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Julianne Iverson

Written Word Comes to Life Through Animated Short Film

Kyle Dargan, director of American University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, has received many accolades for his poetry collection Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press, 2015). It was a finalist for the 2016 Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards recognizing the best in Black literature, as well as the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award given annually to honor a poet at mid-career.

Most recently, as part of its seventh season of film adaptations, Motionpoems commissioned graphic artist Julia Iverson to turn one of Dargan’s poems from the collection “The Robots Are Coming” into a short animated film. The film premiered at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis in October 2016 and will be shown at two more screenings in Los Angeles and New York.

 

Check out the AU Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

DC Capitol

The 10 Best Works of Literature Set in DC

Our location in Washington, DC is central to our identity as an MFA program. Our students explore some of the world’s best literary organizations and activities – and find quiet spaces to write and get inspired throughout the District.

Our students also take their place among a long lineage of other writers with DC connections, many of whom have set their novels, memoirs, short stories and poems in the city we call home.

Below are 10 of the best works of literature set in (or concerned with) DC – in alphabetical order by author name.

Do you have a favorite DC-inspired work? Let us know in the comments below.

 

 

S Street Rising, Ruben Castaneda

S Street Rising, by Ruben Castaneda

Ruben Castaneda covered the crime beat for The Washington Post at the height of the crack epidemic – and struggled with his own addiction. His memoir tells the story of “S Street” – the infamous 24/7 open air crack market Castaneda visited during his off hours – and the characters that populated it, from church leaders to drug dealers to police officers.

 

 

 

 

 

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke  

Breena Clarke’s debut novel follows the aftermath of a five-year-old girl’s drowning in the Potomac. Her parents and sister have moved to the city from North Carolina and must make a life for themselves in Georgetown, even as they struggle with grief.

 

The Maverick Room, Thomas Sayers Ellis

The Maverick Room, by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington DC and attended high school in Truxton Circle. His first full-length volume of poetry has five sections, named for the quadrants of DC (NW, SW, etc) and showcase a range of styles and subjects – from family confessionals to Bootsy Collins tributes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go-Go Live, Natalie Hopkinson
Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City by Natalie Hopkinson

In this social history, Natalie Hopkinson writes about DC’s “Chocolate City” – the black DC that outsiders couldn’t see in the 1960s and onward. The “Chocolate City” Hopkinson describes was defined by the 1970s emergence of go-go music and fed a vibrant community known, at first, only by its insiders. Hopkinson maps economic and political movements, cultural developments and community evolution onto musical milestones.

 

 

 

 

 

Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones

Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who continues to make his home in DC. His short stories tell of a girl who raises pigeons, of neighbors who frequent a small grocery store, of a woman who lives in a house bought with her son’s crack earnings, and of other African Americans living their lives in Washington, DC in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

 

 

 

 

 The Black History of the White House, by Clarence Lusane

Clarence Lusane’s history takes a look at DC’s most iconic home through the lens of African American experiences and racial politics, from the generations of enslaved people who built the White House to the first black First Family to live there. Specific events at the White House are situated within their larger cultural context, and the stories of individuals become the stories of a nation.

 

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon’s novel retells the famous Watergate scandal, weaving pieces of famous historical detail into a fresh, compelling narrative that gets closer to the heart and truth of some of the scandal’s mysteries. Seven characters take readers throughout Washington, DC and the Nixon administration in a suspenseful story that goes beyond what we’ve heard before.

 

 

 

 

 

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu’s novel tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant who lands in DC after leaving Ethiopia. Sepha opens a grocery store in a poor neighborhood. His primary friendships are with other African immigrants, but as his neighborhood begins to change, he befriends a white woman and her biracial daughter. The novel traces the changing racial politics of the community and the friendships – and how they both impact Sepha’s future.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City, by David Nicholson

The title’s “secret city” refers to the city that goes unnoticed by tourists – the “real” DC, populated by generations of real people. In his story collection, David Nicholson weaves the lives of reappearing characters across decades, anchoring the narratives around LeDroit Park. A changing neighborhood is the backdrop for changing lives of a black woman who works as a housekeeper for a white couple, a BMW driver who runs into an old friend from LeDroit, a barber watching his shop change, and others.

 

Clotel: or, The President's Daughter, by William Wells Brown

Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter, by William Wells Brown

A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Williams Wells Brown was often overlooked – but his novel has taken its place among American classics. Clotel is considered the first published novel by an African American, inspired by the rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves. Wells Brown calls one of the children Clotel, and this is her story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

See our info-graphic on these works of literature. Join us in Washington, DC. Maybe your book will make it onto a list like this one day. Check out the AU Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

graduation reading

4 Tips for Transitioning to Post-MFA Life: Advice from Alumna Chelsea Leigh Horne

The “post-MFA blues” could rightly be called a rite of passage for early career writers. After spending two or three years focusing on craft, with the seriousness of literary work affirmed by teachers and peers, writers reenter a world that doesn’t seem to care whether they finish their novel or collection – or, really, if they ever write again.

Chelsea HorneThe transition can feel jarring. But habits developed and connections made during the MFA can make it easier, as can the steps writers take upon graduation. We reached out to recent graduate Chelsea Leigh Horne to learn how she is navigating the transition.

“For three years at AU, I was surrounded by peers and professors who encouraged, supported, and helped me hone my craft. It’s a truly wonderful environment and one that offers a rich atmosphere in which writers can really blossom,” Chelsea said. “On the other hand, because the MFA program does such a great job at creating this sense of community, it’s very easy to lose urgency – that is to say, to write for workshop rather than for a living.”

Chelsea sees the transition as an opportunity to shift to a long-game focus on the writing career. Below are four tips for transitioning to post-MFA life, informed by Chelsea’s insights.

 

  1. Don’t “Take a break” from writing after graduation: Keep writing, publishing and networking.

Chelsea graduated from AU’s MFA in Creative Writing in May 2016 with a number of literary accomplishments behind her. She describes her three years in the program as “intense and productive.” She received AU’s Outstanding Scholarship at the Graduate Level Award, and she read from her fiction thesis at Politics & Prose alongside her MFA classmates.

“It’s so wonderful that AU’s program creates this opportunity for their students, as a bridge to becoming part of the professional literary community,” Chelsea said. After the intensity of the MFA experience, some writers feel tempted to take a break from their work – but not Chelsea. She walked across that bridge and got to work.

“I’ve been submitting, submitting, submitting, and I keep on writing, so there is always something I’m working on creatively,” she said.

The efforts have already started paying off. Last summer, Chelsea’s essays were published in The Atlantic and The Rumpus, and her work also appears in the Paterson Literary Review and The Washington Independent Review of Books. She’s an editor at Ragazine, the global online magazine of arts, entertainment, and information. She was awarded a 2017 DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Artist Fellowship for her fiction work.

“I’ve continued doing readings in DC, sharing my work at The Inner Loop Reading Series and Art All Night DC,” Chelsea said. “Also, I teach literature and writing at AU and I lead a winter session study abroad course in London each January.”

Chelsea has harnessed the momentum she developed while in the MFA to propel the early stages of her career.

 

  1. Lean on peer connections and mentorship from your creative writing professors.  

Chelsea continues to exchange work with MFA classmates and to value the connections she made with her teachers.

“In my experience, when you take a workshop class, your instructor becomes your mentor, providing individualized and focused feedback on your work,” Chelsea said. “For example, Richard McCann is a master at asking tough questions of us as writers and of our stories, seeking to enhance the internal, emotional lives of our characters. His voice is something that has stayed with me and helps guide me today. And Stephanie Grant’s incredible awareness of story organization as well as cause and effect in plot was very enlightening for me.”

“And the list goes on,” Chelsea said, naming John Hyman, David Keplinger, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Rachel Louise Snyder as other influential teachers.

But mentorship can also happen outside the classroom, Chelsea points out. “In my case, that happened with Kyle Dargan,” she said. “He has been exceptionally and unwaveringly supportive of all my projects, publications, readings, and awards. And that support is there for all of us. As Kyle mentioned during our MFA graduation reading, the support doesn’t end when we graduate.”

 

  1. Write across multiple genres.

Writing across genres gives Chelsea a measure of creative freedom, allowing her to match the discourses of her work with the forms that best suit them.

“In today’s writing world, I believe it’s important to be able to competently cross genres,” Chelsea said. “It helps that when I get an idea, the piece lets me know what it wants to be: flash, short story, novel, poem, or an essay,” Chelsea said. “When moving between projects, the key is to always accomplish your goal with a piece, to either finish a first draft or to reach a clear stopping point.”

Right now, Chelsea is completing research for a coming-of-age post-apocalyptic novel about the environment, climate change, and freerunning.

“It takes a lot of balancing and discipline to manage this project with the rest of my life and writings. The good news is that I love what I do,” Chelsea said.

 

  1. Use your time in the MFA to develop your style, attend events, and plan your future projects.

“Enjoy your time during your MFA,” Chelsea said. “Try new styles, experiment with your voice, take risks in your writing. And feel free to fail – this is how to discover yourself as a writer.”

She also highlighted the vast opportunities offered by the program and by DC life – from MFA readings to community literary events. “The simple act of hearing other authors read their work and respond to audience questions gave me a first-hand look into the ways these professional writers worked, thought, and answered questions about their writing. I found these events both inspiring and educational,” Chelsea said.

Chelsea argues that it’s important to develop some sense of a plan for how you want to use your time in the program. “AU’s MFA is a great and nurturing community that wants to help you thrive in your writing life,” Chelsea said. “You get as much out of it as you put in; cliché perhaps, but very true. To paraphrase Toni Morrison (and a mantra I repeat to myself often), as a writer make sure that everything you do helps to advance yourself, your work, and your career.”

 

Experience how AU can help launch your writing career. Check out the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  

DC

The “Non-Traditional” MFA Student: Insights from Susan Bucci Mockler

Some students come to the MFA in Creative Writing program shortly after graduating from college, but we are consistently thrilled when students who have had more life experience decide to join us. As Director Kyle Dargan put it, “Students who fit that profile tend to be some of our more dedicated and successful writers.”

One such writer is poet Susan Bucci Mockler, who found her way to the AU MFA program after pursuing other careers, raising three kids, and building a solid foundation of creative work. “I am happy to know that I don’t fit the profile of the typical MFA student,” Susan said.

We reached out to Susan over email to learn about her life before the MFA and how she has enjoyed her time at AU.

 

Susan’s Journey to the AU MFA

Susan began her academic studies and her career life with a focus on the sciences. She studied biology and geology in college and, pressured by her professors to pursue a career in the oil industry, she headed to the University of Louisiana and began an MS in petroleum geology. “It was not for me—but I’d made some good friends and started taking some courses I wanted to take—like creative writing,” she said.

Susan

Susan in in Fredericksburg, VA, in front of a catalpa tree that inspired one of her in-progress poems. The tree is at Chatham Manor, which was converted into a hospital during the Civil War. Walt Whitman stood in front of this same tree when searching for his brother who had been wounded, and amputated limbs were piled in front of the tree before being carted off.

Susan ended up completing an MA in English with a creative writing track at the University of Louisiana. She developed close friendships with fellow poets. She worked for the university literary magazine and then moved to DC in search of editing jobs. “I envisioned myself as the cool poet hanging out at coffee shops in Dupont Circle, which I did,” she said. “I went to readings and took some classes at the Writer’s Center, but the career track was taking priority. I worked nine-to-five jobs at the American Geophysical Union—a very cool building at twentieth and Florida—and at the National Research Council.”

Then life called her away from the city. She said, “Fast forward to a husband, a move to the suburbs, and three children, which made writing challenging, to say the least.” Through it all, Susan stayed connected with the DC writing community, worked on her poems, and took workshops at the Writers’ Center and through the Jenny McKean Moore seminars at George Washington University. “I found other writing moms, and we’d get together to write and talk while the kids played,” she said. She led poetry camps and became a poet in the Arlington Public School system, and she continues to visit Arlington classrooms each spring.  She volunteered in her children’s classrooms and led poetry projects for their classmates from the time they were in kindergarten.

Her chapbook, Noisy Souls, was published a few years ago, and her work has been published in a number of literary journals. It was time to take another step forward in her writing career by pursing her MFA.

 

The AU MFA Experience

“People have asked me why I wanted an MFA, and why I need one, et cetera,” Susan said. “Some of my reasoning is purely selfish—I want to be part of a writing community, to be inspired by ideas, to be challenged, and to learn from others. I keep meeting the most interesting people.”

While Susan has had different life experiences than some of the MFA students—such as having children and a career—she doesn’t think she brings much that is different to the classroom. “I may have more contacts in the literary community, but from what I see of the AU MFA students right out of undergrad, they have life experiences to write about, too,” she said. “They are thoughtful and careful in their writing and feedback in workshops. I learn from them.”

Susan has enjoyed her poetry workshops and fulfilling the literary course requirements. “The students are bright, supportive, and offer thoughtful feedback,” she said. “The community is very positive and noncompetitive. People are willing to share publishing and reading opportunities and are generally happy for others’ success.”

She has also enjoyed the different learning experiences provided by poets and instructors David Keplinger and Kyle Dargan. “Their personalities and teaching styles are very different,” she said. “David is the extroverted, often effusive supporter—and he’s very talented at finding what is working in the poem and very kind about the parts that are not. Kyle, on the other hand, is quieter, more reserved, but, he, too, gets right at what is and isn’t working in your poem. They both push you and challenge you to turn in your best work and to take risks with your writing you may not have taken.”

 

Where Susan’s Writing Goes from Here

Susan has already experienced a great deal of success in her writing career. In addition to publishing her chapbook, her work has appeared in journals including Poet Lore, The Paterson Literary Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, and Voices in Italian Americana. She also has a poem in the anthology, My Cruel Invention, and a book review forthcoming in The Florida Review.

Susan recently won the Arlington Arts Moving Words Poetry Competition – for the second time – which means her work will be displayed inside Arlington’s ART Buses, she will receive an honorarium, and she will be invited to give a public reading in the spring. Susan wrote her poem with bus commuters in mind, considering what someone would like to see while journeying between work and home. “The poem was a memory, a sentimental piece about my mother’s old rolling pin—one of the items of hers I kept after she passed away,” Susan said. “I hardly use it, although she used it quite a bit—and I can still see her rolling out the pie crust dough. That memory and image form the root of my poem.”

For Susan, the Moving Words Poetry Competition serves a vital purpose for poetry. “The more that poetry gets out there in the public, the more it can do its work—whether it is simply giving someone a short break from their own thoughts, or helping to heal an individual or even a community or nation, or just providing the feeling that someone else has had a similar experience or feeling. Poetry can be a tremendous unifier,” she said.

Susan is currently a second-year student in the program. She has been working part-time as an adjunct professor for composition courses since her children were young, and she plans to continue that work after the MFA as well, though she is also open to other possibilities. “Opportunities just keep popping up at AU and in the lively metropolitan DC literary community,” Susan said. “I definitely plan to keep moving forward.”

Our students’ experiences in the MFA in Creative Writing program lead them to new interests and passions. Find out more about the MFA in Creative Writing program.

Girls

Taking the MFA to TV: A Conversation with Alumna Diana Metzger

When MFA students arrive at AU, they bring expectations for their workshop experience– expectations shaped by past workshops, by reports from friend and teachers and, as of the past couple years, by HBO’s Girls.

When Girls sent its main character, Hannah Horvath, to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, viewers who had never even heard of MFA programs watched Hannah’s classmates dissect her work and saw Hannah fumble her way through interactions with new writing colleagues. But how close to reality can a TV experience get? And, let’s not forget: those episodes were written by writers like us. How does TV writing differ from the type of writing we do in our prose and poetry workshops?

We reached out to someone with some perspective on both questions. Alumna Diana Metzger has spent time in the Los Angeles TV writing world, and she enjoyed watching Girls after having her own MFA expectations both upheld and challenged at AU. Over email, she shared her insight.

 

The evolution of Diana’s TV writing experience

Diana MetzgerBefore coming to AU to pursue her MFA, Diana lived in Los Angeles and worked as a writer’s PA/Assistant on the TV show Greek. She built a connection with one of the writers, Carter Covington, who went on to create Faking It.

“About a year after graduating AU, I found I really missed TV writing, and when I saw that Faking It had gone to series, I asked Carter for the opportunity to work on the show,” Diana said. “He’s been an amazing champion of my writing and read my short stories I used as my AU application.”

Because Diana had been out of the TV world for five years and was untested at screenwriting, he asked her to come on as a writers’ assistant at the beginning of the season and promised to work to get her her own script. Working as an assistant, Diana relearned the feel of the the writers’ room and had the opportunity to pitch her own ideas, and then she finally got the opportunity to pitch her own script, for the episode “Lust in Translation,” which aired in 2014.

 

Inside the writer’s room: How the scriptwriting process works

“TV writing for the most part is a very collaborative experience, almost like an MFA workshop would be if you were all working on the same story together,” Diana said. “All the writers work together to come up with the general story, then get more specific with acts, detailed scene beats, and even specific dialogue within the scene.”

The executive producers – the show creator and the showrunner – give final approval on story ideas generated in the writers’ room.

One writer then goes off to turn the group-generated story, called a beat sheet, into a detailed outline. The show creator and other executive producers will give outline notes, and the writer will go back and implement those notes. The next outline draft then gets approved, edited, and sometimes rewritten by the show creator, and submitted to the network for additional notes.

“The writer incorporates those notes and then goes off to write the script. I had about a week to write my first draft. I then went through the same process I did with the outline: a series of notes and revisions.”

Once those revisions are made, the actors do a table read of the script, and more rewrites can come out of that process and from the filming process.

“Revisions get identified by different pages in the script, so, by the end, the physical script looks like a rainbow with all the large and small revision to the script,” Diana said.

 

How well did Girls represent the MFA?

“First off, I’ll say that I’m a big fan of Girls,” Diana said. “I know it’s a polarizing and flawed show, but I’ve always found a lot that I related to, and I think Dunham and her writing staff are incredibly talented,” Diana said.

The show consistently sparked lively discussion about storytelling between Diana and her classmates K. Tyler Christensen (MFA ’14) and Philip Dean Walker (MFA ’13) in particular, and the episodes in which Hannah was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop gave her peers even more discussion material.

“I think Hannah’s workshop experience was very heightened and condensed, which didn’t surprise me,” Diana said. “I knew they were only going to shoot a limited number of episodes in Iowa, so she was obviously going to have to leave for some reason within a short period of time.”

Diana pointed out that Hannah, like some writers in Diana’s AU cohort, came into the MFA with specific life experiences she wanted to work into fiction. Also like some writers in MFA programs, Hannah struggled with feeling exposed as her work was critiqued and even felt bullied by harsh feedback.

“Workshops are made up of writers with disparate personalities, and we don’t all get our ideas across in the same way. When you’re putting forward a new poem or story, presenting it to other writers while you just sit there, you can feel incredibly vulnerable,” Diana said.

“It’s almost like giving birth to a baby and presenting your newborn to relative strangers, and having them say your baby is ugly. I mean, they probably didn’t say that, but you’re sensitive and are going to read into every grunt or mumble as a harsh judgment on this beautiful, flawless angel you’ve brought into the world.”

Unlike Hannah’s experience portrayed in the show though, Diana says workshops do get getter as you move forward.

“As an MFA student, you learn which professors best work for your style and interests as a writer, and you learn which other MFA-ers are going to be your best ‘plot whisperers’ and allies,” Diana said. “I think if Girls had more time in Iowa and Hannah was a less immature and reactionary character (though that’s what makes her so entertaining), we might have seen her find those workshop cohorts and professors that ‘got her.’”

While a smoother progression might make for a personally enriching MFA journey, though, Diana pointed out that it wouldn’t make for the most dramatic TV. “Although,” she said, “Ask me about the time I dropped an entire bottle of red wine in the middle of the street before my first MFA meet-and-greet party. That felt very Hannah.”

 

The post-MFA, TV writing life

Diana says she has moments of “existential crisis” like writers in all mediums. She wonders about moving back to LA to pursue writing, which she was doing already before her MFA, and whether the investment in the MFA was worth it. Ultimately, though, she is able to see how the MFA gave her skills that prepared her to return to the TV world.

“For one thing, I’m a much faster, more productive writer. When you have to write a new short story in a matter of weeks, it teaches you that you can’t be so precious,” she said. “You’ve got to deliver. I love a good deadline and the MFA gives you that.”

The MFA has also helped her hone her skills at following plotlines and identifying plot holes. She explained, “Hours of MFA critiques taught me to look closely at stories, and now in a writers’ room, I’m able to take a step back and look at the acts and beats and find what’s missing or when a plotline is not fully realized.”

When Diana was working on Faking It, the executive producers complimented her on her ability to follow several story threads at a time and to keep the threads focused. “That’s all my MFA training,” she said.

Beyond the practical skills, the MFA was also a time of discovery for Diana. “The MFA workshops were the chance to play and take risks and challenge yourself as a writer. It’s in that room that you discover the kind of stories or poems you should be writing,” she said.

In addition to pursuing TV writing in LA, Diana is also at work on a new prose project: a comic memoir about her experiences as a Millenial mom raising her baby and herself in Hanoi over the past year and a half. Diana said, “The beautiful thing about my MFA studies is that not only has it informed my scriptwriting, but it has also given me the dexterity and confidence to move within many different writing forms.”

 

Interested in making your own writing discoveries? Check out the AU Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

Publish Your Work: Insights from Arielle Bernstein

Publish Your Work: Insights from Arielle Bernstein

arielle_headshot

Arielle Bernstein graduated from the AU MFA in Creative Writing in 2009 with a mixed-genre thesis, and she has now joined us as a professorial lecturer.

Arielle’s career – with wide publication in both fiction and nonfiction – offers an example of where AU’s cross-genre focus can lead. Her cultural criticism, personal narrative and reviews can be found on The Atlantic, Salon, The Rumpus, and The Millions. Her short fiction has found homes on the pages of journals like PANK 10, Literary OrphansThe Puritan, The Rattling Wall Issue 4, and Connotation Press. Now, she’s working on a book.

With her varied experience and some heavy-hitting publications under her belt, we thought Arielle might have some advice to share with other writers – and we were right. Below, learn about Arielle’s experiences and get a peek into the nonfiction publishing process.

 

On Cultural Criticism…

“One of the things I love most about writing essays is the sense that the work I’m doing is actively participating in ongoing conversations about art, culture and politics,” Arielle said.

Writing as a cultural critic means plugging into the zeitgeist – reading widely, keeping up with events and discussions, and honing a perspective that offers something fresh. The pace feels fast, and the work requires stepping into a current that is already flowing.

When Arielle wrote Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter for The Atlantic this past spring, she received messages from readers across the globe – some of whom shared her particular experiences, and others who had different relationships with Marie Kondo’s ideas about minimalism. “As a writer, my goal is to not simply tell my own story, but to use my personal experiences and ideas as a way to talk about current cultural issues,” she said.

“For me, fiction is a much more private experience,” she said. “I’ll work on a story for months and months, and I won’t send it out until I think it’s absolutely perfect.”

As her publishing record suggests, Arielle is comfortable working on multiple projects at once. While she drafts her book, she has shorter pieces underway as well. “I find myself most motivated when I’m engaged in a number of different projects—from solo work to collaboration with artists, writers, and filmmakers,” she said.

 

On Logistics of Non-fiction Versus Fiction…

While fiction writers need completed stories or books before seeking publication, a brief pitch – often a proposed headline and two or three short paragraphs – serves a first introduction between a freelance nonfiction writer and a potential editor. Some outlets list an email address to which writers should send their pitches, while others list contact info for specific section editors.

Arielle always pitches ideas before drafting articles. “Different magazines have different audiences, and I am conscious of developing my work with that audience in mind,” she said. “I think meeting and talking with other writers is really important, especially when you first start out. Often, people are working on interesting projects and actively seeking talent. As you continue in your writing career, cold-pitching becomes more comfortable, since you can link to previous work and accomplishments. I tend to pitch places where I really love and value the work, and where I can see my writing (both in terms of content and style) fitting in.”

The timelines also differ vastly between fiction publications and cultural criticism. When fiction writers send their stories out for possible publication, they usually wait months to hear whether a journal thinks a piece is a good fit. Because the turnaround time is so long, most literary outlets accept simultaneous submissions: a fiction writer might send her story to ten or more outlets at once, and wait for the responses to trickle back into her inbox.

Pitching cultural criticism is more time sensitive, and editors typically respond within a day or week’s time. Pitching multiple editors with the same idea – without waiting for a response – is considered a faux-paus. Once a pitch is accepted, the process between writer and editor can also feel more collaborative.

“Different editors have different styles. Some will be very hands-off, while others will be very hands-on, wanting to see multiple drafts and making a lot of sentence-level edits,” Arielle said. “In general, it’s very normal to receive editorial feedback and for there to be a lot of dialogue between writer and editor. I find this discussion to actually be very fruitful for my own work—it helps me to develop ideas more fully and also see how different audiences might respond or react to my ideas in different ways.

 

On the Publication Process…

“The process of writing a proposal is actually incredibly helpful in terms of helping a writer articulate her ideas more fully, as well as think more critically about the business side of things—who the target audience is, for example, and how will you as a writer go about marketing and promoting your work,” Arielle said. “Once you have a solid proposal, you can start sending query letters to agents, which is how I found representation.”

Arielle has recently turned her attention to a longer project: a book-length work of nonfiction. She has devoted some time over the summer to writing a book proposal. While writers of novels and memoirs need to submit full-length manuscripts when seeking representation, writers of other nonfiction need to first grab the attention of a publishing house with a well-written explanation of what the book is about and why it needs to be in the world.

 

On Advice for Aspiring Non-fiction Writers…

“My biggest advice is to be persistent about topics and ideas that are important to you,” Arielle says.

“If an idea doesn’t work for one venue, it might be a better fit elsewhere. Use the feedback you receive from positive rejections as a way to tailor your work. It really helps to think about framing your ideas in terms of the conversation you are responding to, and how you think your ideas add to that.”

Arielle learned how to navigate the publishing world, in part, through a role as Saturday editor at The Rumpus. “Being on the other side of the desk gave me insights regarding how to make an initial pitch, how to take a positive rejection, and why an editor might want to make certain kinds of edits on a piece,” she said.

“My other big piece of advice is to keep submitting—if an editor seems excited about working with you, but not totally sold on an idea, that means you should read more work that is featured on the site and see if you can come up with an idea that is a better fit. Even when you’ve worked with an editor for a long time, they will occasionally pass on an idea, or ask you to reframe an article in a new direction. The best editors are actively seeking excellent work and will push you to fully develop your ideas. Keep going!”

Keep up with Arielle’s work by following her on Twitter.

 

Interested in pursuing your own writing career? Learn more about the MFA in creative writing.

Poetry books

How Do Poets Make a Living?

As Robert Graves put it, “There is no money in poetry, but there is no poetry in money, either.”

Poets don’t pursue poetry for the cash, but the truth is that we all have to make rent and buy groceries.

While it’s rare for a writer in any genre to make a living solely off the sale of their work, financial rewards for excellent poetry are especially hard to come by. At AU, we find ourselves encountering early-career poets eager to hone their craft but nervous about their financial prospects. We hear the same question again and again. How does a poet make a living?

Our goal is to send writers out into the world with talents sharpened and professional opportunities opened. We want our poets to have tools to support themselves so they can sustain artistic lives. Below are some of the ways that our poets go on to support themselves financially as they pursue their art:

 

Poets write in multiple genres.

Some of the most beautiful prose is penned by poets, with their sensitivity to sound and rhythm. Poets frequently write in multiple genres – and the cash advance that a writer gets when she sells her memoir can sometimes stretch further than the sales of a poetry collection. By writing journalism or creative nonfiction or fiction, poets can diversify their publications in a way that becomes financially sustaining.

AU poetry alumna Sandra Beasley has published three collections of poetry and placed her poems in top journals, and she published a work of nonfiction, a cultural history of food allergies, as well.

When we interviewed Sandra in January, she discussed her experiences at AU taking a class in journalism and a class in translation. “These classes broadened my sense of a literary community, and of what I could do with the degree,” Sandra said. “I can thank Richard McCann for introducing me to the craft of creative nonfiction. Not every program allows students to cross genres so freely. He said you have to find the nerve, the place where it hurts—and then press on it. That advice has stayed with me.”

Our new studio track makes time in students’ schedules for extra creative writing classes, enabling them to receive additional instruction and feedback in their chosen genres.

 

Poets work a range of professional jobs where their talents are valued.

The MFA is seen as valuable by employers seeking strong communicators. We have written before about non-teaching career paths that our writers pursue.

One alumnus, poet Jay Melder, has lent his skills to the political world, where he currently serves as Chief of Staff at the DC Department of Human Resources. Other alumni have found work as editors, radio producers, coordinators for arts and lectures series, public relations officials and writers in communications and marketing roles.

Our new professional track gives students the chance to take classes that expand their career options by providing supplemental skills and exposure to new work options. The bottom line? An MFA in poetry shows potential employers that you are a serious and accomplished writer—a valuable asset in today’s workforce.

 

Poets teach creative writing.

Teaching writing is a time-honored tradition among poets. W.H. Auden taught. Elizabeth Bishop taught. Langston Hughes taught. And many of our own graduates teach their craft to other new writers.

A 2009 graduate Jenny Molberg writes poetry, serves as poetry editor for Pleiades, and works as assistant professor of English at the University of Central Missouri.

When we interviewed Jenny in March, she described how she balances her teaching and writing life. “It’s difficult, especially because I am in my first year of a tenure-track job, but I find that I am constantly challenged and inspired by my students, who make me want to go home to write,” Jenny said. “Sending work out and applying for grants and residencies becomes difficult with a very busy teaching load—sometimes I just dedicate a Saturday to reading, writing, and sending out poems.”

Our new teaching track allows students to earn credit toward their MFA while taking classes that will prepare them to teach.

 

Ready to pursue poetry in the District? Learn more about the MFA in creative writing program.

Coffee Cup

An Interview with Valzhyna Mort, Poet & AU Graduate

When poet Valzhyna Mort arrived at AU as a student, she already had several accomplishments behind her. She had published a collection of poetry, Factory of Tears, in the United States and in Belarus, and been the youngest person ever featured on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine.

Valzhyna has since published another collection, Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), and edited two poetry anthologies, Something Indecent: Poems Recommended by Eastern European Poets (Red Hen Press, 2013), and Gossip and Metaphysics: Prose and Poetry of Russian Modernist Poets, with Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris (Tupelo Press, 2014). She has received the Lannan Foundation Fellowship, the Bess Hokins Prize from Poetry, and the Burda Poetry Prize in Germany.

During her time in the AU MFA Program, Valzhyna immersed herself in cross-genre workshops and focused deeply on her craft—much as the program’s new studio track will invite students to do.

Now a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University, Valzhyna is an Amy Clamitt Foundation fellow in Lenox, MA. We reached out to her to learn about how her time at AU fed her work and to discuss how she has spent her time since.

I know that you came into the AU MFA program with several accomplishments already—Professor David Keplinger once described you as having come here “fully formed.” What led to your choice to pursue an MFA?

Valzhyna MortIt’s true that when I applied to the AU MFA I already had my first book published in the States and at home, in Belarus. I was mostly confused about what MFA programs entailed. I was convinced that I had to be a published poet in order to be accepted into one. But don’t be fooled by this “fully formed” statement because even now, and perhaps especially now, after years of writing and reading, I have no idea how one writes a poem.

Let me say this, though. I think one does have to come to an MFA program formed, by that I don’t mean that one should have a manuscript ready or a book published, not in the least. But one does have to have a sense of herself as a writer, a vision of one’s voice, even if in a dream. Otherwise, it could be very distracting to hear 10 other writers say to you in a workshop: “you can do this and that in your text.” There are so many things a poem can do, so many directions it can take, and it’s important to keep your own vision in mind. Paradoxically, people who might be told that they have their writing figured out and are “fully formed” would benefit from going through an MFA most.

What was your primary focus during your time at AU?

An MFA program is a time to learn writer’s discipline. Talent is important but it’s nothing without hard work, without daily discipline of reading, of being attentive. Poetry is a religion. You have to practice it—you have to worship. An MFA teaches you this discipline, gives you tools to establish it against the routines of your daily life. In a way, an MFA is a way to delay your daily life, to create a bubble of timelessness within the mercilessly fast time, to say “pause now, let me hear my voice before you sweep me away.” People talk of it as a privilege—to have these few years of focusing on nothing but writing—but I don’t think it’s a privilege, it’s a right of every artist.

Another thing about poetry is that it’s historic—you are always writing after somebody: after Dante, after Rilke. You have to know these poets you are writing after! My favorite thing about the AU MFA is the never-flinching focus on reading. You come here for your own work, but you stay for Elizabeth Bishop, for Gwendolyn Brooks, for C.D. Wright.

What types of classes did you take while you were in the MFA program, and did any make a particular impact?

I took all the workshops—poetry, fiction, non-fiction, translation, journalism. Poetry and translation—with David Keplinger. He is, apart from being the most beautiful poet himself, a very insightful, generous mentor. I still marvel remembering how precisely he got what I was trying to write. All his comments on my work—as if from my future-self that knows better. Non-fiction workshop with Richard McCann was very impactful. He has that best skill of best mentors: to effortlessly mix wisdom with humor.

Every literature class I took at AU, with MA students and as my two independent studies, changed my life, nothing short of it. There are so many gaps in my literary education, such large empty gaps that are like tumors that would silently eat at your writing if you don’t eradicate them. I feel very strongly that without literature classes an MFA is a waste. You have to learn to be a reader as much as a writer.

How has your writing life looked since you finished your MFA? Do you find it challenging to balance your writing with other work, such as your teaching?

I’m writing these responses from Amy Clampitt’s house in the Berkshires. It’s a writing residency I’m holding for half a year—no teaching, no obligations, just poetry. So the challenge of balance has been figured out, at least for half a year. On the other hand, I do love teaching poetry. I can get quite overwhelmed with my love for a certain poem in class, in front of the students. They become the captive audience to my literary passions, so how can I not feel grateful? In return, I make sure that a workshop remains a space where we allow ourselves bad writing days, a space where, even though we are each other’s captive audience, nobody feels pressured to write poems to please anybody present.

What advice do you have for current or prospective MFA students?

Always read crazy dead poets. They will steer you away from writing that special brand of “MFA poems.” Don’t allow any normalcy, any comfort, to settle in your workshops.

 

If you’re interesting in studying in a variety of genres, and in focusing intensively on your craft, learn more about the new studio track in our MFA in Creative Writing program.

Director Kyle Dargan

A Look Inside the District’s Only Creative Writing MFA

The multi-genre focus. The vibrant location. The engaged community of writers with diverse backgrounds and rigorous insights.

For more than 30 years, the District’s only creative writing MFA program has fostered the talents and ambitions of writers who have gone on to make their mark in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—and to make their mark on their communities.

In the video below, Director Kyle Dargan reads from his own work and offers his take on what sets our program apart.

Interested in joining our community? Start your application or learn more about the MFA in Creative Writing.