Find out more about the Randolph College MFA Creative Writing program.
I’m writing from the library of the Virginian Hotel in Lynchburg, VA. My plane doesn’t leave til 4, my shuttle doesn’t leave til 2. It’s a little bit of time to sit and process the past 10 days. This street is not far away.
In this post, I told you about the big decision to join a low-residency creative writing program. 10 days before I wrote this (in January 2023), I arrived, spent the first night settling in, then ripped into the week on the morning of New Year’s Eve.
Before diving in, note that this post has been written to answer the questions people have been asking me the most, i.e., what is it like? I’m not going to get into too many specifics about people or the process.
If you do have specific questions, feel free to drop me a line at [email protected], or proceed directly to the Randolph College MFA Creative Writing program website.
Randolph College MFA Creative Writing: The Routine
A typical day features at least some of the following:
- A mix of presentations on craft: workshops, lectures, panel discussions
- Individual time with professors, all of whom are highly-regarded, multiple award-winning badasses in poetry, non-fiction, and/or fiction
- Group workshops with one professor and other MFA candidates across cohorts, a cohort consisting of all the folks who enter the program in a given semester
- Readings by faculty and students, including the students here for their fifth and final residency, at the end of which they’ll graduate
Gary Dop and Chris Gauman, the program Director and Assistant Director respectively, build in time for breaks. Breakfast and lunch are included, and we fend for dinner on our own.
Coming here after acclimatizing myself to solitude—partially due to the pandemic, partially due to living a pretty insulated life away from any major city—I showed up knowing there’d be a high adrenalin spike, and of course there was. It took me longer to get to sleep, but my body doesn’t like sleeping past 5ish in the a.m., which is pretty much ingrained as my wake-up time.
I’m not complaining; I like waking up early, it’s a lovely feeling to have finished some stuff by 9 a.m. Of course, it’s been intense to be continually receiving so much info and energy on not a whole lot of sleep. But again, I knew it would probably work out that way, and it’s no big deal.
Next time, I’ll be better prepared, and I’ve also gotten a place off-campus; in the non-winter season, the residency takes place on campus. This way I can have my own kitchen, and also just that decompression space that an introvert needs. I love the community; I just need my breaks.
I did take long walks, and many mornings ended up here, at this tunnel along the James river, which runs through town.
Randolph College MFA Creative Writing: The Workshops
One of my stumbling blocks to doing an MFA program earlier was what’s informally known as the Cone of Silence, a model popular in many creative writing programs. In it, the writer sits, silently taking all the comments and often abuse that calls itself comments about his/her/their pages. It can be, apparently, as dehumanizing and brutal as it sounds.
We received about 10 different pieces of work to review, but were instructed to not give snarky comments like “this doesn’t do it for me,” or really any comment that doesn’t help support the writer. What we could do is ask questions; we were supposed to come up with 10 for each piece of writing.
Of course the writing I received was all top quality; you don’t get in here if it isn’t. What fascinated me in the review process was the emphasis on helping someone move forward.
There’s a Zen buddhist empathy practice with the goal of never setting yourself in a place where you’re reaching down from your lofty perch to offer help to the needy. Rather, you meet whoever you meet on level ground. You’re there to give each other strength, to receive as much as you give.
That’s how Randolph has been for me. Once we arrived, Gary made clear that we should feel energized to work with the feedback and write more. We have to give the kind of feedback that we know we want, not flattery, but the kinds of questions and comments that help you move forward.
Randolph College MFA Creative Writing: The Feedback
Everybody I know has received punitive feedback at some point in their life. True, sometimes it can spur you on; to get a “good job” or a pat on the head from a mean teacher like the one in Whiplash may be thrilling, but nothing is worth that soul-crushing abuse. I know I’ve justified other people’s crap behavior, particularly the ones who have been in some position over me, by saying, they must see some potential in me to push me so hard.
Now, I realize that some people are just dicks.
I’ve worked with some tough teachers, and a couple did make a positive impact. But at this point, I don’t know how I feel about the approach that says, if you survive my attempt to break you, I will respect you. Why does one person need to break anyone?
Anyway, that kind of b.s. didn’t happen at my first residency. I met with two different faculty members privately and in groups, and I left all sessions feeling lifted up, fired up, ready to make my work stronger, better.
By the way, I didn’t see anything in this old-timey theater in downtown Lynchburg, but I loved the way they lit it up for the holidays. Pink!!
Randolph College MFA Creative Writing: Next Steps
One of the most exciting things that happened to me over the course of the residency was to participate in a workshop led by the poet Chet’la Sebree (pronounced Shayla, with Sebree rhyming with degree). She talked about long poems and we did an exercise in which we took a subject we were obsessed with or fascinated by, then proceeded to write about from different perspectives.
I’ve written a couple of rhyming poems to make my kids laugh, but poetry is something I read and don’t write. But the exercise broke something open in my brain, and I realized that even if I never write poetry for anyone but myself, the process is an important way into different kinds of writing for me. I found Chet’la later and told her how much I’d loved the workshop.
Each semester, we have a mentor with whom we’ll work over the months until the next semester. When the list was posted and I saw that Chet’la was mine, my heart leapt. She inspires me deeply, and as I delve into some tricky parts of the memoir I’m working on, I’m thrilled to be working beside her.
That’s the report for Residency 1, folks. See you next time and thanks for reading.