I spent last week teaching in the low-residency MFA program at Miami of Ohio in Oxford, Ohio, making trips back to Columbus two days so I could teach my classes at Ohio State. Needless to say, if anyone needs to know the route from Columbus to Oxford, I’m your guy. During that week, I talked the talk with undergraduates at Ohio State, writers in our residential MFA program, graduate students and professionals from other departments on campus, and, at Miami, writers who are pursuing the MFA degree in a less traditional way. The common factor among all these populations? A desire to tell the story or to write the poem or essay, and an appreciation of time spent with those of like mind. We find our community of writers however we can, and for the folks in low-residency programs that means they find that community during two residencies on campus, one in summer and one in winter, and in the mentorship provided by faculty members in the months between the two, and in the bonds formed with other students in the program.
The reasons that people choose a low-residency program are myriad, but most of them have to do with geography or convenience. For some, it’s impossible to pick up stakes and to move somewhere to attend a residential program. People with families, for instance, often don’t have the same sort of flexibility of location that others have. It’s one thing to be able to move across the country when you’re twenty-seven, say, and single, and it’s quite another when you’re maybe forty-five with children and spouses to consider. There are also economic factors involved. Even though the low-residency programs are costly—I want to be honest about that—you’re able to keep your day-job which usually pays much better than a graduate teaching assistantship would in a residential program.
There are a number of excellent low-residency programs, and many books have found their way into print because of them. Still, again being completely honest, the same caveat we offer students in residential programs applies: An MFA doesn’t guarantee publishing success. Knowing that, why do people go to the expense and effort of seeking this degree? For most, I imagine the answer is the same as it was for me thirty-eight years ago when I entered the MFA program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I had a dream of being a writer and a teacher of writing. I followed my heart, and I ended up being one of the lucky ones who had that dream come true. Whether someone is in a residential program, a low-residency one, or simply apprenticing oneself to a writing career on one’s own, a common truth holds true. We write to shape experience into something artful. We move words about on the page to express ourselves and to offer some sort of order to a world that can often be chaotic.
If you’re someone who’s looking for a community of writers that will deepen your understanding of craft and hasten your development, but if circumstances make it difficult for you to attend a residential MFA program, then a low-residency situation may be ideal. I know I’ve returned from Oxford stimulated by the conversations in the writing workshops, the craft talks made by faculty and invited visitors alike, and the readings I attended.
At Miami of Ohio, you can study the craft of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction in workshops led by folks like New York Times best-selling author, Jacquelyn Mitchard; Flannery O’Connor Prize-winning author, Hugh Sheehy; and poets, Hoa Nguyen, a finalist for the 2020 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and Laura Van Prooyen, winner of the McGovern Prize. If anyone is interested in learning more, here’s a link:
As for me, in spite of the weary driving I had to do, I had a fabulous week with my colleagues and students in the Miami of Ohio low-residency MFA program, and I returned energized and eager to get back to my own writing, which is what we hope from our time with other writers—that infectious feeling of being engaged in a common enterprise of doing the good work made possible by our talents, our perseverance, and the hours spent in the company of those who understand what it is to follow a dream and who wish us well.