Reading Matters in the Spalding MFA in Writing Program

By Sena Jeter Naslund

Spalding MFA Program Director and Fiction Faculty

The Spalding MFA in Writing experience is a highly individualized, flexible program when it comes to constructing a reading list and in practicing critical writing skills based on reading. With the advice and approval of the mentor, students can choose to read more deeply in areas already interesting to them or to fill gaps in their reading of classic material, or to keep abreast of the work of various contemporary writers. Mentors sometimes have new titles to suggest that are relevant to a student’s own technical problems, prowess, or thematic interests. During the independent study period, mentors also require reading in contemporary anthologies in our various genres, such as in the Best American Short Stories annual collection. 

      Writing short critical essays is, of course, a requirement, and it also greatly enhances the reading experience to look closely at a text, make choices about one’s critical focus, and to write an incisive response to the text. The act of writing the critical essay focuses one’s attention in a much more beneficial way than mere reading would do. Identifying and writing about a variety of aspects of the work benefits one’s own creative writing. In a short critical essay, one might want to focus on imagery in one text, on sentence rhythms in another, on character complexity in another, on the thematic importance of place and time in another. The extended critical essay required in the third semester provides an opportunity to go even deeper into critical thinking and writing.

       The program does make a special effort to increase student awareness of the contemporary scene in one’s own genre as well as in other genres. For every residency, a program book in common by a distinguished contemporary author is assigned, and students are provided the opportunity to discuss the work at our opening convocation and later to see and hear the author’s own presentation. Spalding’s highly diverse faculty members regularly present excerpts from their own recently published books or scripts, and they also give readings from works-in-progress. Each semester, students in each area read a book by a faculty member in that area of concentration and then take part in a discussion with the faculty author. By editorial reading of submissions to The Louisville Review, students become acquainted with a wide variety of contemporary writers’ choices about subject, structure, and style. Theatre attendance at contemporary dramatic works or group viewing of films also occurs from time to time during residencies. At homecoming, each spring, alums present their inspiring, fresh-off-the-presses books and scripts. Faculty and alums alike share their insights into the contemporary publishing scene.

        Reading and writing about both established works of literature and contemporary work is something of a balancing act for everyone. Be sure to take full advantage of your MFA opportunity by participating eagerly in your own growth as a writer by recognizing the value of reading widely and of improving your own ability to analyze works you find especially exciting or challenging.

Sena Jeter Naslund’s nine books include, most recently, the novel The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of an Artist as an Old Woman (Morrow-HarperCollins, 2013; Harper Perennial paperback 2014. Her other novels are Adam & Eve (Morrow-HarperCollins, 2010; Harper Perennial 2011; ), Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette (Morrow-HarperCollins, 2006; Harper perennial 2007), Four Spirits (Morrow-HarperCollins, 2003; Harper Perennial, 2004), Ahab’s Wife; Or, the Star-Gazer (Morrow, 1999; Harper Perennial, 2000; Harper Perennial Modern Classics Series, 2008), Sherlock in Love (Godine, 1993 and Harper Perennial, 2001), and The Animal Way to Love (Ampersand, 1993), and two short story collections, The Disobedience of Water (Godine, 1999 and Harper Perennial, 2000) and Ice Skating at the North Pole (Ampersand, 1989). Ahab’s Wife, a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection and national bestseller, was selected by Time magazine as one of the five best novels of 1999 and appeared on the notable book lists of the New York Times Book Review and of Publishers Weekly; it was a finalist for the Orange Prize (UK). Four Spirits, a national bestseller, appeared on the notable book lists of The New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Abundance was also a national bestseller in the U.S.

Sena holds the MA and PhD from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught in the MFA programs of the University of Montana, Indiana University-Bloomington, and Vermont College.

She served as the Pascal Distinguished Visitor in 2005 at the University of Montevallo, and as Visiting Eminent Scholar at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, 2008 and 2010. She was the 2005-6 Kentucky Poet Laureate. She retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisville in 2014. Since 2000, she has served as the Program Director of the brief-residency MFA in Writing at Spalding University, of which she is also the co-founder. Her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The American Voice, and The Michigan Quarterly Review, and she has received grants from the NEA, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, as well as the Lawrence Fiction Prize, the Heasley Prize, the Hall-Waters Award, the Southeastern Library Association award in fiction, and the Alabama Governor’s Award in the Arts. Her fiction has been translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, Polish, Danish, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, and Polish, and reprinted in English in the UK and Australia.  

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