Interviewed by Mary Keutelian
Continuing our feature interviews with graduates from various creative writing programs, we interviewed our own columnist Christopher Smith, a graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Baker University in Kansas. Upon graduating, he moved to Chicago where he completed The Second City Training Center Writing Program, co-writing the sketch show The Truth and Other Lies. We are very thankful that Christopher Smith has agreed to share his experience at this unique masters program.
DePaul’s program, originally a certificate program under the Continuing and Professional Education Department, is offered to students, professionals, editors, and teachers who have an interest in the publishing industry and creative writing. The program was recently merged into the English Department catalog, and offers an array of courses including fiction, non-fiction, and poetry as well as courses in topics in publishing, editing, and teaching. Students aren’t limited to one genre, but are encouraged to try others. Courses are offered in the evenings either at Lincoln Park or Loop campuses for the convenience of working individuals. – Mary Keutelian
NICHE: How many programs did you apply to and what ultimately drew you to DePaul’s writing and publishing program?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I applied to two programs. Honestly, DePaul wasn’t my first choice, and when I was rejected from the other school I was a little disappointed. I thought the other school was where I would find my fit, but it worked out for the best that I was accepted by DePaul. I applied to both programs because they both had writing programs that offered many different genres to try. I think the other school offered slightly more theater writing classes and that was what I found attractive about them. DePaul does have a diverse program of classes to choose from and I spent most of my time in workshop classes. Shortly after I started at DePaul I realized that [it was] an excellent school and I found it to be a great fit for me.
NICHE: What was the other program you applied to?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I applied to Roosevelt University for their MFA program.
NICHE: And was theater writing the kind of writing you were primarily interested in?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I wasn’t primarily interested in theater writing, I thought it would be an interesting challenge and something new to experience. That curiosity was filled by my time spent at the Second City training center.
NICHE: Did funding or ranking play a significant role in your choice?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I didn’t look at rankings at all. I looked at the specific program and took into consideration location more than anyone else’s ranking of the school itself. I knew that being apart of the Master’s program would put me in a small part of the overall university and it seemed to me that more focus is put into getting undergraduates to go to the school by the rankings than graduate or PhD students.
By funding if you mean cost then that didn’t play a huge factor. I knew that I would need to take out loans to be able to attend either school. I believe both schools were similarly priced.
NICHE: How are DePaul’s writing workshops run? How would you describe the workshop atmosphere?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Each instructor had a different way of leading workshops. Some had strict page counts, others requested that you type notes to the authors, and others used an online message board system.
I was one of those students who took multiple classes from the same instructors. I like being familiar with my teachers and in the workshop setting it helped me to be more open in class when I was reviewing the work of others because I knew what was expected. In most of the workshops students would write two or three pieces to be workshopped during the ten week quarter. This would involve writing a piece, printing out copies for each student and the professor, and giving those to the class a week before the workshop date.
This got kind of stressful if you chose to do workshop early in the quarter, and there was no way around this, some students always had to go first. I participated in both early and later workshop dates, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Going first meant that you had to have a story written by week three usually, which gave you two weeks to write an 8- 12 page story. In the beginning I didn’t think this was a huge page count, especially double spaced, but crafting a story that actually worked in that page count was hard. Sometimes getting to the minimum page count proved challenging and those last two pages were clearly thrown in last minute, but there wasn’t really time to fix this before workshop.
If you waited and did your workshops later you were cutting it close when it came to revise for the final portfolio that was due at the end of the quarter.
Workshops were discussion based and we were encouraged to speak critically about the pieces in a constructive way. We also offered reading suggestions that might help the author see technique that they could use for their story. Most workshops ran pretty well. If we ran short on time, or had to move to another story to get through all the others, the written comments were there to give us feedback.
NICHE: Who was your primary instructor, and what drew you to his/or her method of teaching?
She was very good about workshopping pieces in a fair way that allowed everyone to be a part of the discussion. She was always encouraging us to put in the time on our drafts so they were as good as they could be when we did have workshop. She assigned readings that included short story collections that we could use to really see how the technical parts of writing worked, so that we could use those technical skills in our own writing. I think she has a very honest take on the profession, and she was always stressing that it was a life long journey that would take persistence and drive.
NICHE: Is there anything you would change about your MA experience?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I don’t think I would change my experiences surrounding my Master’s program.
NICHE: What did you like about DePaul’s program? What did you dislike?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I liked that the professors are all published authors. That was helpful as both a teaching aid and real world example of the writing and publishing process. It was inspiring to hear about a professor working on a new project or being published somewhere. There’s a sense that if they can do it with families and full time teaching jobs, then I could do it also.
One professor would always tell us that it wasn’t going to be a quick journey and I think that was the most helpful real world advice I received. It gave me the freedom to breath a little when things weren’t happening as fast as I thought they should. It’s hard to remember sometimes that creating takes time especially when it seems we live in a world where people are throwing things online faster than the audience can keep up with it all.
The students were all very serious about their craft. I felt like I was in a class with others who really wanted to pursue this as a profession. It was always intimidating when someone wrote something that was really good, and it made me want to work harder on my drafts.
I think I disliked that it was a quarter system where classes were only ten weeks long. It sometimes felt like we were moving too quickly to really appreciate it all and to really absorb all that we were trying to learn. I know one downfall to this system is that there isn’t really time to work on pieces from class to class. Because students can start in any quarter, and genres are different from class to class, it’s hard to focus on the technique of revision in the way that it might have needed.
NICHE: By the end of DePaul’s program, did you feel like you had pieces that were polished enough to send out for publication?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I felt that I had a lot of pieces that were in good places for revision. Because we had to take so many classes to graduate there was only one offering that really focused on revision as a class. In that class we revised two pieces, but I’m still working on them. There is one piece that I wrote in the program that I have sent out, but it was the product of almost a year of revision.
NICHE: Is there any other advice you would like to give to prospective MA/MFA candidates or current attendees?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I’ve always been told about the MFA that you should only do it if you are financially able, and that it’s okay to wait. I think this is sound advice; I’m waiting to pursue an MFA until I have some of my large school debt paid down. If you can get the MFA paid for by an institution all the better!
I went for my Masters of Art a year after graduating with my Bachelor’s of Art because I knew that the program would strengthen me as a writer. Moving to a new city and really becoming self dependent while getting the Master’s has taught me a lot, too. I’m not saying you need to move across the country or to a big city, but I think if you feel like a change can help you creatively and personally, then getting the Masters degree or MFA in a place that is out of your comfort zone might be a good idea.
NICHE: When you applied to programs, how did you go about putting together a writing sample?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: When applying to the two Master’s programs I chose I went through my old writing from undergrad and worked on editing some of that to be included in my portfolio. I also used some from a class that I really enjoyed in poetry that was an advanced writing course from my senior year.
I think I may have written a couple of new pieces in order to use all of the skills I had learned in the past four years to feel like I was giving them my best work.
NICHE: Do you find it hard to write now that you’ve lost the support of a workshop setting? How do you motivate yourself to keep writing?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I do find it hard to write sometimes. I think writing full pieces has become a little more difficult without the academic deadline. They may have been all over the place, but I had something written every few weeks, and a few pieces started every two months that I could go back to and revise while in the program.
I like to find contests to submit to. I think submishmash on twitter is great about posting information about new literary journals and contests that are currently running. Poets and Writers has a great list as well.
Page counts are a great daily motivator for me. I like writing two or three pages each day. Notes, scenes, dialogue, outlines, essays. I feel like I’m getting something done.
I also find it helpful to hand write a to-do list and cross the items off as I finish them so I can see my progress for that day. I feel bad about myself if these tasks are still waiting for me after a week or two of being on my list. Some of the tasks are very specific longer term goals like, “write a first draft of essay by October 1st.” Some tasks are more general that can be accomplished in a day like, “write one page of notes for that short play.” I tend to have a few projects started at any one time so I can jump back and forth so I don’t get too burned out on any one.
Finally, I’d like to encourage you to research and pursue programs that you might be interested in. There’s something really good for the soul about following your dreams. I’ve met amazing people in my master’s writing program who support me and understand what I’m going through on a professional level. There’s a strong community to be found from a writers program.
This interview was originally published on Niche’s website on December 1st, 2011