MFA Spotlight: University of Massachusetts-Amherst

I am very pleased to welcome Nick Sansone to our blog, and want to take this opportunity to thank him again for agreeing to conduct this interview about the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherest in continuation of Niche Magazine’s MFA Spotlights.

Nick Sansone is a soon-to-be graduate of the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of the novel Shooting Angels (2009), and his second novel, The Calamari Kleptocracy, will be released this year. His short fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including PANKPear Noir!NANO FictionBartleby SnopesWord Riot, and The Los Angeles Review. His work has been nominated for the AWP Intro Journal Award and the 2012 Pushcart Prize. For more information, including a complete list of publications, visit his website at http://nicksansone.yolasite.com.

NICHE: You did many things before applying for an MFA. including AmeriCorps and being part of NASA search and rescue team after the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia.  Can you give a brief account of how you ended up attending the MFA Program in Fiction at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst?  Was writing something you’ve always wanted to do?

NICK SANSONE: I have been writing ever since I was a kid, although the notion of making an academic study out of creative writing never crossed my mind until my years as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College. While there, I studied with extremely talented faculty, including Melvin Bukiet and Brian Morton, whose passion and excellent creative feedback inspired me to imagine a wider audience for my writing. In high school and college, my creative writing classes took the form of workshops, which heightened my awareness of the value of reading other people’s work, both polished and in-process. It was the workshop model, more than anything, that made me want to study writing in a formal academic setting. I knew that I would be receiving a wide spread of feedback from careful, intelligent readers, and I knew that by reading the work of a diverse set of peers, too, I could challenge myself to undertake new creative exploration. While we all hopefully have friends and family who are willing to read and offer careful criticism of our work, it can be difficult outside the institutional setting to establish an entire community of writers who are closely involved with one another’s development.

NICHE: Who at Amherst did you study with and why?

NICK SANSONE: The fiction faculty at UMass-Amherst is relatively small, and so most students have the opportunity to study with every faculty member during their time in the program. Each faculty member is obviously a different reader, and so most students welcome the variety of perspectives available. I was lucky enough to study with Chris Bachelder, a warm and generous person with deep sensitivity to each student’s individual goals, before he moved to teach at the MFA program at the University of Cincinnati. The two other faculty members are Noy Holland and Sabina Murray, both of whom I have studied with, and both of whom are excellent readers and teachers. Noy has been especially helpful in encouraging ever greater scrutiny and experimentation at the level of the sentence, while Sabina has an exceptional eye for the overarching problems of structure, pacing, and point of view. I took a novel workshop with Sabina, and having the opportunity to workshop 250 pages of a longer work-in-progress, as well as reading other people’s long-form fiction, gave me a chance to think about some of the elements of craft that are specific to the novel form. The program is currently undertaking a search for a third fiction faculty member in order to replace Chris Bachelder, but we have had a variety of replacements in the interim, including Sam MichelStanley Crawford, and Jed Berry.

NICHE: What sorts of opportunities and benefits does Amherst  offer their students? What opportunities in particular did you find beneficial?

NICK SANSONE: As is hopefully apparent, the real appeal of an MFA has more to do with the opportunity to develop artistically in a community of peers than with any credential. The sad truth is that the job market is not great and an MFA, even from an excellent program, is unlikely to impress, except in very select and limited circles. I encourage you to think about time spent on an MFA as time to be funded while writing rather than as a means to a career. With that in mind, one of the best things UMass offers its MFA students is time. While most MFA programs are two years, the UMass program is three, which simply means more time to write. The reason for the additional year is that the MFA program has the expectation that every student will graduate with a book-length thesis, and having this expectation looming has been a great impetus to productivity. Further, the graduate programs in English Literature and Rhetoric & Composition at UMass are excellent, and as an MFA student you have full access to the entire roster of courses. In fact, with Amherst CollegeMt. Holyoke CollegeSmith College, and Hampshire College right nearby, UMass students have access to the resources of those schools as well: the libraries, the courses, the professors, and so forth. In addition to my workshops, I have taken classes as wide-ranging as 16th Century Literature, Introductory Arabic, a Bulgakov class taught in Russian at Smith College, Literary Theory, and Modern Poetry. If you want to take a rigorous academic load, you are able to; if you prefer to keep an open schedule with minimal academic requirements so that you can devote your time to writing, you are able to do that instead. Most students, myself included, go semester by semester, planning out semesters in which we challenge ourselves to broaden our knowledge base and semesters in which we challenge ourselves to produce. There is great flexibility in this regard. Finally, the Pioneer Valley is almost defined by its colleges, and so there is no shortage of readings, guest lecturers, concerts, and events. We’ve recently had George SaundersJudith ButlerSherman Alexi, and Colm Toibin on campus, among numerous others.

NICHE: Would you describe the learning environment in workshop as supportive?  What did you like about the workshop structure?  What did you dislike?

NICK SANSONE: As I have mentioned, one of the primary advantages to the workshop structure is simply the opportunity to receive feedback from a diverse spread of readers and to expose yourself to the writing of other students who are working on projects that might differ dramatically from your own. The limitation, of course, comes once the community of readers is no longer able to surprise you– when you feel as though you already know, going in, how people are going to assess your work. After three years in the program, I have come to the point where workshopping my writing is no longer as helpful as it once was. I am not certain, however, that this is a dislike of the format so much as a sign of its efficacy at developing us as critical readers: at this point, I feel confident that I am better able to read my work from an outside perspective and know my own habits and patterns well enough that I can discern for myself where the piece in question could benefit from revision. As for the environment, it has been universally supportive. Though my aesthetic inevitably differs from my peers’, the students at UMass are generally sufficiently well-read that we are able to differentiate between stylistic divergence and incompetent writing. One great credit to the program is its emphatic lack of a competitive environment. Because styles differ so dramatically between writers, it is absurd to think that we are in direct competition. A piece that would be perfect for The New Yorker, for example, would be unlikely to appear in The Collagist, and most writers with an eye to the profession can recognize that one person’s success in one niche does not diminish another’s success in a different niche. I have heard of programs that enforce a particular aesthetic or that encourage students to “tear apart” one another’s work. At UMass, we are much more likely to begin with the question “What is this writer attempting to do or explore in this piece? Who is s/he trying to reach, and how?” before moving to the question “How can s/he accomplish this goal more readily?”

NICHE: On the Amherst website it states:

Writing Program Teaching Associate positions provide a stipend of approximately $14,516.00 per year, plus tuition, fee, and health waivers, bringing the total value of an associateship to approximately $40,594 for out-of-state candidates. In addition to providing funding for up to six semesters, many candidates find the experience of teaching in the Writing Program to be of great value to their pedagogical and professional development.”

NICHE: Did you teach while you were at Amherst?  Did you find the teaching experience beneficial?

NICK SANSONE: Teaching has been a fundamental part of my experience at UMass. I have taught College Writing for three years through the University’s Writing Program, and in my second and third year, I have worked as a Resource Staff mentor, responsible in part for the ongoing training and development of new instructors. The most important thing to know about the teaching positions, however, is that they are not guaranteed. Many, even most, incoming MFA students are employed as instructors for the Writing Program, but the teaching application is separate from your application to the MFA Program. If you do not receive funding through the Writing Program, it is theoretically possible– though in practice frustrating and uncertain– to find another assistantship on campus. The teaching itself has been a pleasure: infuriating at times, of course, but overall an opportunity to develop pedagogical skills and connect with students at an early stage in their intellectual development. I found myself learning a lot through interacting with my students, many of whom neither enjoy nor are used to critical reading and analytical writing.  It is possible to become so insulated in the MFA bubble that we start to talk about writing always and everywhere using the same vocabulary and the same common assumptions; working with young adults who possess varying attitudes toward writing forces you out of those assumptions and requires that you develop new ways of talking and thinking about craft. The actual program is quite supportive of its teachers, providing an extensive orientation and ongoing training. The Writing Program also does an excellent job of allowing its teachers flexibility. There are detailed syllabi that break down the College Writing course day-by-day; databases of exercises and activities developed by former and current instructors; and opportunities to get involved in groups such as the Curriculum Committee or Diversity Committee for those who prefer to be continually engaged in their own development as teachers. On the other hand, for those who do not wish to prioritize teaching or for those who prefer to “stray from the script,” the Writing Program has basic goals that it would like its classes to meet, but it allows you enormous liberties in how you elect to meet those goals. In other words, ample support is available, and you are free to take advantage of it or not. Finally, the UMass graduate employees are unionized, meaning that your medical care, compensation, and job security are all closely guarded.

NICHE: Can you tell me a little about Amherst in general?  Did you like living in Massachusetts?

NICK SANSONE: I have loved living in Northampton, about 7 miles from Amherst with easy bus connections. Although the Pioneer Valley is rural, it has a lively cultural scene for an area its size. Northampton is loaded with good, reasonably priced bars and restaurants, and there is an abundance of excellent hiking trails and other outdoor activity right nearby. Because of the influence of the five colleges in the region, people tend to be younger and well educated. I have never lived anywhere with so many bookstores! Of course, this demographic has its drawbacks as well: at times, the area can feel like a monochromatic wash of caffeine-driven graduate students, all of us with our MacBooks and craft beers and copies of The Infinite Jest, and of course the high turnover rate in the area means that people are constantly packing up and moving on, which can generate a sense of rootlessness. One thing I appreciate most about this region, however, is that I have not had a car for three years and have never felt as though I needed one. Everything in town is within walking distance, and there are several buses daily to New York and Boston. 

NICHE: What advice would you give to prospective students or current attendees of an MFA program?

NICK SANSONE: My biggest piece of advice would be to make sure that now is the right time. Some students enter graduate school because it is an easy next step; it obviates the need to hit the job market. There is nothing wrong with this, but, as I have said, an MFA is not particularly valuable in the job market, especially as more and more colleges are looking exclusively to hire PhDs, even in Creative Writing. Therefore, your motivation for entering the program should likely be that you want the time and the community. Do you really want to spend the next 2-3 years focused primarily on your writing, aware that your job prospects will likely be the same after the program as they are now? Is this a degree that wouldn’t be more useful to you later on in life, after you have amassed more experience and have a clearer sense of yourself as a writer? An MFA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity– the chance to write without having to worry (too much) about money– so be sure that you are in a place to derive the maximum benefit from it.

NICHE: My understanding is that you are continuing onto law school (Congratulations!) Do you plan to continue writing as well?

NICK SANSONE: Thank you for your congratulations! Yes, I will be entering Boston University’s School of Law this fall in the hope of pursuing work in international human rights. I absolutely plan to continue writing. I have found that I am more– to use a pithy term– “inspired” by learning about events and relationships in the realm of non-fiction than by exclusively reading fiction. Obviously, it’s hard to imagine a decent writer who doesn’t also love to immerse him or herself in a good novel or short story, and it’s nearly impossible to develop an appreciation for the niceties of craft and style without having read broadly and voraciously. However, when I feel impelled to put pen to paper (or finger to laptop keyboard, as is more usually the case), it’s because of something I’ve seen, experienced, or heard about in the “real” world. I’m as likely to kick back with an issue of The Economist as with The Best American Short Fiction because my writing stems from a place of inquisitiveness and, sometimes, incredulity, about the way we as people live, communicate, and imagine. Perhaps this is my inner Marxist speaking, but I choose to write not in order to retreat into an solipsistic aesthetic realm that finds inspiration within itself but because I want to examine an external problem, question, or observation. A study of law is a study of conflict, of procedure, of interpretation (and misinterpretation), of institutions, of politics, of maneuvers, of power, and of the conjunction of theory and practice. Though I anticipate a precipitous decrease in the amount of time I can devote to writing in the upcoming years, I don’t doubt that I will have more fodder than ever before!

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on February 14th, 2012.

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