Interview With Ohio State University
Author: Silas Hansen
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
Columbus is a great city, and I cannot recommend it enough to artists and writers. I know there’s this idea that you have to be in someplace like New York or San Francisco or Chicago if you want to be a “real” writer, but I guarantee Columbus has it, too—and you’ll pay one-third the amount in rent as you would in these other cities. There’s never a lack of something to do—including art and literary festivals that are unconnected to the university—and it’s politically progressive (and has one of the largest LGBT populations in the United States), but it’s inexpensive, easy to navigate, and friendly. Columbus is very neighborhood oriented, so whether you want the college town feel, a more suburban setting with good schools, or an arts district with trendy bars and restaurants, Columbus has it. We also have one of the best zoos (rated #1 in 2009) and one of the best public library systems (in the top four since 1999, and won the top spot four times) in the country.
Columbus is frequently cited as a foodie paradise by culinary magazines—it’s a really supportive place for small businesses, so a lot of great restaurants open here and do very well. There’s a big push toward locally grown and organic foods, too, and a lot of restaurants even have their own vegetable gardens. We also have one of the biggest food truck scenes in America, including a BBQ joint called Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, a vegan hot dog stand, a chicken-and-waffles truck, a grilled cheese truck, and over 70 taco trucks within the city limits—just to name a few of my personal favorites. There are several food truck festivals during the warm seasons, but most of the trucks stay open year round. And we have the best ice cream in America, according to several independent sources and 99% of the people who have tried Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams—seriously, you will never eat another brand again once you try their famous Salty Caramel.
As for the culture of the program itself, it could not be more supportive. We all feel like we’re in this together, so we try to do whatever we can to support each other’s work, whether it’s the writing you’re doing in workshop or another interest you’ve decided to pursue outside of class. When someone has a big success—a publication, an award, etc.—there’s no envy, just celebration. And outside of the classroom, we all just get along—we have potlucks and go apple picking, have Mad Men and Downton Abbey viewing parties, and go out together after readings. We have something going on almost every week, whether it’s a formal reading or just something fun at somebody’s house.
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 one regular workshop in each genre every semester, in addition to forms classes—usually one poetry and one fiction per year, with nonfiction about every other year—and the occasional special topics course. This year, for example, Andrew Hudgins is teaching a special topics course on humorous prose writing in the fall, and formal poetry this spring; Erin McGraw is teaching a forms of the novel class this fall, and Michelle Herman taught a novella class last spring; last year, Henri Cole taught a course on the long poem, and Kathy Fagan taught free-verse poetry. In the regular workshops, though, you just turn in whatever you’re working on.
We have a pretty wide range of work in prose classes—I’m in nonfiction, but have taken two fiction workshops, too—and people seem to be very receptive to whatever everyone is working on. In nonfiction we get everything from strict lyric essays to strict literary journalism—and everything in between—and in fiction, I’ve seen sections of novels, the beginnings of (and complete) novellas, and many short stories, as well as everything from southern Gothic-style writing to magical realism to more “traditional” work. People try to meet the story or essay or poem in its own world, and no one tries to make you or your work into something you aren’t.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
I should start by saying that the funding here is fantastic. You won’t be rich, of course, but it’s certainly enough to live on in Columbus, which has a very low cost of living. Most of the MFAs live alone (very few have roommates, but a few have significant others) and still manage to pay rent on apartments in nice neighborhoods and afford to spend money on going out to eat or getting drinks after a reading without stretching their budget too much.
Everyone who is admitted is guaranteed three years of funding as a Graduate Teaching Associate (some folks get University Fellowships for their first year, which means they don’t teach until the second year, but it’s approximately the same amount of money). GTAs teach one class per semester, starting with first-year writing for two semesters, which is capped at twenty-four students. There’s a great support system set up for first-year GTAs (that you can continue to take advantage of all three years, if you’d like) and I haven’t had any trouble balancing coursework, writing, and teaching—in fact, I’ve still found plenty of time to watch a lot of TV, read books for fun, and enjoy casual hang-outs with friends.
In addition to first-year writing, everyone is guaranteed at least one section of creative writing. These are 2000-level introductory workshops in your primary genre, and they’re capped at twenty students. Most people teach them as half-survey of the genre and half-workshop, and they’re a lot of fun to teach. Aside from first-year writing and the 2000-level workshop, some of us also teach business writing, technical writing, a second-year writing course, literature-based first-year and second-year writing, and an intermediate/special topics course in their genre. Most MFAs stick to just first-year writing and the 2000-level workshop, since it’s less prep work, which allows them more time to write. But if you want to diversify your teaching experience, OSU is a place where you can do that.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
I’ve had nothing but positive relationships with faculty members here, even the ones I haven’t taken classes with. I’ve worked most closely with Michelle Herman and Lee Martin, who could not be more different—yet they have both been instrumental in helping me grow as a writer. Workshop with Lee has been a wonderful experience—I was nervous, the first day, but while I always leave his class knowing how to improve my essay, I always feel like Lee (and everyone in the workshop) is in my corner. Michelle, who is my thesis adviser, is probably the best reader I could ask for. She’s been incredibly supportive of my project since I came to Ohio State, but she can also look at an essay draft and say, “You’re avoiding something here. What do you really mean?” and she doesn’t take any sentence—or even individual words—lightly, and she makes me think about each and every one of them. I look back at the work I wrote before I came here, and during my first year, and I hardly recognize it. I know that I am a far better writer now than I was two years ago, and it’s entirely because of the faculty and students here.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
I think a lot of people have the experience of coming to an MFA program and thinking, “I don’t belong here. They made a mistake. They’re suddenly going to realize I’m not really a writer and they’re going to kick me out.” Or, at least, a lot of my friends—here and elsewhere—have had that feeling. But the faculty and other students here have been so supportive that I’ve gotten over that, and I’m much more confident in my abilities. I was also terrified of teaching, but the support system for first-year GTAs helped a lot, and now I love it and am entirely comfortable with that role.
As for my view of craft, I think it has evolved a lot since I started the program. Lee Martin, especially, has been really helpful in terms of the way I think about structure in essays, and I now have a much better understanding of how different types of essays work, which has made me a better writer and a better teacher. The program has been an excellent resource for exposing me to different types of writing, to parts of the cannon that I had skipped over, and to new ways of thinking about creative nonfiction.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
I’m on the job market this year, with the hopes of getting a teaching job (a few tenure-track positions, but also some lectureships in both creative writing and composition), but I’m also applying to PhD programs. I’m hoping to find a place—whether teaching or in a PhD program—where I can continue working on creative nonfiction (and a little bit of fiction) and also do some scholarly work in rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies, digital media studies, disability studies, and narrative theory, which are interests I discovered during my time here.
I feel pretty good about my chances—thanks to the opportunities OSU has given me. I’ll leave having been Nonfiction Editor of The Journal for a year (and Associate Nonfiction Editor for a year before that), having taught several sections of both composition and creative writing, and having worked with fantastic faculty members in both creative and scholarly pursuits.
There’s also a lot of room for professional development here. Every summer, the Digital Media Project, which is dedicated to incorporating digital media into the English curriculum, hosts the Digital Media and Composition Conference, which a few grad students can attend for free. A lot of MFAs end up attending the conference, which is the best thing that has ever happened to my teaching. Plus, I’ve found that a lot of job postings want someone who has experience with digital media and technology in humanities classrooms, so it’s something that can really set you apart from other people on the job market.
What tipswould you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
You should think really hard about what you want from a program, before you send in any applications. And then do research to make sure that the programs you’re considering actually meet those needs. Forget the rankings and focus on what the best program is for you. Talk to current students at the programs you’re considering, read their websites carefully, and make sure to talk about your plans with someone who knows something about MFA programs—preferably someone who either went to one or is currently attending one. The application and admissions process is really different for the MFA than other types of graduate school, so the advice you sometimes get from advisers who haven’t attended an MFA doesn’t actually apply.
As for specific advice for people applying to OSU, take the GRE, and put together an academic writing sample. These requirements almost scared me off when I was applying, but I did it anyway and I am so glad that I did.