Amy O'Neill Houck: Mastering the MFA

What better timing than to have July featured writer Amy O’Neill Houck kick off her month of posts on the day than the UAA MFA Low Residency program in Creative Writing begins? Welcome to Amy!

A few weeks ago I was sitting on a panel at the Kachemak Bay writer’s
workshop called “Mastering the Master of Fine Arts Degree,” or as I called it
in my head, “Why in the world would you want an MFA?” The same day, I had lunch
with a fellow student who’s just beginning her degree in the program I
participate in: UAA’s Low Residency MFA. Like me, she’s a mom with young
children and an unconventional career (I’m a fiber arts designer and teacher,
she leads polar bear viewing expeditions; clearly we are kindred spirits.)
Annie had an immediately recognizable sense of mystery surrounding the leap she
was about to take with her writing. “Is there anything you can tell me about
the program?” I told her that the sheets in the dorm are terrible and she’d
probably prefer to have her own towels too. I knew that’s not what she meant. I
remember the feeling of beginning this journey two years ago. I knew I would be
learning to write, but I had no idea how it was going to work. Here are
a few things I wish I had known more about when I began my MFA.

The Mentors. In the UAA
program, the residency ends with the assignment of your mentor—the writer
you’ll be working with for the entire year. You meet one-on-one with your
mentor, and that is likely the only face-to-face meeting you’ll have until
you meet again at the following residency. In my experience, mentors don’t
teach or prescribe. They may suggest things to read, they listen to the
goals you set for yourself, and throughout the year, they send you written
responses to your work. Some mentors love to edit on a sentence level;
some love to talk about the big picture. You’ll probably have a talk with
your advisor before she makes your mentor assignment, so you can ask
questions and share ideas about the kind of mentoring you can expect.
Mentors are working writers and they model the writing life. They may
teach in other programs, they may be working on publishing. Their own
writing time is as cherished and hard to come by as yours. They are most
likely more experienced at protecting and honoring it.

Just write. That was the
hardest thing for me to grasp in my first year. I knew I wanted to
experiment with form and even genre. I’m not a new writer, but I’m new to
creative nonfiction and I figured I should try out as many things as
possible. But I often got caught up in worry about “what to write,” and
used that as an excuse not to write. I was needlessly worried about
sending my mentor “the right kind” of writing, when I should have just
been writing more. Honing your writing habit may be the most difficult
thing you do during your MFA.

Read outside your comfort
. I never feel like there’s enough time for reading, and the
temptation to read something I know I’ll love is strong. There’s reward in
reading something you wouldn’t choose for yourself: you get to see how
more writers make different kinds of stories work, and you often get the
joyful surprise of discovering something new to love. Ask everyone what
they are reading and why they would recommend it.

Connect. If, like me, you are
in a low-residency MFA program, much of your schooling mimics the solitary
life of a writer. This is good practice. I’ve learned that many writers
survive solitude by seeking out ways to participate in a literary
conversation. Go to readings, theatrical, and musical performances. Keep
your eye out for visiting writers and attend their events. I’m always
discovering more writers here in Juneau. I taught a felting class last
week and three of the six students were writers. Strike up a literary
conversation and you never know what you will discover.

Even as I’ll pack my bags and head off for my final residency as an MFA
student, there is still plenty of mystery for me about this writing life we are
all creating. I’ve packed my tea bags and travel mug, lots of pens and
chocolate, my fiddle and some yarn. I’m prepared for little sleep, and lots of
laughter and learning. I’ll be on the lookout for those inevitable moments of
surprise, connection and clarity that renew my drive and my desire to just keep

Amy O’Neill Houck is beginning her final year of UAA’s
low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. She’s the author of three books of
knitting and crochet patterns and she maintains a blog about food, fiber andlife in Alaska

1 thought on “Amy O'Neill Houck: Mastering the MFA”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Thanks for the post Amy. I learned a lot about the MFA program from this. Good luck on your writing journey.

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