Seattle region boasts traditional MFA programs; master’s degrees in communication; editing and technical writing certificates; and noncredit workshops at literary organizations.
As a child, Michael Oliphant was constantly turning pages — and writing them. He even penned a fantasy novel with a friend, each taking turns writing chapters.
Chasing this passion, Oliphant applied to six Master of Fine Arts (MFA) creative writing programs around the country. He chose Western Washington University, drawn by its flexibility, he says. “The ability to blur the lines between poetry and fiction was important to me, but Western creates space for hybrid works between any genres.”
For those interested in writing, a wide range of options are on offer in the region, including traditional MFA programs; master’s degrees in communication; editing and technical writing certificates; and noncredit workshops at literary organizations.
Traditional master’s programs
Like many traditional residency-based programs, the University of Washington’s MFA in Creative Writing asks students to participate in poetry and prose writing workshops, study critical theory and present a creative thesis, as well as a critical thesis, and an oral “defense” of their work.
Up to 17 students per year enter the newer University of Washington Bothell’s MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics. “The emphasis on poetics is particularly important during our time of much change, which includes large demographic and technological shifts,” says Jeanne Heuving, director of the MFA program. Poetics is defined as “why we write how we write,” she says, which “designates how art and written forms are constantly changing, given social, political, and technological changes. For writers to be cutting edge they need to consider the forms and formats of writing and their implications for how content is conveyed.”
UW Bothell’s program includes cross-genre, cross-media and cross-discipline explorations, attracting students of various ages, academic and professional backgrounds.
Where do graduates wind up working? “Students end up in a diversity of careers, from public relations to teaching,” Heuving says. “But most importantly, through our program, they create a pathway into their own creativity that we hope will sustain them throughout their lives, the kind of in-depth training that leads students to do their most compelling and ambitious creative work.”
MFA students typically pay for their art study through a combination of teaching assistantships, fellowships, grants and scholarships. At WWU, Oliphant taught undergraduate writing courses as a teaching assistant (TA), and now works as the managing editor of Bellingham Review, a literary publication that provides him with a stipend and real-world experience.
MFAs equip students with a skill set beneficial in any workplace, he notes. “Everyone’s looking for a good writer,” he says. “People who can write and articulate thoughts well, and can execute a project all the way through.”
Western Washington University, UW and UW Bothell offer graduate degrees in the traditional sense, with students expected to live near campus for approximately two years. For students with full-time commitments or who may even live across the country, a low-residency MFA is one option, and available at Seattle Pacific University and Pacific Lutheran University.
Paul Anderson graduated from Seattle Pacific University’s two-year program in 2016, after attending five 10-day residencies every six months. He says the low-residency model allowed him to continue with life — he worked 30 hours a week for the first year, then taught in Chicago for the second year. “That whole year, I was probably working 60 hours per week, in addition to the MFA work,” he says. “I don’t recommend this.
“I wanted to build up the stamina and discipline that actual writers need to survive, since hardly anyone lives as just a writer,” he says.
Anderson runs events programming, blogs, reviews books, manages finances and produces podcasts for literary magazine Image Journal. “Eventually I would like to reach a point where my own writing can be more central to my everyday work life, but I know that this is still a long way off,” he says. “Right now, I’m working on a novel in my downtime.”
Other writing master’s programs
Creative writing is one form of expression, but there are other ways that writers work.
“There are only two constants in the communication field: The tools are always changing, but the power of story is timeless,” says Jillian Reddish, who earned a Master of Communication in Communities and Networks from UW in June 2016, after seeking out a program that taught both tools and storytelling.
Today, she’s the communications manager for the nonprofit Center for Infectious Disease Research, writing press releases, story pitches, blogs, opinion pieces, newsletters and social media content.
“I’m responsible for how we tell the story of the research we do,” she says, including “how to effectively tell the story of how work on proteins in a lab in South Lake Union is helping a child with malaria in India or a grandfather with HIV in South Africa.
“My degree helped me understand the power of imagery paired with a well-crafted story and even the creative steps involved with developing a tabletop game about the burden of tuberculosis,” she says.
UW’s Communication Leadership program includes a master’s program in communities and networks, plus a master’s degree in digital media. Graduates have gone on to work for giants like Facebook, Starbucks and REI, tech startups, city government and nonprofits, among others.
And at Seattle University, the MFA in Arts Leadership is a two-year, 48-credit program with an intensive internship aspect — but geared for working students, offering exclusively evening courses.
One graduate, Kellen Braddock, is now deputy director of the Black Mountain Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Before graduate school, Braddock won awards for her poetry — awards she channeled into an open-mic series. That experience inspired an interest in “the business of art,” she says, and wanting to be a resource to artists, able to supplement her writing with a career in creative nonprofit work.
While pursuing her MFA, Braddock worked for the Seattle-area APRIL (Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature) organization, then went to Seattle literary center Hugo House to oversee staff, the budget and business plan. She was soon scouted for her current position as deputy director and publisher for The Believer literary magazine, now housed at BMI at UNLV.
Degree-conferring programs aren’t the only paths to exploration and success — Hugo House offers hundreds of noncredit fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry classes in Seattle each year, suitable for novice and advanced writers alike with year-long courses and workshops.
Hugo House students who have gone on to publish post-workshop novels include Sonya Lea and Tara Conklin.
“I would encourage a workshop as a first step for someone just starting out, so they can get a better overview of a specific genre,” says Christine Texeira, who oversees education and programs at Hugo House. If a novel or memoir is already underway or completed, “one-on-one manuscript consultations can help students further refine their work,” she says.
UW’s Professional and Continuing Education department offers noncredit writing courses. For example, the new Certificate in Writing is a customizable program with mix-and-match fiction, nonfiction, memoir, screenwriting, publishing and children’s literature courses.
Many P&CE courses focus on critical professional-level skills for the workplace. The department’s editing certificate teaches editors-to-be how to correct grammar and style for different audiences and content types, from academia to fiction to the web.
Students of UW PC&E’s professional technical writing certificate program learn how to write white papers, scientific publications and software documentation — all useful in the tech-centric Seattle area. And a certificate in storytelling and content offers instruction on measuring the impact of story using data tools, audience engagement and more.
Both Oliphant and Anderson are considering post-MFA careers in teaching, although jobs can be scarce. “I’m more interested in teaching in a broader sense,” Anderson says. “As in, I’m interested in the act of teaching and mentorship, though it doesn’t have to be confined to a traditional classroom setting. Simply put, my aspiration is to work closely with both literature and people.
“Thankfully, writers are adaptable creatures,” Anderson says. “Or at least we like to think we are.”
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