Interview With University of Arizona
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
I moved to Tucson from Los Angeles and I was immediately enchanted by this scrappy desert town. The scenery outside the city is beautiful—we’re surrounded by mountains on three sides, and the hiking trails are amazing and accessible. Tucson is a bike-friendly town, so many students bike to campus and out around town… I bike mostly everywhere. Local hangouts? 4th Avenue is the main drag with shops, bars, and restaurants, so we often meet up there for Mexican food or at the Shanty pub. Café Passe is another favorite. Casa Libre, an awesome, funky community venue hosts many of our MFA community readings. Just about every other Friday, we gather at Casa Libre to listen to a nonfiction writer, a fiction writer, and a poet read their work, and often head out to a bar on 4th Ave. together after the reading. We call these readings WIP—Works In Progress—and it’s a program favorite… a great way to see and hear other writers, outside of genre, and to generally just interact outside of 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?
I can’t speak for workshops in other genres, but the nonfiction workshops have been wonderful and so useful for my writing. There are twelve nonfiction writers, and were all working on such different projects—not only are we writing about different topics, we’re writing in different ways, so there’s absolutely no competition. I think we each feed off this diversity, learning from each other’s approaches and styles. Feedback is similarly great because everyone comes to the table with a different aesthetic. I think we each have our readers that really get our work, and understand what we’re doing, but there are also readers that challenge it constantly because they aren’t so on board with our individual projects… which is really valuable.
My nonfiction writing is heavily research based, so I tend to focus on this in my workshops. There has been certainly a push throughout the program to incorporate real-world and academic research into our literary pieces. I write about food and the environment, and honed in on my major writing project pretty early, so I’ve been chugging away at my thesis since the beginning of my second semester.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
Funding opportunities are scattered throughout the University. I wasn’t awarded a Graduate Teaching Assistantship when I entered the program, which made securing funding tricky. I was awarded a fellowship through the English department for my first semester here, which covered tuition; in January of my first year, I snagged a Graduate Assistant position in UA’s Office of Sustainability. I work on communications and marketing, and I love this job—I write about environmental issues, so it’s a great fit for me. Other folks in the program have found similar niches in departments around campus, doing marketing for Student Affairs, for example, or coordinating programs at the UA Bookstore. Funding is available, and the English department makes every effort to cobble grants and assistantships together, but there’s also a lot of opportunities through the university as a whole.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
In January of my second semester, I had this wacky idea for a project, this year long sort-of food project. So I had lunch with one of the nonfiction professors—he had read a sort of introduction essay I wrote to this project—and said… what do you think? And he said—yeah! Do it. Go for it, run with it, and here are a bunch of things you could consider as you embark on such a big adventure. Think about this canon, the canon of writers who have come before you—how are you different? How can you make this soar? We had a great conversation, and generally his—as well as the other nonfiction professors—willingness to not only jump on board and support me, but also challenge my endeavor, has really made this project so much more than I thought it could be.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
I tend to think in big ideas—way too big of ideas—and the essay-centric format of the workshop was tricky for me initially. I tend to think in what can get accomplished in 100 pages rather than 10, but what workshops have shown me is that you have to accomplish something in 10 pages—there has to be a point, a narrative, a tug… your reader will not stick with you in the hopes that something, eventually, will amount.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
I’m focusing right now on completing this thesis project, which I hope will someday become a saleable book. I’m also continuing to freelance—I worked a bit in journalism before coming to graduate school—and so I’d like to look for opportunities in this field again when I graduate; for example, writing or editing for a magazine would be the ideal.
What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
I love this program, and I love Tucson. That said, the Sonoran desert isn’t for everyone. Come visit! We’ll have a drink—you’ll see that we’re all so excited to be here. Also, take advantage of the University of Arizona community as a whole—there is amazing work being done here in a ton of different fields, and one of my favorite aspects of this program is the access I’ve been granted to this work—to research and interviews, talks and outings.