Judith Claire Mitchell is the author of the novels A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War. Her stories and poetry appear in anthologies and literary magazines such as Best of the Fiction Workshops, Shaping the Story, Behind the Short Story, Barnstorming, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and others. She has received fellowships from the James A. Michener and Copernicus Society of America, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and the Wisconsin Arts Board. She currently teaches and serves as Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin.
Robin Tung: What sets Wisconsin’s MFA program apart from other programs?
Judith Claire Mitchell: We carefully designed the program to stand out in three ways. First, we deliberately kept the program small so we could provide our students with very close mentoring. Our student/faculty ration has always been 2:1. We also insisted that all our students receive equal financial aid in an amount sufficient to prevent the need for student loans. From the start we made it clear we’d rather not have a program than to have a program that caused our students to go into serious debt. Third, we wanted all our students to receive formal training in pedagogy and professional practices and to have the opportunity to each creative writing.
We also have what at first may seem like a bizarre admissions process—we admit poets in odd-numbered years and fiction-writers in even number years—but this alternating process allows faculty to focus on only one cohort of students in a given genre from the day that cohort arrives in Madison to the day it graduates from the program. As a result, the faculty gets to know and respond to each student’s individual strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals, as well as to each student’s unique learning style. We form cohesive communities here, but we also pay a lot of attention to each individual in that community.
Finally, I think it’s accurate to say that we’re a very warm and supportive program with a diverse faculty that likes each other and likes our students. We form lasting relationships with many of our students, and while we challenge them while they’re in our classrooms, we also take great pride in all of them and care about their well-beings. It’s a pretty wonderful community.
RT: What is funding like for this or next year?
JCM: This year each student has been guaranteed $20,000 per year in teaching stipends, grants, fellowships, and prizes. In addition students receive the same health benefits as the faculty. We expect the funding will be the same or better next year.
RT: What are your admissions rates? How many applied last year and how many were accepted into each genre?
JCM: Because we admit poets and fiction writers in alternating years, let me give you the most recent statistics for each genre. We’ve just admitted our newest class of 6 poets, who were selected from about 300 applications. The year before was a fiction year, and we received about 650 applications for our 6 spots. These numbers have been pretty consistent over the past several years and seem to suggest that if we admitted poets and fiction writers in the same year we’d be receiving about 900 applications per year for 12 spots.
RT: What does the committee look for in a candidate?
JCM: During the admissions process, it’s all about the writing sample. We pay little attention to anything else. We like work that surprises us (which is different from work that attempts to shock us). We like work that demonstrates an interest in language, and that suggests the author has or is capable of developing an original and compelling voice or point of view. We are also drawn to work that suggests a willingness to experiment and take risks. It’s our hope that our students will evolve both artistically and intellectually during their two years with us.
RT: Does Wisconsin’s program have a particular stylistic or form leaning (traditional vs. experimenta)?
JCM: Not really. Most of us change the readings we assign every semester. One of the best things about our being such a small program is that we can determine the interests and needs of each cohort and shape our curriculum accordingly.
RT: What advice would you offer applicants during the application process?
JCM: I would tell them to put most of their energy into their writing samples, and then I’d urge them to stay away from the anxiety-generator that is the MFA Draft page on Facebook. The Draft page is a great place to learn about the various programs that exist out there and to make connections, but when people start posting their acceptances and rejections it seems to drive normally self-possessed human beings into frenzies and tizzies. Down with tizzies, I say! Step away from the computer. Go write a new story or a sonnet circle. Or, if you’ve applied to our program, write to me and let me talk you down.
RT: How are alumni faring post-MFA?
JCM: Pretty well. Our folks do well in terms of publishing their work, getting teaching and other writing-related jobs, and nabbing post-MFA fellowships. We have a Facebook page where we post alumni news and people are always marveling at how active it is. At the same time, while we hope our students become successful writers—in whatever way each individual defines success—and we have always included a professional practices component in our program, we still hold the belief that an arts degree’s purpose is to nurture artistic development, not necessarily to lead to fame and fortune or even to a stable career.
RT: What is your own writing process like? And what advice do you have for new writers?
JCM: Ah—I can answer both those questions in a single sentence. My advice for new writers is that they avoid having a writing process that’s anything like mine. My writing process is horrible. During semesters I tend to prioritize my students and administrative work, and I have a very hard time sticking to a daily writing routine. When I do get to my own work in the summer I’m slow as a snail. My advice to new writers is to do the opposite of what I do. Set aside a sacrosanct period in which nothing but your writing takes place. Also, read. Read a new book every week.