A distinguishing feature of AU’s MFA in creative writing program is the opportunity to explore multiple genres, discovering how poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can feed one another and lead to expansive career opportunities.
AU Associate Professor Rachel Louise Snyder has a body of work that embodies our cross-genre values, with achievements in both fiction and nonfiction.
Since receiving her MFA from Emerson, Rachel has written nonfiction for a number of publications including the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and Glamour, and contributed to top radio shows including This American Life, Marketplace, and All Things Considered.
Her first book was a work of nonfiction called Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade (WW Norton, 2008), which was excerpted on This American Life and won an Overseas Press Award.
In addition to her extensive nonfiction credits, she has a novel called What We’ve Lost is Nothing, which follows the aftermath of a crime in an Illinois suburb (Scribner, 2014), and which was named one of Vogue.com’s “Ten Best Suspense Books.”
We connected with Rachel to discuss how cross-genre work has shaped her career.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer working in multiple genres?
I’ve always moved organically through the genres. I’ve kept journals off and on since I was eight years old, and as a teenager I wrote very bad poetry and fiction. In college, most of the classes I took were in fiction. Early in grad school, I gravitated toward poetry, but had a terrible experience in a class one day with a professor and it scared me away from poetry—which is too bad, really. I always saw myself as a fiction writer, primarily.
My thesis was a book of short stories. But I took one class in nonfiction in my final semester of grad school and published work from that class, so it became a de facto genre, mostly because you could earn money writing nonfiction much more easily than fiction—a fact which holds true still today. So nearly all of what I’ve learned as a journalist has been on the job.
What do you see as the relationship between your novelist self and your nonfiction writing self?
I think all art informs other mediums. I also paint and listen to music like a lunatic, and I consider these almost meditations for my writing. If I’m stuck in a writing project, I will often pop into a museum and study the lines of a painting or some other piece of art that grabs me. But to answer your question, there is a difference not so much between nonfiction and fiction for me, but between fiction and journalism, or nonfiction work that is creative in nature and journalism, which at its core is about someone else, and also about the reportage.
Journalism is more like a math problem. I have to figure out the formula and put everything in a particular order, but there’s not something necessarily for me to discover (beyond the stakes of the piece). With fiction and more personal nonfiction, there is always that discovery, and so it exists in a different place in my mind and body. I can’t work on two creative pieces simultaneously, but I can work on journalism and a creative piece.
How did your own MFA program help you move closer to your writing goals, or shape you as a writer?
I’m glad you asked that, because there is this raging debate going on about whether or not an MFA degree is worth it, and to me it’s sort of a ridiculous question. Maybe some people at 22 years old, or 24 or whatever, have enough confidence in their own abilities to not go through the MFA experience, but I was not one of these writers. I was riddled with self-doubt.
For me, the MFA is about time to develop your writing muscles. Yes, a moment in life when someone will actually care about what you’re writing, but it’s also about cultivating the tools you’re going to need out there in the world of writing and publishing—which can be very cutthroat, and brutal, and unforgiving. It’s about learning self-discipline, learning that rejection is relentless (but hopefully so are you!), learning what writing will and won’t be in your life.
No one ever questions a graduate degree in business, for example, like they do with the arts. Why is that? What do you learn in business school that you can’t learn from experience in the workplace? (Lots of things, is the answer, and in a context in which there are no stakes. It is precisely the same for the arts).
What advice do you have for current or prospective MFA students who are interested in writing in multiple genres?
My first piece of advice is embedded in the question: even if you consider yourself a poet, or a journalist, or a fiction writer, learn other genres. I spent three months last spring reading nothing but poetry and from that experience wrote some of the most powerful nonfiction material I’d ever written.
If you’re naturally inclined toward multiple genres, then you’re already ahead of the game. We don’t live in vacuums and we ought not confine ourselves to them in any of our endeavors, in my opinion. But it’s also hard to find an MFA program that will allow multiple genres in the way that AU does. So that would be one of the primary questions I’d ask any potential program.
If you’re interested in exploring multiple genres, check out the Creative Writing Program at American University.