Interview With The University of Massachusetts Boston

Author: Lauren von Hagel

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
UMass Boston benefits, of course, from its Boston location, which is an embarrassment of riches in terms of literary events, readings, bookstores, coffee shops, bars, etc. The UMB campus is in the Dorchester area of Boston and is very much a commuter campus, but there’s a lot of effort to connect with locals and build a tangible writing community. UMB students coordinate a reading series called Write on the DOT which showcases writers both from the program and from the Dorchester area. Local businesses like the Savin Hill Bar & Kitchen, the Savin Hill Yoga Cooperative and the Blarney Stone have hosted readings, and they continue to be favorite hang-outs, along with the Sugar Bowl Café. We also connect with other Boston-area graduate writing programs through the Breakwater Reading Series at the Brookline Booksmith. Because the program is so new and because the campus is a little isolated, I think the culture is still in development, but the one defining characteristic I’ve noticed is that it’s grassroots, student-led activities and connections.

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?
In some ways in depends on the story being discussed, but generally the workshops have focused – as I feel all workshops do, or at least should – on craft, and how fiction works now. As is typical in most MFA programs, I think, the tendency is definitely toward “literary fiction,” but a lot of our discussions center on what in the world that means and how our individual voices and styles fit into that mode. The way that discussion happens depends on which professor is leading the workshop; one semester we broke our discussion down into segments devoted to each element of the story (arc, character, setting, etc.), and another we each did “craft talks” before discussion of our stories where we talked about an element that we focused on or struggled with while writing that particular piece. Our current workshop is a little more free-flowing, but always the workshop centers on how well the story succeeds in doing what it seems to want to do.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
At the very least, everybody in the program gets what’s called a “.25 Assistantship,” which covers 100% of tuition and 25% of fees and pays a small stipend. It’s not a lot, and it’s not enough to live on without some sort of supplementary income or savings, but it’s enough that the cost of attending isn’t ridiculously prohibitive. There’s a variety of assistantships, which include working for literary magazines, teaching creative writing to schoolchildren in local libraries, organizing readings, etc. You aren’t thrown immediately into teaching, and nobody is forced to teach. If you want to teach and do a teaching assistantship, you take a class on teaching creative writing and serve a professor’s teaching assistant, then go on to teach your own introductory creative writing course for undergraduates. I started the teaching assistant phase this semester and so far I’ve found it relatively easy to balance. Even though I’m a fiction writer, I’m TA-ing for an undergraduate poetry class right now, and I’m grateful for that opportunity because the class we get to teach is a general introductory course that covers both poetry and fiction. I like that the program here doesn’t try to take advantage of graduate students and force them into heavy teaching loads; there’s a lot of support and training, instead.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
I actually very recently had a wonderful individual meeting with our newest faculty member, Fanny Howe, who’s teaching our fiction workshop this semester. I had some questions and concerns about a story I had recently workshopped, and instead of a sterile office meeting, we met for coffee in a lovely café in Harvard Square, where we discussed not only my story but my background, our feelings on the workshop so far this semester, our favorite writers, and life in general. Fanny had such respectful, kind suggestions on how to fix this story but also on how to think about writing in general, in ways that really opened up all these avenues I hadn’t let myself explore. It was one of those great literary conversations where I left feeling not only like I could go back and attack this problematic draft, but connected to a generous mentor and re-inspired to dedicate my life to the page. It’s not the most dramatic memory, maybe, but it’s exactly the relationship and experience that I was hoping for when I decided to attend an MFA program.

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

Balance, I think, has been my greatest struggle in graduate school, and I think will continue to be the defining struggle of my writing life— not only in terms of balancing writing-time with earning-money-to-survive-and-general-life-time, but the balance of dedicating my life to this calling to which society doesn’t give a lot of credence or respect, especially in an economic climate like today’s where we’re all supposed to be “practical.” The program has really emphasized the importance of giving time and space to writing in face of this external pressure, and I think that’s helped to solidify the fact that crafting a story is something you have to work at accomplishing and not something that only happens in some fit of divine inspiration. I don’t know that the UMB has changed my view of craft – I think that if you’re applying to an MFA program, you’re already versed in the importance of structure, characterization, point of view, etc. – but it has been a good, constant reminder that those building blocks are things you have to constantly reevaluate and consider in each piece you write. Great musicians will always be aware of meter and melody; great dancers will always return to the basic positions and exercises; and great writers are always aware that no matter how well they’ve mastered the basics, they must always return to them and the blank page.

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

Our program is a three-year program and I’m currently in my second year, so right now my thoughts and plans are mainly preoccupied with the final thesis project. I’d like to teach after finishing the program, and like I said before, the teaching assistantship program here is great training and preparation for that career option. In general I think that the variety of assistantships here are good examples of the kinds of opportunities and positions open to people looking for a literary career. Jill McDonough, our newest poetry faculty member, held a seminar on successfully submitting work and applying for grants, fellowships, residencies, etc. that I found tremendously thorough and helpful.

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

To any prospective student considering attending any program, I’d say that you need to consider your time needs and your monetary needs. As a three year program, UMass Boston gives us a lot of time in total and throughout the year; you’re only required to take one class in addition to the workshop each semester. I find that to be a real blessing, but I also know that an over abundance of time can actually be a problem sometimes. If you’re somebody who needs a lot of structure, realize that at UMB that structure is going to have to largely be self-created, and that in terms of activities outside of workshop, you’re going to get out what you’re willing to put into the student-led meetings, readings, and events. Of course, part of that time will likely have to be devoted to part-time work, so bear in mind that it’s a program that’s going to give you the time, but not necessarily the funds, to be a writer. I’ve been able to make it work well for me and my needs so far, and I’m grateful for that, but I think that all incoming and prospective students should know that it takes some real, careful planning.