Here’s what our Spalding MFA students, alumni, faculty, and staff have been publishing, producing, and doing since our last update!
By Sena Jeter Naslund
Spalding MFA Program Director
Growing up, it was the novel rather than the short story that had made me want to be a writer, but in graduate school at Iowa I had written only short stories. While I had published a short story collection, Ice Skating at the North Pole, I would need to serve an apprenticeship learning how to manage the form of the novel, from the inside-out. Continue reading “SAILING WITH AHAB’S WIFE”
by Beth Ann Bauman
Spalding MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults Faculty
I like this time of year, the longer light and the feel of sun on my skin. Most days, I find myself rushing to be outside. For me, these long days as we move toward the summer solstice are a beckoning, a call to possibility. What haven’t I done that I want to do? What’s next for me? I’m thinking of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” poem and its wonderful last line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Continue reading “Your One Wild and Precious Life”
by Kirby Gann
Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty
Though I’ve long considered myself primarily a novelist, I’ve taken a shot at the short story form (never with real confidence) off and on over the past twenty-five years. Some of these efforts were better than others, and found homes in the journals and magazines that help keep the vitality of the American short story alive and evident. I don’t know exactly why, but the past several months have brought me an unsought yet reinvigorated enthusiasm for the genre—both in my reading, which has been confined mostly to stories not only in magazines but in single-author collections and group anthologies, and in the focus of my own writing. I’ve set aside a deep draft of a novel in progress without the inner conviction that I’ll return to it eventually. Continue reading “Looking at Who You Used to Be”
By Karen Mann
Spalding MFA Administrative Director
In 1997, Sena Jeter Naslund asked me to co-direct a low-residency MFA in Writing program. We approached Spalding University with the idea, and we all know how that turned out—570 alumni later!
For years, Sena had taught in several graduate programs, not to mention another low-residency program, and she had ideas for innovative ways to design a program, ways that would improve upon and be better than other programs. From the outset, she planned for our program to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive.
Even after 14 years of directing this program, we are constantly evolving. In addition to Sena’s groundbreaking ideas that have been a part of the program from the beginning, many of our innovations have grown out of students’ and faculty and staff members’ suggestions. Among the many features that make us unique:
- Cross-genre exploration, allowing students to learn from other modes of writing while focusing on their own area, even taking a residency or independent study outside their major area
- A rotating series of international residencies, giving writers a wealth of opportunities to deepen their understanding of different cultures
- An emphasis on the interrelatedness of all the arts: writing, visual art, music, dance, theater, etc.
- An extended summer semester, allowing busy students to choose the semester length that fits their schedule
- The most active alumni association in the country
Often our best brainstorming sessions happen at the faculty meeting at the end of a residency. For example, at the end of last fall’s residency, we hatched the idea of offering more generative workshops, which led to faculty developing a focus and description for their spring workshops. Students then filled out a preference form before they were assigned to a workshop at the spring residency.
From every new idea we learn even newer and better ways to present our intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive program to our students, students for which the passion to write is central to their lives.
I’d love to hear from you about which innovations helped you. Leave a comment below in response to one or more of these questions: Which feature of the program meant the most to you? What about the program changed the way you think about writing? What most surprised you about the program?
Karen Mann is the co-founder and Administrative Director of the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing at Spalding University. She has published two novels: The Saved Man (Page Turners Publishing, 2014) and The Woman of La Mancha (Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2014).
by Nancy McCabe
Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction and Fiction
When my daughter was in sixth grade, she was assigned an essay proposing a new holiday honoring an underrecognized historical figure. She thought and thought about this, considering favorite writers, political figures, ordinary people.
Finally, she wrote about not one person but a group, the Little Rock Nine, the African-American students who endured much when they helped integrate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. My Asian-American daughter, one of very few non-white students in her middle-school, deeply admired these teenagers, and her subsequent essay was a passionate, thoughtful one about their legacy.
Days later, I asked her how she’d done on her essay.
“I got a 4,” she said.
It turned out that her essay had not been read by a teacher, but instead had been graded by a computer program that gave each paper a score between 1 and 5. Her essay may have been imperfect, but it saddened me that a message that deeply mattered to her, a message that a mostly white community would have benefitted from hearing, had been reduced to a score on a computer.
A year later, she brought home another essay assignment: to write about her role model. She wrote a lovely piece about her mom. Of course I could assess this essay with total objectivity. There might have been some clumsy sentences here and there, but its sentiments clearly made it worthy of an A+.
Once again, she made a 4. Once again, the essay had been put through a computer program rather than read by a live person.
She wanted a 5. She revised obsessively, making improvements and putting it through the program repeatedly. It got a 4 every time.
A computer, I tried to convince her, cannot evaluate your passion for your subject, the quality of your ideas, the incisiveness of your language, the sophistication of your thought, the merit of your metaphors. It can measure whether you have an introduction, a thesis statement, a structure that echoes the thesis statement, transitions, examples, and complex sentences that are basically grammatically correct.
She didn’t believe me. So I set out to prove it to her, writing the following essay:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one role model to assume, among the powers of the earth, a separate and equal station, that role model can change our life. The person who most exemplifies these qualities in my mind is the roll of toilet paper in my bathroom. Not only is she a friendly and delightful person who makes every day special, she is, most of all, as incandescent as a candle that daily lights the darkness.
From the moment I met her, her friendliness was evident. She introduced herself in such a way that I was certain that she was the most exuberant apple pie I’d ever met. When she danced, her secondary sunburn drew laughter and happiness from every far-flung artichoke. She was especially warm and welcoming when she quoted the cat, saying regularly, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like the cemetery.” I was especially impressed by the friendly way she executed every small bug that crossed her path, fashioning small skirts and tennis shoes for the cutest among them.
But that alone is not enough to make her my role model: it is her delightful scent that makes her so intriguing and exceptional. I take endless pleasure in the loops and whorls of her fingerprints, and sometimes, the hottest bath can cause a streetlight to topple, crashing to the ground, bringing me a delight unlike no other. Her insistence on good manners, on the boundless, crashing energy of the sea, on singing and rappelling from every mountain and lowering herself from the greatest heights to re-create the majesty of the purple mountains, is what impresses her peers daily. Her delightfulness is exemplified by all of these, and I could elaborate on this for the next eighty bra straps.
Most of all, my toilet paper is as incandescent as a candle. Her flaring green elephants, her crisp potato chips that come in a can rather than a bag, and her tall, effortless demeanor and drug habit shine through the darkness like a candle or a very powerful lamp that has never been muted. For example, one day I had forgotten to pack my lunch and discovered that there were no mousetraps left in the cupboard. She rushed to the rescue, prompting me to re-evaluate my entire life and refine my philosophies until the dog barked at the door, wishing to be let in. Another instance of this is the day I raced to catch the moon but found it under the hood of my car. Her shining light beckoned to me repeatedly, and I realized that this made her a special role model indeed.
It should be clear from all of these examples why my role model makes every day so initially towel-like and luminous as an egg. She is the wind beneath my ice cream cone as she shows me that being friendly, delightful, and incandescent are the keys to every cloud’s silver lining and every small raccoon’s badger feet. She reverberates with unsaid encyclopedias, struggles vociferously in all she does, and keeps me entertained by creating squeaky rubber toys that children and dogs can throw in their fish tanks. I am proud to be a part of her satellite, and am often motivated by her example to be friendly myself, to be delightful, and to shine as incandescently as the most riveting, most enervating candle.
I made a 5.
I’m not a public school teacher, faced not just with designing assignments, delivering lessons, and grading work of more than 100 students every day, but also with demands regarding standardized testing, housekeeping, recordkeeping, discipline, hall duty, bus duty, coaching, etc., etc., etc. I’m sure that there’s some value in using a computer program as a supplemental tool for teaching writing.
But I still hope I made my point to my daughter. That while grammar and structure matter, they are no substitute for real passion and engagement. Maybe computers can create squeaky rubber toys for children to throw in their fish tanks or fashion small tennis shoes for cute executed bugs, or think that apple pie can be exuberant, artichokes far-flung, and elephants green and flaring. But they will never replace humans when it comes to moving and inspiring an audience, to paying tribute to a group of brave teenagers or to our mothers.
Nancy McCabe’s most recent book is From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. She has published three additional memoirs, and her essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and others. Her work has received a Pushcart and made notable lists six times in Houghton Mifflin Best American anthologies. She is a regular blogger for Ploughshares, directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and teaches creative nonfiction and fiction for the Spalding MFA program.
by Rachel M. Harper
Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction
I recently returned from a 4-week residency at MacDowell, an Artist Colony in rural New Hampshire. It proved to be an important month in my life, and in my writing career, but not in exactly the way I’d thought it would. I went seeking freedom, but what I found was a lot more meaningful. Continue reading “ARTIST COLONIES: The Value of Lost Time”
by Larry Brenner
Spalding MFA Faculty, Playwriting & Screenwriting
“Oh, you’re writing something new? What’s it about?”
I HATE that question.
Do I really have to summarize my work? Can’t I just pull out my draft and spend the next few hours reading it to you? No? Continue reading “That thing you’ve spent years on, in 30 seconds or less”
by Eric Schmiedl
Spalding MFA Faculty, Playwriting
(originally published 2015)
In his book Love and Living, the writer and theologian Thomas Merton discusses the relationship between the individual and the greater community when he says:
“Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives, but are also affected and changed by us …”
by David-Matthew Barnes
Spalding MFA Faculty, Playwriting, Screenwriting, Writing for Children & Young Adults
Time. It is the most elusive thing. It is a luxury of which some of us are willing to beg, borrow, and steal for. People wish for more of it, convinced if they had just a few minutes more the results could be life-changing.
It’s true. We are busy people. Our schedules leave us exhausted, delirious, overwhelmed. To survive, we are constantly juggling, balancing, shifting, always dangling just above the edge of a looming deadline.
I lose count of how many times I hear the words, “There’s just not enough time in the day to get everything done.” It pains me most when it’s my voice saying them.
We are a breed of our own: the busy.
To achieve this livable state of sleep deprivation, we make caffeine our favorite food group, existing in a jittery existence of the fear and consequences of nodding off. We are masters of the to-do list, the weekly calendar, the span of 24-hours.
This constant battle against the clock must be universal. Surely, others feel the tremble of the ticking constantly beating beneath every step they take through their mine field of a day. We constantly avert any possible social scenario that can pose a threat to our down-to-the-second agenda, knowing if we stop long enough to smell those ridiculous flowers the less-busy always talk about, we’re doomed.
They say the early bird catches the worm, time waits for no one, time is money, and there’s no time like the present. We are constantly bombarded by the insistence to do more, be more, live more. This is our fuel.
And then there’s writing.
I recently had an online discussion with two fellow writers in which time was our topic, specifically how to find more of it. As creative people with unconventional lives and schedules, we are often time-shamed. Example A: “When you’re done with your little writing thing, do you think you can actually spend time with your friends and family? We miss you.”
To ask someone who is not a writer to understand how we work and why time is everything to us is asking for the impossible. Non-writers can view our desire for writing time as selfish; our writing – and the time we need for it – can inconvenience many people. We are expected to keep a more world-friendly schedule by only tapping into and channeling our creativity during business hours – and never on weekends.
Finding the time to write can become the most challenging aspect of a writer’s life. It certainly is for mine. We can tape as many Do Not Disturb signs on our home office doors we want, but that tiny flicker of guilt still remains each time we sit down at our laptops and the world continues to happen without us, hopefully missing us. It is indeed a high price to pay.
Yet, the results can be life-changing – or, more specifically, career-changing. Many of us dream of one day writing for a living, of reaching a point in which our talent and creativity sustains us. But we cannot get there without time.
The discussion with my writer friends ended with the conclusion that each of us need to be more protective of our schedules, that we collectively have to guard our writing time. We are soldiers, protecting our own very precious turf. Because every second really does count, as much as every word we write.
The struggle against the clock, our own lives, and the demands we must meet can be a difficult one to endure. Yet, in the end, those few moments in which the world around us slips away and nothing else matters but the words on the page – they make the pace worth it. It’s usually then we feel like we won. And, as they say, even the smallest victory counts.