Interview With The University of Notre Dame

Author: Margaret Emma Brandl

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

South Bend, Indiana, seems like the end of the world at first—a lot of people come here and think they’ve left civilization. But that’s really not the case. We’re close to Chicago by car or train, so there’s a nearby urban area to escape to. The University hosts tons of events that are open to all students, and the Graduate Student Union and English Grad Student Association sponsor some fun trips to clear the writing-mind. We’ve been swimming in Lake Michigan, climbed the dunes on the beach at Warren Dunes State Park, hiked around beautiful Potato Creek State Park, canoed the St. Joseph River, and ice skated in the campus ice arena. The performing arts center on campus has a movie theater that shows films every week and an impressive schedule of musicians and theater companies who come to perform. And then of course there’s football, which—even if you’re not a fan—is something to experience at least once. South Bend is a very low-key place to live, which is nice at least for me—there’s something to do if I want to do something, but there also aren’t constant distractions to pull me away from writing. As for local hangouts, we’re fond of the Four Horsemen Brewery and the on-campus bar, Legends. We current students, along with the professors, also often host gatherings at our own apartments or houses, often in conjunction with readings. If any of us have writer-friends who happen to be passing through town, there’s always somewhere to congregate for a small reading and then spend all evening geeking out over each other’s work. After that, most of us seem to live in the library—it’s a good place to write!

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?

Workshops are more than anything focused on student writing, usually supplemented with a combination of creative and theoretical texts. Workshop professors rotate each semester, so in our four semesters here we have the opportunity to approach workshop in distinctly different ways. It really depends on the professor what the specific focus of the workshop will be. If I had to pinpoint whether we talk more about art or craft or something of that nature, I wouldn’t be able to. In workshop we try to answer how successful each piece seems to be on its own terms. Two things I think are really awesome about this program are the fact that not everyone is theory-minded, nor is everyone expected to be; and the fact that we don’t do so much categorizing. A lot of the work that students and professors at Notre Dame produce tends toward the potentially problematic but convenient term “hybrid.” Is it prose or prose-poetry? Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it an essay or a story? I’ve workshopped everything from essays to a graphic memoir and seen works told in emails exchanged between brothers or running off a lyrical cliff into lists upon lists. Our writing is diverse, eclectic, open to change, and usually a bit “out there.” In my writing I’ve been trying to learn where the line between effectively vague and enigmatically vague lies—and really just using workshop as a place to get feedback when I write something that I consider outside my usual mode.

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

All accepted students receive tuition scholarships, and about half of each incoming class will receive additional fellowships—a few that involve teaching and then a couple that involve editorial work on the Notre Dame Review and Action Books. (For those students who want to do editorial work but haven’t received fellowships, the Notre Dame Review utilizes the MFA students for reading submissions. Also, the program publishes an undergrad and a grad journal—Re:Visions and The Bend, respectively—every year, both of which are run by MFA students.) I personally don’t have a teaching fellowship, but through my fellow students who do teach in addition to the MFA professors I’ve had several opportunities to guest-teach in other people’s classes. I’ve gotten to teach about prose-poetry, graphic novels (via Japanese manga), and structure, in addition to commenting on student work and co-leading an undergraduate workshop session. Several other offices on campus outside the MFA program offer opportunities for our students to teach; for example, the University Writing Center hires several graduate tutors, who often end up leading research and composition workshops. Additionally, I’ve been involved both years with a violence-prevention writing workshop run out of the Gender Relations Center called A Time to Write.

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

I’m bad at picking favorites or bests, so I’ll just tell about an experience that stands out as being particularly excellent—for the final class session of prose workshop this past spring, our professor—Joyelle McSweeney—had us all read and rewrite a chapter of The Turn of the Screw. We then each gave five-minute readings from our chapter pieces in order. Because we all have such diverse writing styles, what resulted was disjointed but fascinating and included several instances of song, sound effects, and some performance art. Other experiences I’ve loved sharing with faculty include the tag-team professor-and-student readings that we’ve given on various occasions and basically any one-on-one time to talk about my thesis, writing, or future plans. Our professors are fantastic people, and when it comes to our writing they all really know what they’re talking about. Any time spent in conversation with them is time well spent.

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

My greatest struggle in grad school has been, I think, remembering to put my writing first. The class load for the MFA isn’t by any means too intense—we only need a maximum of nine credits per semester, and only three of the nine aren’t workshop or writing time. My problem is simply that I came straight from undergrad, and when I was in undergrad I always made sure to do all my classwork and make sure I was making the grade before I’d allow myself to write. I realized, though, that when I came to the MFA, my main focus was in fact on writing—I was going to get the classwork done regardless, but the writing is why I’m actually here. But that’s been tough, because I always want to do my best in everything. And as for craft—personally, I don’t know if I have a “view on craft,” mostly because I’m not a person who usually thinks in those kinds of terms. I think that what I have, and especially what I’ve gained in this program, is an appreciation for and openness to many different kinds of writing; a belief that writing itself is very much still alive (and not stuck in some nebulous “golden age”—we’re not writing garbage or imitating what has come before, we can still contribute); and—most importantly to me—an idea of what it is I do as a writer. When I started this program and people would ask, “What do you write?” I had absolutely no way to answer them—I could say what I have written, but nothing to articulate what I try to do in my work. I think I’ve finally figured that out here—for now, anyway.

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

My next step? That is the question! I am hoping to land some sort of post-MFA writer-in-residence-esque fellowship, or else a teaching appointment—though I know that unless a miracle occurs I would probably have better chances going for the high school level rather than a university setting. Our MFA program offers a couple of practicum classes, one on teaching and one on publishing, which have greatly influenced my ideas of where I want to go from here. I didn’t actually think I ever wanted to teach until I took Teaching Practicum. I’m still also very interested in the publishing industry. We have a summer internship program—the Sparks Fellowships—that each summer place one student each in a New York City Big Six publishing house and a literary agency. I was fortunate to receive the publishing house internship this past summer, and I had a fantastic time and learned so much about that industry. The one potential downside to both options—teaching and working in publishing—is the fact that then I wonder where my writing time will come from! Our program also offers the Sparks Prize only to students graduating from this program—every year one student is selected to stay in the area for a third year, receiving time to work on a novel and with only the obligation of giving a reading in the spring. I’m crossing my fingers on that one! Though some people who come through our program are dead-set on Ph.D.s, I am currently dead-set on not getting one, so I can’t speak from experience about resources for that side. However, our professors are a fantastic resource no matter what you want to do, and several of them have their Ph.D.s and can point interested students in the right direction.

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

I think that the best tip I can give a prospective student is to contact current students. When I was making my decision about which program I wanted to attend, all the current students were so friendly and ready to answer any and all questions I had honestly; and now that I’m a current student, I’m pretty much always willing to take a few minutes to let people know what my experience has been like and what I’ve gotten out of the program. It’s definitely been a great year and a half here—it’ll be sad to leave for sure.