The down low on the low-res MFA

You may be a good candidate for a low-residency MFA program.
By Meredith Quinn, managing editor | Published: September 25, 2015


Informal business meeting. Group of peopleseated in circle in modern office. Design studio brainstorm.

If you’re looking to get a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing or poetry, you have many options. Hundreds of them, actually – 229 at the last count of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The big choices you will have to make within that pool is the type of program you want to attend: full-time and/or fully funded or low-residency.

Full-time and/or fully funded is the traditional, highly sought after experience pined for by aspiring writers. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cornell and Brown admit only a handful of students each year, and these programs are competitive and, if not fully funded, can be debt-inducing.

An alternative that has been rapidly growing is the low-residency MFA program, which offers flexibility in schedule, independence and, some would say, more personal attention from faculty and more opportunities to have work critiqued.

While some MFA purists may look down on low-res programs, many participants who have gone on to write and teach wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Sonia Livingston, author of Queen of the Fall and Ghost Bread, teaches at the University of Memphis. While attending a five-week writing program in Prague, she heard other participants talking about a low-res MFA.

“I was not looking to uproot myself and go to a residential MFA program,” Livingston said during a panel at the AWP conference in April. So she investigated low-res programs, which would allow her to travel, save some money and study creative nonfiction. “I didn’t expect much except writing time and a mentor who cared,” she said.

Typically spanning two years, the low-residency program takes place both in person and by correspondence. Students and faculty meet once or twice a year for about two weeks, participating in workshops, lectures and readings. Outside of those sessions, students communicate directly with mentors and together work out a schedule, syllabus and reading list tailored to the students’ needs and goals. Participants manage their own time and write as often as they can, completing assignments and predetermined packets every few weeks to advance through the program.

Because of the flexibility this type of structure provides, a low-residency program is ideal for those who, like Livingston, are interested in pursuing a creative writing degree but can’t, or don’t want to, disrupt everyday lives and responsibilities.

For Doug Van Gundy, poet and author of A Life Above Water, it was the only way to go. At the same AWP panel, Van Gundy, who teaches at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said, “I would not have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t had access to a low-res program.” Citing a house, job and spouse he didn’t want to leave, he continued, “The low-residency program really saved me. And it probably saved our marriage.”

Van Gundy attended the Goddard College low-res program, which started in 1963 and was the first low-residency program in the U.S. He found an “army of people who would parse the meaning of poetry for 45 minutes.” And it satisfied his need to earn a degree while staying close to home.

In some cases, attending a low-res program means traveling abroad. Depending on the school, residencies can rotate among various campuses and international destinations. The chance to be inspired by new surroundings and new cultures attracts many students. The program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, for example, rotates between three sites: Montpelier, Vermont; Slovenia; and Puerto Rico.

When it comes to the question of whether a low-residency program lacks connection compared to full-time MFA programs, most folks who have attended one say no. Livingston said that the bonding experience between students is unique because it offers a “great variety of voices.”

Van Gundy was pleased to find other writers with similar mindsets. “People didn’t think it was odd that you stayed up all night reading something because you just couldn’t stop,” he said.

In fact, the intensity of the short residency is credited with creating connections, and the lack of a common space where students run into classmates forces them to work at establishing relationships. The mindset becomes: I have x amount of time in the presence of these people – I have to make the most of it.

Critical to the success of low-residency programs is a strong work ethic. With no one standing over their shoulders to make sure the work gets done, students take on the working lifestyle of a writer.

And that, perhaps, could be the most useful skill they acquire.

Low-residency MFA programs chart

Meredith Quinn is a graduate of New York University and managing editor of The Writer.