Interview With Virginia Polytechnic and State University

Picture of Laura UsselmanAuthor: Laura Usselman

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

–Blacksburg is a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. This part of the world is beautiful, the town is sleepy (except on football gamedays) and the cost of living is low, all of which makes Blacksburg a great place to write. We do have to create our own literary culture, to some degree, but Virginia Tech is turning into an increasingly bustling spot for writers and readers; we have two active student-run reading series, one of which we put on jointly with Hollins University’s MFA program in Roanoke, and the undergraduates inaugurated a literary festival last year. The department also brings an impressive number of writers here each year, and this fall we’ll be hosting Stephen Dunn, Sandra Beasley, and a huge Toni Morrison literary extravaganza, featuring Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, and Morrison herself. This all makes Blacksburg feel considerably less out of the way.

As for hanging out, Blacksburg is a college town, so there are plenty of places to get together and drink beer. We like each other, and entertainment is cheap in this land of $7 pitchers. There is also a slew of restaurants and coffee shops within easy walking distance of the English department, so there is almost always some MFA contingent wandering over to get lunch or coffee in between classes.

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?

–We have a very aesthetically diverse faculty, many of whom—Lucinda Roy, Fred D’Aguiar, Jeff Mann, Ed Falco—work in multiple genres. This gives us the chance to work with a lot of different professors during our time here, and it results in a really varied and interesting group of students. Though each of us focuses primarily on either poetry or fiction, the faculty offers additional workshops in creative nonfiction, new media, and playwriting. We also take craft classes in both fiction and poetry, where even the most experimental among us is asked to write Petrarchan sonnets and try our hands at Carver-esque minimalism. All of this means that we have a lot of opportunities to push our writing in interesting new directions, and explore parts of craft that might not come naturally to us. I have found that, though I came into the program writing really traditional realist fiction, I’ve gotten increasingly interested in more experimental forms and points of view, and in working with really short forms that hug the poetry/prose boundary. I’ve watched some of my friends really thrive writing journalistic nonfiction, culinary memoir, and one-act drama. I think this is the benefit of the three-year program: you have a lot of time to try new ideas on before settling into writing a cohesive thesis.

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

All MFA students at Virginia Tech have the same funding: $15,000 stipends as Graduate Teaching Assistants. In our three years here, we have loads of 0/1, 2/2, and 2/1.  We teach ENGL1105 and ENGL1106, the two first-year composition courses, for four semesters, before teaching an introductory creative writing course in our final semester.  

It’s inevitable that students here run into some trouble balancing teaching with their own work, particularly in their first semester in the classroom. However, we get amazing support from both the creative writing and composition programs. We get a full semester of training before we’re expected to take on any teaching duties, and since we only teach one course in our final semester, the workload eases up when we most need to be buckling down and finishing our theses. We also have a great online interface to exchange assignments, share in-class activities, and find interesting new readings and resources. Teaching can be a lot of fun, and can make you feel a lot more involved in life at the university. It also makes you a lot more employable when you finish your degree, and many of our graduates have gone on to teach at the college level after graduation.

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

–That’s a hard question. Last spring, Matthew Vollmer, our newest faculty member, taught an out-of-control, fast-paced, borderline frenetic, super fun fiction workshop. He gave us prompts every week—they ranged from “write a story that heavily features digression” to “write a one-sentence story that is at least three pages long” to “write an episodic story featuring a mythical creature”—and we ended up turning in fifteen drafts in as many weeks. It was a lot of work, but entering the summer with fifteen drafts to revise was great, and seeing what everyone did with each prompt made me feel lucky to be in a program with such smart, funny, subversive people. This was obviously an outrageous amount of work for Matthew, but he took it in stride and gave all twelve of us great feedback every week. And now, my classmates are placing the stories they wrote last spring in all sorts of magazines, getting them bought by horror anthologies (!) and winning short-short contests (the type with real prize money!).

What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
–The summer after my first year here, I was dead set on heading off to start a novel over break. I spent a lot of time reading, and a lot of time banging my head against walls, tables, etc., but I didn’t do a whole lot of writing. I ended up deciding that I wasn’t really ready to write a novel, and heading back into the realm of the short story instead. That was definitely my low point as a writer (so far!), but I’m grateful I made that decision when I did, because it gave me a lot more time to explore craft and write some kind of playful, wonky stuff. Studying here has made me much more aware of the expansive possibilities of writing, the paralysis and exhilaration that both come when you realize just how many exciting things there are to do with words. I don’t expect that process will end when I leave Blacksburg, but the program certainly accelerated my education as a writer and reader.

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

–I worked at a literary agency in New York this past summer, and when I graduate in May I’m going to return to the city to find a job in book publishing. MFA faculty members were invaluable during my job search last year: one professor nudged me in the direction of agenting, while another got me in touch with his agent, which led directly to my getting an internship. The MFA program doesn’t have a formalized career services system, the way a professional school might, but the faculty and staff are eager to help students find jobs. Erika Meitner, particularly, is a fantastic resource, and gives a “Life After the MFA” presentation each year, helping us navigate the worlds of writing fellowships, PhD programs, and academic jobs. Lucinda Roy helps demystify the book proposal and the process of finding an agent.

The English Department does a good job ensuring that we all graduate as fairly appealing job candidates. We attend required professional development events through the composition program (though we grumble) and we are fairly experienced teachers by the time we graduate. The department grants us travel money to attend AWP each year, which is a great opportunity to learn more about the business of writing; one of my classmates even had a panel accepted for this year’s conference, so she’s been able to work with a bunch of writers she admires and explore issues that she’s passionate about. Finally, we have good opportunities to work on literary magazines, including the minnesota review, The New River, which publishes new media work, and student-run Toad. If you’re a savvy student, you can graduate with a good arsenal of writing, editing, and teaching skills.

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

–If I had to re-do the MFA application process, I would diversify my writing sample. I applied with one long story, but I think that diversity improves the chance that your work will strike someone on the committee as exciting or original or beautiful or moving or funny, etc. That’s general advice, though. When it comes to Virginia Tech specifically, ask yourself: Will I be happy in a small town? Will teaching be an exciting opportunity rather than a distracting frustration? Will I be happy in a small, close-knit program where everybody knows my pet’s name/dark secrets/food allergies? If yes, apply!