Interview With Syracuse University

Picture of Caitlin HayesAuthor: Caitlin Hayes

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
Syracuse, NY is not everybody’s favorite city. I, for one (maybe the only one), love it. I’ll admit here: I am a homebody, and I’ve never lived in a big city, so I don’t demand much. But the rent is cheap, and the winters are magical, and between the University and some good community arts organizations, I feel like there’s often something to do—a reading, a play, an art opening, etc. The program itself gives us a lot to do, too: the Carver reading series, coffee hours, graduate readings. Often teachers in the program will do readings in the community.

Almost all of the graduate students live in the same neighborhood, which is nice, especially in winter. There’s a for-real dive-bar that used to be a funeral home and a great Mexican restaurant and a couple of coffee shops and a co-op with delicious bread (that’s really about it, but I’m satisfied).

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?
At Syracuse, there are craft classes and workshops. You can take academic classes, too, but you don’t have to. The craft classes are great—we read wonderful stuff chosen by wonderful teachers, and then talk about how the story/novel/poem was put together; often the classes are geared towards your own writing. Creative responses to the readings are common. Craft classes are a great laboratory for experimenting.

One unique thing (maybe) about Syracuse workshops is that you have workshop with the same six people in your cohort every fall. So you get to know one small group of people (and their work) very well—and they yours. In Spring, the workshops are open and bigger.

Workshops are a little hard to summarize, as the tone and focus of it will shift with the professor. One thing that surprised me is the extent to which all the professors (at least on the fiction side, although I think it’s true on the poetry side as well) really push you to capitalize on what makes you unique as a writer. When I hear people talking about how MFA programs produce uniform work, I don’t understand what they mean. The program at SU seems very personal to me in this way—it’s about helping each writer progress on their own trajectory. Professors meet with us outside of workshop a lot—they are teachers and mentors, and they take both roles really seriously.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
Everybody in the program has full funding, but the funding is tiered. It’s tiered from the outset, so there’s no competition for funding once you’re here. Each student either teaches one year, two years, or all three years. The gig each year is different. Everybody teaches one year of composition—this is the most time-consuming of the teaching posts. Most people also teach a class in conjunction with the reading series—it’s kind of like leading a book club for undergraduates, with grades. The other year, there is an internship option with a small press (BOA) or a TAship with one of the poetry professors.

Balancing teaching and writing is a really individual thing, I think. Some people say they get more done when they’re teaching. But the teaching is not an outrageous commitment here. The one year of composition poses the biggest challenge, but it’s not unmanageable. We write through it.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
This is really tough. The faculty is great and committed and diverse in their styles. I can say that George Saunders’ craft classes might be worth the cost of SU tuition if we paid SU tuition. He is as impressive and compassionate a teacher as he is a writer.

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

Greatest struggle: learning to trust myself as a writer; learning how to read my own work productively. My view of craft after two years at SU: much of craft has to be intuitive for a story to be good and your own, but we can train ourselves (through reading a lot and experimenting a lot, through developing and knowing our tastes) to make better and more interesting choices as writers. I hope that’s right.

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

I graduate in May, and I don’t know what the next step is (ah). I guess everything the program does prepares us for the post-graduate experience—because the aim of the program is to help us become better writers, committed writers, with some confidence and perseverance. Our faculty serve as mentors for us on business-type stuff, too, jobs and publishing. But one thing I’ve learned here, and that has prepared me, I think, is to respect the writing process and the time it takes to produce something good. I’m going to be looking for a job or an opportunity that will give me that time to work.

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

Buy a good winter coat! And boots. A UV lamp would come in handy. Seriously. Also, seriously, Syracuse is a great place to be.