Interview With Washington University in St. Louis

Picture of Kea WilsonAuthor: Kea Wilson

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?

If you’re asking about St. Louis in general, I couldn’t recommend it more. Washington University is one of the only well-funded MFA programs located in a true urban area, and the fact that it’s a mid-sized city with an impossibly low cost of living is only an added asset. If when you hear “local hangouts for writers” you think “bars at which I can afford to drink,” you’ll love it here; if you think something more along the lines of excellent coffee shops, little book stores, active literary communities at nearby universities and killer reading series’ all over town, you’ll love it here, too. St. Louis, on the whole, has the sort of charm that’s unique to old, great Midwestern cities still undergoing renaissance, and there’s so many exciting ways that the community here is working to continually energize and rebuild the landscape. Or to be obnoxiously picturesque about it: think exploring architectural salvage sales in beautiful abandoned breweries, incredible community gardens on top of downtown skyscrapers, biking in the park, and a whole lot of tasty food trucks.

If you’re talking about the Wash U campus in particular, that’s pretty great too. The campus is a classic private school, modeled after the New England ivies, and the facilities are really world class. The immediate area is actually a bit more suburban/gentrified—sort of your standard college strip of head shops and Chipotles surrounded by acres of faculty homes—but it’s within easy biking distance of the city proper, as well as one of the largest city parks in the country, a free zoo and a zillion museums.

Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your workshops? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?

The focus of the workshops is intensely individualized. Really: every writer in this program is completely unique, and I’m consistently amazed by how much respect and insight my cohort has for one another’s aesthetics. Our conversations always sort of come back to the same central questions: what’s the author’s prerogative for their own piece, and what suggestions can we make to help them clarify that vision on its own terms? For me, that’s meant focusing intensely on structure, voice and humor—all things I came into this program with my eye on, sure, but with the guidance of the faculty and my intensely smart peers, I think my vision has gotten a lot more keen since I’ve been here. Everything about this program is designed to amplify and augment the work you’re already doing, rather than reshape it to fit some school-wide aesthetic: it’s a true studio program that gives you total freedom to take virtually any classes you want in any department, to explore whatever you need to explore to write the best work you have in you.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?

The financial support that we get at Wash U is amazing, and I’m still all glittery and grateful for it every day. Everyone is funded equally and well—around $20,000 a year at last count with summer funding, contests and small conference travel stipends added on. There’s also a couple of competitive scholarships offered by on-campus organizations outside the department that are dedicated to promoting diversity and women studying at the graduate level. But really, our baseline package is more than enough to go a really long way in St. Louis, where you can rent a great 2 bedroom in a great neighborhood for $400-$700 a month (which pretty much makes you wake up every day feeling like you’ve gotten away with the crime of the century.)

The first year, your funding is basically a straight-up, no-teaching, no-strings-attached fellowship year as you settle into the program, and the second year, you teach your own section of introduction to fiction or poetry writing (or sometimes non-fiction if you’d like), leading one class each semester with a group of 12 students who are dedicated and exceptionally well prepared. (Fun fact that always surprises my non-Midwestern friends; Wash U’s undergrad program outranks Brown and Cornell in US News and World Report. Who knew!) You’re the only instructor in these courses and your syllabus is totally self-designed, so I’ve found it pretty easy to balance teaching with writing; I can scale back my assignments to keep time with the rhythms of my own work, and because we’re such a small program (faculty ratio is 3 professors to 5 student teachers in each genre), you always have the support of close mentors when you’re struggling to figure out how to make those adjustments.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?

I have so many! But one that comes to mind immediately actually came from outside of the classroom. Midway through the semester, I’d stumbled into a couple of projects that fell outside of my main genre (fiction), and I was fretting over having 50 or so pages on my hands that needed feedback with no workshop to give it to. One was a colossus of a creative journalism piece about obsessive dollhouse collectors that I’d gone a little nuts writing, so that one, especially, needed some sane outside perspective. I mentioned the essay totally in passing to the director of the program at the time, and he offered to read my work and meet with me independently, even as he was going into thesis review for the 2nd year students. The conversation we had was so thorough and incredible, and it inspired me to reach out and ask for meetings like that since with almost every member of my faculty about my other side projects; so far, they’ve been gracious and enthusiastic about taking the extra reading on. I’m consistently amazed by my professors’ generosity with their time and energy, and how much respect and compassion they have for us as writers in every genre and as people in general. They’re deeply kind, wonderful human beings, which is just a bonus when you’re talking about brilliant writers and teachers at the top of their field.

What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?

Y’know, it’s a problem I’ve been very, very grateful to have, but I’ve struggled a bit to hammer down my process. Like a lot of applicants, I was writing in relative isolation before the MFA, wedging in time at my laptop between 100 hour workweeks and occasional sleep. Since coming here, I have 9 incredibly stimulating hours of class a week, and then, unbelievably, that’s it—my time is fully my own, to do with what I need to.

The effect this has had on my view of craft has been absolutely seismic: when you have the sheer hours to draft and redraft and retool and re-envision, you come to know the story from all sides, to explore the full range of creative possibilities for a piece and choose the most successful approaches. When you add in the insights of the 10 writers in your workshop—who, of course, bring up even more possibilities than you possibly could have thought of with your single, solitary brain—the obvious takeaway is that craft isn’t a static tool applied to the story so much as a process of continual reworking. There’s always more reworking to be done, and the MFA at WUSTL gives you the time and resources you need to do that in spades.

What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?

Honestly, this time has spoiled me so much that I’m just looking for ways to stay! I’m a bit younger and earlier on in my writing career than a lot of M.F.A. students, and I only discovered, through this degree, how valuable it is to be part of a literary community, as well as to make my writing time a top priority even at the expense of the full time, salaried positions I was used to working before I enrolled in school. Because the program’s given me the financial freedom to slow down and be conscientious about my next move, I’m planning on focusing my last year wholly on my thesis, and then staying in St. Louis for a year after graduation to take stock, maintain mentorships with my faculty, and think carefully about how I can best continue the momentum that I’ve started here (as well as, obviously, continuing to write my face off). I’m lucky that Wash U has a great record of welcoming recent MFAs onto the faculty as post-graduate teaching fellows or adjuncts, and that the faculty remains an amazing resource for focused, practical advice about PhD programs, fellowships, publishing, contests, teaching positions and other ways to integrate myself into the global literary community, whatever that ends up meaning to me. Others in my program who are ready to take those steps now are already taking advantage of those resources; a friend of mine here just found out that he won the $15,000 Ruth Lilly fellowship today, so he’ll definitely be doing something fantastically cool next year!

What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?

Apply? Come? Don’t hesitate? Really, I don’t have advice about how to get into Wash U—still just counting my lucky stars about that one—but I literally cannot think of any type of writer who wouldn’t benefit from the sort of experience I’ve had here. If you want a program where you can write like crazy and take any class under the sun that’s useful to your work and talk about that work with people whose talent and intellect boggles you regularly in a super great place to live with a great stipend that you can live well on…well, I shouldn’t even have to finish this ten-car-pile-up of a sentence. Apply! Come! Don’t hesitate!