From My Bookshelf: An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs

This review originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of The Writer magazine.

Help for Choosing a Writing Program

An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MFA or MA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant, or Fellowship
by Amy Holman, Prentice-Hall Press/Penguin, 208 pages plus CD-ROM. Paperback, $18.95

Review by Erika Dreifus

If you’re tired of Googling for online lists of MFA programs or writing grants or residencies, and if you’re not interested in seeking separate print volumes dedicated to each of the same, Amy Holman’s new book, An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will make you very happy. A published poet and literary consultant who indeed demonstrates an insider’s knowledge of the field, Holman has assembled a no-nonsense guide to several key aspects of writers’ professional development. Both beginners and more advanced writers should be grateful.

Holman defines “creative writing programs” broadly; she wants to “open your minds to possibilities you might have overlooked, thought were closed to you, or worried were too hard to pursue, and to change your mind about them.” So she doesn’t limit herself to academic (MA or MFA) programs in creative writing–although she profiles 60 such programs, including some administered through the popular low-residency option, in the book, and lists another 93 on the accompanying CD-ROM. She covers residencies, colonies, grants, and fellowships, too.

The book’s first sections introduce you to this vocabulary and offer advice on “choosing the right program at the right time” and preparing an application. Holman provides the context, background and guidance for you to proceed on your own, because, as she rightly notes, “How you become encouraged about your writing ability, how you improve, hone, or perfect it depends largely on your personality and also on your personal engagement to the literary community to date.” She wants to help you identify the “right environments” for your own development as a writer; she understands that that will be a personal process.

Program profiles fill most of the book. Those covering graduate schools (presented alphabetically, as Holman has wisely avoided ranking them) stand out for the way they highlight distinguishing features/program “perks” while following an economical and easy-to-follow template: For each program, Holman tells you what kind of degree it offers, a “nutshell” summary, a faculty list, and information on “defraying the cost.” Non-academic program descriptions are similarly highly individualized. Holman also does the reader a favor by signaling when colonies or grants are truly open to early-career writers and when they’re really looking for very experienced, very published people. Holman complements the listings with informative quotations throughout.

Since Holman limited the number of profiles printed in the book (which keeps the text both readable and portable), one of An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs‘s selling points is its accompanying CD-ROM, “with listings and links for 300 programs.” This bonus sounds fantastic, and in many ways it is (especially in listing and linking programs located outside the United States). But take note of my experience:

*I could not initially access the promised searchable database on my Mac; when I tried the disc on a library PC, that problem seemed to disappear.

*The desktop left me confused. I didn’t know which file/icon to click; I would have appreciated a file labeled “Read me first.” When I did find the database, I learned that I could search only one category at a time (type of program, state, or subject of program).

*Although I searched successfully for “low-residency MA programs,” an attempt to identify “low-residency MFA programs” yielded what seemed to be a list of residency and low-residency programs combined.

*Similarly, the 300 promised programs are divided among multiple categories (Resident MA; Resident MFA; Low-Residency MFA; Low-Residency MA; Artist Colonies and Writers Colonies; Artist-in-Residence Programs in National Parks and Community; Academic Writer-in-Residence Programs; Grants and Fellowships; and Paid Writing Spaces). Holman provides an excellent introduction, but to identify additional programs you’ll still need to make use of other resources (including those helpfully linked in a “Resources” section).

*If you’re hoping that the CD-ROM will contain program descriptions similar to those Holman provides in the book, be forewarned that it offers program links only. In other words, you won’t find another 93 MA/MFA program descriptions there.

Those observations notwithstanding, Holman has done something exceedingly useful here. “No matter at what stage–beginning, emerging, or established–you are in your writing career, you have goals,” Holman writes. An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will help you meet them.

Residency Notes: Post #3

At the end of my previous post in this series, I promised to tell you about the daily routine I followed while at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation this fall.

Meals were served up at MacBarn three times each day (except for Sunday morning breakfast). So at 8AM, noon, and 6PM you’d find me (and everyone else) up there. All of us (the seven residents plus staff members) sat around a gorgeous table and ate. The cooking was very high-level (much fancier than I’m used to). Our first breakfast, for instance, included scrambled eggs; chicken and apple sausaged; hot blueberry muffins; English muffins; cereal; yogurt; fruit; juices; coffee/tea. In other words, there was something for everyone. Lunch was, thankfully, usually lighter! Dinners often included fish/seafood (absolutely fresh–we were in Maine, after all!). One happy night we had a huge lobster fest.

After breakfast I usually returned to “my” place and started working. Since Internet access was pretty limited (no high-speed connections; up at MacBarn I could use the “public” computers and in my Irish House room I dialed-up through my own account but that got expensive) I was able to focus a little better than I do at home! When I needed to research on the ‘net, though, I did get a little frustrated.

Anyway, I tended to take a quick jog late in the morning, just before lunch. The afternoon was more or less the same as the morning–writing and reading–though I often snuck a nap in, too. What a life!

Fridays had their own routine. After breakfast, we were all driven into the nearest town-with-a-laundromat (Damariscotta). We spent the morning doing our laundry (while my laundry was drying I usually walked on over to the nearby public library or bookstore or ran a couple of other small errands).

As you can probably tell, it was a relaxing, refreshing experience all around!

Residency Notes: Post #2

Here’s the second installment of a short series of posts about my recent residency at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation.

In my previous post, I discussed the application process–how I found this particular opportunity and what I was thinking as I applied. Now I’ll tell you what I found when I got there.

The place–both the Foundation’s buildings and the general location (an hour north of Portland)–is stunning. Residents are housed in one of two buildings: MacBarn (pictured elsewhere on the blog) and what’s called the “Irish House.” I was assigned to the Irish House. I had an upstairs bedroom/bath (practically the size of my entire apartment at home). Take a look at the photo included with this post to see the back porch.

Alas, all’s not perfect even in paradise! The Irish House is about one half-mile down the road from MacBarn; I was ultimately very glad that I had my car, especially when returning from evening meals/gatherings at MacBarn; street lights aren’t exactly as common in rural Maine as they are in my urban hometown. I’m also not quite “a dog person”; apparently, leash laws aren’t uppermost in some of the Foundation’s neighbors’ minds.

My room was, simply, huge. I wrote (typed) at a table, and read most of the books previously listed in a big, green chair right by the window. For variation (when it wasn’t too cold) I read outside on the porch.

Since I drove up from Massachusetts, I was able to bring more “stuff” than I’d brought with me to previous residencies (when I’d traveled by air or bus). But so much was provided–down to extra toothpaste in case I’d forgotten it–that I didn’t need some of what I’d brought.

I arrived early on a Friday afternoon. By the end of the day, all seven of us were there: five visual artists and two writers. We came to the residency from six different states (two of us from Massachusetts). The first evening began with drinks and hors d’oeuvres up at MacBarn, followed by dinner, giving us the chance to get acquainted with each other and the very dedicated Foundation staff.

I’ll tell you more about my daily routine next time.

Residency Notes, Post #1

Well, you asked to hear more about the residency, so here’s the first in a series of posts I’ll be making about it.

Let’s start with some background. Last September (2005) I submitted my application for a residency at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation. I frankly knew little about the Foundation or the residency program, because I could not find a dedicated Web site (I suspected that might dissuade a number of potential applicants, which might be helpful to my own application chances). So initially, my main source for information was the Foundation’s listing on the Alliance of Artists Communities Web site.

I had to request the application materials (something else that I suspected might discourage applicants who might limit themselves to programs with downloadable materials). And when I received those materials I was immediately intrigued by a number of things:

1) The professionalism of the program description;
2) The generosity of the residency, including six weeks’ accommodation (private room and bath for each artist) plus all meals and a stipend for travel/materials;
3) The idea of spending time in coastal Maine;
4) The absence of an application fee (or any residency fee);
5) The relative simplicity of the application process (and the serendipity of my request, which arrived with time to spare before the single, annual September application deadline).

The Foundation runs four residency periods (for up to seven artists and writers at a time) each year. Last January I heard back: I’d received my third choice, a fall 2006 residency. As it happened, this worked out beautifully considering personal/family matters that developed after my application had been submitted (I would have had to turn down my first-choice summer assignment). And I imagined that fall in Maine would be pretty spectacular. I was right about that, as you can glimpse from the photo I’ve included with this post.

Six weeks away seemed a real luxury, and I began plotting how to maximize my freelance/teaching time before the fall. Ultimately, however, I was unable to stay the full six weeks, in part so I could work at the conference I referenced in yesterday’s post. Another artist had to leave when I did, too, four weeks into the program; this is by no means the ideal way to go about things.

I drove from Cambridge to Westport Island (about an hour north of Portland) the last Friday in September. I’ll tell you what happened after that the next time I post within this “series”!

A Conversation with Kevin Haworth

One pleasure of the online world is the seemingly endless opportunity it provides to “meet” other writers and learn about their excellent work. Not long ago I made the virtual acquaintance of Kevin Haworth, who recently won the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers for his debut novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things (Quality Words in Print, 2005). For those who aren’t familiar with this major award, it’s administered by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Past winners include Nathan Englander, Simone Zelitch, Peter Orner, Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and Nancy Reisman.

And for those who aren’t familiar with Haworth’s novel, it’s a remarkable read. Set primarily in Denmark during World War II, the novel follows several seemingly unrelated characters as their lives change–little by little–as a series of “small things” gradually takes place under Denmark’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Although the novel itself is discontinuous (following disparate characters and shifting in time; I don’t always appreciate such nonlinearity), in this case it all works, and Haworth skillfully weaves the various threads together. This is an affecting and effective novel; it lingers long after the last page.

Born in Brooklyn in 1971, Kevin Haworth spent most of his childhood in Summitville, NY. He graduated with honors from Vassar College in 1992; it was at Vassar that he began writing fiction, studying with novelist Thomas Mallon. After graduation, he moved to Israel to participate in Sherut La’am (Service to the People), a year-long volunteer program.

In 1995 Haworth received a teaching fellowship to Arizona State University, where he earned an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing. While there, he taught fiction workshops and published his first story, “The Story of Jonah and the Whale,” which won the Permafrost Fiction Prize. (His second published story, “The Promised Land,” won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest in 1998.) He also began work on his novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things.

In 1997 Haworth moved to Philadelphia, where his wife was attending rabbinical school. During two month-long residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, in 1999 and in 2001, Haworth worked as a carpenter and wrote long sections of his novel. He currently lives in Athens, Ohio, and teaches writing and literature at Ohio University. He is married to Rabbi Danielle Leshaw and has two children. Recently he responded to a series of my questions:

Erika Dreifus: Kevin, I’ve already congratulated you in our correspondence, but allow me to publicly acknowledge a recent honor–your receipt of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers for your debut novel, The Discontinuity of Small Things. How did you learn about this competition, and how did your novel come to be submitted for consideration?

Kevin Haworth: Full credit goes to my editor, Holly Gruber, who is very attentive to award competitions and submitted the book on my behalf. When you publish with a small press, literary prizes are an important way to get noticed. Of course, winning a major award is the result that everyone hopes for–but even smaller prizes can generate really welcome publicity.

ED: How did you find out you’d won the award? What was your reaction? What’s changed for you since the award was announced?

KH: There’s an instant legitimacy that comes with winning a national literary prize. Here at Ohio University, it has certainly attracted some notice and I hope that will develop on a larger scale as the news spreads. But most importantly, it lends that elusive concept–confidence–that might sustain a writer through the sine curve of a long career. As for how I heard–Holly, my editor, buried it in the back end of a phone call for maximum dramatic effect. I made her say it three times before I would let her get off the phone.

ED: Tell us how you came to write The Discontinuity of Small Things.

KH: It came directly out of my MFA program. In a class taught by the novelist Melissa Pritchard, we were ‘encouraged’–let’s say forced–to come up with a different idea for a novel each week, complete with synopsis and three-page sample. To me, this is a story about how productive waste can be for a writer. Ten weeks/ten ideas. Nine went nowhere. One led to this.

ED: This is an historical novel, set primarily in Denmark during World War II. Tell us a little about your research process.

KH: I used a number of different methods, but photographs were probably the most important. A good photograph provides you with wonderful details and an ambiguous narrative. That is a useful starting point for a writer. It supplies you with raw material, some tension, and lots of room to work. Many of the moments in the book emerged from photographs, both period ones and others that my wife took when we traveled to Denmark and Sweden to research the book about halfway through the writing process.

I also used historical accounts and discussions with people I met in Denmark, but less than one might think. For one thing, I really don’t like talking to strangers. I’m just too shy for it. Second, when you write an historical novel, you really have to be wary of the history. Georg Lukacs writes in The Historical Novel, a classic book of criticism on the subject, that important events can exert an unhealthy gravity over your work. You need to be entirely familiar with the history and context, and then you need to be willing to depart from it. Only then can you write a book that is surprising.

ED: This novel was published by Quality Words in Print. Tell us how the “match” between you and your novel and the publisher developed.

KH: I liked QWIP’s Web site. What I mean is: the face that QWIP presents to the world is quiet and lovely. I suspected those qualities would translate to the way that the press approached its books. So I sent some sample pages. The relationship developed from there. There was certainly no guarantee that they would appreciate the book–like everyone else, QWIP is awash in submissions–but I recognized an aesthetic kinship, and that helped. There are so many books in the world, and so many styles, that looking for a ‘match,’ as you say, does increase the chances of success.

ED: I read in the Cleveland Jewish News that you spent eight years working on this novel. How did you sustain momentum (and interest!) over all that time? What were some of the high (and low) points?

KH: There’s no need for parentheses. The low points came regularly and with quite a bit of noise. At times, the more I wrote the harder it became. All those words–and I still didn’t know if it would ever come together. When I first started sending the book out, it was almost out of desperation–to force the book into a clearer stage of success or failure.

Two elements sustained me during that time. One, I was convinced that the book mattered. Much of that is related to the inherent importance of the Holocaust and the need to explore it. But I think every writer needs to believe that there is something *big* about the story he or she is struggling to tell.

Second, I felt I had stumbled upon a unique stylistic approach. I often approached it in a detached way, like a science experiment. Let’s push the style, keep changing the variables, and see what happens. I love revision, the constant pursuit of a sentence that is slightly better than the previous version. I’m still doing it, by the way. You should see how many times I’ve rewritten this interview.

In the long run, it’s interesting how quickly one’s perspective can change. I was starting to feel quite behind the curve. (You’re 34! No book yet?) Now everyone’s telling me I’m a young writer again.

ED: The Goldberg Prize includes, in addition to a cash award, a month’s residency at the Ledig House International Writers’ Colony. You’ve spent some time in artist communities before. How did your past residency experience(s) contribute to your work on this novel, and what are you planning to work on while you’re at Ledig House?

KH: My two residencies at the Vermont Studio Center were absolutely necessary. For me, it comes down to mental and physical space. I re-made my studio in Vermont in the image of my novel–at one point, I copied nearly the whole book onto index cards and put them up on the wall. I was influenced by the visual artists who make up the majority of residents at VSC; unlike writers, they can see their whole work at once, look at it from different angles, see how individual brushstrokes affect the whole. So I did that. That was a key step in moving from a collection of sentences to a cohesive book.

The mental space is just as valuable. Separated from your everyday life, you simply spend more time with your work. Problems that seemed insurmountable at nine in the morning can be solved at five in the afternoon, when you’re just walking around and thinking.

ED: Anything else you want to tell us? (reading dates, future projects, conferences, etc.)

KH: I’m still putting together my fall schedule, but it looks like it will include some visits to universities, a couple of events on behalf of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and some appearances at Jewish book fairs. Of course, if your readers have any terrific ideas, I’d be glad to hear them. [Editor’s Note: Kevin will also be attending Jewish Book Week in London in February 2007.]

Like many writers, I’m reluctant to talk about my work-in-progress. But the book, now published, is an object. It has its own life, and I really enjoy narrating the story of that life.

ED: Thank you, Kevin!

(c) Copyright 2006 by Erika Dreifus

Note: You can find/learn more about Kevin Haworth’s award-winning novel here. And because this is an ethical issue discussed on several blogs lately, please know that there is NO financial benefit to The Practicing Writer for any purchase through that link.

(Adapted from a version published in The Practicing Writer, August 2006)