For many people, traditional M.F.A. programs are impractical. Most graduate writing programs take two to three years to complete, and many award students teaching fellowships and/or positions on university-run publications that make keeping a full-time job difficult, if not downright impossible.
Uprooting everything to spend a minimum of two years dedicated to the craft of writing might sound like a dream come true for the typical aspiring writer, but for a growing number of M.F.A. students, practical concerns outweigh the attractions of residency writing programs. These students have found a solution in low-residency M.F.A. programs that are conducted largely via Skype, email, and postal mail, in addition to annual or biannual seven- to 14-day residencies where students meet face-to-face with mentors, peers, and visiting writers.
Eric Paul, a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-res M.F.A. program in the poetry track, was attracted to the low-res model because of its flexibility. “As a working musician, I’m required to tour regularly,” says Paul. “My travel schedule can be quite rigorous—the low-res allowed me to work remotely and have the ability to balance both schedules.” FDU’s program hinges on two 10-day residences—one in held in England and the other on FDU’s campus in New Jersey—and Paul is quick to point out that faculty was very responsive between residencies. Chris Timmins, another graduate of FDU’s low-res program, says, “During the 10-day summer and winter residencies, the faculty made themselves exceedingly available, whether or not you enrolled in their workshops. Every single professor offered me thoughtful advice, answered questions about craft and the industry, and offered to share their contacts. They were never shy about sharing a drink and talking off record.”
Pattie Flint, an editor at Medusa’s Laugh Press who attends Cedar Crest’s Pan-European low-res M.F.A. program in poetry, applied because she was seeking one-on-one feedback. “I already had a solid writing community and respectable job in the publishing industry,” she says. “These were two of the biggest gains to be had by a residency-based M.F.A., and it seemed superfluous to give up the community and career that I already had. The low-res format is more conducive to realistically simulating the modern writer’s lifestyle, while still providing me with an incredible education.” Cedar Crest’s program is one of the few that features residencies in alternating European locations; in addition to creative work, students complete coursework in cultural studies that enhances their experience at each location, an aspect of the program that Flint says has given her work “new flavor and vitality.”
Perhaps it because low-residency M.F.A.s aren’t bound to a traditional campus that universities have been thinking globally about where to host the hallmark residency portion of their programs. Recently, NYU launched a low-residency program that takes students to Paris twice a year, where they can meet and study with Nathan Englander, Colson Whitehead, Chris Adrian, Helen Schulman, and other notable writer-faculty members in person after engaging in a rigorous course of study conducted primarily through email. “Paris is an amazing city,” says Richard Larsen, a current student in NYU’s low-res program on the fiction track who is about to embark on his thesis semester with advisor Darin Strauss. “The opportunity to disconnect from the real world for ten days in Paris, twice a year, and spend that time with your colleagues, faculty, and visiting authors talking about and living nothing but writing is almost surreal. Or, perhaps better stated—it is sublime.”
For students and graduates of low-res M.F.A. programs, distance isn’t an obstacle to building strong creative relationships. In fact, in some cases, the lack of face time and on-campus structure—which doesn’t come close to real-life conditions for writers—can even help students establish strong and enduring writing habits. “Fairleigh Dickinson’s low-res M.F.A. allowed me to balance my job with the program’s reading list, assignment deadlines, and my own writing, which amounted to empirical training for ‘the writer’s life.’ I wrote, and still write, weekday mornings before my 9 to 5 and one day on the weekend,” says Timmins. “Rather than sorting this schedule out after a full-residency program, I’ve graduated with a productive structure already in place.”
Writers who want to hone their craft and knuckle down on their book projects without leaving home can choose from over 100 low-res programs nationwide. Warren Wilson College, which holds its two 10-day annual residencies on its campus in Swannanoa, N.C., is the oldest such program, and is widely considered the model for most low-res M.F.A. programs. With its roster of bestselling alumni (including David Wroblewski and Robin Black), Warren Wilson holds the coveted number one spot on the Poets & Writers low-res M.F.A. rankings. Other standout programs include the well regarded and long-running Vermont College of Fine Arts low-res M.F.A., as well as programs at Bennington and the University of Southern Maine.