Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.
Our first roundtable is comprised of J.R. Dawson, Minda Honey, contributors, and Caitlin Neely, founder and editor, of The MFA Years, a blog which follows first and second year MFA candidates and explores their experiences.
How has blogging for The MFA Years affected the way you perceive and experience the MFA?
J.R. Dawson: I guess that when I’m going through my program, I’m not just thinking about me. I feel like I’m thinking about the whole culture, my other friends in other programs, and those who may be interested in the program I’m in. It makes you see the whole picture instead of just going through school for your own benefit. The MFA culture is its own little world, and being able to blog about it for an audience means that I’m a part of that world. It also comes as a responsibility. I have to represent my program well and I have to be honest about uncomfortable things in my own life in order to do my job and give the reader a real tool to use. For example, I wrote about something really personal back in May, and it was so very uncomfortable, but it helped people who were in the same situation. It was good to see that by “walking through the fire” and being honest, I connected with readers.
Minda Honey: I would not say that blogging has affected my perception or overall experience. I used my blogging as a way to give potential MFAs an idea of what the experience is like rather than as a tool for me to explore the experience in real-time. Any writing to gain further understanding of my experience would likely occur in the months or years following my graduation from the program. So, I believe my experience to be fairly on par with what it would be like had I chosen not to blog about it.
Caitlin Neely: Before this, I was not an avid blogger. But I was also never good at keeping a diary as a kid. Blogging about my MFA has been great. It helps me process what I’ve done, accomplished, and how I’ve changed. It’s also helped me connect more to my program. They’ve shared a few of my posts on the UVA Facebook page and I’m glad they enjoy reading them!
What tips do you have for students who are interested in blogging about their own experiences?
JD: Don’t just write about you. People read blogs in order to connect and learn. Write about the larger scope of what is going on with you in your life. Thinking about your audience is what separates a blog from a diary.
Also, don’t try to be someone you aren’t. All of us wish we were as witty as Allie Brosh, few of us are. Just be you.
Finally, proofread. You are in a writing program. If you have a typo or a grammatical error, that looks bad for your program.
MH: Do it. The MFA Years recruits every year in the spring and you always have the option of blogging independently from your own corner of the Internet. Be honest about your experience and your feelings, but also be mindful of any limitations your department might have concerning this practice.
CN: Go for it! Blogging is a great way to think about your MFA in a new way and to chronicle your experiences. Plus, it keeps you writing even if you’re experiencing writer’s block in other aspects of your life (we all know that feel).
My big tip is to always remember the internet is forever. Even if you take a post down later on or edit something out, there still might be ways for others to access it. That’s why I give my blog drafts 24 hours to sink in. I don’t hit publish immediately after I’ve written something. And proofreading is just as important!
Are modern MFA programs doing an effective job of communicating to potential applicants via the internet (social media, program websites, etc)? In what ways can they use the internet as a way to advertise themselves?
JD: I think some are and some aren’t. I think people are still learning that this generation that is now entering college and graduate school thrive and survive on the internet. I think that program websites need to be spotless, and I know that when I was applying for MFA programs, sometimes I ran into schools where instructions were a little hard to follow and not specific enough. Having a professional, informative, clear website is really important to us. And using twitter to communicate is also really great.
But I also feel like perhaps there’s a gauche way to use the internet. If I saw a pop-up ad for a program or a Facebook ad, I’d probably give it a side-eye. Maybe getting creative with webinars, videos, that sort of thing? I would have loved to see more of that when I was applying.
MH: I believe that there is opportunity for programs to enhance their web and social media presence. I recall that during the application process that some websites were difficult to navigate or just felt light on overall content. This is actually a role or roles that could be turned over to their MFA candidates and become a chance to gain social media experience much in the same way that a program’s literary magazine gives candidates the opportunity to develop literary mag experience.
CN: Some programs are doing a great job and others are not. When I was applying to programs, I couldn’t believe the number of times I came across a program site that provided next to no information. I’m talking funding numbers weren’t even mentioned and some of them were programs I knew fully funded everyone. I’m not sure why these places aren’t shouting from the rooftops how awesome they are and how much money they provide.
Twitter, Facebook, and websites are all great ways for programs to advertise themselves. I agree with Minda. Social media is something that could be handed over to interested graduate candidates. And (self-promotion alert) The MFA Years is always happy to interview alumni and current MFA students about their program.
Minda Honey was raised in the land of bourbon, basketball and horse racing—Louisville, Kentucky. She is a candidate in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside, where she is working on her memoir, An Anthology of Assholes. Her writing can be found on Gawker and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She tends to her own little plot of the internet at www.mindahoney.com.
J.R. Dawson is an MFA Popular Fiction candidate at Stonecoast. She holds an MS in Education and a BFA in Playwriting and English Literature. She is the founder of her alma mater’s Writer’s Guild and is past editor-in-chief of their literary journal. She has published plays, a short stories collection, and one really weird new age music demo that her parents made her release when she was fourteen. Dawson now keeps a blog, Ramblings of a Mad Woman, where she is currently attempting her Year of Writing Challenge. Follow her @j_r_dawson.
Caitlin Neely is an MFA poetry candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Sixth Finch, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, Devil’s Lake, and others. She is the founder of The MFA Years and the editor for Reservoir Journal.