Last summer, the AU creative writing MFA program launched an annual study abroad program in Rome, through a partnership with John Cabot University’s Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation. The program allows our students to spend five weeks with a writer in residence and take literature and writing classes—all while exploring Rome and nearby areas.
Nancy Kidder (center), who will graduate from the creative writing MFA program this spring, participated in the program last summer. She spoke with us over email about her experiences at AU and in Rome.
Tell us us a little bit about your background. What led you to the AU creative writing MFA program?
Despite an early interest in writing, I stopped writing creatively by high school. I thought I needed to be responsible. I went to Duke University, started as pre-med, and ultimately changed my major to English. Yet I never allowed myself to take a writing workshop. I never studied abroad. I got married. Moved to DC. Worked for a senator. Had a daughter. Moved to Ohio. Then moved back to DC. In the spring of 2013, I applied to American University’s MFA program. What had changed? I finally realized why I wasn’t writing: I was scared. I now embrace this fear and try to funnel it into my writing. Yes, I risk ridicule or rejection, but the rewards have been worth it.
What has been your focus in your MFA studies, and how has the program put you in touch with an international writing community?
I chose AU for its impressive faculty and diverse workshop opportunities. Yet, I have discovered so much more. While I came in writing fiction, I later fell in love with creative non-fiction, eventually constructing my thesis from personal essays.
For a translation class, I reached out to and ultimately established a close relationship with a young Turkish poet, Yaprak Oz, who I traveled to meet in Istanbul in early 2015. Oz would later visit Washington, DC, in September 2015 for readings with the AU community and the American Turkish Association.
And I got to write in Rome. During my second year, I learned that the AU MFA program was partnering with John Cabot University. Not only would our credits be transferred, but JCU would provide a discount on tuition, a balance that would help offset travel expenses. In other words, studying in Rome would be essentially the same price as taking a class here in DC. As you can imagine, having missed going abroad as an undergraduate, I was on board immediately.
How would you describe the learning environment and instruction in the Rome program?
One incentive to go to Rome was the opportunity to take a poetry workshop with AU professor David Keplinger. Not only did Keplinger encourage a poetry novice like myself to take risks (I wrote a sestina!), he incorporated the Roman landscape into class, prompting us to roam churches for inspiration and bringing us to the Yeats-Shelly Museum, the final home of young poet John Keats.
Professor Elizabeth Geoghegan’s mesmerizing American literature class, “How to Read Like a Writer,” helped us understand the prose maneuvers of writers such as Flannery O’Conner, Thomas Mann, and Jennifer Egan.
We were also fortunate to have acclaimed nonfiction writer, Edmund White as a writer in residence at JCU. He provided gems of wisdom, including the necessity of a few “dumb sentences.” According to White, a reader sometimes needs a break in order to appreciate the longer, more eloquent phrases.
What was it like to spend time in Italy? How did the landscape and culture inspire your work?
JCU is in the heart of Trastevere, an ancient district of Rome located on the west bank of the Tiber. It is home to ancient homes and churches and winding streets lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. Walking along these alleyways, ducking past locals and tourists, it’s evident that Rome is a city of noises. From the church bells of Santa Maria, to the scooters whizzing by, to the accordion players stationed in the square, it’s a feast for your ears. My roommate and I would often wake up to children voicing, “Ma-Ma! Ma-Ma!” Later, we’d hear the stomping footsteps of a tour group, the guide describing the everyday lives of our previous medieval homeowners. At night, the cries of seagulls, former ocean dwellers that have recently taken residence in a now saltier Tiber, pummeled through, making known that we were not the only new residents in this city.
We were within walking distance from the Forum, the Colosseum, the Vatican, and the Spanish Steps. The Termini train station was a long walk or short taxi ride away, allowing for easy access to other cities. During my stay, I visited Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Sardinia, and Barcelona. I have been back for eight months and I still have mountains of writing material to unpack.
How would you describe your immersion in the city? Do you have any advice for other student travelers?
From Gio (“Please, don’t call me Sergio”), the bartender at our local espresso bar to Rudy, our favorite waiter at Popi Popi pizzeria, Rome quickly felt like a family. An expat JCU graduate, Jahan Genet, manages a club just off the Piazza Santa Maria and holds weekly readings for students. I am proud to say almost everyone from AU read some of their work. A couple of us even played guitars.
As for how to navigate Rome, four words: sit back and wait. Everything will take forever. Restaurants, stores, wi-fi, travel. But it’s worth it. Not only will you eat some of the best food and view some masterpieces, you’ll start to enjoy the “dolce far niente,” which translates to “sweet doing nothing.” Unlike the urgency of the Beltway, Romans take pleasure in doing less.
Would you like to see what Rome can do for your writing? Learn more about studying abroad with the AU creative writing MFA program.