MFA Spotlight: Emerson College

I am very pleased to welcome Luke Jones  to our blog, and want to take this opportunity to thank him again for agreeing to conduct this interview about the MFA Program at Emerson College in Boston in continuation of Niche’s MFA Spotlights.

NICHE: Could you please give us a brief account of your journey to the MFA?

LUKE JONES: That’s such a long, long story, but I’ll summarize. I graduated from Chapel Hill in 2004 with a bachelor’s in journalism and a concentration in graphic design. I worked as a graphic designer for a bit and, in the midst of it, made the mistake of moving back to my hometown. Then the recession hit. I ended up working in a Xerox copy center for three years because there really weren’t too many other jobs in the area. I had insisted rather dramatically upon graduating from Chapel Hill that I would never go back to school. Four years out, going back to school started to seem like a really great idea. However, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to study. I had been writing a bit, more as a hobby than anything else. I think it was staring me in the face for a long time. I contemplated counseling, culinary arts. Finally writing won out. Sure, it wasn’t the most practical choice, but I’ve never been too hung up on practicality. It was time to get serious about becoming an author.

NICHE: What factors determined your decision to attend Emerson College?

LUKE JONES: Another long story. Let’s just say that I’d decided I wanted to go to school in Boston, so I made a trip up and checked out a few schools. Emerson and I: it was love at first sight. I can’t say definitively what it was about the school. It was on the smaller side, right smack dab in downtown Boston, pretty hip and filled with people who loved the arts. I didn’t even apply anywhere else.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little about how the creative writing workshops at Emerson are run? Which authors have you had an opportunity to work with?

LUKE JONES: I’m actually not super familiar with what the different styles of workshops are, as I haven’t attended too many workshops elsewhere. I’m in the fiction track. I turn in between thirty and sixty pages a semester (per workshop). Three short stories, basically, sometimes a revision as well. I have several genre options: short stories, linked stories, flash fiction, novel, play writing, screenwriting,  [and] translation. I can also take workshops from other tracks as electives, so any of the poetry or non-fiction classes. I even took a book-to-play adaptation workshop through Emerson’s theater department.

I’ve worked with Margot Livesey; Frederick ReikenPablo MedinaWilliam Orem; founding editor of Ploughshares, DeWitt Henry and theater directorMelia Bensussen. Next semester I’ll be working with Steve Yarbrough and Megan Marshall.

NICHE: Does Emerson support their graduate students?

LUKE JONES:  I think Emerson offers a lot to their grad students, but, as is the case with many academic programs, you have to be proactive. There are publishing internships, if you want them, the first-year writing program, opportunities to work in after-school programs, and so forth. Many of these are competitive. You aren’t guaranteed a spot in them. There are also social activities, our department’s Graduate Reading Series, for instance, where grad students read their work throughout the semester.

NICHE: What benefits does Emerson MFA program offer?

LUKE JONES: You get to meet a lot of like-minded writers, which is awesome. You get to hang out in downtown Boston. What more could you ask for? There are a variety of campus jobs available. I work twenty hours a week as a graphic designer for Emerson’s theater promotions and I get two free tickets to each of the plays we present (John Malkovich performed at Emerson this past year!).

NICHE: Tell us a little bit about the Emerson First-Year Writing Program. Did you choose to participate in that?

LUKE JONES: There is a requisite class for teaching, which I took, but I ultimately decided not to participate in the program. I found the class overwhelming and it turned me off to the program a little. The class did however pique my interest in education in general and I feel like I learned a lot from it. As another consideration, I was worried that having to grade first year papers constantly would affect my own writing. What I read certainly influences my writing and I didn’t want to risk diluting the quality of it by having to read a lot of bad or underdeveloped writing. Instead I decided to volunteer at an after-school literacy program in one of the inner city schools.

NICHE: Are there any downsides to Emerson’s program?

LUKE JONES: I would say there are two worth noting. One drawback is that the faculty all live out of town, some quite far. You will never be invited over to a professor’s house for dinner or drinks, or anything like that. They all have office hours, of course, but I think there is a slight distance preserved between faculty and students.

Another is the steepening cost of tuition. There have been two hikes since I started, both around 5%. I do not believe that I or even my program benefited of either hike. Now all this is coming from the perspective of a fiction student; non-fiction and poetry students might have some additional complaints.

NICHE: Emerson College also offers an MA in Writing and PublishingAre the MFA students involved in Ploughshares at all?

LUKE JONES: Yes, Ploughshares has a small staff, but many MFA students are readers for Ploughshares‘ slush pile. About the MA program, it’s worth noting that MFA students are allowed to take some of MA publishing courses.

NICHE: What factors determined your decision to attend Emerson College?

LUKE JONES: Another long story. Let’s just say that I’d decided I wanted to go to school in Boston, so I made a trip up and checked out a few schools. Emerson and I: it was love at first sight. I can’t say definitively what it was about the school. It was on the smaller side, right smack dab in downtown Boston, pretty hip and filled with people who loved the arts. I didn’t even apply anywhere else.

NICHE: Tell us a little bit about the Emerson First-Year Writing ProgramDid you choose to participate in that?

LUKE JONES: There is a requisite class for teaching, which I took, but I ultimately decided not to participate in the program. I found the class overwhelming and it turned me off to the program a little. The class did however pique my interest in education in general and I feel like I learned a lot from it. As another consideration, I was worried that having to grade first year papers constantly would affect my own writing. What I read certainly influences my writing and I didn’t want to risk diluting the quality of it by having to read a lot of bad or underdeveloped writing. Instead I decided to volunteer at an after-school literacy program in one of the inner city schools.

NICHE: Tell us a bit about how your literary magazine Words Apart got started.  What were you hoping to achieve and what are your magazine’s long-term goals?

LUKE JONES: I asked several people last summer if they wanted to start a lit mag and they all said yes. I had no idea what I was doing. I am definitely an ideas person, so I had 5,000 ideas of where we could go with it. Our foremost goal, and I think we’ve held true to it, was to put together a magazine that focused on social justice, especially areas that are overlooked or have fallen off the wagon. I would like to keep Words Apart an unofficial Emerson publication, which means I’ll be turning it over to other students when I graduate. I think Words Apart has been and will continue to be a great place to showcase student work alongside work from the larger community.

NICHE: What have you learned about writing, reading, editing as a result of running a lit mag?

LUKE JONES: You get sent such a mixture of stuff. I think it makes me appreciate how far I’ve come as a writer and how far I still have to go. I got in a little bit of an argument with this one guy whose work I wanted to publish, a friend of a friend’s. He was very talented and his fiction was really edgy, but because he was a newer writer and hadn’t written a whole ton, it had some very basic problems that he needed to address. I pointed them out to him and told him I’d gladly publish his work if he fixed them, but he didn’t want to hear it. He said he’d rather just submit his fiction to other publications. I thought about telling him off and pointing out that any other lit mag would probably tell him the same thing. I decided instead to let it go and wish him luck getting published elsewhere. There’s lessons to be learned everywhere. I myself have had to learn many of them the hard way.

NICHE: What advice would you give to prospective or current attendees of MFA Programs?

LUKE JONES: Push yourself absolutely as hard as you can. Try to make each story or poem that you write better than the last. Show off. Try to impress your classmates and your professors. Be true to yourself. Be original. Realize that in order to make it as a writer, you have to be exceptional. Allow your professors to push you. Allow your classmates to push you. Don’t give up.

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on June 15th, 2012

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