to go really quickly for me. I felt like it took the whole first year for me to get a feel for teaching, and unfortunately, that was what I focused on instead of my writing. During the summer between my first and second year, I started panicking about the prospect of losing a writing community. Towards the end of my MA, I started writing more research driven nonfiction, and I wanted the support of academia in terms of finding out more about how to blend research with memoir. And how many other opportunities are there for you to be paid to write outside of academia? I mean I know that I’m technically paid for my teaching, but I think you know what I mean. In thinking about my post-MA prospects (the adjuncting pit, retail, etc), I figured that I didn’t have anything to lose by applying.
What are some advantages to completing an MA before applying to MFA programs?
I just felt so much better prepared when I applied for the MFA. I felt like I had a more refined sense of what I wanted from a program and that likely showed in my statement of purpose. I’m sure my letters of rec were stronger because my professors were speaking to my work at the grad level. And I feel like my first semester of the MFA has gone smoothly because I’ve already taught; the adjustment period was a lot shorter. I mentioned that it took me a year in my MA. It took just a couple of weeks here. Speaking more generally, I am much more mature than I was when I started my MA. I was fresh out of undergrad and wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted out of a program. During my MA I matured as a writer, student, and a person. I took grad classes with MA and PhD students in creative writing, literature, and rhet/comp so I was prepared to be a part of writing and academic communities.
I’m not sure if my MA made me desirable to more programs. I was still rejected from a lot of programs. What counts most is the writing sample, but I think that as far feeling prepared for an MFA, my MA has made a big difference in helping me adjust to WVU and prioritize my writing.
Kat Saunders is an MFA candidate at West Virginia University. Although her specialization is in creative non-fiction, she also writes fiction. In 2015, Saunders graduated from Ohio University’s graduate creative writing program with a Master of Arts in creative non-fiction. Saunders is the associate fiction editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection (a Sundress Publication). She has also worked in publishing as a publicity and marketing assistant. You can follow her on Twitter @huncamuncamouse.
If you’re a current student or a recent graduate of a creative writing program and are interested in being interviewed, visit our submissions page.