The Benefits of the University-Based Creative Writing Fellowship
Sarah Katz | September 2015
You’ve turned in your thesis and graduated from an MFA program in creative writing. OK, now what?
Maybe your book isn’t finished, and continuing work as an English composition adjunct wouldn’t give you the means nor space and time necessary to complete it. You could apply for a competitive grant (a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, for example) or writer-in-residence program, but maybe you’re also serious about furthering your career in either teaching or arts administration at the University level, and you don’t have the experience.
In comes the academic creative writing fellowship, which is designed to support recent creative writing graduates with the resources to develop their writing while continuing to immerse themselves in a University community.
Aspects of the Academic Creative Writing Fellowship
These one- to two-year fellowships at Bucknell, Colgate, Kenyon College, Stanford University, Williams College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and others, offer emerging writers who have recently graduated with either an MA, MFA, or PhD in creative writing with office space and time to work on their book, an opportunity to teach creative writing, and a generous stipend.
However, there are significant differences between fellowship programs. Bucknell, for instance, offers its fellows a $20,000 stipend, instructorship in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and a year of office space to complete a book—but also requires twenty hours of administrating the Stadler Center for Poetry and/or serving as associate editor of West Branch, Bucknell’s renowned literary journal published three times a year. Stadler Fellows thus spend much time fulfilling responsibilities outside of their writing, which may or may not appeal to prospective applicants. Other fellowship programs, like Colgate’s and Wisconsin’s, require fewer responsibilities, and therefore provide fellows with ample unstructured time that, depending on the individual’s level of self-accountability, could either benefit or hinder his or her writing. Applicants should reflect on these different aspects of the academic creative writing fellowship while researching potential programs.
For Chet’la Sebree, Bucknell’s 2014–2015 Stadler Fellow, the wide-ranging responsibilities of the Stadler fellowship allowed her not only to complete her book, but also to discover the potential career avenues available to her. Prior to her position, she worked as a full-time administrative assistant and part-time composition instructor at American University in Washington, DC, and was “completely burnt out at the end of the day...[with] no space in my life for the poems.”
“I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted out of my life—if I wanted to teach composition, if I wanted to be a full time admin, or if I wanted something different—so I began to apply for fellowships…. The Stadler Fellowship caught my attention mostly because it gave me the chance to immerse myself in many ways…. The Fellowship gave me the opportunity to have lots of different irons in the fire.”
Sebree arrived at Bucknell with a book-in-progress, and has started a new book as well. She also continues to benefit from the MFA community at American University.
“It’s really a worthwhile experience…. Although I’ve moved three hours north of my MFA community, I continue to have a relationship with some of the faculty members. In fact, at least year’s and this year’s AWP Conference, I have been invited to be on panels with my MFA faculty members, which is both an honor and a pleasure.”
Colgate University’s program offers two prose writers a generous stipend of $37,500 plus travel expenses and health and life insurance, a public reading, and the opportunity to teach one creative writing course per semester, but no other responsibilities. For Chelsea Biondolillo, one of the two 2014–2015 Olive B. O’Connor Fellows in Creative Writing, the substantial quantities of time, which she “initially foundered” until she “figured out a system,” challenged her to seek opportunities for self-improvement. With only three hours of office hours, a few hours of grading each week, and one class to teach, Biondolillo was mostly left to her own devices, which meant she needed to cultivate self-discipline to ensure she was making the most of her time to write.
“But in this way, too, the fellowship was immensely helpful,” Biondolillo said. “I’ll have to figure out how to balance writing and a day job, wherever it may be, from here on out. Now I have a better handle on what does and doesn’t foster my productivity.”
Furthermore, the opportunity to teach creative writing to undergraduate students at Colgate can support one’s development as a writer; teaching creative writing fosters an enhanced understanding of one’s own writing process. “It was an incredible opportunity to see the ways that a teaching career could enrich my writing practice,” Biondolillo said, “and some of the potential pitfalls, too—one can be departmental/initiative/taskforce-meetinged around the clock, and if the writing isn’t coming easily, it is a sneaky way to procrastinate.”
While at Colgate, Biondolillo finalized a collection of lyric essays, Ologies, that won Etching Press’ prose chapbook contest this past February. (Learn more about Biondolillo’s chapbook in this interview with Speaking of Marvels Press.) Biondolillo also began a book about vultures, “which combines travel, memoir, conservation, and natural history,” and which is still in progress. The fellowship “solidified her resolve” to teach, and since the position ended she has been teaching writing workshops at ApiaryLit.org while actively looking for tenure-track positions.
For Javier Zamora, the other Olive B. O’Connor Fellow, Colgate wasn’t just a space to write and teach; it was also the perfect place to explore issues pertinent to writers of color and engage in active literary citizenship. “The size of the campus and…. student protests calling for a diverse campus were the main reasons I felt I was included into the campus community. By community, I mean the faculty of color and students of color specifically.”
Still, Zamora laments that these fellowships are few and far between, not to mention extremely competitive. “It’s a big privilege, but the hard part is that there are only a handful of such opportunities in the US…. I hope writers and creative writing directors can advocate for more opportunities, to advocate for the importance of writing.”
The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, like Colgate, also offers ample time and space to five fellows in the genres of fiction and poetry each year, which includes a stipend of $30,000, health benefits, and teaching intermediate or advanced undergraduate creative writing. In addition, Wisconsin Institute Fellows select the recipients of the annual Brittingham and Felix Pollack Prizes in Poetry, the undergraduate writing contests, and the Institute’s Fellowship for the following year. All applicants for the fellowship must be “emerging,” with at most only one full-length book of creative writing in print.
Wisconsin stresses supporting emerging writers in an effort to help combat the difficulties of finding financially viable opportunities in academia post-MFA. “Considering the growth of MFA programs over the last few decades, as well as the difficulties of the academic job market, we desperately need to expand post-MFA support across the country,” said the Wisconsin Institute’s director, Amaud Johnson, in an email interview. “In general, we need to direct more resources to the arts at every level of education.”
The stipulation is that only those who have completed an MFA or PhD in creative writing can apply for the fellowship. “Even if you have a PhD in English, took graduate-level writing workshops, and wrote a creative dissertation, we still cannot offer you a fellowship if your degree is not specifically in creative writing,” the guidelines read.
Johnson believes that such fellowships supply essential support needed for fellows to develop as writers and advance professionally. “Support is key, and it’s our philosophy that writers flourish when given the room to respond to their instincts…. This experience provides an important foundation for a future in teaching, but it also helps emerging writers understand what they have to contribute to beginning writers.”
But some fellows already had teaching careers that they left to pursue an academic creative writing fellowship program. Cynthia Marie Hoffman, author of the poetry collections Paper Doll Fetus (Persea Books, 2014) and Sightseer, winner of the 2010 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry (Persea Books, 2011), was teaching full-time as a term assistant professor at George Mason University when she received the Diane Middlebook Fellowship in Poetry at Wisconsin in 2004.
“I was teaching four sections of freshman composition the fall semester of that year at Mason. I was hardly writing a thing. But the fellowship was going to allow me to write… and let me teach a whole class of just poetry and nothing else…. And I did believe that becoming a better writer, which the fellowship would enable me to do, would mean I would get a better teaching job.”
But Hoffman never returned to academia, preferring instead to work at a publishing services firm, and later, at an electrical engineering consulting firm, where she has now worked for eight years.
“As much as I loved, and probably would still love, teaching, it’s always been about the writing.... If I had continued to actively seek returning to academia after my fellowship year, I might have found that the fellowship credentials helped me land a teaching position. But as it stands, as far removed from academia as I am, I think what the fellowship primarily awarded me was permission to take myself seriously as a poet. And that continues to drive my creative work each and every day.”
Ultimately, a fellowship is whatever you make it: whether you’re someone who needs plentiful, unstructured time to write, or you’re looking for opportunities in publishing, arts administration, or teaching, there’s a creative writing fellowship for you out there. But—a caveat—the fellowship shouldn’t be thought of us an entrance into some exclusive club.
“It’s dangerous when we begin to think of fellowships as some kind of creative writing pedigree,” Johnson of the Wisconsin Institute said. “We hope our fellows become successful writers, but the individual defines ambition. One book, five books, honorable mention or a Pulitzer, we see our fellows as equal members of our community.”
Sarah Katz is Publications Assistant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. She has an MFA from American University, and she writes book reviews and poetry. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming at Heavy Feather Review, NANO Fiction, and the Ploughshares blog, and her poetry at District Lit, jmww, MiPoesias, RHINO, and others. She received the 2015 District Lit Poetry Prize for her poem, “The Beginning of Prayer.”