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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.

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.

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AWP Madness Ensues: Tips and Tricks for Success

[Photo credit: Jamie Brown, 2011]

With over 12,000 attendees, the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is the largest literary conference in North America. In total, there are over 2,000 presenters (one of which, this year, is me!) offering more than 550 panels, readings, and presentations. It can all be a bit overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you out:

Before You Travel—

  1. Vet the Schedule: My big “discovery” this year is the AWP app. You can search the schedule by type of event, person, or day which is extremely useful once you see how thick the conference schedule book is. The app works offline in airplane mode (if you pre-load before disconnecting) so if you’re short on time, you can schedule browse on your flight. If it’s your first AWP, choose your events based on areas of interest—themes, genres, concerns you have about writing. This way, you’ll be drawn to people who are writing similarly to you. Once you start building a broader knowledge, considering choosing events based on people you’re interested in learning more about or meeting.
  1. Reach Out to Your Writing Communities: Think back to all the writers you’ve interacted with over the years. Any one of these people could be at AWP! As a quick story, last year, I stared at a man at the Jacqueline Woodson reading that looked too familiar, even from behind. Afterward, I walked up and realized it was a writing friend, Aatif, whom I met in LA and hadn’t seen in over a year. Reach out to undergrad writing professors, previous classes you’ve taken, listservs you subscribe to, or organizations you’ve worked for to let them know you’ll be in town. If you’re speaking on a panel (like me), share your information with them (listed below!).
  1. Transition Outfits: Don’t be stressed about your clothing choices unless that stress brings you a little bit of pleasure. Here’s what I didn’t know when I was packing last year— More than likely, you won’t have time to go back to your lodging to change so pick outfits that transition well from day to evening dinners. Since you’ll be moving about all day, carefully consider your shoe choice. On any given day, you may end up walking a mile to attend a reading or grab a drink. Overall, people were less dressy than I imagined they would be. Think dressy casual with artistic flair. The one caveat to these rules was Saturday night. The conference hosts a dance party and people were more excited about dressing up then.

While You’re There—

  1. Making New Friends: Don’t be freaked out by the dreaded word: “Networking.” Think of it as an opportunity to make new writing friends. These people will be your peers and champions moving forward, because they care about words as much as you do! I suggest keeping a page in your notebook to ask for people’s email addresses. This is great because it gives you the power to follow up with the contacts after the conference. If you’re really jiving with someone though, consider asking directly to connect with them via cell or Facebook. If that makes you uncomfortable, offer them your contact information so that the choice is up to them to reach out to you. Generally, people are there to meet other writers so don’t let yourself get too anxious about trying to stay in touch. If you’re speaking on a panel, make a flyer to hand out to people that seem like they’d be interested.
  1. Carry a Drawstring Day Bag: Since you’ll be gone all day, carry all the vitals with you: notebook, pens, any books you need (I’m hoping for Danticat’s signature on my copy of Create Dangerously), wallet, scarf (protects in rain, warms in a cold conference rooms, doubles as a pillow if you need a nap), a packed lunch if you’re on a budget, meds, and anything you need for the whole day.
  1. Food: Last year, I was definitely on a tight budget. Hit up a grocery store in your hometown and pack food in your bag before you go (but don’t make my mistakes, no peanut butter on the airplane). The editor of Indiana Review, Tessa Yang, taught me that microwavable mac-n-cheese bowls make a great late-night snack. Staying in an AirBnB will let you make breakfast before you go. If that’s not an option, ask if your hotel room has a communal microwave. Dinner is the one meal you’ll probably have to buy while you’re out, but take your leftovers to reheat for breakfast the next day.
  1. Wind Down if Needed: AWP can be an overwhelming experience, especially for people who don’t enjoy large crowds. Take your rest when you need it. For me, that meant finding an empty corner and napping on the floor for thirty minutes with a scarf under my head. Choose the events that are right for you and remember that it’s ok to call it a day to rest.

Well, those are all my hard-earned tips from my last AWP trip. Check back in late March for a blog about organizing a panel and applying for funding to attend next year in Portland, Oregon!

Safe travels and I hope to meet you at my event (details listed below).

 

MFA vs POC: A Discussion on Surviving and Thriving in Predominantly White Institutions

Saturday, March 10 from 10:45 – 11:45 am in Florida Salon 5, Marriott Waterside, Second Floor

Panelists: Elizabeth Upshur, Anudradha Bhowmik, Cameron Moreno, William Palomo, Gionni Ponce

A diverse panel of current MFA students will focus on the experience of entering a creative writing program at a predominantly white institute as a person of color. Panelists will discuss both the challenges and the opportunities they have faced in their programs including confronting stereotypes in workshop, finding and working with mentors, and maintaining cultural identity. This is an opportunity for students and faculty to get honest feedback and discuss solutions.

So You’re Waiting to Hear Back from MFA Programs: Post Application Advice With Christy Lorio

Image: Jeffery James Pacres

For the next two months we’ll be asking some of our first year contributors to talk about the post application period and how they dealt with it last year.

What did you do to get through the post application period?

It sounds cheesy but I told myself that I would get into the school I was meant to attend. I gave myself ample time to get my writing samples, SOP and letters of recommendation in before my deadlines so I felt confident I would get into at least one of the three schools I applied to on the first try. In the interim, I kept up with MFA Draft on Facebook for the community aspect and looked at Grad Café’s previous application year to estimate when acceptance letters would come out. This helped me resist checking my email twenty times a day (okay, maybe I still did that).

What’s the best piece of advice you received about applying?

Can I give two? Trust your gut instinct and don’t go into substantial debt for an MFA. I did trust my gut and it paid off. I got into my first pick school and I got a GA position that provides a tuition waiver and stipend. Applying without funding was a risky move for me since GA positions are hard to come so I really lucked out.

Biggest high? Biggest low?

Biggest high was getting into two of the three schools I applied to. I didn’t have any big lows but there was an administrative glitch at my first pick school. Parts of my application didn’t completely upload so I had to resubmit my application after the deadline. When I realized what happened I immediately called the school. They could see that I submitted before the deadline but they couldn’t access the files so I wasn’t penalized. I wouldn’t have caught this error if I hadn’t checked on my application after I sent it in.

What would you do differently if you could apply all over again?

I honestly don’t think I would have changed a thing. I got into two schools with two solid writing samples and I felt that my SOP represented me well.

So You’re Waiting to Hear Back from MFA Programs: Post Application Advice With Rachel Heng

Image: Jeroen François

For the next two months we’ll be asking some of our first year contributors to talk about the post application period and how they dealt with it last year.

What did you do to get through the post application period?

In the period that I was applying to MFA programs, a couple of beta readers were reading an early draft of my novel. It just so happened that I finished my applications around the same time that they finished reading and gave me feedback, so I threw myself into rewriting the novel. It was the perfect distraction because while I didn’t feel up for generating new work at the time, I felt like rewriting was something I could actually do. So I spent most of December and January wrestling with edits. And then, having decided that MFA application anxiety was, y’know, not quite crippling enough, I decided to query agents as well. Querying agents was a whole different level of anxiety and I definitely don’t recommend this. On hindsight, my social media / email addiction really started around this period of time, when I was constantly checking draft for MFA news, stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing my email. So I wouldn’t say to do what I did, but maybe some version of this. E.g. if you don’t feel up to writing new work, find some existing piece of writing that you can throw yourself into and wrestle with. Or if you have another project (new filing system, redecorating your room, exercising, adopting a cat), that can be helpful to take your mind off the wait.

What’s the best piece of advice you received about applying?

Aim high, aim for your dream schools — even if you don’t get in, you can always apply again next year. Don’t rule out schools because you think you won’t get in. It’s so hard to know where we ‘stand’ as writers, if that even makes sense as a concept. I’d been writing about 3 years when I applied to MFAs and was convinced I would get rejected everywhere; after all, my journal acceptance rate was dismal (around 0.5%, maybe less) at the time. Surely MFA programs would be more difficult to get into than the lit journals that they house (I now know this is not true for a variety of reasons, one of them being I am still getting rejected by lit journals housed in programs that accepted me). I ended up getting into several programs which I hadn’t expected at all, but if I hadn’t, I would’ve applied again next year, and the next. So I guess the same advice applies to MFA applications as to writing in general: persist.

Biggest high? Biggest low?

I’ll start with biggest low, because that came first. Syracuse was the first of my choices to start notifying. It was also my top choice and dream school, so when the acceptance notifications started to come out on Draft and I hadn’t heard anything, I was crushed. Then I got a rejection email (which as some of you know is a form letter that starts with “Dear Applicant”, lol), followed by computer-generated rejections from Cornell and UVA. Then followed several days of silence while other people celebrated acceptances on Draft and I was convinced my fears of not being accepted anywhere were true. I’d been preparing myself for it but still, to be faced with the possibility that I wouldn’t be going to an MFA program that year was a stab in the heart.
The biggest high came after that stretch of silence, when I got a phone call from a New York number at work one day. It was Deborah Landau, offering me a place at NYU and their Writers in Public Schools fellowship, which would cover tuition and offer a $27k annual stipend. I went into a meeting room to cry after that phone call (no one at work knew I was applying to grad school). But it wasn’t over — that same day, I was waitlisted by Michigan and accepted by Indiana. After the rejections of the past week and becoming convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere, it was a high like no other. I ended up getting other acceptances, acceptances from schools I would never, ever have imagined getting into and that stunned me and also made me cry (I did a lot of crying in February / March 2017), but that first acceptance was golden.

What would you do differently if you could apply all over again?

I would try to be kinder to myself. Often I felt like it was life or death when I was applying, while on hindsight, the MFA application process and the MFA itself are just steps in what is (hopefully) a long journey as a writer. I would try to remember that regardless of the application outcome, I had managed to write fiction on my own for years. Even if I didn’t get into an MFA, I would just keep chipping away. I would still be a writer, and no rejection could take that from me.

Why We Need Diverse Syllabi

Image: John Nakamura Remy

In the second year of my M.A. program, I’ve had the opportunity to teach my own introductory fiction course to undergraduate students. Creative Writing courses tend to draw a diverse group of students, especially because my intro course fulfills a general education requirement. I have students from all different disciplines, not just English— biology, engineering, poli-sci, agriculture, you name it. My students also range from freshman to so-called “super seniors.” Moreover, the UC Davis student population is racially diverse (only 26% of the freshman class of 2016 was white), and my classroom reflects the wider demographics of the school. With that in mind, I’ve needed to craft a syllabus that will both fit my students’ needs and fulfill my learning objectives. To do this, I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on readings by writers of color and women on my syllabus.

In my course, my students read Junot Diaz’s story “How to Date A Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” to discuss 2nd person point of view. They read Yiyun Li’s portrait of a retired art teacher in “A Man Like Him” to discuss character-based stories. James Baldwin’s story “The Man Child” teaches them about masterful beginnings and endings. They enter the science fiction universe of Charles Yu in “Standard Loneliness Package” to understand how stories can make metaphor reality.  They explore the rich language of Angela Carter’s feminist fairy tale “The Bloody Chamber.” This is just a sampling of the stories I teach, but what ties them together is my overarching goal of representing the experiences of many different types of people, instead of just a few.

This isn’t to say that I’ve banned white male writers from my course, or purged them entirely from the syllabus. I pick the readings for each week based on a craft element that we’re going to discuss: for example, setting, character, or point of view. For some of these craft elements, I have a favorite story by Raymond Carver or George Saunders that I use. But I’ve realized that if I just rely on my “go to” short story classics, the ones I was taught in undergrad, I would end up with a syllabus with a lot of white writers and not much else.

We have to be able to acknowledge that yes, white male writers were formative to the genre of the short story without presenting their work as the only models for storytelling. My solution is to make their voices present in my syllabus, but in the minority, while bringing people of color and women writers to the forefront. By doing this, I believe that my students gain more from the class than they would if I were not specifically picking diverse readings. Here’s a list of some of the reasons why I think it’s important to expose my students to a diverse pool of authors.

  1. Representation matters. This phrase has almost become a truism because it’s repeated so often, but it bears repeating. Representation matters. Many of the “classic” short stories are written by white middle class heterosexual people about problems that white middle class heterosexual people face. Students who do not share that background may feel alienated if these are the only stories we have them read. If, however, students can see themselves in the stories, through stories with writers and characters that share their background and understand their experiences, they will connect to the stories. They will also be able to see themselves as writers if they have role models who are like them.

I know this certainly happened for me. In my first writing workshop in college, my professor Fae Ng, who was a badass writing role model herself, introduced me to the work of Sigrid Nunez, a mixed-race writer whose stories feature mixed race characters struggling with identity issues. As a mixed-race woman myself, (I identify as “hapa,” since my mom is Chinese-Hawaiian and my dad is white), I connected with Nunez’s writing and I realized that I could explore my own experiences with ethnic and racial identity in my work.

 

  1. Reading diverse works helps students expand their worldview and practice empathy. Even if you don’t share anything in common with a POC or woman writer, reading stories that center their experiences will help you learn about what it is like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. I know I have learned a lot about my own culture and other cultures through reading literature. I love reading stories about people who lead entirely different lives than me and who have different experiences because it helps me understand other people’s motivations and struggles. Especially in the current political climate, it’s important to try to understand other people’s point of view, especially the perspectives of marginalized folks including immigrants, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Science has actually proven that reading literature increases empathy, but I wonder if those studies take in account whether it increases empathy for the typical subjects of “literary fiction,” aka white middle class heterosexual people, or if the benefits of increasing empathy extend to all people. I have a suspicion that it’s the former, not the latter, in which case, we need to make sure that marginalized people are included in the literature we have students read, so that our students’ empathy is directed at many different types of people.

 

  1. Students can use literature as a way to understand systems of oppression that don’t directly affect them. In addition to being able to see through the point of view of someone different from themselves, students who read stories by writers of color and women will be able see what the experience of discrimination and marginalization is like. A lot of these writers not only show characters experiencing oppression in its multitude of forms, including racism, sexism, etc., but they also use their platform to unveil the sources of such oppression: institutionalized racism, bigoted attitudes that hide behind talk of “fairness” and “merit,” implicit bias, etc.

Most of the stories on these topics are not didactic. They don’t lay out the issues and tell readers the way to fix them. Instead they give complex portrayals of flawed characters and ask readers to dig deeper to draw their own conclusions. One of my favorite stories to teach,“Paranoia” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, has a white narrator who cannot see his own biases or understand that his paranoia of being mugged in an urban neighborhood is unfounded. At the same time he dismisses his undocumented friend’s paranoia of being deported, which is actually justified by the narrative. This story, while not actually told from a POC’s perspective, still unlocks a new understanding of bias in my students, who can clearly see the narrator, while well-intentioned, is bigoted without realizing it.

 

  1. Stories by and about people of color and marginalized folks cause us to question our own “default” settings when reading fiction. Because of the way we privilege white writers in most of our schooling and in our literary canon, my students walk into my classroom with the assumption that unless the text says otherwise, the story is told from a white person’s point of view. They also often assume that the writer’s gender will be the same as the narrator’s. Whenever we read a story that breaks these rules, my students start to realize they have underlying assumptions about texts because of how society has taught them to read literature.

For example, when we read “The Man Child” by James Baldwin, I ask my students how many of them noticed that the characters were white. Most of them shrug; they take it for granted that the story was about white characters. I point out that James Baldwin is a prominent African-American writer who almost exclusively writes about black characters. “The Man Child” is the only Baldwin story I know of that is solely about white characters. When my students find this out, it makes them examine his choice of race for his characters more closely. Is there a political message in the story?

Of course there’s a political message. First of all, James Baldwin always has a political take in mind, but also, as my students discover during my class, all writing is political. Not writing about politics or race is a political stance of its own. I hope by the end of my class, my students understand the political power that literature holds. Short stories might not be the deciding factor that sways an election, but words are still powerful nonetheless.

Teaching carries its own political implications, too. Whether or not you specifically center race, class, and gender in your syllabus is in itself a political statement. I choose to focus my syllabus on diverse writers. My syllabus is not perfect, nor is my class, but keeping my goal of having a diverse syllabus in mind motivates me to continue reading a wide range of writers so I can include even more voices in my course.

I hope that by introducing my students to diverse writers at the beginning of their writing careers, it will have lasting impact on their reading and writing habits. Call me naïve or idealistic, but I do believe that literature can make a difference to my students and to the world.

How to Find a Writing MFA Program for POCs

Note: This piece originally appeared on Medium.

Time for some Real Talk. If you happen to be coming from my How To Apply To A Writing MFA Program article, this is the part where I say a bunch of things that a lot of other people cannot get away with saying. When it comes to applying to a writing master’s program, it is not the same for us. 

Why? Junot Diaz and David Mura say it best in “MFA vs. POC“ and “The Student of Color in a Typical MFA Program.” For minorities, I would consider these mandatory reading, so you are fully aware of what you are up against. A taste from Junot Diaz:

I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations, minimum. I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino communityhe just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride. Another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class, tried to suggest readings that might illuminate the madness, her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness. As always race was the student of color’s problem, not the white class’s. 

Here’s a testament of my own — simply over watching a movie, not even in class. If you’ve seen Bend It Like Beckham, you might recall that Punjabi Sikh girl Jesminder (“Jess”) sneaks out of England, where her parents live, to play soccer with her team in Germany. I was one of three Indians who spent ten minutes trying to convince one white girl that Jess would never have put a toe on that soccer field. Why? Because her parents would have personally flown to Germany, retrieved their daughter, and ended her soccer career themselves.

We failed.

If three Indians can’t change one white girl’s perception of what an Indian would or would not do, under what circumstances does anyone believe the “token” POC in an MFA workshop stands a chance against eleven white people?

Now, some of you are reading this article because you already know this. Why else would anybody type “writing mfa for POCs” into a Google search, the way I did out of desperation a year and a half ago? Something is off and you already know it and you don’t know how to navigate it, so you try to look at what your predecessors have done.

Except when I did that, I found almost nothing. No advice. Validation, yes; recommendations, no. The situations described in Mura and Diaz’s articles would have caused me to clamp up, and I’m one of the most outspoken people I’ve ever met. If I can be shut down this easily, what would this do to others? Testaments like these made me realize that some MFA programs would have killed my writing.

Writing is hard enough. That’s why I’m in a master’s program. I came here to learn how to tell my stories, not to convince people that the stories are valid, or that my depiction of my culture is accurate. It makes me wonder if I am left to learn how to write minority characters only from minorities.

So for all you POCs (and minorities in general), here are some tips for the the extra work you will need to do to ensure yourself a welcoming environment. It is your responsibility to ensure that environment, for the world sure as hell doesn’t do it.

Change your search process

I was forced to ditch my prestige-based search process.

The good news is, filtering programs becomes insanely easy when all you do is go to the faculty page, and see how many currently-teaching POC faculty exist in a certain program. A mention to one Asian faculty member two years ago or an African American guest speaker this year doesn’t count, because they can’t help you write your POC character in your day-to-day learning experience — and I already spent a second semester trying to figure this out.

The bad news is, filtering programs becomes insanely easy when all you do is check the faculty diversity ratio, and that’s pretty messed up. Being a software engineer is a pretty nice gig, and I am currently on a team that I love-love-love, so I would only consider pausing my career for the most prestigious MFA programs. Thus, I researched top tier colleges and low-residency options. In the end, there weren’t many colleges I applied to, because there weren’t many colleges left. A disheartening number of the top tier colleges I wanted to apply to fell out in Step 1. I’ll leave it to you to find out which ones.

Research the Faculty

It disappoints me to have to say this, but the student body is difficult to ensure in diversity. This means the impact of minorities in a college will have to trickle down from the faculty. Given what you want to write, are there faculty members who can provide you a sounding board, a model, and when nobody believes you in your workshop, an “I second that” to back up your opinion? You’re already going to be working extra hard to write what you write; you don’t need to make it harder for yourself.

On the bright side, a diverse faculty attracts diverse students. Yaaaaaay!

Interview Faculty and Students

explicitly asked to interview students in my demographic: minority, female, young.

explicitly asked to Skype with the faculty who were minorities.

Don’t be shy; you have neither the money nor the time to leave yourself uninformed. Ask your interviewees what the program is like for minorities. Was there a pregnant pause? The silence says everything.

(One of my candidate programs fell out in this step.)

Play That Color Card

Let me be the first to say how much I hate, hate, hate this phrase so much. It reduces everything we are doing to a matter of using minority status to gain an “advantage” in something. We’re not trying to gain anything: we are trying to climb out of a hole to even out with the majority.

Furthermore, there isn’t enough minority representation in Western literature to begin with, and there are too many other issues we (each type of minority) are facing on a daily basis. My policy when it comes to minority status and womanhood is the same: considering all the disadvantages I have to deal with, if I am given any ”advantage”, I will not apologize for taking it.

And I aim to take every opportunity I am given to pave the way, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. I empower you to do the same.

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Code by day, prose by night, Snigdha Roy tackles issues of feminism, gender roles, and minority / race in any medium, be it rap, essay, personal narrative, poetry, or fantasy and science fiction. She won first place at Carnegie Mellon’s Adamson’s Awards for her essay, Arranged Marriage: A Borderland’s Perspective, as well as an Honorable Mention for her humorous travel article Dhaka in Transit. She is currently (lonely) married to her master’s program (the beloved Goddard College MFA), and is in the midst of two series on Medium: How to Get Into a Writing MFA Program and The Craft of Race: On Writing Minority Characters.

If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to The MFA Years, visit our submissions page.

Consider a Workshop or Conference This Summer

If you follow this blog frequently, you probably fall into one of three categories:

  1. Applying for an MFA this year and anxiously waiting for the results of all your application labor.
  2. Highly or hardly considering an MFA and wanted to find out if current or past candidates got the most out their experience.
  3. Currently in an MFA and looking to help out who are navigating the treacherous waters of MFA applications or are considering one.

Regardless of where you are, I highly recommend thinking about a workshop, conference, and/or retreat this summer if you aren’t already.

Some of these places have their applications due this month or the next (VONA, Kundiman) or in March (Clarion West, Sewanee). Like the MFA program, a workshop or conference experience can vary. When I first started to get serious about writing and wanted to know more about craft, writing lifestyles, and the business, I went to my first local writer’s conference at the time, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. I got a feel for others in the community, learned a few things, and got a sense of where my current style matched with others. Two years after that I went to the (now closed) Rutgers-Camden Writers Conference, and then the next year (when I started applying to MFA programs) I applied and was accepted into the 2017 Clarion West Writers’ workshop.

Pause for a Clarion West plug: The Clarion West Writers workshop was the strongest and most helpful workshop that I have done so far to measure if I wanted to really be a writer or not. Our class was diverse, well-rounded, and every single one of them is a caring and intelligent individual. There were so many stories that I read over that six-week intensive that fucking inspired me.

I owe everything to that workshop and the generosity of the SF/F community, the CW staff, my classmates (Team Eclipse), and those who back CW writers year after year. Thank you all, and I am eternally grateful. For more information on the Clarion West experience, please check out my classmate Robert Minto’s blog post.

What should I look for in a workshop as a first timer?

You will get something out of every intensive writing retreat or conference you go to if you put the work in. Even if the workshop is bad (i.e filled with only people from a higher income bracket, lack of diversity in class or instruction, or if you just had an oddball experience) you’ll know a little bit about yourself as a writer, how you interact with others in your field, and at the very least know what areas you need to improve on like craft or professionalism.

When I started going to conferences, I knew that I did not want to go hard on ‘networking’ or get too friendly with other writers. I wanted to be a forward observer: establish an OP, gather information, and turn it into intelligence. I wanted to stay close enough that I could listen and learn from others in the field without feeling pressurized to contribute extensively.

A local conference or book festival can be good if you want to dabble and see if this is right for you. For one, you will not be traveling too far and wasting too much time or gas. If the place is a sketch or you get anxious, backing out won’t be a big deal. Frankly, some of these conferences can set you back a few hundred or so dollars if you are applying close to the date of the event, but others offer discounts or scholarships for early applications or are free and open to the public.

If this is your first time going to one of these things, I recommend looking now or (if you are reading this in May or so) look at what is either the cheapest or near free and what is closest to you.

I have either been to a local workshop or something similar once, and I am thinking about one of the big workshops that are fucking expensive. Oh, and I’m only going to go if I get a grant or a scholarship with it. What should I be looking for?

As Cady listed out in her post, here are some of the well-known or prestigious workshops out there:

In-person and online weekly workshops

The Loft

Grub Street

Writers & Books

Catapult

Sackett Street 

Brooklyn Poets 

92Y

One Story

Writers’ Extension

Local universities, which may offer the chance to take individual workshops to people who are not current students.

Conferences and Weeklong Workshops

Kenyon

Tin House

Tent (Jew-ish, but admissions are open to the goys)

VONA (POC only)

One Story

Writing by Writers

Sewanee

Bread Loaf

In addition to that, here’s a listing for speculative/science fiction/fantasy/horror writers:

Clarion West Writers Workshop (In Seattle)

Clarion (In California)

Odyssey

Tao’s Toolbox

Writing The Other

The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction

Viable Paradise (Workshop is in October but applications open now)

Shared Worlds (For Teens)

Alpha (For Teens)

Bear in mind that some of the above genre workshops offer classes year round (either online or one-day workshops for locals)

While you are checking out her post, check out the rest of her advice on the MFA Years to include her post on SOP’s, submission cover letters, and others.

Footnote: You should listen to pretty much whatever advice Cady gives you.


Looks dope. As a fiction writer, what do I generally need to apply?

It would be good to have the following handy as most applications are the same with a few differences:

  1. A personal statement (less than 1000 words or so. Around the 500 mark is solid) that states what you write, why you need this workshop to help you, what you hope to learn from it (including any writers that you admire who are going to be there), and a brief bio of your background and publishing history (if you got one. If not, no big).
  2. A short story of fewer than 5,000 words (or one that you can cut down to 3 or 4,000), or two smaller stories that total up to 4 to 5,000 words. Some places like Kundiman, are only asking for 5 pages (12 pt, double space) with a 1,250 max. I recommend having a handful of short stories at the ready because it will demonstrate to the gatekeepers that you can, at the least, set up a story and finish it.
  3. Around $100 saved up, depending on how many workshops you want and can apply to. If you are applying to about one or two, I’d venture about $50 or less squared away is good enough.

That’s it! Of course, read through every single place you apply, proof-read your essay or sample so that it’s tailored to them, and much like the MFA application process, they each have their unique stipulation. However, the three criteria above will make things smoother for you in the process. I think applying at the same time as your MFA application season puts you at an advantage because you’ll have an easier time adjusting your already made statement of purpose essay to whatever conference or workshop you’re applying to.

On Scholarships

Some offer generous backing, some offer half, and some don’t offer shit.

Keep in mind that most of the scholarship applications are early, some even weeks before the final due date for general admission. If you’re past that deadline, there are still some options available to you for alternative funding through a quick google search on Grants for Writers and the like. I haven’t done this method (yet) so I can’t vouch for any sites or programs that work the best outside of University grant funding.

Like an MFA, please do not go broke over a workshop. If you didn’t get funding this round or going to the workshop is just not financially in the cards for you, do not worry. You have options. Which leads me to the next question.

I’m unsure about summer workshops/conferences/fairs for XYZ reason or I didn’t get into a workshop

Also, like the MFA, you don’t necessarily need one of these summer workshop things to become a writer.

There are resources out there where you can learn craft, listen to author interviews, or study for little to no cost online. In your area, you’ll probably find a local writing group. If your local writing group is not what you’re looking for, there are places online that you can go to.

What the workshop or places like the MFA does is expedite where you may end up in your writing career and, maybe, find one or several writers who you may end up working within some capacity for the rest of your writing career. I’ve met writers from cons that I still occasionally email today or cheer on when I hear their novel gets picked up by Scholastic or gets pubbed in a magazine, regardless if it’s The Ma and Pa Review or Granta. I strongly believe that the writers I met at Clarion West will continue to be my friends throughout the rest of my writing life and we’ll continue pushing each other as well as being honest with one another’s work.

When I first putting myself out there and applying to these things, I was looking to just gather info, but as the years went by I knew that having a small tribe of writers you click with and understand is worth its weight in gold—it’s as important as picking out the hours of your day to sit down and finish your writing projects.

Here are a few online writing communities that you can join today:

Scribophile

Fictionpress

Fanfiction.net (for fandom)

Archive of Our Own (Also known as AO3 for more fandom writing)

MFA Draft Fiction

Here are some videos that I’ve found helpful when it comes to craft:

Brandon Sanderson’s lectures

Writing for the Screenplay

Nerdwriter

Daniel Jose Older’s lectures on Skillshare

Advice that runs the gamut (Craft, business, the writer’s life…)

Chuck Wendig’s blogs on writing

Podcasts on craft

Writing Excuses

Nerdist

Business side of writing info

Agentqueryconnect

Manuscript Wish List

DVPIT

Of course, there are hundreds more that I’ve left out, but many of the above sites I’ve used at one time or another and learned a thing or two.

If you want to add anything to the list (a helpful site, a great writing podcast, etc) that you can vouch for and really got a lot out of, feel free to leave a note into the comments and I’ll add it to the list.

 

Mark Galarrita is an MFA fiction candidate and McNair Graduate Fellow at the University of Alabama. He attended the 2017 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, the 2016 Rutgers’ Summer Writers’ Conference, and graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a BA in political science. His work has appeared in Bull Magazine and the Kelsey Review. His fiction was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and a Pushcart Prize. He has written for the “The Aethera Campaign Setting: a Pathfinder Compatible RPG” and narrative scripts for Global Gamer Jam events. Follow him on Twitter @MarkGalarrita or on his website.