PhD Spotlight: The University of Southern Mississippi

Interviewed by Dustin Shattuck

He is one of the smartest readers and writers I’ve had the privilege to share a workshop with. Todd Gray was in his final year of the MFA at McNeese State when I moved to the heel of the Louisiana boot to start my first. It was clear that he had a good sense of measure as well as humor–I say lovingly that he reminds me of a cross between Hunter Thompson and Bob Hope. Since moving across the state line and becoming a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi, Todd has continued to be a valuable voice and good friend. When asked if he was willing to talk about USM and his personal experiences for Niche’s PhD Spotlight, he immediately and graciously agreed to this interview, which took place in December 2015 and January 2016, by email. 

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: Tell us some about your journey to this point. I know you were a voracious reader as a kid, but what made you want to write your own stories? Why did you choose to go into an MFA and then a PhD with a Creative Writing emphasis?

TODD GRAY: You know I always had an active imagination and I think that was the draw originally, the way stories capture the imagination. It’s a pretty natural progression, I think, from audience to storyteller. We’re always making up stories as kids, maybe I never outgrew that—I don’t know. For me there’s an innate, irrepressible desire to perform the storyteller function. I make up stories, provide narratives, for everything around me in some way, whether it’s about the toad I happen upon one night while walking my dog or about the man I see buying bullets at Walmart. I guess a lot of it is asking questions about your surroundings, trying to figure that out.

I was told once by Steven Barthelme, and I’m butchering the eloquence of his statement by paraphrasing, that to be a writer you have to be enamored with the world. When that was said to me, after a lengthy story about observing a box turtle to illustrate the point, I wasn’t so sure what to make of it. His point makes a hell of a lot of sense now. A lot of fiction seems to be looking for answers, though not necessarily always the “right” answer, but an answer just the same. Fiction thinking it has the answer isn’t ever that interesting to me.

In short, despite how new-agey this sounds, I think I ended up pursuing an MFA and continuing on to a PhD because I was looking for an answer to my own life. I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing at the time and had always wanted to write, so I thought I might as well try and do what I want. You might as well, you’re only going to get one shot at it. With that view, failing at what I loved seemed better than never giving myself the opportunity to try and succeed at it.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: What sticks out most to you as the biggest differences between a MFA and PhD?

TODD GRAY: I think differences are going to vary depending on where a person does their MFA and PhD. Though I think it’s safe to say a universal of the grad school experience is being asked to wear a lot of different hats—student, teacher, writer—and that balancing act came easily for me because of my own MFA experience. Honestly the biggest pressure I’ve felt from the transition is from myself. I imagine this is the same for everyone. Having stuck with this for so long you want to exceed at it, you want to prove to yourself and to others that you’re good at what you do—at being a student, a teacher, a writer. A lot of times at the PhD level I’ve felt I’m pushing myself against plateauing in all those areas. In that way it can be very tiring because you have to motivate yourself to work towards goals where the measurements of progress are elusive at best.

Adding to this frustration is the fact that the more I progress the more I realize there’s even more I don’t know. But that’s also exciting because it drives you—or drives me at least. I don’t think you’re ever going to be satisfied, no matter the transition, if you’re doing what we’re doing because you’re playing for keeps and, in doing so, know there’s always room for growth. The danger, I think, at any level, is in becoming complacent.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: You’re talking about the major issues writers face in the work and wearing all those different hats. Of course another issue is funding, especially now in academia. Southern Mississippi offers competitive assistantships for its graduate students—what’s that competition like? Are most people receiving stipends?

TODD GRAY: As far as I know most full-time graduate students have an assistantship. Funding is competitive in the sense that, in order to keep funding, a student needs to meet the expectations that led to their admittance. That sounds vague, I don’t mean it to be. There’s a qualifying exam at the end of the first year that’s a type of critique/assessment of a student’s progress. It’s a lot like a check-up. But basically, students aren’t competing with one another for funding. The atmosphere is congenial. The only aspect that may appear competitive is teaching assignments and/or non-teaching assistantships. Concerning both, I don’t think either are determined by competition between students but, instead, are more the result of deciding who is the best fit at a given time. The department tries providing students with the most opportunities possible.

USM has an English Graduate Organization (EGO), which seems to offer a great deal of professional resources and support. How exactly does the EGO function on campus? To the degree that universities are shifting teaching loads onto graduate students, I’m wondering if the EGO is involved in organizing graduate labor or collective bargaining. Do you have organized representation at USM?

Honestly I’m not heavily involved with EGO, so I’m not that knowledgeable concerning everything they do. All I know is they do a lot. I know it’s open to all English students. There’s a membership fee. They hold several fundraisers that are used to provide money for students to attend academic conferences, etc. They hold open elections each academic year to elect their officers. I’m sure they advocate for us whenever that’s necessary. I know the Graduate Studies Director, Dr. Monika Gehlawat, does a lot in our interests, so I’m sure EGO’s officers work closely with her and the department head, joining forces when they’re called upon to form some superhuman entity—I’m just hazy on the particulars. To answer the last part of your question, as far as I’m aware we don’t have organized, labor representation at USM.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: Which classes are you teaching now? Will you have an opportunity to teach your own workshop?

TODD GRAY: I’ll be teaching two sections of ENG 333, which is an upper-level English course all about technical writing. This’ll be the second semester I’ll have taught the course. I’m interested to see how the changes I have planned will go. I’ve got a board game design assignment I’m hoping will liven up some of the course’s material. As far as teaching my own workshop, I’d very much like to. Usually a few students in their final year get the opportunity. I’ll have to wait and see. Nothing is promised.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: You mentioned Steven Barthelme, and USM’s creative writing faculty includes Angela Ball, Rebecca Morgan Frank, and Andrew Malan Milward. How much are you interacting with faculty at this point and how much are you expected to develop your craft on your own?

TODD GRAY: I haven’t had a class with either Morgan or Angela Ball, though I’ve talked with both at different events and Morgan’s suggestion of a place for a story after my reading led to its publication. As for both Andrew and Steve, if I’m in their workshop, I’m seeing them a lot throughout the semester. For example, we’ll talk privately after workshop if my story was up. Both designate time during workshop to talk individually with each writer that went up that day to reiterate and clarify points, answer questions, etc. Andrew has this tradition where he invites students to meet up after the first and last workshop of the semester to break the ice and talk shop. Of course both are always available during office hours. Steve has emailed me a couple times after a workshop or before to make some additional point or prod me into thought. But you know, writing is a lonely endeavor otherwise. Most the rest you do on your own, you have to.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: The list of visiting writers that have come to Southern Mississippi includes some heavy hitters. Who has visited since you have been at USM and what have those experiences been like?

TODD GRAY: On the fiction side both Mary Miller and Lauren Groff have visited since I started at Southern Miss. We usually host four visiting writers a year—two from each genre. The general routine with visiting writers here is that they’ll workshop with us students earlier in the day before doing their reading later that evening. After a reading visiting writers will usually go out to socialize with faculty and students at a local watering hole. Mary Miller, an alumna of USM, received her MA here before going on to the Michener Center. At the time of her visit she was the current Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss and was promoting her novel, The Last Days of California, which I can’t recommend enough. She’s a talented writer and a generous person. Her short story collection Big World is also excellent. When Lauren Groff visited with us she had not yet been nominated for the National Book Award but the news that she was later didn’t come as much of a surprise. Another talented writer, she led a great workshop and I remember after her reading we talked go-to karaoke staples. I wish I could recall hers but I can’t even recall what I said mine was so there’s that.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: In my couple of visits there Hattiesburg seemed like a fun place. You’re not too far from New Orleans and the Gulf. What is it like living in Hattiesburg and southern Mississippi?

TODD GRAY: Hattiesburg is your typical small Southern city. Our respective commercial strip, Hardy Street, is lined with big-box-stores on either side and gets terribly congested come shopping time. Honestly sometimes I find myself wishing Hattiesburg were less homogenized than it is. But like anywhere else Hattiesburg is what you make of it. There’s the Long Leaf Trace, a rails-to-trails project, where I walk my dog often. There’s also a zoo and, unrelatedly, tons of antique markets, thrift shops, and flea markets. A state park is not far outside the city with a lake and trails. Close too is a national forest. I’ve done a little kayaking here. The city’s library is nice. We’ve two comic book stores, laser tag, bowling, etc, etc.

If you want to get outside of town Biloxi isn’t too far and has casinos. Going to the Mississippi Gulf though, it’s surprising the damage that’s still visible a decade after Hurricane Katrina. The proximity to New Orleans and all the city offers is, of course, an added (and welcomed) bonus. Really I’ve noticed lots of places and events I’d like to go to both in Hattiesburg and throughout the rest of Mississippi but, unfortunately, don’t always have the time or money.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: How does the English department and creative writing program fit into the larger community? Who shows up for the graduate reading series at T-Bones?

TODD GRAY: There always seems like there’s a lot going on, so I’m going to forget something here. First I’ll say that readings hosted by the English department and those at T-Bones have both been well attended by students and faculty. Personally, T-Bones is always fun because of its atmosphere at the local coffee/record shop. There is another readings series too, Viz, which was organized by a couple students and that has brought more writers to read off-campus.

As far as wider engagement, the graduate students also publish an online journal, Product, open to undergraduate and graduate students at Southern Miss. The English department also hosted this past year a ton of events on campus and off celebrating Edgar Allan Poe’s work as part of the national Big Read campaign. Students have done similar events in the past on Halloween, etc. The university’s honor college had Rick Bragg read and that was well attended—packed out really. One of my personal favorites though has been the visiting playwright series that is hosted by the Theater department. Each spring the Theater department hosts a playwright that gives several talks and runs a playwriting workshop that’s open to both students in the Theater and English departments. Later in the spring semester the theater graduate students then hold a contest that selects students’ plays that they’ll produce. It’s a rejuvenating experience being a part of that type of collaboration across disciplines.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: It looks like recent creative writing PhDs from USM are finding jobs in academia. What is your sense of successful placements for Southern Mississippi PhDs? What are your plans post-graduation?

In short I’d say those students that have had success after Southern Miss have all been self-motivated, open to what opportunities are available, and persistent. It’s not hard to be proactive here. Faculty make themselves available to help organize job materials, prepare for interviews, and ready for teaching demonstrations. There’s an involved teaching placement program at Southern Miss that meets throughout the year. That said, I think no matter where you’re at you’re going to have to put in the personal energy and hustle if you’re serious about landing a job. A little luck and humility always help too. Hopefully I’ll land a teaching position myself once everything is said and done. I enjoy being in the classroom. When I toy with the idea of life outside academia I realize this last part, I actually enjoy what I do.

DUSTIN SHATTUCK: That last part is always key. A final thought or word of advice for readers considering Southern Miss or a Creative Writing PhD in general?

TODD GRAY: I’ll give the same advice that Adam Johnson gave me, if you’re considering a PhD, apply to those places with faculty with whom you want to work. Funding, location—those things don’t matter as much as that. What’s important is knowing that you’re going to have someone to inspire and mentor you. Do it because it’s something you love—you want to write, you want to grow as an artist.

My addendum to that advice would be to do the PhD if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else and being happy, because there’s going to be times when it’s going to only feel like work, even the writing, but knowing that it’s the work that you want to be doing, even when it’s rough going, (’cause nothing is perfect bliss 100% of the time), that knowledge gets you through. And, of course, I’ll plug Southern Miss one last time by saying check us out when you’re putting a list together of places to apply. We’ve a great faculty (on both the creative writing and literature side), a great journal, and an improving football team.

About the Interviewee

Dustin Shattuck is originally from Springfield, IL. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University, where he teaches and serves as the Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review.

This PhD Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on January 11th, 2016.

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