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Helpful Tips for your MFA Program


Maybe It's Time to Try Some Nonfiction and Poetry Courses

Brigitte Whiting

WVU offers MFA Certificates in Nonfiction and Poetry in addition to several in Fiction. You've probably noticed the courses listed on the calendar. You might have even wondered whether to try one, and then you remembered writing high school essays that had to follow a strict outline form, and studying poetry that seemed to become deader the longer it was parsed, and thought, "No, don't like poetry. Don't like writing essays. No, no, no."

But maybe it's time for another look.

For starters, you could try just one class or two, and you'll still earn credits that can be used toward any of the Certificates. There are also a few Nonfiction Literature courses, L400s, that can give you a better idea of what reading Nonfiction can be like, not that any one of us hasn't read numerous nonfiction pieces, whether from the texts in the courses, blogs, magazines, newspapers, letters, how-tos, memoirs, sales emails, and the list goes on and on. All of these are essays regardless of their shapes and sizes and fall into the category of Nonfiction.

Another type of Nonfiction is Creative Nonfiction. The general categories here are memoir, biography, and personal essays, each using the crafts of fiction, such as scene-setting, dialogue, and narrative arcs to tell a true story. There's one rule that holds for all Nonfiction, whether Creative or not: it has to be factual.

To come back to WVU, we have two series of flash Nonfiction, MFA01–MFA05 and MFA050–MFA054 that fit the Foundation course category and call for writing short personal essays of your experiences in fewer than 750 words. WVU also has longer Core courses, MFA400, MFA403, and MFA404, each with an ongoing project and a workshop. These can be either Nonfiction or Creative Nonfiction. The courses can be taken in any order so you're free to jump in any time.

WVU also has a number of poetry courses (MFA300s), Core that are either 8 or 16 weeks long, and shorter Foundation ones. Again, credits for these can be applied to any of the Certificates. The goal of these is to enjoy playing with words, practicing craft, and coming up with metaphors and similes. A typical week's assignment will be to read craft and a few sample poems, and then practice the techniques in writing a poem.

How, you might ask, can taking nonfiction or poetry courses help you, a fiction writer? Let's look at what you're trying to do in writing fiction: you're using words, those units of swiggles, to create worlds filled with the weight of emotions, hoping that readers will share in those imagined experiences. Nonfiction and poetry ask you to share who you are and how you see the world, to search for what the experiences mean through the writing of them, and to use words to make them come alive on the page. Nonfiction and poetry can also add a few more crafts to your writer's toolbox that might help you in prying your characters open and expanding their views of their worlds.

So, there you have it, a few reasons for considering taking a nonfiction or poetry course. Try a short one and see where it brings you. You might even surprise yourself and find that you enjoy them enough to continue.


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