Chicago’s Alternative to “MFA vs NYC”

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DePaul University, Chicago.

In 2010, The Art of Fielding author Chad Harbach wrote a divisive essay in n + 1 called “MFA vs. NYC,” about two ostensibly opposing forces in contemporary American writing: university MFA programs and the publishing industrial complex in New York.

The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs. novels; Amy Hempel vs. Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs. galley copies; Poets & Writers vs. the New York Observer; Wonder Boys vs. The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs. publishing parties; literary readings vs. publishing parties; staying home vs. publishing parties.

But some university writing programs—like DePaul’s MA in Writing and Publishing in Chicago—prepare students for both worlds, combining the literary craftsmanship of MFA programs with publishing business savvy. The Chicago Review of Books recently spoke with the director of the program, Dr. Michele Morano, about DePaul’s innovative approach, what they look for in candidates, and how they prepare writers for both sides of the literary coin.


What sets DePaul’s MA in Writing and Publishing program apart from the other writing programs in Chicago?

Michele Morano: We combine creative writing workshops with incredibly flexible course offerings that allow students to tailor the degree to their particular interests. Students who want to pursue a career in publishing can choose from courses in book and magazine publishing, digital publishing, and publishing history, as well as from robust internship offerings. Students interested in teaching can choose from various pedagogy courses and can also take advantage of our internship program in Teaching English in Two-Year Colleges. And all students are welcome to supplement their creative writing workshops with courses in literature and language/style.

We also encourage graduate students to take advantage of DePaul’s study abroad program, which offers short-term study opportunities. Most recently, students have traveled to Morocco, Cuba, and India as part of their coursework.

How do you respond to Anis Shivani’s claim that the MFA “is a closed, undemocratic medieval guild system that represses good writing”?

Michele Morano: I agree that graduate writing programs are undemocratic, since they’re presided over by directors and admissions committees, and since not everyone gets in or can afford to go. That last part is the pity, because education is ridiculously expensive in this country and I hate to see promising writers shut out. But finances aside, why should a creative writing program be democratic?  Everyone is free to write, but not everyone has the talent or the sensibility or the preparation or the disposition for a studio art program, which is what creative writing programs are.

That said, writing workshops can be fairly conservative places when it comes to feedback. Experimental writing, writing that pushes boundaries, is often misunderstood in its earliest forms, and not knowing how to talk about it can sometimes lead workshop participants to suggest making it more mainstream and recognizable.

That’s a real danger, and it’s something I try to be conscious of in the workshops I teach. I’ve known MFA students who had a terrible time in their programs because of this. But in general, with good instructors who are not just accomplished writers but also gifted teachers, graduate programs can be the opposite of repressive. Wallace Stegner once wrote that he had seen workshop students write better than they ever had—indeed, better than they really could—because of the high bar set in a writing workshop.

What drew you to DePaul?

Michele Morano: I came to DePaul for the opportunity to work with a student body that’s diverse in every way—racially, ethnically, economically, experientially. It’s exciting to sit around a workshop table with writers who bring all kinds of backgrounds to the discussion. And I was particularly drawn to a graduate creative writing program that is not an MFA program.

I certainly appreciate the MFA degree (and have one myself, along with a PhD), but many student writers are not well served by a two-year degree that culminates in a thesis. Some writers need a slower apprenticeship, time to experiment with craft and to develop shorter pieces of writing, or even full-length books, without the requirement of a culminating project. DePaul’s MAWP offers the best of both worlds: a student with a long project that’s well underway can do an optional thesis, while other students can continue taking courses or even study independently with particular professors without the pressure of a required thesis.

My wonderful colleagues Ted Anton, Barrie Jean Borich, Miles Harvey, Rebecca Johns Trissler, Richard Jones, Dan Stolar, Chris Green, David Welch, Sarah Fay, Kathleen Rooney, and Mark Turcotte, are all engaged in interesting courses and projects rooted in Chicago, and the MAWP’s publishing entity, Big Shoulders Books, is actively producing volumes of socially-conscious literature focused on Chicago. In addition, we’ve just started a certificate program in publishing for people who aren’t writers but are interested in that field. And we’ve also begun offering an open-enrollment, graduate creative writing course each fall that can be taken by anyone with a bachelor’s degree.

What does DePaul look for in the writing of potential students?

Michele Morano: Our admissions committee looks for potential as evidenced by a facility with some (but not all) of the elements of good creative writing, including specific description, effective imagery, fully realized scenes, character development, narrative arc, fresh use of language, rhythm, etc. It’s not necessary for applicants to have taken creative writing courses in the past, but in practice, most strong application portfolios do come from people who have learned the basics in a class.

What kinds of projects are your candidates currently working on?

Michele Morano: Our students, both past and present, are doing amazing work. Jessica Chiarella (MAWP ’14) recently returned to campus to read from her newly-published novel, And Again (Simon & Schuster), and current students are working on everything from poetry collections to memoirs to short story cycles to hybrid literary forms. A few are talented performers as well and use our program to strengthen the material they bring to live audiences.

What do you hope candidates leave the program equipped with?

Michele Morano: More than anything, we want students to leave with a sense of their own artistic vision and a plan for what comes next. In some cases, that may mean a career change; in others, it may mean selling a novel or developing an essay collection. Our goal as a program is to equip students with the tools and the experience for individual success.

What do you see in the future of DePaul’s MA program?

Michele Morano: I see DePaul’s MA in Writing and Publishing program continuing to develop its reputation as a high-quality program for students working in all genres (and across genres)—and also continuing to forge strong connections to the city of Chicago. We are fortunate to be located in a place of tremendous literary history, where the contemporary literary scene is thriving and where all kinds of organizations, from the Poetry Foundation to the Guild Complex to Chicago Women in Publishing, offer exciting opportunities for engaged writers.


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