What is an MFA, and why do I need one?
A Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree, or MFA, is the terminal degree necessary for those who wish to teach at the college level. Some of our students are already teachers at the K-12 level who need to earn a master’s degree to advance in their careers—but only about 20 percent of our students hope to teach writing at a college or university. Most of our students want to earn an MFA for two reasons: community and networking opportunities, and—this is the main one—to obtain the tools necessary to become the strongest writers they can be. Like any art form, creative writing requires some sort of apprenticeship. The MFA provides that along with so much more.
What concentrations do you offer?
Currently we offer concentrations in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and writing for young people. We are also building a cohort to start our Comics & Graphic Narratives Concentration in summer/fall 2021.
What does “low-residency” mean, and what are the benefits of a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program?
As opposed to “full residency” programs, low-residency means you don’t need to move to Boston to earn your master of fine arts degree in creative writing! Our students often have careers and families and want to learn not only the craft of writing but also how to make writing and reading a regular practice alongside life’s other obligations and interests. During our two-year program, students—who, along with faculty, are spread out across the U.S. and beyond—are on campus for five 10-day residencies. The first four residencies start our spring and fall semesters and culminate with the fifth, graduating residency. The residency itself is an intense but inspiring event featuring workshops, craft classes, elective sessions, and readings. By day seven, students are assigned a mentor with whom they work for the rest of that semester through mail, phone, and email. By the time they graduate, students have a firm foundation in craft, a solid sense of how to publish their work, and a supportive community of fellow writers, many of whom have become lifelong friends.
What makes the Solstice MFA Program different from other low-residency programs out there?
The number-one thing: our community. You’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier, more supportive group of writers, including students and faculty alike. At Solstice, we talk openly about the obstacles that can keep us from growing as artists, two main ones being competitiveness and envy. You have to make sure that those demons don’t poison the well, so to speak; otherwise, apprentice writers don’t feel safe to take the creative risks necessary for them to reach the next level in their art. We should also mention that from our founding in 2006, we’ve been dedicated to a diverse faculty of world-class writers who also love to teach. We’re always blown away by how invested our faculty members are in their students’ success as writers. So our students and alumnx have myriad opportunities like readings, panels, and craft classes for face-to-face interactions with all of these amazing authors—in a setting that’s intimate enough to have real conversations. We’ve found that intimacy is still there even when our residencies are virtual because of COVID! Another thing that sets us apart is our Pedagogy Track, which provides some necessary training for writers who hope to teach at the college level. We’ll mention, too, that we give our students a tremendous amount of resources to ensure they feel on solid ground, including our new student “buddy” program; classes in critical writing (most of our students were not English majors!); a Handbook that many call our “bible;” our encouragement of cross-genre study; and a dedicated, responsive staff—we could go on!
The Solstice Program says it “provides a supportive, welcoming environment in which writers of all backgrounds feel safe and are encouraged to take creative risks.” What does this mean to Solstice?
Our faculty as well as our staff and students come from myriad backgrounds. You’ll find among us a wide variety of ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious/spiritual beliefs, histories, socioeconomic statuses, nationalities, and ages. Some of our differences are physically apparent; many are not. Regardless, it is essential that as people we can be our true selves and feel accepted within our community—and as artists we can bring work to the table that we’re unsure of, knowing the focus will be on making every poem, essay, or story the best it can be without tearing down the writer. This is why at Solstice we actually talk about things like competition and envy, which can truly “poison the well” in a community of talented, creative people. Also, we ensure our faculty are as diverse as our students. We don’t say that you won’t be challenged by our curriculum or that every workshop is simply a lovefest! But we do our best to ensure everyone feels supported and valued, which is what we all need in to grow in our work (and it’s what we all need).
How do you encourage cross-genre work?
So many of us write in more than one genre! Solstice supports that a few different ways: we certainly encourage students to take craft classes in genres other than their concentration during our residencies; we believe all genres have something to teach the others. Also, students who wish to do so may focus on a completely different genre in semester two than they did in semester one. And some of our faculty members who write in more than one genre allow their students to submit cross-genre packets during their monthly exchanges. Then, of course, there is our Post-Grad Certificate Program, which provides a full year of study in a genre other than one’s MFA concentration. Our Post-Grad Semester can also be applied to work that was not the writer’s MFA focus.
I want to write for children and young adults. Most programs separate this genre from “traditional” concentrations in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction; what is the benefit of studying alongside writers in other genres?
The answer to this question is multi-faceted. Children’s and YA literature already spans genres, meaning it embraces fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Even if you’re most interested in one of these sub-genres, it’s smart to have a working knowledge of all of them and not “pigeon-hole” oneself into just one. For example, many fiction writers—including our own Consulting Writer Jacqueline Woodson—have surprised themselves by writing novels in verse at some point in their careers; others have found a new interest in writing nonfiction for young people after spending time writing fiction or poetry. At the same time, we urge our students—whether they write for adults, young adults, or children—to take craft classes in all genres; we all have something to teach each other. And last but not least, the publishing world of children’s and YA literature has long been separated from the “rest” of the publishing world (and, sadly, not viewed with the same level of esteem). Why perpetuate this separation in the writing world? We view children’s and YA literature with the same amount of respect as literature for adults, and so our community is all-inclusive.
I really need to practice reading my work in front of an audience. Will there be opportunities to read my work publicly during the residencies?
Yes! There are informal, student-run readings at each residency—one can’t ask for a more receptive and supportive audience—and the program offers a class on reading in public every other summer, ensuring all students have a chance to take it at least once during their two years in the program.
You say you support diverse voices. How do you do that?
The number-one way to support the diverse voices of America, which has been part of our mission since Solstice’s founding in 2006, is to feature a diverse faculty. Solstice also offers the Kurt Brown Fellowship for Diverse Voices, the Jacqueline Woodson Fellowship for Writers of African or Caribbean Descent, and the Francis L. Toner Fellowship for Veterans. Our Writers Helping Writers Scholarships also assist about 30 percent of our students with their financial needs; we do our best to keep our tuition and fees as low as possible, as we don’t want finances to be the reason why people are not able to earn their MFA. The flexible schedule offered by our low-residency structure also enables people like teachers, parents, and seasonal workers the ability to complete our program at a pace best suited to them, even if that means doing it in five years instead of two.
This is probably a good time to mention the Writing Social Justice Panel that we sponsored during our virtual summer 2020 residency. There was such a resounding response to that panel from our students, faculty, and alumnx—not to mention the 120 or more audience members—that we are now in the process of working with our faculty to establish a Writing Social Justice Track. More on that to come!
What is a typical residency like/how is it structured?
In these days of COVID-19, we realize that nothing is “typical” anymore! Again, our low-residency structure allows for a great deal of flexibility—and that goes for our residencies as well. This past July, we kicked off fall term with a virtual summer residency, and we’re preparing to do that again this January with our winter residency, which launches spring term. A virtual residency is nine days, while an on-campus residency is ten, allowing for a morning wrap-up before everyone heads home. (Our students currently come from across the country and elsewhere, and our faculty are equally spread out.)
Whether the residency is virtual or on-campus, the basic schedule is the same: students spend three hours a day in workshop, working with one or two faculty members during the first four days and one or two different faculty members in the second four days. The rest of the time is filled with craft classes, elective sessions (including publishing-related events), and readings by faculty, guests, and the students themselves. Graduating students have their own special reading. We also have a party to celebrate our grads! By day seven, students are assigned the faculty member who will serve as their mentor for that semester, and the work begins of creating their semester plans. It’s a packed schedule! But it’s also very inspiring for us all.
Because of COVID-19, you held a virtual residency in July 2020. How did that go?
We not only went virtual, but we also waived our application fee because of the economic stresses everyone is under during this pandemic. But the virtual residency in July 2020 went very smoothly; we think students, faculty, and guests alike were all surprised by how intimate Zoom can feel and how connected they were in workshop and classes. We ensured that everyone felt comfortable with the technology, of course; we even developed our own Solstice Zoom Guide and held practice sessions in advance. People had resources and back-up plans galore, and it paid off!
What is the process for mentor selection?
During each residency, students complete a faculty preference form indicating their choices in mentors. Students more advanced within the program are more likely to get their first choices than first-semester students, but the selection of faculty members is rich; there are no “bad” choices! On day 7th day of the residency, students learn who they will be working with for the coming semester. Almost immediately, they start talking with that person about their semester plan.
How much contact do I have with my mentors?
Quite a lot, actually. Often, they are your workshop leaders, but not always. When we’re on campus, students and faculty often share meals together and, of course, attend readings and social events together. When a student and mentor are matched, they make a semester plan for the five packets they’ll exchange over the course of the coming 21-22 weeks. Those plans include a packet schedule as well as a reading list, which averages between 15 and 20 books. During the independent study portion of the semester, they are in touch by mail, email, and sometimes phone at least once a month. Mentors respond to every student’s packet within a week’s time. By the end of the semester, students have a treasure-trove of feedback, in writing, by their mentors. Often, they refer to those mentor letters for years to come.
What goes into a packet of work submitted to a mentor?
During the first year of the program, packets are a combination of the students’ creative work plus critical writing—short, craft essays based on what the student is reading. Those essays are all about learning to read like a writer and to incorporate what’s learned about craft into one’s own poems, essays, or stories. During semester three, students write a critical thesis, which is also craft-based—or pedagogy based, if the student is in our Pedagogy Track. In semester four, students complete their creative thesis, which might be a full-length collection of poems or short stories or the first 130 to 150 polished pages of a novel or memoir.
What is the Pedagogy Track?
The Applied Track in Pedagogy is designed to give students the training they need to teach at the college level. Students who wish to undertake it commit to a related internship in semester two or three and—over the course of the two-year program—participate in four class units that address the essentials of classroom practice: current approaches to teaching composition (because chances are high anyone teaching writing in college will have to teach comp); Course Design & Planning Instruction; Assessment & Grading; and Classroom Management. Each unit requires advance reading and writing, and follow-up readings are assigned for the semester. There is no extra charge for taking this track. As one of the few low-residency programs to offer an Applied Track in Pedagogy, Solstice gives its grads a leg-up as they seek work in higher education.
How would you describe the typical Solstice MFA Program student?
We’re not sure there is such a thing; our students come from more than 15 different states as well as Canada, and range in age from 22 to 60-plus. The average age is 40. Their backgrounds are as various as their geographic locations! But they all share a passion for the written word and all seek a community that is friendly, open-minded, and supportive.
How do you support students financially?
We’ve mentioned some of our Fellowships already; we also have genre-based fellowships that are offered once a year. Our Writers Helping Writers Scholarships are need-based, using the student’s FAFSA form to determine eligibility. And in general we keep our tuition and fees as low as we can—Solstice is quite competitive in that regard in relation to most other low-residency MFA programs.
How do you support students academically?
Our community is purposely quite small—fewer than 50 students—so automatically that means students get a great deal of individual attention. Our workshops are kept to ten or fewer; our student-to-mentor ratio is 5:1. We offer students myriad resources, such as classes on critical writing, a Handbook that’s a goldmine of information and examples, and mentors and staff who are always willing to get on the phone or Zoom to help students who need it. Also, new students have a “buddy,” a current matriculated student with whom they are linked before their first residency begins. By connecting with a current student in advance, new students know that when they show up for their first residency, they already know someone besides our director and assistant director. Their buddy sits with them at orientation and at lunch that first day and makes sure they feel welcome and comfortable. That goes a long way toward helping them academically, too; when you feel part of the group right away, you can start focusing on the real work of your apprenticeship to the art of writing.
Solstice coursework includes many classes that help you grow as a writer in regard to putting pen (or keystroke) to page, and everything else that comes with the writing life. The critical writing course, taken during your first residency, gives you an in-depth introduction into how to write craft analyses to prepare you for the critical writing you undertake in the program. We follow that class up with a critical thesis course offered once a year to give you the tools to tackle a 30- to 35-page craft analysis in your third semester. Other academically informational courses include classes on Modern Language Association formatting, synopsis writing, teaching your grad lecture, and more. For the business side of writing, we offer courses on publishing and meetings with agents and editors. When it comes to those moments that balancing life and writing proves challenging, we have informal sessions on topics like “writing and parenting” to help you organize.
How do you support your alumnx?
We have a very active alumnx base! Maybe that’s because we write them a letter once a month; we feature an alumnx event at every residency; we crow about them in our monthly e-newsletter and on social media; and every new alum has the chance to partner with a “Grad Buddy” to see them through those first post-graduation months, which can be a bit lonely and intimidating. Our alumnx organization also organizes an alumnx and student reading at every AWP conference, which is held in a different U.S. city each year (though we hear the 2021 conference will be virtual).
What post-graduate opportunities do you offer for writers who already have an MFA?
We have both Post-Grad Semester, which many people (whether they earned their MFA with Solstice or not) take advantage of when they’re working to complete a manuscript. We also have a Post-Grad Certificate, enabling people to focus for one year on a genre other than the one they concentrated on as students—that’s also open to anyone with an MFA degree.
How do your alumnx fare in the publishing and academic job market?
Wow, do we have a lot to crow about in that regard! While a number of our students are landing teaching jobs at the college level, 30 percent of them have published at least one book since graduation. That’s an amazing statistic when you think about it! And it covers many genres: books of poetry, memoirs, short story collections, and novels for adults and for young people. We also have an alum about to publish a graphic middle-grade novel and another with a picture book contract, also with a major publishing house.
Does the Solstice Program have an in-house publication/literary journal featuring Solstice student work?
Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices is a “sister” publication of the Program. This quarterly online literary journal has published the work of our students, alumnx, and faculty, and offers internship opportunities to MFA students.
Maximum Tilt Anthology is a print journal of prose, poetry, hybrid, and graphic narrative. Born from the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, Maximum Tilt Anthology continues the program’s mission of diversity in every sense of the word and celebrates the talent and creativity of the Solstice community. Maximum Tilt Anthology publishes twice per year, the dates of which coincide with Solstice’s residency schedule.
What else is new and exciting about Solstice?
What we’re most excited about at the moment is the Writing Social Justice Track mentioned earlier. We’re still in the early planning stages, but like our Pedagogy Track it will offer some core courses that rotate every residency, so students may take them in any order. The Writing Social Justice Track will also feature some sort of writing workshop. It’s going to be like nothing else out there, and we can’t think of a more crucial time to offer this sort of programming.