Creative Writing

Creative Writing

Tim Parrish still remembers being an MFA writing student at the University of Alabama, where one professor, upon reading his work, “turned red, slammed his fist on the table,” threw Parrish’s papers back in his face and yelled, “‘This is hyperbolic!’”

Traumatic moments like that hovered in Parrish’s mind as he and his colleagues were creating Southern Connecticut State University’s full-residency MFA writing program. In the intimate workshops at SCSU, writers don’t come, pens bared, ready “to slice and dice,” Parrish says. Instead, the program prides itself on being “non-contentious,” though it doesn’t lack for rigor. “If you just want to be told your work is good, you can find a group of people for that,” Parrish says. To be a graduate writing student at SCSU, however, is to “be open to a serious group of writers who read”—people empowered to critique their classmates’ work honestly but constructively.

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Aside from its pacific attitude, SCSU’s MFA program is unique on several levels. Firstly, it’s the only full-residency MFA program in the state. Before it was even a twinkle in his eye, in 2002, Parrish remembers wondering, “Why is there no MFA in Connecticut?” He and some of his colleagues decided to answer that question by creating such a program, which is easier penned than done. The degree track launched in 2009, after seven long years beset by bureaucratic hurdles. “By the time we got it approved I was almost bald from pulling my hair out,” Parrish says.

The benefits of a full-residency MFA are many, according to Parrish, who says that this sort of program “provides you a chance to have a community. You come in and you’re there with some seasoned writers. Then, after your first year, you get to be the seasoned writer.”

The community itself at SCSU is another outlier. While typical MFA programs are made up of 20- to 30-year-olds, SCSU attracts students with a greater range of ages and experiences. Many students already have careers, Parrish says.

Age diversity is one of Rachel Furey’s favorite things about the program. Furey—a new instructor—is also excited by SCSU’s unique Prose Class offering, where students can submit fiction and nonfiction in the same workshop.

In one of Furey’s classes last week, students gathered around long tables. They brought notepads, coffee and candy bars—and, in one case, cigarettes, those well-established tools of the trade—and settled in for a nearly three-hour session in which three student pieces would be discussed with remarkable specificity. The first subject, an excerpt of a novel in progress, sparked a lively discussion about the going price of marijuana in the 1980s—and here the diversity in age was helpful, as those students who had lived and partied back then were able to offer an authoritative answer. Another sticking point was whether or not a fully grown character could fit his head through an eight-inch gap in a fence. It was decided to be impossible. “Give him a few more inches,” one student suggested as the class laughed.

In the few years that the MFA program has been accepting students, their alumni have already done great things, making the New York Times Bestseller List, winning national awards and securing publishers for books of poetry as well as fiction and memoir. The range of interests the students represent has impressed Parrish, who finds that teaching at SCSU has led to his “reading more widely than ever has before.” He says it’s also directly influenced his own work-in-progress, a genre-bending book that straddles memoir and fiction, titled MIMWAR! (A riff on the word “memoir,” “The title is the only good thing I’ve ever written!” Parrish jokes.)

At its most essential, the idea of a residential MFA program challenges the stereotype—perpetuated by centuries of reclusive practitioners—that writers are a solitary breed. “Think of Stein in Paris. Think of the Bloomsbury group,” Parrish says. Writers’ groups are essential to the writing process, according to both Parrish and Furey and, put simply, “an MFA program is a great writers’ group. Serious writers should want that more than anything,” Parrish says.

With that in mind, SCSU offers budding writers a chance to create their own community. “They get to know each other as people. And their knowing each other as people affects how they know each other as writers,” Parrish says. “You don’t just get words on a page. You get people in their fullest sense.”

SCSU MFA Program
501 Crescent St, New Haven (map)
(203) 392-5527
Website | Admissions

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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