Sunday, July 1, 2012

MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State

Upon being accepted to the MFA creative writing program in fiction I received booklets and a student identification number, but I had no idea how to navigate. For anyone pursuing an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, I offer my discoveries.

Before you register for classes, create several different versions of your semester's schedule. You will be registering last, and most of the creative writing classes will be full. Make sure you understand what kinds of classes are required. You can take them in any order. You might consider a class in the Theater Arts or in the English department for that first semester. I ended up with two undergrad English classes and one creative writing class (803) that was an MA/MFA workshop, which counts as an elective, not as a writing workshop. You do need four classes in either English, Theater Arts, or four more creative writing electives (in addition to the four already required). The other departments offer more classes, so it is more likely you will get into one outside of Creative Writing.

English classes are taught differently from creative writing classes. The English classes are all about interpreting the work from an outside analyst's point of view. For the most part, they look at symbolism and repeating patterns, not at the word choices or what the words are actually saying. As a writer, I found this way of reading quite perplexing. Why write if no one is looking at the words? I did find an English professor who was also a writer and I stuck with him for three classes: Dr. Geoffrey Green. He was most interested in the humanity in the stories, finding out what made the stories touch us, and how the word choices gave hints.

You will also need to choose a correlative. This is an area of concentration outside the genre or subject in which you were accepted. You need four classes in your correlative subject. I ended up choosing plays and playwriting, which was a  great boost to my fiction for several reasons: it taught me how to present a landscape or a scene, and in what order; it taught me how dialogue functions to put pressure on the character; it taught me about "point of access" and "emotional landing point." Two wonderful playwriting teachers are Michelle Carter and Brian Thorstenson. Take them for any class. I took Brian's Writing and Performing Monologues, which is amazing; it is a mix of acting students and writers so we could learn from both sides. Brian's energy and enthusiasm inspire everyone to do his/her best. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing local plays for Michelle's Plays: Reading/Writing/Viewing (and getting discounted tickets). My first attempts to write play scenes were in her class. I have also heard good things about her Writing in its Public Context (880) class. She is delightful to work with, funny, organized, and presents the information clearly. Back to correlatives: other students chose urban planning, composition, teaching, or forestry/conservation studies, to name a few.

If you know you are interested in studying another genre of writing in addition to fiction (poetry or playwriting), I highly recommend you make it your correlative. It is so hard to get into classes that professors are told they should accept students with the major first, and then those with the correlative. Before I realized playwriting was part of my correlative I was kicked out of a playwriting class on the first day, even though I had registered for it.

There are very few professors who can accept students for the one-on-one Directed Writing (809) classes: Full and Associate Professors only. Best if you can meet the professors as early as possible. Once you take a class with one you may be able to get on the list for his/her next Directed Writing (they can only take 6 students each semester, and not everyone teaches every semester). Robert (Bob) Glück is excellent in a one-on-one situation; he carefully reads the work, line-by-line, and gives thoughtful and insightful comments. 

Certain classes are hard to get into (harder if you have a job/time conflict). Nona Caspers' classes are nearly impossible to register for, but she says anyone can come to her first class. I was never able to sign up in time to take a class with her. Peter Orner is famous for his fantastic reading lists. If you love to read, his classes are the best; if you don't love to read, you will discover that you do! Not only that, you will discover there are so many good books you haven't read yet! His classes also fill up quickly. I had two classes with him, Creative Nonfiction (810 or 880), and MFA Writing Workshop. Studying creative nonfiction also really helps with writing fiction. Research can add depth to any story.

MFA Writing Workshops (853). You must take two. The class will vary, depending on the mix and chemistry of the students and the teacher. The usual format is that every week two students bring stories (about 20 pages) and copies for everyone in the class. The students in the class take the stories home, read them, write on them, make notes, and write an essay or letter to the writer. Discussion happens the following week. There may also be an outside reading assignment and students may be asked to present someone else's work or give a presentation on a writer. Essentially, the students do most of the talking.

Approach workshops as a way to think carefully and critically and to write thoughtfully and tactfully. Use the class to find what might be confusing in your stories, listen to the responses, but don't worry about the other comments. Take what you need, discard the rest. I did not find them helpful to my actual writing process, but perhaps you will!

Other recommendations: take classes that will stretch you. I took Experimental Fiction (810) from Camille Roy/Megan Adams, who is supremely organized, and she assigned us provocative readings and writing exercises, (the Displaced Person is similar, 880). We wrote a 1-3 page critical essay and a 1-3 page creative response every week, and we got better and faster at both. Experimental Fiction banished my self-consciousness and allowed me to write freely on any topic. 

If you want to do individual research, or you meet a group of students you like, admire, and trust, you might consider creating an Independent Study (899). Write up a proposal (the forms are in the office and they will show you examples of past proposals), get an advisor, and do the work. Sometimes the advisor will be happy to meet with you, other times, s/he will just check it off at the end. I received the most useful feedback on my writing from two other students/new friends who joined me in an independent writing workshop under the 899 umbrella.

If you are interested in teaching, from what I understand, Teaching Creative Writing (860) works within the confines of the grad classroom and the Teaching Practicum (859) puts you in an undergrad class (or you sign up to be a GTA—Graduate Teaching Assistant—and also sign up for the Practicum). Practicum meets periodically to review what went on in your classroom. Toni Mirosevich or Michelle Carter often teach those classes. Michelle is great, and I've heard good things about Toni. Professors may put out a call for GTAs at the beginning of the semester. Another useful thing to do if you want to teach is to watch your professors closely, see how each structures a class, handles the students, gives assignments. Does it work? Why or why not? What would you like to see?

Writers on Writing (820) is useful if you haven't read many writers' bios, want to hear about different writers' processes, or are interested in meeting writers. I have read many bios, so I did not take it, but the lineup always looked interesting. Fourteen Hills (840) is great if you want to work on a literary magazine, make some decisions, and see how literary magazines work. Sadly, I have not heard good things about the Poetry Center Workshop (850).

After two semesters, start thinking about your thesis. For fiction it can be a group of short stories, a novel, a hybrid combo. I initially wrote a group of stories about one topic, but started a new batch in the summer that became the basis for a group of interrelated short stories that turned out to be a novel, something I never intended to write. Your thesis is a collection of work that you do over the three years (or longer?) that you are in school. You are not expected to create something new in your final semester! It helps to have an idea of what that collection might look like early in the process; you can change your plan at any time up until that final semester.

Once you do find a professor you like, s/he can be your advisor. For thesis (sixth and final semester, usually), you will sign up for the six units of Written MFA Creative Work (893), get your stories in order and present them to your committee of two (one advisor who has been familiar with your work all along, and another professor who may know you but may or may not read the final work). You will be directed to the many guidelines for thesis and to the forms to complete in your penultimate semester. You must adhere to the required formatting for bureaucratic reasons, but your creative work is your own.

The creative writing program at San Francisco State is flexible and gives you many opportunities to explore your writing and your creativity. I've had a terrific experience. Thanks to all!



2 comments:

Lizzie said...

Wow, this sounds soooo complicated! I don't think the system works the same over here - I am sure you get signed up for your courses before you start your year of study; students know what they will be doing before term begins and only get "thrown out" of a class if they don't work! Your system sounds so complicated and anxiety-ridden!

So, does this mean you have completed a Master's Degree (MFA - Master of Fine Arts, yes)? Congratulations to you - it must have been soooo hard work; I bet you feel so pleased with yourself!
Fabulous achievement!

Alisa said...

Thanks so much, Lizzie!

The main problem is that this is a California State University and the state of California has no money. This lack has lead to fewer classes and options. As a business, the school has to pack more students into fewer classes so that they don't have to pay as many professors. You might get "kicked out" on the first day only if someone with that major needs the class more than you do. And tuition is rising anyway.

But the institution is different from the education. The anxieties are bureaucratic, but the actual classes and creative experiences are challenging in a really good way. I've learned volumes (pun intended) more than I thought I would.