This past weekend at the annual AWP Conference, I moderated a panel on building community in low-residency MFA programs. I began by saying that I am a low-residency addict. In 2003, I received my MFA from Spalding University and I am currently working on my PhD in Psychology. There are a lot of good things to be said about low-residency programs, and providing a sense of community is essential for their success.
For me, community is defined as a group of people with varying backgrounds linked by a common perspective or goal. Whether it is a virtual MFA class or a physical community of writers, they are typically dedicated to a life of poetry, fiction or nonfiction. Maintaining that sense of community requires doing whatever it takes to unite the members and direct them toward a common goal. When at Spalding for my MFA in Writing, this sensibility was instilled in us by our director on on day one. hen Sena Jeter Naslund, the Program Director, delivered our plenary lecture. She said: “There’s one thing you should know—your main competition is not in this auditorium; it’s in the bookstore.” Sena’s words set the stage for our palpaple sense of community.
Our first residency began days after 9/11, an experience that helped unite us spiritually, and also in a literary way when we were asked to write about our reactions and feelings towards the tragic events of that day. As a country we were petrified. We were scared to travel and scared to go home. This already united us in a very unique way. Our shared love and devotion to writing helped calm us.The next time I realized the sense of community was on the first night of residency sitting in the hotel bar sipping on my first “ever” glass of Kentucky Bourbon. When you have a first drink with a group of people in such a setting, there’s potential to be friends for life. Plus, for ten days, we lived in close quarters while faculty and students shared and reflected on their common goals.
Low-residency MFA programs have been around for a while. One of the originals was at Warren Wilson which started in 1976. Today there are almost 50 low-residency programs in the US.
There are many advantages to these programs, mainly the flexibility and how they work around individual schedules. Most of these programs have two annual residencies ranging from one to two weeks. These are intensive gatherings for lectures, seminars, workshops, and networking. These are opportune times to form the bonds of a writing community. The paradigm for each program is different, but typically a student is either paired with a mentor for one term, or online classrooms are set up. Sometimes both paradigms are incorporated into programs.
Writers, by nature, are independent and solitary creatures, but once in a while we need to get out of our writing trance and find community. When I firsts started my low-residency program in 2001, outside the biannual residencies, email correspondence was the only sense of community since social media did not yet exist. Today, community can be built via email, social media, online discussions, telephone calls, and Blackboard. Even with these tools, in most cases it seems, students and alumni have to work hard to develop community in low-residency programs.
The interesting thing about being asked to moderate this panel was that if it wasn’t for the social networking community, I would not have had the opportunity. The original moderator was not able to attend so another panelist found me on “She Writes,” a literary social media site. She spotted my name and contacted me. So when my publicist tells me that I have to tweet or post on Facebook because it encourages community and a sense of connectedness, I do. You just never know what types of connections you can make!
One thing is sure and that is there needs to be a combined group effort to form community. It’s the organization which keeps communication channels open by sharing updates, successes, losses, and celebrations. Newsletters and social media are extremely helpful. As a healer and a writer I believe that community can help build bridges and create masterpieces.