Interview with Michelle Herman, Ohio State University

new_authorphoto_color_croppedMichelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing and Dog, the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life, and the essay collections The Middle of Everything and Stories We Tell Ourselves. Other essays and short fiction have appeared in American Scholar, O, the Oprah Magazine, The Southern Review, and many other journals. Her awards and honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, numerous individual artist’s fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and two major teaching awards—the University Distinguished Teaching Award and the Rodica Botoman Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring—from Ohio State, where she has taught since 1988, and where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing and the Graduate Interdisciplinary Specialization in Fine Arts, as well as a summer program for teenage writers, the Young Writers Workshop. 

Robin Tung: What does OSU’s committee look for in a candidate?

Michelle Herman: Excellence in the writing; evidence of a gift, and of potential, of a basic mastery of craft. There is a minimum GPA that can, in the most extraordinary cases, be waived; likewise the GRE is required but we don’t care very much (though the University does–again, we can make a case for a waiver for an extraordinary writer). Evidence that the writer is serious and committed to becoming a writer, which is why we rarely accept MFA students straight out of their undergraduate programs (unless they have been “nontraditional” undergraduates).

RT: Are there stylistic or form leanings (traditional vs experimental)?

MH: … It is certainly true that this is not a faculty that has expertise in experimental writing. We are rather a modernist, not postmodernist, bunch.

RT: How closely do faculty work with students, and will any faculty be incoming or leaving in the next year?

MH: Very closely. More closely perhaps than anywhere else we know of. Each of us directs no more than two or three MFA theses each year, and all of us take that quite seriously. I have been known to read upwards of half a dozen drafts of a novel manuscript, and during the third year of our program we meet with our advisees regularly. We are all very available for regular office hour meetings throughout all of our students’ MFA careers. And as far as I know, no one is leaving. We hope to add a seventh faculty member to the program within the next year or two–a prose writer. As of now, the program stands at six faculty and thirty-six students.

RT: How are alumni faring post-graduation?

MH: Very well indeed. We graduate twelve students a year across all three genres. A surprising number have found tenure-track teaching jobs (although this is by no means the focus of our program; indeed, I tell people to assume they will never obtain such positions). Many of them are teaching in “term” positions–one-year or three-year renewable appointments. Most of them publish books within a few years after graduation; some (like Claire Vaye Watkins, Donald Ray Pollock, Christopher Coake) publish their first books while they are still in the program or immediately aftewards. Our alumni have been awarded Guggenheim Fellowships, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, the Story Prize, the PEN/Robert Bingham Award, and many other honors.

RT: What advice would you offer applicants during the application process?

MH: Make sure your writing sample and personal statement are both gorgeous, the best writing you have ever done. And then keep in mind that for every twelve people we accept, we turn away perhaps another twenty-five whom we would have been just as glad to have. But also keep in mind that these decisions are subjective–and “subject” to the aesthetic judgements and tastes of a varied faculty. Young writers are often shocked that they get into one program on full fellowship, are waitlisted at another, and are outright rejected at four others. No matter how good you are, you will never please everyone (you know this already, because there have been plenty of “good books” you haven’t cared for, and plenty you’ve loved that friends you respect don’t like one bit). Just show us the best you can do, and try to stay calm while you wait out the decision.


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