Interview With Solstice Low-Residency MFA
Author: Mette Holden
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
The campus is just beautiful: covered in trees, teeming with squirrels and other wildlife. I come from a desert area, so when I first arrived on campus, I was shocked by how many trees there were. It felt like going to school in an enchanted forest. Because Pine Manor College is just outside of Boston, it’s close to many cool sites, like Lexington, where the shot heard round the world was fired, and Walden Pond, Thoreau’s muse. It’s very cool to be somewhere so full of history.
As for hangouts, many of the students like to go visit the Met Bar, which is in walking distance from the school. Throughout the day, students frequent the nearby Starbucks, and at dinnertime, Legal Seafood and the Cheesecake Factory are favorites for taking breaks from the cafeteria.
Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your residencies? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?
For me, the residencies are all about learning as much as possible in the short time I’m there. We are only required to take a certain number of classes at the residency, but I am in this program to become a better writer, so of course I take advantage of the knowledge that all the faculty has by auditing additional classes. Last time I was there, I chose classes based on things I was struggling with in my work. For example, I felt like I was having a hard time with setting, so I took a class about creating a sense of place. Right now my biggest focus has been on learning how to tell a story. I write fiction, so of course the art of narrative is essential to my work. Pacing, plot, and clarity have been major focuses in my work this semester.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? How easy is it to balance work, family life and writing?
It’s a small school, so there aren’t as many opportunities for scholarships, but the program has several fellowships, including genre-based fellowships, and a fellowship for diversity, along with need-based scholarships. Additionally, the school offers federal loans.
Finding the balance between work, family, and writing has been one of my challenges. I work at a regional theater, and when I get home from a long day of answering phones, it can be challenging to find the motivation to write. Fighting the creativity-blocking tiredness becomes a decision. I can’t stop myself from being tired, but I can choose to write just one page, and usually once that gets going, I find a flow. And if not, at least I have one page more than I did the day before. As for taking care of the house, sometimes it just doesn’t get done. Sometimes we eat cereal for dinner. My husband is really supportive of me, so he understands that some days, the only thing we get to do together is be in the same room. And other times I have to just forget about my schoolwork and take a day off to spend time with him. You have to have those days for sanity’s sake, and for creativity’s sake. Days like that always seem to help when I’m struggling with writer’s block. Ultimately, in order to create balance between work, family, and writing, there are other things that are less important that just have to fall out.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
Before starting the workshop, Steven Huff would have us meditate for five minutes. It really helped set a nice, calm mood, especially on the day when my piece was being workshopped and I felt jittery and nervous.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
One of the hardest things for me has been learning to work through writer’s block. In my last month of this semester, I hit a wall with the story I was working on and just didn’t know what to do with it. I panicked. I wanted to throw it away, but I knew if I gave up on it just because it was difficult, I wouldn’t learn how to deal with the problem. Thankfully, I kept pushing, and with my mentor’s feedback along with the effort I made, I got past the writer’s block.
For the program, we have to do lots of reading (of course!) and analyze what we read from a craft perspective. One thing I’ve learned is that craft is often best taught by example, so in order to improve your craft, you’ve got to read the best that literature has to offer.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
Solstice offers a teaching track, which I have recently decided to take. Once I graduate, I will probably seek a position at a university teaching composition classes. And of course my whole goal is to write for a living, so I will start how many other authors have started by submitting my work to literary magazines. One of the really great things the Solstice program does is offer classes at the residencies about elements of the publishing world. For example, in the last residency, they had a class about publishing in literary journals. Additionally, during the workshops, the faculty members often offer advice about publishing.
What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
In order to succeed in a low-residency program like Solstice, you have to be self-motivated and work well independently. I turn in work once every month, and there is no one to remind me when it is due. I have to pace myself to get everything done in the time. Make sure you can work well on your own.