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Coral Gables Catalog

The city beautiful. The coconut tree is gone. There are fresh tree stumps everywhere. The thick glass panel of my porch door cracked during Irma. I listened to the wind pressing against it, spreading the shatter out in thick lines. With my remaining phone battery, I took photos of 3 spread tarot readings and PMed them to my friends. This is how I learned to do tarot, siphoning the small amount of electricity out of my hand.

What does it mean to be in the present moment? Do you love the humidity, the way the air weighs hot and heavy? I haven’t been back to the beach yet. I live in Coral Gables, walk everywhere, past post-deco houses with backyards that open to an ocean channel.

Who wouldn’t love to visit the Vizcaya Gardens, with its made-up name, its stone mermaid colossus where the ship would dock, deposit James Deering, the agricultural millionaire, its owner.

The royal poinciana growing in my neighbor’s yard was stripped of its orange leaves and I don’t know if they’ll come back. The trees laid dead in the street for months. When the storm came, we were all buried in trees, ancient banyans tipped over and blocking entire streets.

I’m sorry we killed the mangrove tree. I’m sorry for all of it. I went for a walk in the lightning storm, contemplating the probability I’d be struck. The street flooded with bright pink and yellow flower petals. They swam into my shoes and around my shins. I don’t remember what I was doing out there.

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On the Cusp of a Creative Life

Image: Molly Montgomery

Two weeks ago, I wrapped up my M.A. program in Creative Writing at UC Davis. I had already turned in and defended my thesis— a collection of ten short stories about California, my family history, fairies, wildfires, and ghosts, among other things— and all I had left was to finish up papers for a pedagogy class and a workshop on poet’s prose. I’m not ready to say goodbye to days of indulging in long bursts of writing and reading, and at least for the summer I can still pretend I’m working on writing for my program. But I’m at a crucial turning point in which I need to figure out how to carry my writing practices from grad school into the dreaded “real world.” Luckily, I feel like my MA program prepared me for this moment because if I learned anything in grad school, it was how to be self-sufficient as a writer.

Now that I am reflecting on how my program has shaped my writing and allowed me to grow, I see that if I had wanted to, I probably could have accomplished some of the things I learned on my own. A lot of what I learned in my program was self-directed, from reading widely, interrogating my own craft, and digging deep into revisions again and again. Of course, I got valuable feedback from my workshops and professors, and of course, having the time to devote particularly to writing was extremely liberating. However, for those of you who are considering a creative writing graduate degree, you should know that almost nothing you gain from it is only available in such a program.

If you’re really determined, the benefits of an MA or MFA such as a writing community, mentors, and time to write, can be found outside of the university system. But if you’re like me, and you get into a program that will fund you to improve your craft, I think it’s worth it because you’ll have a unified experience of the possibilities of the writing world, for better or for worse. And you’ll come out of your program better able to envision your place in such a world. Looking back on what I have experienced in the past two years, here are some takeaways from my experience:

  1. Write before your applying so you’ll know you can write after your degree. Before I entered my MA program, I was working full-time, but I always fit in writing whenever I could. I think it’s key for you to be able to carve out time for writing before you even apply to grad programs so you know you’re capable of doing it outside of a program. Now that I’m heading back into the working world, I know I’ll be able to keep up writing somehow.

 

  1. Be open to changing your techniques, but hold tight to your voice. There’s a myth that when you go into an MFA program, your professors and workshop classmates will try to get your to write in a particular style. For fiction, people always say that programs are trying to get you to write like The New Yorker. To be honest, when people told me that, I didn’t worry too much. Some of my favorite writers are regularly featured in The New Yorker, and my fiction is what some people might call “conventional” in a disdainful tone. But I recognize that not everyone should have to adhere to a particular style to get published. Luckily, I had the exact opposite experience of what everyone told me was going to happen in my MA. In my grad program, I was exposed to more diverse voices and styles than ever, partially because I pursued recommendations for books by writers of color, women writers, and queer writers, but also because my professors regularly made sure that their syllabi included marginalized voices. I feel really lucky, because I don’t think this would have been the case at many grad programs. I also was surrounded by really talented writers in my program who were each doing their own thing. I saw possibilities for writing in my peers’ work that I never knew existed before. I took workshops in genres that I had never tried out before— nonfiction and prose poetry— and now I want to keep the new techniques I’ve experimented with in my writer’s toolbox. Yet the core of my writing— my deep interest in characters, in depicting the complexity of classism, racism, friendship and love— none of that has changed. I just now have the vocabulary and self-awareness about my writing to know how to classify it better than before.

 

  1. Accept that this degree is not about professional success but about personal growth. So in theory, I knew this all along, but it didn’t really start to hit home until the past six months. This may sound harsh, but don’t expect the MA/ MFA route to do anything for you professionally unless you carve out your own plan to incorporate internships, extra work experience, etc. into your program. For this reason alone, you should not go into debt for a creative writing degree. Period. Maybe other programs have more of a professionalization aspect to them than mine did. I don’t want to malign my program, since I knew from Day One that it wasn’t going to have a professional focus. At our orientation, the director told us that this degree wouldn’t necessarily land us a better job than we could get with a bachelor’s degree, but that wasn’t what it’s about. It’s hard to accept this because of our societal expectations about higher education, the assumptions we have that a master’s degree should give you a leg up in the job market. But creative writing grad school isn’t one of those master’s degrees.

 

I have loved teaching an introductory fiction writing course for the past three quarters. In fact, I’d have to say it’s been my favorite job so far. But I have no illusions that I will be able to make a living by teaching creative writing. It’s not impossible, but I would have to “make it” as a writer by publishing a book before I would be considered for such a position. Plus, as an MA graduate, I would still have to get a terminal degree— an MFA or a PhD— before I would be eligible to teach at most 4 year colleges. Even if I did pursue that path, there would be no guarantee of a job, especially not a tenure-track job, at the end of it. But I’ve made peace with that reality. Some of my friends work as adjunct professors, and I know it’s possible to eke out a living teaching community college or working as a lecturer at a 4-year college. For now, I’ve decided not to pursue that path, but I know I could come back to it in the future.

 

However, teaching college courses has made me realize just how passionate I am for teaching in general. So I’ve decided to pursue a teaching credential to become a high school English teacher. This wasn’t a straightforward process for me. In order to apply to a credential program while I’ve been in my MA program, I had to find an internship at a high school, take standardized tests, and fulfill some pre-requisite courses at the same time as taking the rest of my coursework and teaching. Luckily, I have a lot of initiative, so I completed all the necessary steps and was accepted into the teaching credential at the same university where I completed my MA, UC Davis. This fall, I’ll be a student at the UC Davis School of Education.

 

Meanwhile, I’ll still be writing, and I hope to have more of my writing published. This is another area that in which creative writing grad school may or may not be useful. Since starting my MA program, my writing has improved significantly, and I started writing more creative nonfiction, a genre I had never tried out before. This in itself helped me get published twice in Entropy, a really cool online magazine devoted to literature and culture. I’ve become more engaged in the online literary world, and since my second year of grad school, I’ve been submitting to a lot more places (but mostly receiving rejections). I’m hopeful that eventually, I’ll be published in more journals. However, this whole process of cultivating an online literary presence has been completely self-directed. Which literary journals to read, how to refine your work for submission, how to get published, none of these topics were ever addressed by my professors in grad school. I’ve had to figure it out on my own. But this has been a positive process for me because I’ve found journals and websites that reflect my interests, not just ones that are prestigious or well-known. Still, it can be very discouraging to get praised for your work in workshop only to see it receive rejection after rejection from publications. Unfortunately, it’s all part of the package deal of being a writer, these days.

 

  1. Embrace community instead of competition. Three years ago, I joined the MFA Draft on Facebook and discovered a whole community of people involved in the creative writing world who, like me, were applying to MFAs. These people were my competition— fellow applicants to programs that accept a tiny fraction of aspiring writers each year— but they were some of the nicest people I’ve encountered on the internet. From that group, I also discovered this blog, The MFA Years, and learned so much about the process of applying and pursuing a creative writing graduate degree. What has delighted me again and again while participating in these online communities is the genuine goodwill of writers to share advice and help each other out. I was fortunate to join a program in which camaraderie prevailed. My cohort was always drama-free and extremely supportive, and I made lifelong friends through my program. I am so grateful that creative writing grad school has allowed me to connect with so many wonderful writers who care deeply about words and about making the world a better, more just place. My communities give me hope, which I really need in the current dark, depressing atmosphere of the US.

 

Thank you for reading my posts for the past two years, and if you have enjoyed my musings, I hope you follow me on twitter @mollywritesalot and read my other blog, www.litbloom.com, where I will be sharing my thoughts on online works of literature from lit mags, online journals, and literary websites.

P.S. If my program experience has sounded interesting to you, the MA in Creative Writing at UC Davis is turning into an MFA in 2019.

How Not to Follow Up

Hey, writers, let’s talk submissions again! It’s been a while.

I’ve previously written about what cover letters should look like, what stories you should probably not show litmags, other stories you should probably not show litmags, etc.

I’d like to add to this a list of behavior you should never ever indulge in when following up on a submission, from the no-bullshit perspective of someone who spends a lot of time reading slush.

  1. If I reject you, please don’t write me back with some snide remark about how I’d like your work if only I were smarter or nicer. Why would you do this? All you have accomplished is that now you are on my permanent blacklist, and if I’m having a really annoying day, I will forward your mean email to your MFA program director or whichever magazine most recently published your work. Stop. Accept that you didn’t get in this time. I don’t get into places all the time. It happens.
  2. Please do not wait TWO DAYS and then email me to ask if I received the submission. Yes, I received the submission. You know this because it shows up as sent in your own email folder, where you can also double check to be sure that you remembered the attachment. It’s all there. All I can really guarantee is that the work will be read at some point before the next issue comes out, which is why I have no specific timeline on the website.
  3. When a magazine does have a specific timeline on the website? Sometimes they’ll go over that. My experience has been that most of my work that gets accepted is accepted after the listed maximum number of days have passed. It’s fine. I think I’ve sent four-ish query emails in my life, each months after what was listed as the maximum on a magazine’s website, or like eight months over a magazine’s average if no maximum was listed. A good rule is to avoid at all costs pressuring overwhelmed people who are trying to help you.
  4. Do not Do Not DO NOT REALLY DON’T contact me or any other editor on our personal social media accounts because we didn’t respond to your query in the main inbox. We didn’t respond because we’re working on it. We use social media to talk to our friends. It’s the wrong virtual space, in the same sense that showing up at my apartment door instead of my office would be the wrong real-world space for this conversation. I have bothered someone on social media before, a long time ago, and I regret it immensely to this day. Don’t be me.
  5. Don’t contact an editor from some other genre or department of a literary magazine in order to query. A poetry editor who bailed on your work for six months is also going to ignore any reminders from his fiction editor, and in the process, you are stressing out the fiction editor. Being ignored sucks, but you know what else sucks? Peevish emails from people whose problems you have no control over at all.
  6. Please do not talk yourself into the belief that a form letter was personal, or an un-tiered rejection was tiered. This is silly, and when you send another piece referencing that un-tiered form rejection, you look silly. I know this sort of mistake is inevitable at first, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself, but we all need to try not to make it a pattern. (I know some magazines have ambiguous un-tiered form rejections that appear to be personal or tiered, or send half their submitters tiered rejections. They do this to encourage as many repeat submitters as possible. Check out Rejection Wiki and Duotrope to be sure.)
  7. Really don’t email me after two days.

As always, I hope this helps! Remember, there is no shame in making mistakes; I just admitted to a pretty hefty one above. The only shame is in failing to adjust our behavior as we learn more about the work of readers, editors, and publishers.

Happy submitting!

On Grief, Publishing Your First Novel and Turning 30

I turn 30 this weekend! (I’m hoping the exclamation mark makes it less of a terrifying new phase of life) When I started the MFA Years I thought I’d blog a lot more; after years of writing fiction around the day job, I was finally headed to grad school and the full time writing life. I would have so much time! And so many things to say about the publication journey! If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that that hasn’t, um, been quite the case. Turns out there’s a strange law of productivity that dictates the more time you have, the less productive you are. Back in 2016, I was still working in finance, writing fiction in the wee hours of the morning, editing at night, planning a wedding, applying to 13 graduate programs and somehow managing to stay on top of life admin (tax returns, remortgaging our flat, organising family visits etc). Today, a mere email asking me for a single scanned document can send my day into a downward procrastination spiral (I will spare you the details of what this looks like but it involves a lot of lying on the floor at eye level with my cat). I’m getting better at it, but adjusting to so much unstructured time has been the most difficult thing about the past year.

I say it’s been the most difficult thing, but that’s not true. The most difficult thing about the past year is that on October 31st 2017, my dad died. Those close to me will know that we had a complicated history, and that while he was physically absent since I was 9, his actions and influence have reverberated through my life ever since.

The circumstances under which he left were difficult, and I learnt, from a young age, not to speak about him. After he left, we lost our home and pretty much everything we owned, and moved into my grandmother’s spare bedroom, living off the charity of relatives. One of my memories from that period is my mother looking at me with tears in her eyes, because she felt so bad I had to sleep on the floor (at the time, she, my brother and I shared a space that was smaller than the dorm room I had in my freshman year of college). If you remember being 9 years old though, you’ll remember that you really don’t care about things like sleeping on the floor. In fact, it’s actually pretty fun, like camping indoors. I told her that but she didn’t seem to be convinced, and it broke my heart. I couldn’t bear to see my mother sad because she thought I was sad. I was sad, of course, desperately sad, but about my father being gone, not about sleeping on the floor. From then on, however, I felt I had to protect her, to keep my pain from her at all costs.

It was then that I developed the emotional distance which people have frequently remarked on over the years. When an ex-boyfriend asked why I was so ‘feelingless’ and ‘always in control’, I shrugged, assumed it was inherent to my personality, a tendency as mysterious and incidental as being averse to the texture of tomatoes. I was too deep within my protective shell to really reflect on why this was the case. Now I think partly, it was the fact that when you have one great sadness that looms over everything, the fights you have with teenage boyfriends can feel trivial, not quite as important or dramatic. The other part of it was something that went deeper: I’d more or less completely blocked off vulnerability and unhappiness as permissible emotions.

So I was always okay. The only thing I could never quite get over was the loss of my dad, even though he’d left years and years ago. It was the thing that I couldn’t speak about to anyone, except to the partner I’ve been lucky to spend the last decade with. My husband, the strongest person I know, is also the kind of person who gets called feelingless and in control, and that, amongst many other things, is one of the sources of our deep mutual understanding. So this time, the second time I lost my dad, I had someone who understood–who knew when the defences were going up and knew how to reach me nonetheless. I had just moved to Austin, where I knew no one, and my father had died in a different continent, over 20 hours of flight away. My husband forced me to grieve. He took me to an outdoor chapel overlooking the beautiful Texan hill country, where the two of us held a memorial service. He made me call my friends to tell them what had happened. My instinct was not to tell anyone; it was too personal, too exhausting, and what would I say anyway? What would they say? It would just be awkward and painful for everyone. But he made me call them and so I did. I also told a few classmates, people I’d only known for a couple of months. It turned out they had their own stories to share, which they generously did, and for the first time I felt like I was speaking to people who truly understood what I was going through.

The past year has been filled with beautiful things. I fulfilled my impossible dream of writing and publishing a novel, married the best man I’ve ever met while surrounded by our favourite people, got a fellowship that would allow me to devote the next three years of my life to improving my craft at an MFA program. I look back on the places my fiction has taken me this past year and I’m honestly blown away. I’ve met and gotten to know my literary idols (Elizabeth McCracken! Jeff VanderMeer! 2016 me would have fainted in shock); presented–at a fancy dinner in a historic London church–to 200 journalists and publishing people on a deeply personal novel I thought would never see the light of day; become friends with talented and wonderful human beings such as my cohort mates and other internet-writer-friends; met lovely booksellers in the UK, Singapore and US; have had total strangers (almost all dealing with losses of their own) reach out to me, telling me what my writing means to them.And the book isn’t even out yet–it comes out in July. It is deeply strange to think that a series of words I essentially hallucinated into short stories and a novel has resulted in all of this tangible, life-changing stuff. But also very, very wonderful.

Yet, since October, I’ve been sad (hey! I’m talking about it!). None of this writing stuff is negated by my father’s death. It’s still beautiful and wonderful and surprising. The timing has meant that now the two–writing and the loss of my father–are inextricably and intimately linked, the exhilaration mixed with grief, the joy with pain. But really, they’ve always been. I say my book is about healthcare and life extension and all of that, and it is, but really, at its core, it’s about my dad. I wrote it because of him, I wrote it for him, and I wish he could have read it.

I said something about 30 being a terrifying phase of life before, but really, I say this out of habit. It’s the joke you’re meant to make. I’m not ready to be an adult! Where did my 20s go! But I don’t mind turning 30. My friends will say this is because I am a grandma at heart, which is almost certainly true, but I think it also has to do with feeling more and more like myself. Through writing, yes, but also through finally allowing myself to be sad, and happy, and everything else.

Lost at SAIC: A Mini-Memoir

And so 2018 was off to a bang. Three different bangs. Bang. Bang. Bang. I will enumerate them below.

  1. A poetry workshop (I know I claimed to be a poet when joining the MFA Years community, but I might’ve lied about that).
  2. A writing class with a focus on incorporating programming languages and electronic elements in poetics.
  3. A medium-format film photography class.

The premise of these, individually, was initially exciting. I figured I was maximizing the interdisciplinary nature of my program and gearing it towards my needs, my very disparate and incoherent needs. My “texts” (I hid my “poems” of the past under the pretense of calling them “texts” to avoid the scrutiny that may have come with calling them poems) needed some maturing, as did I, and so I figured this diverse curriculum I’d set up for myself was going to help me do that and become an adult.

Also to help me evolve into a mature artist, I thought I could cover the more experimental desires of my practice by taking a class that would help me move my text beyond the page and out of the realm of video. And so, I jumped headfirst into legions deep water into the possibility of using Python and artificial intelligence to help me crank out some writing. Besides jumping in headfirst, this class also had me engaging with my head in ways I hadn’t previously imagined — like banging my head against the wall, but more on that later.

As for photography, I’ve always referred to it was the “side hoe,” if you will, of my practice. In my 23-years of living, it’s always been there for me. Key word: there. There, a camera quietly accumulating dust on my beside. There, the camera in my backpack on every trip I’ve been on since the age of 14. Having been away from the medium because of the bureaucratic impediments my institution presented me with (by limited my access to equipment and facilities), I thought I would rekindle with my perpetually lost love and step up my photographic game — maybe muster additional technical skill to finally say that I am also a photographer.

 

In conclusion, it was all very hard (at first). I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall trying to write code and make work, and make sense, with the annals of a coding language I hardly knew. Every week, I entered a battlefield when trying to think of poetry. How could I be a poet if I typically have nothing meaningful to say and I still giggle at 42069 jokes? Could this be poetry? Would you publish my chapbook if it had a poem titled 42069? In trying to grapple with three mediums I’d never really honed in on previously, I was left feeling a wanderer: unsure about the progress I was making, unsure of my evolving maturity levels, unsure of the slowness of the process, unsure if whether my flu would turn into bronchitis and later land me in the hospital with pneumonia, unsure if that was heartburn or if I was hungry.

Very unsure.

In further conclusion, now two weeks away from the end of this treacherous second semester and gearing up for my last year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I have found that these very disparate endeavors have brought me to very separate projects that I feel relatively excited about. I’d like to say this is a good thing. Part of my personal feelings of achievement stem from including both 420 and 69 together in a poem (success? I think yes). Despite a semester’s worth of what’s been a somewhat intense photography course, I still haven’t found a way to bump up the medium up to “main” status. I’m wondering if I ever will or if it’ll always just be there. I did, however, come up with a project that will allow me to continue to delve into the computer geeking and coding world (hopefully incorporating this aspect into my artistic practice will make me seem “cool,” and by cool I mean more marketable, and also, maybe, turn my life around and land me a bunch of money and a job in a chic start-up).

In my final conclusion, I don’t really know what I’m talking about and by what you may, or may not, have read, I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I am doing something, and I think that’s okay.

 

Note: T

Long Distance Writing Workshops

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Seton Hill University’s MFA program is low-residency. For most of the year, my work-shopping occurs via email with my critique partners and my mentor. There are pro’s and cons to this method. In this post, I’ll review both:

The Pro’s of Long Distance Work-shopping

  1. More time to critique. During in-person workshops, the critiques are given verbally, on-the-spot. Writing a critique beforehand gives me time to think about giving a thorough, constructive edit.
  2. Ability to give a manuscript different layers of edits. As a low residency grad student with a busy life, I can chunk down my critiques and address a manuscript at the macro- and micro- level.
  3. Did I mention time? The reason I chose a low-residency program was because of the time it would give me. I am not saddled with attending classes. As a mother, this means I don’t have to arrange for and pay for childcare in order to attend school. (Yeah, that’s not directly related to critiquing, but it matters to me.)

The Cons of Long Distance Work-shopping

  1. Inability to read first reactions to critiques.  Once I hit “send” on my critique, it’s done. I’m unable to read their reaction, and if they share their opinions of my critique, it may be watered down.
  2. The meaning/intent behind critiques becoming “lost in electronic translation” Work-shopping material via long distance means that I’m very careful about how I deliver my critiques. I give a thorough critique, yet I’m careful not to sound harmful in my delivery. Spats can occur, and I wouldn’t be able to discern disagreement unless my critique partner expressed it.
  3.  I have to wait until the next residency to see my critique partner. For me, part of the fun of working with other writers is the bond it creates. It can be tough forming those bonds via computer.

Overall, I prefer work-shopping material in this manner despite the downsides. As I said earlier, it affords me time which I wouldn’t be able to give in a full residency program. For this reason, I’m sticking with it.

Choosing an Emerging MFA Program

Or, What I Learned from the Waitlist

Image via Pinterest


When I was applying to fully funded MFA programs for the second time, my strategy was simple: to ignore the rankings as much as possible, & to apply where I felt I would be happy. Since I was looking for programs with an interest in queer poetics, I ended up applying to many small or obscure MFA programs, ultimately getting accepted at one of my top choice schools, the University of Miami.

However, a few days after April 15th, one of my dream schools called me, offering me a last minute acceptance off of the waitlist. Getting into a program I’d fantasized about attending since I was an undergraduate was an incredible feeling. But at that point, I had already accepted the University of Miami’s offer. The program suggested that, despite this, I withdraw my acceptance from UM in order to come to their school. With not much time to make a decision, I had to go with my gut.



A Season in Purgatory

By the time UMiami accepted me in March, I had been waitlisted at 5 programs. The lukewarm affirmations were agonizing, & made me wonder why I kept coming so close but not making the cut.

Being on a waitlist can be a simultaneously charming & awkward experience. Some schools that waitlisted me were warm, welcoming, & helpful during the process. One school had each faculty member call me & have a lovely chat with me about the program. One program notified me I was a waitlister via the professor’s personal gmail account, because a state budget crisis prevented them from giving more formal notice. A few programs did not respond to my (sometimes multiple) emails about my position on the waitlist, which was confusing, to say the least.

 

Finding My People

While deciding whether or not to accept Miami’s offer, I visited the waitlist prospects that were close by. Although I had many great conversations with faculty members I adore as writers & would have loved to work with, sitting in on classes tended to be a good indication of whether or not I should attend a program. Often interactions with students were the most revealing about a program’s culture, so when I couldn’t visit a program in person, I sought out current students. Gratefully, I was usually able to track down someone willing to talk to me through the MFA Draft facebook group.

Private conversations with peers who could empathize with my position as an applicant were the most important ones I had during my entire application process. In fact, I still have conversations with MFA students at other programs as often as possible. Finding your people is crucial, & thanks to the internet, it’s something you can get out of the application process, no matter where you end up (if you end up anywhere at all).

I wasn’t able to visit the University of Miami, so instead, I emailed & talked on the phone with current students & professors. Miami was the only school that connected me with fellow queer & women-identifying writers. Through these interactions, I felt that Miami would be a place where I could flourish as a writer. Ultimately, I decided a program with these qualities would help me to be successful more than any amount of prestige. I traded off a potentially better shot on the job market for the school where I thought I’d do the most meaningful work.  

 

And Now It’s Year Two

Luckily, I am extremely happy in my MFA program. I have found the faculty here to be mentors, especially in achieving my desire of applying queer poetics. The people in my cohort are true friends & excruciatingly talented writers who have often brought me to tears with the power of their work.

Sometimes, in the midst of our applications, we get so caught up on the competition of MFA programs–of being admitted anywhere, of being admitted to the best program possible–we forget that what makes a “best” program is often subjective, dependent on our intersecting identities & outside forces we can’t control.

If nothing else, the MFA application process can be one that helps you hone your intuition. Sometimes, that means ending up at a program that’s growing with you, that’s willing to put skin in the game to help you launch your career. Most of the time, it means multiple application cycles, & waiting out a lot of purgatorial lists. Not everyone wants the same MFA experience as me, but everyone deserves to find a community where they feel supported. If nothing else, we have to revise our application experiences into strategies for survival. 

 

An Inside Look With Dantiel Moniz, University of Wisconsin-Madison ’18

Image: Richard Hurd

What is it like living in Madison? How far does your stipend go there living wise?

Before moving here, I never really thought about Wisconsin at all, had vague ideas about beer and cheese. But Madison itself is a small, cute town (little gingerbread houses and flowerbeds) with some big city aspects and lots of arts and music coming through. Easily doable without a car (though I have one) and there’s something to do all seasons.

I find the cost of living here only slightly higher than my hometown in FL. We receive a $22,000/year stipend, distributed monthly, with larger lump sums three times a year at the beginning of each semester and at the end of the year (basically summer money). I think the stipend and the cost of living are manageable, though I do receive an extra 100/week in support from my husband so that I can afford my one bedroom without roommates.

How does the program equip you for and support you during your teaching assistantship?

For the first semester, every member of the incoming cohort takes Pedagogy with one of the professors, a once a week class, where we learn how to craft a syllabus from the ground up (using resources from previous cohorts), and how to run our own workshops. We also prepare mock presentations for each other in the class and have an opportunity to both observe our peers in the classroom setting and be observed ourselves by a member of faculty, where we are given thorough reports on what we’re doing well, and what can be improved. As first years, we all taught intro to fiction and poetry workshop.

Since we were a fiction class, we received extra support in training to teach poetics. In the second year, members of the cohort teach Composition, which I believe there is also orientation and training for, though I was exempt from teaching Comp this year. At any time, all faculty is available to meet and discuss teaching tactics, or honestly almost any other thing. I went into my first year doubtful of my abilities as a teacher, and came out realizing that it’s something that I not only enjoy, but am good at. I’ve been thankful of all the program does to ensure its students success in readiness in the professionalization of writing.

What is the workshop environment like?

When I was deciding between MFA programs, I remember a discussion about class size, and whether or not a small class would be an impediment to growth in the workshop setting. In the case of UW-Madison, a cohort consists of six individuals, on the smaller side of things. One argument against small cohorts was that the same six people would be looking at your work over and over, and thus an applicant might be limiting their chances for outside perspectives. For my own experience, I haven’t found this factor to be limiting at all. These six people are the people who have come up with me from the very beginning of my time in the MFA. They’ve seen the growth of my work in the last year and a half, and can tell me where I’ve improved, and what ticks I’m still struggling through. That kind of intimacy in the work has been just as helpful to me as new perspective.

It’s also an illusion that this program is only six people. Each year UW-Madison also has five incoming post-MFA Fellows, and in my time at the program, we have all gotten together to host salons, which has allowed me to develop relationships with writers outside of my cohort and expand my community. Not to mention the faculty are more-often-than-not happy to take a look at something. I have had no shortage of perspective here in addition to the intimacy I didn’t know I would receive.

Generally, we’ve all workshopped three stories per workshop, and in one of them, even a novella-length project for NanoWrimo.

What is your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

I’ve worked on our program’s literary magazine as a Fiction Editor, which was invaluable in illuminating how that process works for my own submissions. The program hosts a number of contemporary writers and the Madison Public library has a visiting reader series that has brought us luminaries such as Kristen Valdez Quade, Margaret Attwood, Danez Smith, Ada Limon, Ricky Laurentis, and even screenwriter and director Lena Waithe. Our program also tries to make sure we have some one-on-one time with some of the visiting writers, such as a gathering with Viet Thanh Nguyen and the opportunity to have our work critiqued by Kristen Valdez Quade. I’ve also had ample opportunity to read my own work in conjunction with series such as Monsters of Poetry, plus teach workshops to high school students at the UW-Whitewater Creative Writing Festival. Keeping writing at the center of a writer’s life is important to the program, and there’s no shortage of events to attend.

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Dantiel W. Moniz is a homegrown Floridian and MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House,Apogee JournalPloughshares, Pleiades and elsewhere. She has received scholarships and residencies from Hedgebrook and the Elizabeth George Foundation, and was selected as the winner of the 2018 Cecelia Joyce Johnson emerging writer award by the Key West Literary Seminars.

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