Tyler Gobble graduated from Ball State University in May 2011. He is a multi-hat wearer for Magic Helicopter Press and host of the Everything Is Bigger reading series at Malvern Books in Austin, TX. He has plopped out four chapbooks, with two others called Other People’s Poems (Radioactive Moat) and Collected Feelings with Layne Ransom (Forklift INK) forthcoming, and his first full-length will be out from Coconut Books in the fall of 2014. He likes disc golf, tank tops, and bacon, and yes, in that order. Feel free to mosey a message over to firstname.lastname@example.org for whatever reasons.
The 2014 In Print Festival is coming next week in Assembly Hall at the Alumni Center! On Tuesday, March 18 at 7:30 PM, the visiting authors will read from their work. The authors, along with editor Jodee Stanley, will also participate in a panel discussion on Wednesday, March 19, at 7:30 PM. By attending the Festival, you will be able to reach out to the writing community and gain insight into life as a writer from experienced authors. To get a taste of who will be speaking at the Festival, take a look at these interview excerpts from the In Print panelists. Full versions of the interviews can be found in the newest edition of The Broken Plate, which is available for free to all who attend In Print.
In this post, Tyler Fields, the winner of our 2013 Outstanding Senior Award, describes how his experiences and his English degree at Ball State helped prepare him for the New York Arts Program and the three internships that he currently holds at D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., at MAGGY Poetry Magazine, and at the Lauren Cerand publicity agency.
The memory is vague. My honors advisor is asking me what I think I’d like my major to be. “What are your interests?” she asks. This question seems a bit cavalier. After all, my answer could very realistically determine my future career or livelihood. I said, “books.” And with a click of her mouse, my advisor set into motion a series of events, called the Creative Writing Major, which would lead me to a number of opportunities and eventually several internships in New York City. For the next four years, many would ask the infamous question all humanities majors come to know so well: “What are you going to do with that major?” My answers would change over the years from, “I’d like to write,” to, “Maybe I’ll teach,” to, “I have no clue.” Now, as I am working at several internships in New York City and participating in the New York Arts Program, I realize that my Creative Writing degree from Ball State University is exactly what I needed to begin realizing my original desire to surround myself with books. It is because of the opportunities afforded by Ball State’s English Department that I now have a clear and confident reply to anyone who asks, “What are you going to do with that?”
Last week, Associate Professor Cathy Day convened a panel on graduate school for creative writing majors. This panel, featuring creative writing faculty members Jill Christman, Cathy Day, Sean Lovelace, Michael Meyerhofer, and Matt Mullins, addressed common questions and concerns that prospective creative writing graduate students have. Follow the link below to see Cathy’s original post, “Graduate School for Creative Writers,” on her Literary Citizenship blog. The post contains links to resources that are relevant to students thinking about applying to graduate school as well as a complete transcript of the event.
Just ten or fifteen years ago, there were hardly any low-res programs, but they’ve grown exponentially.
Not just low-residency programs. According to AWP’s statistics, in 1975, there were 24 undergraduate minors, 3 undergraduate majors, and 15 MFA programs nationally, now those numbers are 347, 157, and 184, respectively. It’s staggering, and only the numbers b/w 2009-2010 begin to indicate that we might be reaching saturation, leveling off.
Okay, this is something I think about a lot: Do you think there are more writers today because there are more programs? Or do you think that there are just as many people who want to be writers, but they are simply more visible now, because there are more programs?
That’s a terrific question, Cathy. Ever since we scratched on cave walls, we humans have had the desire to tell our stories. The narrative drive is strong in most of us. Think about it. How many times—say, at the summer wedding of a friend—have you revealed that you are a writer by profession to another veggie-skewer-nibbling guest who is something else by profession—let’s say he’s a surgeon. How many times have you heard, “Oh! I have a story to tell! I want to write a book, too!”
Once I had a surgeon tell me this during a procedure.
Well, maybe that surgeon at the appetizer table or in the procedure room does have a book in him. But the transition and translation between a book-in-the-head to a book-on-the-page is not a simple task. Turns out, writing is not so easy. Writing takes training (which is not to say MFA necessarily—this can be done on one’s own with great big stack of books), practice, and a whole heck of a lot of work. I have a writer friend who tells these non-writer writers: “That’s great! Write a draft of your book and I will look at it.”
Wow. That’s a great idea—and awfully generous, too. Do you have any snappy responses of your own?
I have only on one occasion had the opportunity and accompanying chutzpah to reply to a doctor who informed me—at a book reception in Minnesota—that he was “thinking about taking a summer off soon” so that he could write that book he had in him. My reply? “Wonderful! I was thinking of taking a summer off soon to do some surgeries.”
[Cathy laughs ruefully.]
I’m sure this sounds way too flip, but my point is this: For people with lives in full-swing who feel that need to tell their stories, that requirement to write and be heard, low-residency programs are a terrific way to become part of a vibrant writing community.
Okay, here’s my last question. Why do this? Why teach in a low-res program? You already have two jobs: one, being a professor, mentor, and colleague, an employee of Ball State University, and two, being a writer, the self-employed proprietor of your own writing “business.” What are the advantages of taking on another job? Mind you, I’m asking because it seems like almost every writer-teacher I know teaches in a low-res program, and I’m considering doing it myself!
When you lay out all my jobs here in a single sentence, Cathy, it makes me want to lie down and cry—or, at least, rest, but seriously, I ask myself this same question frequently. So why don’t I quit? Those two weeks every summer are vital to my engagement in the art and profession of creative nonfiction writing. My colleagues in the program inspire me, and we spend those weeks in close proximity: if I didn’t see them every summer, I’d miss them terribly. A typical day at Ashland consists of a morning run with one of my colleagues, a 3-hour workshop with fantastic students, a community lunch (where the topics range from manipulating multiple points of view in an essay to whether it’s a good idea to have key lime pie for dessert at lunchtime), afternoon craft seminars (hosted by faculty as well as visiting writers—again, on topics ranging from dealing with difficult material to syntax and setting, always with an eye toward the relationship between poetry, creative nonfiction, and truth), some afternoon writing and rest, dinner together, and an evening reading. It’s summer camp designed exactly for people like us.
It’s good and important to recharge your batteries.
I’m fortunate to teach at Ball State where I also enjoy a community of dynamic, hard-working, innovative writers who take their teaching and writing seriously, but I think it’s important to stretch myself as a teacher and a writer by getting this injection of new ideas and pedagogies every summer. In the past few years, the Ashland program has hosted writers such as Nathasha Tretheway, Floyd Skloot, Debra Marquart, Brenda Miller, Tobias Wolff, Scott Russell Sanders, Patricia Hampl, Richard Jackson, C.K. Williams, and Bill Kittredge—to name a few—and this means I’ve had the opportunity to introduce Trish Hampl’s reading from The Florist’s Daughter, I’ve eaten dinner with Floyd Skloot as he shared the impetus and structure for one of my favorite essays, and I’ve sat weeping in the audience as Richard Jackson read a new poem that blew my sandals off. It’s just an amazing experience, and as long as my family can swing it, I’ll do what I can to remain in this generative, supportive, inspiring writing community. I guess the advice for students and faculty alike here is: find a program with people you want to spend time with.
Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, which won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002, will be reissued in paperback this fall. Recent essays appearing in River Teeth and Harpur Palate have been honored by Pushcart nominations and her writing has been published in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Literary Mama, Mississippi Review, Wondertime, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.
Okay, the big question first: When is someone “ready” for graduate school in creative writing?
My stock answer is that would-be applicants should wait until they have a firm sense of the project they want to tackle; i.e., they should have a draft underway and be committed to completing and revising that manuscript to defend as a thesis at the end of the program. “The thesis is not the book,” I always reassure my near-deadline MFA students (in the Ashland poetry and creative nonfiction low-res program) and MA students (in Ball State’s Creative Writing program)—but the thesis should certainly be a giant step in the direction of that first book.
That is really good advice. I wish I’d had a firm sense of my project before applying. Did you?
Unfortunately, no. This was not my own degree of readiness when I entered the University of Alabama’s MFA program way back when in 1995; I enrolled as a writer of (thinly veiled autobiographical) short stories and exited with a reasonably polished memoir. The luxury of conceiving and beginning my Big Thing in the midst of my writing program was granted by the fact that while graduation from Bama is possible in three years, they’ll actually keep (read: fund) their students for four fat years. If I’d been in a two-year program, I would have run out of time. That said, the problem with my know-your-project advice is that MFA candidates might feel locked into a project that changes (or evaporates!) as they move into new writing relationships with professors, peers, and texts in their programs. We go into graduate writing programs to challenge ourselves as readers, thinkers, and writers, so new directions should certainly be encouraged, right?
Oh yes. I think that inevitably, the project you think you’ll work on in grad school shifts and morphs and changes. So, does that mean it doesn’t really matter when you go?
Here’s a better stab at a one-size-fits-all answer. You are ready for an MFA program when you’re ready to be there, when spending hours at a desk with a laptop or pencil rearranging words into sentences seems like the only thing worth doing. You’re ready to enter a graduate writing program when you’re writing. Regularly. A lot. One indicator to me that a student will not succeed in a writing program is when she believes that a writing program will make her write. I’m not writing now. There are too many distractions. But when I’m admitted into a program, well, then I will write! Probably not. In graduate school, there are distractions galore: coursework, sometimes teaching, an infatuating peer group of like-minded writers; if you’re not writing now, I tell these students, you will struggle. Do something else for awhile. If you’re waiting tables and writing, then it might be time to put in some applications.
That’s very good advice. Okay, so to shift a little, what kind of writer is best suited for a low-residency program as opposed to a regular residency program?
Discipline and self-motivation are incredibly important in any graduate writing program, but strike me as particularly essential in a low-res student. In many ways, a low-residency program most closely emulates the lives of out-in-the-publishing-world writers. In most programs, students submit three or four “packets” of writing to a professor/writing mentor during the course of the low-residency semesters—a practice similar to the way in which writers submit writing to editors or agents for review and critique.
For those reading this who are interested in pursuing a low-res program, describe what that means, “low-res,” and what kinds of residency models are used?
Low-residency models vary; a quick search on the AWP site brings up thirty-seven low-res options. If you’re the kind of writer who prefers a one-on-one relationship with a writing mentor, you can find that. If you’re a writer who needs more community and peer-interaction, look for a program that supplements the packet-system with an online learning community with the kinds of discussions and workshops you’d find in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Another key difference among programs is the number of residencies. Ashland’s program uses a one-residency model (two full weeks in summer with an astounding line up of visiting writers to supplement the core faculty), but more common is two one-week residencies, one in summer and one in winter. Think about what works for both your schedule and your learning.
Who are your low-res students at Ashland? What kind of lives do they have?
Multiple high school English teachers, a retired pharmaceutical industry executive, a literature professor, a social worker, a registrar at a private college, a self-employed writer, a bartender/filmmaker, a newspaper journalist, and the owner of a computer consulting business, to name a few.
So for someone contemplating applying to a low-res program, what’s the upside? What are the downsides?
A low-residency program grants students with unmovable families, careers, and homes the opportunity to be part of a writing community. The primary disadvantages, as I see them, are the general lack of funding and financial aid for low-residency programs and the fact that because students aren’t funded through teaching assistantships, writers graduate with no teaching experience. If a teaching position at a university is your goal, and you’re not already teaching, then a low-residency program probably isn’t going to be the best place for you.
Stay tuned for the second half of the interview next week!
Christopher Newgent graduated from Ball State with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing in 2006. Newgent puts his degree to use trying to improve his city environment of Indianapolis by bringing independent literature to the public at art and music events. He generously agreed to share those experiences with us here at the English Department blog, as well as his experience balancing a working life with creative passions.
Can you share a little about what your job is and what sorts of duties it entails?
I work as a technical writer for Aprimo, Inc., a marketing software company in Indianapolis. My job is primarily writing the online Help—how to perform specific functions in the product. I’m about to start taking over localization efforts, which is business-speak for getting the product translated into other languages.
How did your English major at Ball State prepare you for such a position?
The fact that it had “writing” in the title helped, but it actually took a bit of salesmanship to convince the hiring manager that I could take a creative writing major and succeed as a technical writer. There’s a hefty difference between creative and technical writing, but the overlap exists in consideration of audience and precise language. BSU has professors who really excel at teaching these two aspects—Mark Neely, Sean Lovelace, and Andrew Scott particularly come to mind.
Can you explain a little about Vouched Books—how it came about and what your aims and ambitions are for the project?
Vouched is a project to promote independent literature in Indianapolis. It started with the idea of setting up a flea-market-style book table at literary and art events, and shilling small press books that I’d read personally and wanted to champion. It grew from there to include the Vouched Presents reading series and Vouched Online, where I and a handful of contributors link to work published in online journals that we like—curating our little corner of the literary internet, essentially.
As for ambitions, I should probably sit down sometime and really make a list of them. It’s all sort of grown organically so far, to be honest. I don’t have any dream of opening a brick & mortar bookstore, or making it a financially viable endeavor. I just want to promote some work that I really believe in by people who don’t have much of a budget to promote beyond the internet. And the way I’ve found to do that is to go where people are who appreciate art and words, but likely don’t know independent literature exists. If a legit opportunity arises to make Vouched my full-time career, you can bet I’ll own it, but right now, it’s just a hobby; an exercise in literary citizenship.
How do you balance your working life with your literary pursuits/passions?
Honestly, the only way to find a balance is the classic cliché—show up to the page every day. Make time for it. Ideas will never be the problem. A story can come to you when you’re driving to your aunt’s for Christmas. The problem will be sustaining the drive to sit down when you get home from your aunt’s and punch out a draft without having the deadlines you have in school, the drive to write for yourself instead of a grade. It’s easy to be an idealist in college, to think you’re writing for yourself then, but you’re not, and that’s okay. And you’ll find that out a year or so after graduation. Your life will get busy, you’ll have a new roof to afford, a spouse to adore, maybe kids, college loans, a car that breaks down. And unless you say, “No matter how busy life gets, I will write 750 words a day,” you’ll eventually be reduced to jotting an occasional line on a napkin until one day you wake up and remember you wanted to be a writer once. With all faith, you’ll pull those napkins out from the drawer you were keeping them, and start writing.
Are there any other projects, on the web, personal, or otherwise, that you’re involved in?
For the past almost two years, I’ve been working on founding INDYCOG, a blog that grew into a nonprofit organization that works with Indianapolis to promote cycling. But I’ve recently taken a lesser role in that as I focus more on Vouched and other endeavors.
You seem to be very active on the web, as well as knowledgeable about web-based material. What are your thoughts on the web’s effect on literature and how people are adapting to it?
I’m actually working on an essay/guest post for HTMLGiant discussing the explosion of independent music in the late 90’s due to the internet, and how I see the current independent literary community doing the same thing now, albeit a decade late. I think literature is behind the curve in adapting to the web, likely because of the taboo online publishing has had until recently. But, I think as online journals build their legitimacy, as more and more writers and publishers learn to use the internet to promote and build community, the more opportunities will present themselves to literary authors, especially emerging authors. But let’s face it—romance and celebrity memoirs will always outsell literary works, just like even though you hear all sorts of independent music on commercials and TV shows now, Nickelback still outsells Sufjan.
What are some books you’re reading right now, and what are some titles to look for that may be somewhat under the radar?
I’ve just started writing a novel, so I’ve turned my attention to those a bit, reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. There’s kind of a lack of novels in the small press world. I just started Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, and I recently finished Mark Neely’s Four of a Kind, both of which deserve to be read. If you’ve not read Sasha Fletcher’s When All Our Days Are Numbered yet, then you’re without. And, if you want to learn how to craft a sentence, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler.
Top five literary blogs…GO!
In no particular order: HTMLGiant, Bark, We Who Are About to Die, PANK Blog, Big Other.
Any parting advice/wisdom you would like to offer to the students of BSU?
You are not alone.