Academic Fellowships for Recent Creative Writing Graduates
Katherine Perry | February 2001
You have just earned a graduate degree in creative writing-what next? Perhaps you’re not quite ready to make the transition to a full-time job in the "real world," or you don’t yet have enough teaching experience to find a tenure-track teaching position. You’ve completed your thesis, now on the shelves of a library, but you already have revisions in mind that prevent you from sending it to publishers. For many recent grads seeking additional training and time to fine-tune a manuscript, applying for an academic fellowship proves to be both an important professional and personal experience.
Programs do differ in their requirements and in what they offer to fellowship recipients. Fellowships such as those at Colgate University, the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and the Stegner Program at Stanford University can afford valuable training and teaching experience to recent graduates of MA, MFA, or PhD programs in creative writing. Of course, fellowships for writers and recent grads are also available at conferences, colonies, and many other private and public institutions. The intent here is to focus on some of the fellowship opportunities at university settings.
Benefits of a Fellowship
For those who wish to continue a career in academia, gaining a teaching position beyond that as a TA or an adjunct can be essential; such a position often offers classroom experience in creative writing workshops in addition to composition and literature. John Poch, who holds two advanced degrees, an MFA in Poetry from the University of Florida and a PhD in English with an emphasis in contemporary literature from the University of North Texas, delayed applying for a full-time teaching position to accept a fellowship at Colgate University. "Teaching one class a semester is a dream job," according to Poch.
More importantly, perhaps, for many, is the time and space offered by such fellowships to work or continue work on a book-length manuscript. Most of the fellowship schedules are designed to allow recipients significant time to work on their own projects. In addition to writing, Poch says he spent his fellowship year at Colgate conducting "research for an anthology, revising poems for my book manuscript, submitting my poems to many more journals and contests, and spending much more time reflecting on my pedagogy and my approach to writing." Jennifer Vanderbes, an University of Iowa MFA grad now at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, applied for fellowships over teaching jobs because she "really needed time to write." The schedule at Wisconsin "provides the fellows with some structure in their weekly and monthly calendars, while leaving them the majority of the time free for writing," time which, according to Vanderbes, has allowed her to work on large-scale revisions of her novel draft.
The fellowship also offers the recipient an intellectual community-not unlike that experienced in graduate school-where people still support and value literature. Vanderbes comments that "having a few other fellows around… makes for a supportive community." This same feeling is shared by Julie Orringer, an University of Iowa grad who is now a Stegner Fellow, whose "class has developed into a tight-knit community of writers, whose… suggestions have become extremely important to me." At the same time, fellows have the opportunity to expand their own education by studying with new and diverse writers and readers of their work, both within and outside of the English department. Poch says that he was "able to get to know so many other members of the Colgate faculty-not only in the English department, but in other disciplines such as theater, anthropology, chemistry, etcetera. The intellectual community here is vibrant.
Colgate University’s Creative Writing Fellowship, now in its second year, was designed to support a writer completing his or her first book. Eligible applicants are writers of poetry, nonfiction, or fiction who have recently completed an MA, MFA, or PhD in creative writing, and who need a year for the completion of their first book. The annual Fellowship "provides a generous stipend, office space, and an intellectual community" for the recipient. The fellow spends the academic year at Colgate-whose creative writing department includes workshops in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama-teaching a creative writing workshop each semester and giving a public reading of his or her work. The Fellowship carries a stipend of $25,000 plus travel expenses; health and life insurance are provided. When asked about the application process, Poch states that he has been assured that the applications are judged "on the merit of the writing alone… the Colgate Fellowship in Creative Writing is one of the few completely ethical awards for writers."
The Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University offers more than one opportunity for those who have recently completed graduate school in creative writing. The Phillip Roth Residence in Creative Writing is intended to "provide a young writer who has some record of accomplishment the opportunity to work for over two months in an atmosphere conducive to writing, with all necessities provided, with a modest stipend, and without academic responsibilities to the university." (italics mine] Unlike some of the other fellowships, the Roth Residence does not afford teaching experience; its goal is to provide writing time, rather than teaching experience, to the recipient. The Residence, which takes place from October through December, is awarded in alternating years to a poet and a fiction writer. The Residence provides a studio in the Stadler Center, a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Bucknell’s Poet’s Cottage, meals in the dining service, and a $1,000 stipend. Some record of publication is expected; past writers have used the Residence to complete a first or second book.
For those looking for both writing time and professional development, the Stadler Internship offers a recent MFA or MA graduate the "opportunity to receive professional training in arts administration, literary editing, and teaching." The Stadler Intern assists for 20 hours each week in the administration of the Stadler Center for Poetry and in the publication of West Branch, a literary magazine. The intern also conducts a poetry workshop and has the option of teaching an intro creative writing class each semester, for which they receive additional compensation at the adjunct rate. Mike Carlin, currently the Stadler Center Intern, says that his duties have included "everything from helping to run our reading series, to coordinating the annual Bucknell Poetry Slam, to serving as associate editor of our literary magazine West Branch. I’ve gained valuable experience in a number of areas-fundraising, magazine production and distribution, campus and community coalition building in the promotion of events-as well as teaching." The internship is a part-time, partial benefits eligible position (health insurance is provided) during the academic year, with a possibility of a one-year renewal. A $12,000 stipend is provided, as well as a furnished apartment in Bucknell’s Poet’s Cottage.
Like many of the other post-graduate fellowships, the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing "provides time, space, and an intellectual community for new writers working on a first book of poetry or fiction." Eligible applicants are poets and fiction writers who have completed an MFA or equivalent degree in creative writing. According to Jesse Lee Kercheval, Wisconsin receives about 500 applications for their six fellowships: the Carol Houck Smith, Carl Djerassi, and James C. McCreight Fellowships in fiction; and the Diane Middlebrook, Ruth and Jay C. Halls, and Anastasia C. Hoffman Fellowships in poetry. All applications are processed and judged anonymously until finalists are chosen, which Kercheval stresses means that the "quality of work is paramount." The six recipients spend the academic year as Artists in Residence and, as such, teach one creative writing workshop per semester and give one public reading from work-in-progress. Besides teaching, fellows may gain additional professional experience through participation in other creative writing program activities, such as assisting with the Brittingham/Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the George B. Hill and Therese Muller Creative Writing Contest, and The Madison Review. The Wisconsin Fellowships provide a stipend of $23,000.
When asked what Wisconsin looks for in applicants, Kercheval e-mailed us to say:
It is the work and the work alone that really matters. We have chosen fellows from the big, well-known writing programs and ones that are not as well known, from both traditional and low residency programs, writers with MFAs, MAs, and PhDs in creative writing. Fellows who were 26 and fellows who were 50. Fellows with fresh writing degrees and ones 15 years out from graduation. Some fellows with long lists of magazine publications but many more with few or no publications. Though our fellows teach, teaching experience is not a requirement of the fellowship, and we have had many fellows with no previous experience who did a great job teaching for us. The only thing all our fellows had in common is that we were stunned and humbled by the quality of their writing.
The Stegner Fellowships at Stanford University are also designed to create a space in a community for writers. The Fellowships intend to offer "new writers the company of their peers and the guidance of experienced and accomplished writers in a supportive literary environment." Stanford offers ten two-year fellowships each year-five in fiction and five in poetry. Fellows in each genre meet twice a week in workshop with faculty, who currently include Tobias Wolff, John L’Heureux, and Elizabeth Tallent in fiction; Eavan Boland, W.S. DiPiero, and Kenneth Fields in poetry. The Stegner Fellowship program is unique in that it offers no degree; there are no curricular requirements other than workshop attendance. Unlike some of the other fellowship programs, the Stegner Fellows do not teach while involved with the program, as Stanford regards the fellows as "working artists, intent upon practicing and perfecting their craft." Fellowships include a living stipend of $18,000 and required workshop tuition of approximately $6,000, totaling $48,000 for the two-year period.
According to Stegner’s website, in awarding the fellowships they "consider the quality of the candidate’s creative work, potential for growth and ability to contribute to and profit from our writing workshops. The Stanford Creative Writing Program’s students are diverse in ethnicity and experience, with talent and seriousness the true common denominators." No degree is required for admission, no school of writing is favored over another, and chronological age is not a consideration. Competition for admission is fierce; this year, program administrator Gay Pierce says that the Stegner Program "hit an all time high in numbers of applicants-over 700 in fiction and 450 in poetry." Like many of the other program administrators, Pierce reiterates the website’s statement that the program looks for applicants who are good literary writers "who show great promise, yet still have room to improve and contribute to the program. Writers who are already established and who would not grow and improve are not the typical recipient."
For many, the fellowship experience is an extremely positive one which provides time to better prepare-both for a professional career and in terms of work on their own writing. Some recipients do warn, however, that such a flexible schedule is not meant for everyone. Ryan Van Cleave, the Anastasia C. Hoffman Poetry Fellow at Wisconsin, cautions that "some who aren’t (as) self-motivated would have a lot of time to waste." Orringer adds that "after working a full-time job for three years, it was sort of mind boggling to arrive at Stanford and find myself with vast amounts of time in which to write. In order to use that time effectively, it was necessary to come up with a weekly schedule and stick to it."
With so many applicants, it’s important to keep in mind the testimonies of fellowship recipients and administrators who reveal that the key element in receiving a fellowship is a first-rate writing sample. Orringer also points out that "applicants should understand that sometimes one must apply repeatedly to a program before being accepted." And remember, too, that most fellowships are only for a year, two at most, and at the end of the academic year, many find themselves right back where they started. Recipients such as Poch used the fellowship time to his advantage and "spent quality time applying to creative writing positions." Most fellows would agree with Jennifer Vanderbes when she says, "I would apply for another year if I could, and I would, without hesitation, encourage any one seeking time to write to apply."
For additional information about the fellowships mentioned:
- Colgate University, http://departments.colgate.edu/english/cwriting.htm
Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University,
- The University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/english/html_wifcw/index.htm
- The Stegner Fellowships at Stanford University, http://www.stanford.edu/dept/english/cw/stegner/html
For more information on other grants, see Calendar Available to American Writers, 2000–2001 edition available from PEN American Center, 568 Broadway, New York, NY 10012-3225, phone (212) 334-1600, or e-mail PEN@echonyc.com.