by Katy Yocom Spalding MFA Associate Administrative Director
Occasionally I get calls from prospective students who worry about the cross-genre exploration built into the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing curriculum. “I want to be able to focus on my own area,” they’ll say. Their concern raises two questions: Just how cross-genre are we? And why do we emphasize cross-genre at all?
Let’s tackle the “why” first:
Because reading and writing (even just a little!) outside your area of concentration makes you a stronger writer within your area. Say you’re a screenwriter; what could you possibly learn from poetry? Well, a lot, if a facility with compressed language and nuanced word choice might improve your scripts. Now say you’re a poet tackling an exercise in screenwriting. You’ll learn what it takes to convey emotion, character, plot, and theme using only visuals and dialogue. Every area of concentration offers the chance to sharpen skills you’ll take back to your own writing.
Because when you graduate with your MFA in Writing, you are qualified to teach creative writing at the university level, and that means all creative writing: playwriting, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, all of it. For that reason if no other, you should graduate with at least a taste of what it’s like to read and write in every area.
Because you might discover that you actually like writing in another area. More than one of our fiction alums has published books of poetry. A playwriting alum won a major screenwriting competition. Success and satisfaction sometimes show up in unexpected places.
Before we look at the next question—how cross-genre are we?—it might help to address the converse question: Just how genre-specific is our curriculum?
During your time in the program, you can take all five faculty-led workshops and all four independent study sessions in your own genre. That means that, if you write prose or scripts, you can receive faculty feedback on up to 900 pages of writing in your area. Nine hundred pages. (Not to worry, revisions are included in the page count!) Poets can do the same with up to 140 poems.
Before each residency, you’ll read a faculty-authored book or script in your genre, and at residency, you’ll take part in a discussion with the author about the work. In this way, five times during your MFA studies, you’ll get a close-up look into the creative process of a working writer in your genre and an insider’s view into the world of publishing or production. Beyond that, we offer an editing-and-publishing series, meaning you’ll attend sessions on those topics in your genre.
Finally, at each residency, you’ll attend a minimum of three craft lectures focused closely on your own area of concentration.
Now, back to the cross-genre question.
CROSS-GENRE EXPLORATIONS AT RESIDENCY
At each residency, we feature one of our areas—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, screenwriting, and playwriting—in a rotating series. You’ll read a work by a distinguished writer, hear him or her speak in a public session, and have the chance to ask questions in an MFA-only conversation. Visiting writers have included Natasha Trethewey, Michael Ondaatje, John Patrick Shanley, Barry Lopez, and Jacqueline Woodson. (If you’re counting, those particular five authors include two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, a Booker Prize winner, an Academy Award-winner in screenwriting, a Tony winner, and a four-time winner of the Newbery Honor; Trethewey, in addition, was U.S. Poet Laureate.)
The residency focus extends to include a cross-genre assignment. During our focus on poetry, for example, you’ll write a poem based on an art object. These exercises are only a page or two in length, but the process stretches your creative boundaries and can trigger insights that will enliven your writing in your own genre. As a side benefit, the results of these exercises are often astounding. On at least one occasion, we’ve seen a cross-genre exercise grow into an entire published book.
To build familiarity with other areas, you’ll attend one faculty lecture outside your genre. And you’ll attend plenary lectures that address craft and aesthetic issues common to all modes of writing—matters of subject, structure, style, and significance—and a Literary Explorations lecture that examines a particular figure or movement.
On top of all these built-in elements, residency offers options. You can take a faculty-led workshop outside your genre during one of your five residencies. You can participate in a teaching workshop, in which students learn pedagogical approaches to teaching creative writing in the undergraduate classroom.
We’ve offered special-topic workshops on flash fiction and nonfiction, musical theatre, developing character, writing about place. A film production seminar lets students in any genre write a short script and turn it into a two-minute film.
CROSS-GENRE OPPORTUNITIES DURING INDEPENDENT STUDY
As a student, you can spend a full semester studying in any area you choose—and do so within your four core semesters, so the foray won’t delay graduation. If you want, you can use that semester to study translation. But if you’re happier staying put, you never have to leave your area of concentration at all.
Exploring across genres makes you a stronger, more versatile writer. It adds tools to your writing toolbox. It encourages risk-taking. It can lead to collaborations; it can even lead to entire books. Writing outside your genre is both a form of discipline and a form of play—essential elements in the life of a working writer. That’s why it’s a central element in the Spalding MFA curriculum.
Katy Yocom’s fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in The Louisville Review, New Southerner, Open 24 Hours, the blog StyleSubstanceSoul, Louisville Magazine, LEO Weekly, 2nd & Church, and Food & Dining, among other publications. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. She is a recipient of grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Kentucky Foundation for Women and was writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts (Nebraska) and Hill House (Michigan).