I read the article, "MFA or POC" in the New Yorker by Junot Díaz a few months ago when it was first printed, and I felt a genuine sadness for him that his MFA experience was so unfulfilling. I am a graduate of Spalding University's Low Residency MFA program. My experience there was one of support, empathy, respect and encouragement. Now, did I always feel like my work was 100% understood. Of course not. However, I never felt like any of my teacher/mentors or fellow classmates tried to marginalize or invalidate my work because maybe they were not writing about black folks from the rural south. Yes, there were times when I was the only black person in the room, but truly, I never felt like that fact inhibited the discussion.
Sometimes there were more questions in workshop than solutions. The workshop leaders/classmates really sank their teeth into the work being discussed. They challenged their own interpretations. Sometimes people relied on those in the room who are closest to the culture being written about. Often discussions turned to literature that was similar to the work being discussed, but never did I ever feel like my work was not being taken seriously.
A lot of my stories are slave narratives written in dialect. Again, no one ever said, "why are you writing in that difficult, hard to understand language?" And to be honest, much to my surprise, fellow classmates and mentor/teachers treated dialect like it was a language, something I never experienced in graduate school before. If anything, people encouraged me to continue to write in dialect, and as a result, I was able to develop my skills in writing this beautiful language in such a way that I can maintain the reverence I feel for it but it also present it in a readable and understandable fashion to my audience of readers.
I credit our leaders at Spalding, Sena Jeter Naslund, Kathleen Driskell, Karen Mann and Katy Yocom, for making it clear that the workshop is designed to encourage the writer whose work was being discussed and not tear down the writer or leave that person feeling abused and unvalidated. Now that does not mean we didn't have some intense discussions and disagreements at times, but at the end of the day, we realized our competition, as so eloquently stated by Sena, "was not in the room but in the library and bookstores." I never felt the uber competitiveness at Spalding that I've heard other MFA grads from other schools talk about. Even now, the vast majority of my community of supporters and friends are my Spalding classmates/mentors/teachers/leaders.
So, I said all of that to say, research closely the MFA programs that are out there. Don't just take for granted what their materials say. And don't pick a school just because your favorite writer teaches there. Go visit them. Ask if you can sit in on a workshop or lecture. Talk to graduates/current students/teachers. Most times, they will tell you the truth. And of course, I would love for you to check out Spalding. My life changed radically when I walked into the MFA office at Spalding, not really sure if being a writer was still a viable option for me. Karen Mann made me believe that day that not only was my dream possible, but she was going to do everything in her power to support it. And I found this to be true for everyone else I encountered at Spalding. If you would like to find out more about The Spalding low residency MFA in Writing Program, click here.
BIO: Angela Jackson-Brown is an award winning writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Her work has been widely published in journals like The Louisville review, New Southerner Literary Review and 94 Creations, to name a few. She is the author of, Drinking From A Bitter Cup, and is hard at work writing her second novel.