A Way with Words

F or graduate degrees in writing, locals have options. New Haven has two full-residency MFA programs: a playwriting track at Yale, and fiction and poetry concentrations at Southern Connecticut State. Fairfield University and Western Connecticut State both offer “low-residency” Master’s of Fine Arts programs in fiction and poetry. Students are able to telecommute for the most part, but there are two mandatory weeklong residencies each semester which take place in set locations, like Fairfield U.’s at Enders Island in Mystic. The residencies are packed with writing workshops and literature seminars during the day, with student and faculty readings each evening.

But what about those folks who are very hamstrung by employment or familial constraints? Enter Albertus Magnus’s “no-residency” MFA program, which offers degrees in fiction and poetry without any commitment to being in the same room as your teachers or fellow students, ever. Degree candidates take online classes in which they workshop original writings, read and analyze published work and learn about the publishing trade. Each of them is assigned a faculty mentor with whom they work one-on-one over email, and sometimes in-person, to complete a hopefully publishable manuscript. The coursework can be completed in just two years, with about 5 to 9 hours of work per week depending on the student’s course load. Three Saturdays each semester, students in the program are invited to campus to take in full days of workshops, seminars and talks from guest writers.

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The optional nature of these gatherings dovetails with the program’s beginnings, having emerged in 2010 out of an informal faculty writing group. “There’s a major community of fiction writers at Albertus,” professor Sarah Harris Wallman (pictured above) says. “We often got together and workshopped each other’s pieces.”

Wallman says that at one particularly productive faculty workshop, an administrative higher-up recognized the broader educational value of what was happening and floated the idea for a program. The faculty response was overwhelmingly positive and Wallman immediately signed on, as did Albertus professor Charles Rafferty (also pictured above). Rafferty is a veteran published poet, with four full-length collections, several chapbooks and a newly released collection of short stories titled Saturday Night at Magellan’s.

Wallman is just getting going herself, but picking up steam. Her work has been published in several literary journals and magazines including Ellipsis and L Magazine. Most recently, she was one of five writers selected for publication in the first edition of Prada Journal, a literary magazine produced and edited by Italian Vogue. Her story, “One Car Hooks Into the Next and Pulls,” about a train that falls in love with one of its passengers, won her a 5,000-euro prize and a night out in New York at Prada’s Soho Epicenter, where she was a guest of honor amongst heavy-hitter novelists like Gary Shteyngart and Jay McInerney.

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She says the current crop of students are an especially eclectic bunch of writers, working on fantasy novels, tales for young adults and even memoirs, and that there is a certain kind of student that tends to enroll. “We’re trying to tap into people who are probably not right out of undergrad. They’ve probably been writing in their garage or an office in an attic for years, trying to grab an hour after the kids go to sleep.”

Wallman herself attended an MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. UP’s is full-residency, where writers receive some university funding and enroll as full-time students. She loved the immersion and was initially concerned that the program at Albertus wouldn’t be able to offer the benefits of that experience. “I was a bit cynical at first,” Wallman says, referring to the program’s reliance on electronic correspondence, “but I’ve really been pleasantly surprised.” Because of the program’s size—currently 13 students large—personal attention is easy to come by.

Among the beneficiaries of the program is Coral Moore, a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction. Moore managed to nab her MFA while simultaneously holding down a full-time job in marketing for an aerospace company. Since graduating, Moore has self-published two e-books and two short stories for her Broods of Fenrir “urban fantasy series.” The series has been something of a hit, selling “thousands” of copies according to Wallman and amassing hundreds of glowing user-reviews on Goodreads, a social networking site for book-lovers.

It’s a nice testament to the value of the still-fledgling program, where other aspiring authors keep chipping away at success stories of their own.

The “No-Residency” MFA
Albertus Magnus College – 700 Prospect Street, New Haven (map)
(203) 773-8505

Written by Jake Goldman. Photo courtesy of Albertus Magnus College.

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Jake is a writer and a teacher whose fiction and non-fiction can be found in Abe's Penny, The Huffington Post, The New York Press and elsewhere. For a spell, he made a living writing 'comedic ringtones,' which meant hundreds of really bad cellphone-related knock-knock jokes and puns. He lives in New Haven with his wife and cats.

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