MFA Spotlight: The University of Montana

I’m pleased to welcome MFA candidate Alana Trumpy to Niche Features, and I want to take this opportunity to thank her again for conducting an interview about her experiences at the MFA Program at The University of Montana

Alana Trumpy hails from Toronto and is an MFA candidate in Montana’s fiction stream with a sub interest in non-fiction. For her thesis, she plans to expand her novella, Comforter, into a novel. The first draft of Comforter made the Short List for the William Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and earned her several grants in Canada. You can follow her on twitter @AlanaTrumpy.

NICHE: What can you tell us about your journey to the MFA?

ALANA TRUMPY: I did an MA in literature ten years ago, and, nauseated by lit  theory, I set out to write an epic novel. It did not work out; it was really bad writing. Next came an excruciating four year-period of writer’s’ block, in which I formed a truce with myself and wrote a page every day with the proviso that I could immediately delete it. I started working as a court reporter in Toronto; my writing got a little bit better; I started saving stuff; and after receiving some grants to take a month off to work on a novella draft that had some promise, I realized that’s what I needed: time, and to see myself primarily as a writer, not just someone who writes on the side. I also spent some of the grant money on getting professional feedback from a literary editors. I wanted more of this feedback. I found out about the MFA culture in United States (it’s not really a big thing here in Canada), and realized that if I was lucky enough to get funding, it would be essentially like being awarded a two-year writing grant. I applied to eight programs and was accepted with funding at University of Montana. Now I live in the mountains.

NICHE: Who have you had the opportunity to work with so far? How has their mentorship or guidance affected or helped your writing?

ALANA TRUMPY: So far I’ve had all sorts of help from my instructors. Kevin Canty, the program director, runs a fantastic workshop. I find it pretty rigorous — and we have a lot in common in terms of tastes and aesthetic. He doesn’t waste much time praising a piece, though he’ll let you know what’s working, and gets right down to tackling places it can be improved. David Gates, who led my first workshop, has a lot of influence on student writing here. He’s a scrupulous line editor. He’s made me a lot more careful with language. Also, I took an independent study in nonfiction with Judy Blunt, an amazing memoirist. It was a small group. Two poets, a non-fiction and two fiction writers went over to her house every three weeks to talk craft. Next semester I’ll be taking a workshop with Dee McNamer, who’s a popular lady here. She has a reputation for being incredibly supportive. Debra Earling has been on sabbatical, so I may not get a chance to work with her, but I met her at a barbeque and she was very cool.

NICHE: Do you know how many students are accepted each year? Is every graduate in the program funded the same?

ALANA TRUMPY: About half of the MFA candidates at U of M are funded, but there are quite a few of us. Each year, initial offers are made for full funding for about 6 fiction writers, 6 poets, and 2-3 non-fiction writers. The funding package is pretty good: full scholarship, minus a nominal student and health insurance fees, and a $14,000 teaching stipend, for which you teach one class each semester. One of these classes is a creative writing workshop in your genre the second year. Then instead of a wait list, everyone else who’s accepted gets notified right away or in big blocks, with the thought that about half of these non-funded students will enter the program. So no wait list, or at least that’s how they’ve done it traditionally. I think each year around 15 fiction students, 15 poets, 4 or 5 non-fiction people enter the program, though numbers vary. There are a few other scholarship packages offered, including two Truman Capote full scholarships, and some other smaller partial scholarships awarded at the end of the year — also a full time editorial position with Cutbank.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the visiting writers? Do graduate students have the opportunity to meet with the visiting writers? And if so, do you find their advice beneficial?

ALANA TRUMPY: Each year University of Montana brings in visiting writers to run 3-hour workshops, give craft lectures and hold public readings in each genre (poetry, fiction and non-fiction). There’s always a party at a faculty member’s house after these readings where you can get to know these writers a little better. They also bring in guest writers to teach semester-long workshops. It’s good to experience different approaches to workshop, but I personally think it’s more important, and more realistic, to focus on building relationships with your program’s permanent faculty. In the early months of my program I went to a small public reading by a fiction student from four years prior and both Kevin Canty and Dee McNamer were in attendance. That sort of convinced me to try to take my workshops with the Montana faculty who have a vested interest in their students. However, the program brings in some great visiting writers, so I guess it’s a matter of preference. See the website for the list of past and future guests.

NICHE: How are the workshops run?

ALANA TRUMPY: I’m a fiction student, but I’ve been able to take quite a few non-fiction classes/workshops because non-fiction is a secondary interest of mine, and the program, because it’s largely a studio degree, definitely makes it easy for me to cross over into other genres. It’s not uncommon for non-fiction workshops to be comprised of almost half fiction and poetry students.

The permanent non-fiction faculty consists of Judy Blunt and David Gates. Judy Blunt wrote an incredible memoir Breaking Clean. It actually made me cry a little publicly (usually not my thing). I still remember where I was: next to a fireplace at the Ironhorse in Missoula. She has a poetry background and would maybe have more of an interest in lyric essays than David would. She runs her workshops at her dining room table and feeds her students delicious homemade soup while delivering no-nonsense assessments of student work. She’s very good at discussing what a piece wants to be and big-picture issues.

David Gates teaches both non-fiction and fiction workshops. He worked for several years as a senior editor and writer at Newsweek. David is a line-by-line guy. He’s obsessive about language in a good way, which is great paired with Judy’s broader approach. David is just as generous and available to students as Judy is. He hangs out with us at the bars a lot. Just don’t expect him to make you soup.

Last year, the department brought in Amanda Fortini, who writes for the New Yorker among many other publications, and she led a class on magazine writing that was fantastic. She lives in Montana, so who knows, she may be back. Her husband, Walter Kirn, taught a fiction workshop at the same time. His second memoir Blood Will Out just won a bunch of prizes. Next year, Bernard Cooper, a non-fiction guy, will be leading a fiction workshop. So as I said, there’s lots of cross-genre stuff happening here, and a lot of it in the realm of non-fiction.

NICHE: How supportive do you find your peers?

ALANA TRUMPY: The support from peers at University of Montana is really good. Our coordinator runs an email feed that alerts us to our peers’ publications, and there is a real community spirit here, fueled, I must say, by the pride faculty and administrators take in their students, both current and alumni. It does suck that we’re not all funded equally, but my experience has been that after the first month shakes out, it’s understood that some are just a bit luckier in the application process than others; there’s not two tiers here. People are respectful in workshop and take it seriously. We all get a chance to read publicly in our weekly reading series Second Wind and during thesis season, and there’s always tons of people who come out to show support at these events.

NICHE: How do you like living in Montana? Is it a place you can see yourself settling?

ALANA TRUMPY:  Missoula is an amazing place. People visiting from big cities love it here because it’s so damn beautiful, with hiking, fishing, rafting so close at hand. At the same time, I have to say, for a small city there’s a sizable selection of artsy places to hang out at: cocktail bars, coffee shops, art galleries, micro-breweries etc. There is very popular Whole Foods knock-off with an excellent vegan/gluten-free buffet if that’s your thing. The only issue people in the program tend to have with Missoula is that it’s not that ethnically diverse.

It’s the kind of place where you can sit alone at a table almost anywhere and do some work and nobody thinks you’re weird, which I didn’t necessarily expect of a smallish city. The coffee shops are always packed with people sitting alone and getting work done.

Cost of living’s pretty good: you can get a one-bedroom for around 600; some of my friends are sharing places in bigger houses and are paying 350 each. A pint or a well drink at the Union, where everyone goes to talk and play ping pong after workshops, will set you back only $2 before 6 p.m. If I go out at night, it’s normal that I’ll only spend like $10, sometimes even less. Potlucks are a thing here.

A decent number of outgong MFA students stay in Missoula for a while. There’s a pretty large contingent of writers outside of the program living in town. Missoulians really support their arts. There are two rival art house theatres downtown, for instance, and when I came to visit the program, I couldn’t believe that 200-plus people attended a poetry reading on campus.

Honestly, you’ll like living in Missoula for two years. No one I know complains about the city. Most of us don’t want to leave.

NICHE: How involved are graduate students in CutBank, the literary magazine?

ALANA TRUMPY: In the the first year, every incoming student is a reader for CutBank. It means you’ll get to use Submittable, on the other end, as part of an editing team reading hundreds of submissions in your genre. (Interesting fact: Submittable’s headquarters are in downtown Missoula. It was started by a graduate of the creative writing program.) In my work with CutBank, I’ve definitely learned to be more critical of my writing and to have a realistic understanding of what an over-taxed MFA student reading submissions from a university-affiliated lit journal will and will not have patience for. There is always a fun party when an issue gets launched. In the second year of the program, one MFA student is selected to be the CutBank editor, and this person gets a full tuition waiver plus a 14k stipend.

NICHE: What advice would you give to prospective candidates?

ALANA TRUMPY: If I were applying to MFA programs again, these are some things I would take into serious consideration:

  • Think about whether you want studio v. academic degree (Montana’s is more craft focused, for example. We don’t take many lit classes);
  • Write as much as you can the summer before the program. Especially if you’re teaching, the first term can be overwhelming. You’re not necessarily going to generate your best work, and it can be a bit embarrassing or frustrating to bring in work in to workshop that you don’t feel is sufficiently polished;
  • Definitely think about applying to mid-list schools over those in the top seven. Almost all the schools I applied to accepted less than 1% of its applicants. Why did I do this? Think about schools that don’t fund all students. Chances of getting funded position will be higher, and the funding packages are often comparable to the schools that get a lot of attention in the MFA draft. Also, think about stipend v. cost of living. Some higher stipends are in cities that cost a lot to live in. Size of program. I personally like how many contacts I’m making here. I’ll be getting to know three graduation years of around 20-25 people each, so 75 good, serious writers, plus the faculty. Like every industry, it helps to know people. But maybe you’d want a program where you’d have a ton of individual attention from your instructors. In the end, it’s your call, but do seriously take this into consideration.


This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on August 17th, 2015.

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