About Closing the Distance: Innovations in Low-Residency MFAs:
(Lori A. May, Kathleen Driskell, Tod Goldberg, Meg Kearney, Michael Kobre) Low-residency program directors will discuss innovative approaches to providing value-added opportunities for students at a distance—regardless of varied geographic locales. Topics include adaptability in pedagogical training, funded editorships and real-world publishing experiences, online approaches to the traditional workshop model, the inclusion of commercial projects in film and television, and how students may become involved in a reading series or literary journal.
When: Friday, Feb 4th: 9:00 a.m.-10:15 p.m.
Caleb J Ross: You said something at last year’s AWP which stuck with me. Paraphrased, of course, you said that you teach your MFA classes like an instructor of any trade program might, with the end goal of providing financial opportunities for the students. This seems like a radically different approach than most MFAs which may instead focus on non-definable, creative signposts to gauge student success. First, am I expressing your idea correctly? Second, how is this goal compromised by a low-residency program, if it even is?
Tod Goldberg: Pretty close. Essentially my philosophy is that if you’re in an MFA program, your goal isn’t to become the most well-read person on earth with a handful of literary quotes at your disposal at all times, it’s to be published. It’s to be produced. Graduate programs in creative writing are some of the few that seem entirely esoteric because they don’t seem to be training you for anything tangible, apart from maybe being a particularly enlightened barista, because, well, that’s frequently the case. But I think that has to change. Being a professional writer is a job. And if you want to write books, or write screenplays, or write poetry, simply for personal edification, you certainly don’t need an MFA program to do that. But if you want to become a professional writer, I think an MFA program can and should be a clear stepping stone in that direction. Most aren’t. Most entirely eschew the idea of life after the MFA — in fact, most programs tend to herald your acceptance into the program as the “making it” part of your writing career, which is silly. It’s school. It’s what you do afterward that makes a difference. So in that light we talk about publishing and production a great deal in the program I run at UCR, about the difference between being workshop-good and publication or production good. We have agents and editors and film producers and studio heads that come in an read our students work and give them a real world idea of where they stand. And our professors are doing it, too (no one works in the program in the professor who isn’t still publishing or producing).
I got my MFA late in the game — I’d already published 5 books, countless short stories, sold several projects to Hollywood, written hundreds of pieces of journalism and was actually directing two MFA programs at the time (before going to strictly a low residency MFA, UCR Palm Desert also had a part-time traditional MFA program, too) — when I went to get my MFA from Bennington, so I feel that I have a unique perspective on this. Clearly, I didn’t need an MFA to be successful. But my experience with one particular professor at Bennington, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, opened my eyes regarding how to become a better writer, how to build on what I did well already, and that alone was worth the price of admission, and I believe that comes from that mentor/mentee relationship that low residency programs foster.
So I don’t think this philosophy of mine is hampered in the least by low residency program; in fact, I believe it is the best avenue to pursue this line of thinking. Being in a low residency program mimics the life of the professional writer. You’re probably balancing your writing with another job, you’re probably also writing some stuff like book reviews on top of your creative work (or doing coverage if you’re a screenwriter) and you’re probably at home on the weekends, up until late in night, in your underwear, typing.
CJR: What have you observed as main differences between students full-residency programs and those of low-residency programs, in terms of being motivated and concerned with job opportunities?
TG: In low residency programs, the students are older, generally more career-oriented, and are spending their own money on their education, so the desire to have some end result that is easily within grasp is much more predominant. They are there because they don’t want the life they have, they want to become professional writers or, in some cases, they are professional writers and they want to also teach and thus need that degree to do so. The end result is that they tend to be pretty driven and you don’t need to pester them for their work.
In traditional programs, the age is a little younger, they tend to have the same literary goals but they are often matched with unrealistic end results — I want to make millions! I think this book will be a great movie! [Every time someone says that, an orphan is murdered. I truly believe that.] — and, since they often aren’t paying their own way, the attrition rate is a little higher, too. But I think the biggest difference is this: When you’re in a traditional program, you’re living in the academy, so to speak. Your whole life revolves around the university. You’re learning there. You’re probably teaching there. Your drama, your love life, your caloric intake…all of it happens somewhere near a quad, or a commons, and, well, it’s not real life. That’s not to say it’s bad — I think it’s great, actually — but it’s different than what happens to a student in a low residency, who is living a different kind of life and still is expected to turn out a great sum of work.
CJR: The description of your AWP panel (above) mentions online approaches to the workshop model. As someone who has a personal interest in the online model, I am interested to know if there are any hard-and-fast rules for making this type of environment conducive to great critique? Or, is it that the online model provides a better experience, and the in-person model has something to learn?
TG: The chief difference I’ve noticed over the course of the last decade that I’ve been teaching is that students working online seem to progress faster. I think it’s for a simple reason: When you’re getting workshopped in a classroom, you really don’t process what you’re hearing, which is to say you hear “you suck, you suck, you suck, you suck” and then maybe you hear “you’re great, you’re great, you’re great, you’re great” and you go home and the nuance of the arguments about your work are hard to piece together. But online, when you receive a written examination of your work from your professor (and it should be noted that at UCR, the students don’t critique each other during the online portion of the term; this is just the criticism between the professor and the student) you have time to process it before responding. You can then have that give in take, in writing, with your professor and the process gets drawn out over a period of time and becomes more varied and instructive — plus, the technology itself allows you to quickly, say, insert a passage from X book as an example of something. And of course what’s also happening is that the other students are reading along (we use Blackboard at UCR and the critique process is open for all the people in the workshop to see) and learning from things and then referencing critiques in responses to lectures and such. That’s another important aspect to what we do online: there’s a great sum of craft taught online, too, through lectures and reading and such, which is then followed by conversations online between the students, which fosters both a sense of community and an intellectual exchange of ideas, vs. just the professor saying, “Your dialog needs work.”
That said, I think the in-person part of workshopping is very important, too, which is why I don’t think strictly online programs work as well. By having the online portion and then 10 days of workshops in person, that sense that you’re dealing with real people, with real emotions, with difficult subjects on their plate, really coalesces into a whole. You get to know a person, you get to understand how and what they need to become better writers. This is a human business we’re in and I think the online experience removes that sometimes, or it can.
Finally, what online learning really does, for writers, is very simple: it allows them to express themselves in the way they are most comfortable and lucid — with words on a page. Plenty of writers are great on the page but then you meet them and they just can’t express themselves very well. The online classroom removes that aspect and allows the writer to be in a comfortable medium, which is part of why I think they end up progressing so rapidly.
CJR: What makes the low-residency program worthy of its panel? Why should people come to your panel, given the wide selection of available panels?
TG: Well, let’s see. I’ll probably swear a lot. I’ll probably offend someone in the audience, who will then get up in a noisy huff and storm out while I point out that they’ve made a huff and are storming out, which is always a fun thing to see. There’s a high probability I’ll tell off-color jokes about the other panelists. At some point, I’ll tell someone that they should transfer programs if they aren’t allowed to write genre fiction [This makes me crazy, too...I mean, seriously, people in academia, who the fuck cares what your students are writing as long as it's good?] which will then cause someone else to storm out. And then? Well, then I’m going to hustle out in time to see Josh Ritter on his panel.
|Tod Goldberg is the author of the novels Living Dead Girl (Soho Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Fake Liar Cheat (Pocket Books/MTV), and the popular Burn Notice series, as well as two collections of short stories, Simplify (Other Voices Books), a 2006 finalist for the SCIBA Award for Fiction and winner of he Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize and Other Resort Cities (Other Voices Books). His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Black Clock, The Normal School and The Sun, twice receiving Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize as well as being named a Distinguished Story of the Year in the 2009 Best American Mystery Stories. His essays, journalism, and criticism appear regularly in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Las Vegas CityLife and have earned four Nevada Press Association Awards for excellence.
Tod Goldberg holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from Bennington College and directs the Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. He lives in La Quinta, CA with his wife, the writer Wendy Duren.