What Cross-Genre Exploration looks like for Spalding MFA Students

By Katy Yocom, Spalding MFA Associate Director

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Cross-genre exploration has been a hallmark of the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing curriculum since the program was launched in 2001. But while many students arrive eager to explore across genres, others aren’t so sure. “I want to be able to focus on my own area,” they’ll say.

Fear not, trepidatious writers. You absolutely will. You can spend every single residency and independent study in your own area, if you want.

But you will get a taste of the other areas. And you might end up surprising yourself.

WHY EXPLORE OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE?

We’ve thought about this question a lot:

  • Because writing and reading (even just a little!) in other genres makes you a stronger writer, period. If you’re a screenwriter, what could poetry possibly teach you? A lot, if your scripts could benefit from compressed language and precise word choice. Conversely, poets can use screenwriting techniques to sharpen their skills conveying character, mood, plot, and theme solely through the use of visuals (that’s imagery to you, poets). Our curriculum asks you to become a beginner again, to experiment with unfamiliar techniques, to try your hand at the wondrous strange. In return for that risk-taking, you’ll return to your own genre with new tools and new eyes.
  • Because an MFA in Writing degree is qualification to teach creative writing—all creative writing—at the university level. If you’ve put on blinders during your degree program and focused only on, say, fiction, how are you going to fare when you’re asked to teach poetry, playwriting, children’s literature, creative nonfiction? To be blunt, we think it would be irresponsible to let students graduate without gaining at least a bit of experience reading and writing in every area.
  • Because how will you discover that you like writing in another area if you don’t at least try it? Several of our fiction alums have gone on to publish poetry collections. Playwriting alums are getting hired to write screenplays. Creativity is blessedly unruly, and success sometimes shows up in unexpected places.

 

WHAT DOES CROSS-GENRE EXPLORATION LOOK LIKE AT A SPALDING MFA RESIDENCY?

Each residency features one of our areas—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, or dramatic writing—in a rotating series. Students read a work by a distinguished writer, hear them speak in a public session, and have the opportunity to ask questions in an MFA-only Q&A session. Visiting writers have included Kwame Alexander, Natasha Trethewey, John Patrick Shanley, Michael Ondaatje, Barry Lopez, and Jacqueline Woodson. (If you’re counting, those particular six authors account for two National Book Awards, an Academy Award, a Tony, two Pulitzers, the Man Booker Prize, the Newbery Medal, and the role of U.S. Poet Laureate.)

Students also complete a cross-genre assignment. During our focus on poetry, for instance, you may find yourself writing a persona poem based on someone you’ve seen on Fourth Street in downtown Louisville. These exercises are brief, but the process stretches you creatively and often lead to surprising insights you can take back to your own genre or continue exploring right where you are. These exercises often result in astonishingly good work. One student’s cross-genre exercise became the starting point for an award-winning, published book.

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To add breadth to their knowledge, students attend at least one faculty lecture outside their genre. They also attend plenary lectures addressing craft and aesthetic issues that come into play in every genre—matters of subject, structure, style, and significance.

Students can opt to take a faculty-led workshop outside their genre during one of their five residencies. They can participate in a teaching workshop or in a workshop focused on an aspect of professional writing, such as editing or grant-writing. They can participate in special-topic workshops such as musical theatre, flash fiction, or lyrical language in prose narratives. Or they can stay put in their original genre, as they wish.

Fourth Street Live

CROSS-GENRE OPPORTUNITIES DURING INDEPENDENT STUDY

Because we consider cross-genre exploration so important, we allow students to spend a full semester studying in any area they choose—and to do so within the four core semesters, so the foray won’t delay graduation. But we don’t force it on anyone. Students who would rather spend all four semesters in their own area are welcome to do so.

THE TAKEAWAY

Writers who explore across genres become stronger, more versatile writers and better-equipped teachers. With more tools in their writing toolbox, they’re more flexible in the first flush of a creative project and more adept analytically when it’s time to revise. They are better risk-takers. Writing across genres can lead to collaborations and result in entire books. To explore across genres is to engage in both a form of discipline and a form of play—essential elements in the life of a working writer. That’s why the Spalding MFA curriculum offers so many opportunities for bridging those genre barriers.


 

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Katy Yocom’s novel Three Ways to Disappear won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, Louisville Magazine, and other elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University and is a recipient of grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.