Director Meg Kearney on the Solstice Creative Writing Programs of Pine Manor College in Massachusetts

Meg Kearney’s first collection of poetry, An Unkindness of Ravens, was published by BOA Editions Ltd. in 2001.

The Secret of Me, her novel in verse for teens, was released in hardcover by Persea Books in 2005; the paperback edition, along with a teacher’s guide, came out in 2007.

Four Way Books published her newest collection of poems, Home By Now, in fall 2009; by the week of Nov. 9, it appeared as #8 on the Poetry Foundation’s contemporary poetry best-seller list.

Her picture book, Trouper the Three-Legged Dog, is forthcoming from Scholastic in 2012 and will feature illustrations by E.B. Lewis.

Meg has taught poetry at The New School, and is the director of the Solstice Creative Writing Programs of Pine Manor College in Massachusetts.

She was the associate director of the National Book Foundation, sponsor of the National Book Awards, for more than 10 years.

Her poetry has been featured on Poetry Daily and Garrison Keillor’s “A Writer’s Almanac,” and has been published in myriad anthologies.

A native New Yorker, Meg now lives in New Hampshire.

Why would a children’s/YA writer want to pursue an MFA degree? What doors does it open, creatively and professionally?

Most people who enter an MFA program—not just those who write for young people—do so because they want to grow as artists, become the best writers they can possibly be.

An MFA program offers structure for doing that, along with a vast supply of knowledge about craft and literature. When we work alone, learning our craft through reading, composing, and paying attention to how other writers “do what they do,” we can go quite far; but attending classes on craft, criticism, & theory and working one-on-one with a mentor can open our creative minds to ideas we might never have encountered, and push us to try things we’ve never considered before.

That said, perhaps most important is the community provided by an MFA program: at our residencies, students become close very quickly; I have seen friendships formed within days that I know will last a lifetime. In workshop, we stress the need for positive criticism; it’s all about making the work better, not tearing people down personally.

It’s only in such a warm and supportive community that students are going to feel safe enough to experiment and take creative risks they never would otherwise.

As writers, we spend so much of our time in solitude—when we come together, we realize how much we actually need colleagues who can spend hours talking about plot or dialogue or our favorite books and not think us strange or boring. Those same friends often become each other’s first readers, providing the kind of feedback writers at all levels require.

At residencies, students and faculty also spend a lot of time together—in class and workshops and at meals—and the mentor-mentee relationships created provide not just guidance and support semester to semester, but a roster of respected authors who can be called upon for references and contacts after graduation.

That’s one of the more practical considerations—an MFA program offers the chance to expand one’s professional network, and to gain experience through internships and through classes that expose students to the myriad ways their degree might “apply” in the outside world.

Could you offer us some insights into the history of the Solstice low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College?

As an undergraduate liberal arts college, Pine Manor College is ranked number one in the country for diversity. It works to instill a strong sense of community and leadership in its students, many of whom represent the first in their families to go to college. It therefore seemed to be the ideal place to start an MFA Program.

The Solstice MFA Program launched in July, 2006, with 10 fabulous and daring students, three of whom write for children and young adults (two of those three were men!).

As founding director, I knew I wanted to create a program that celebrated diversity and community, one where students and faculty alike felt safe and supported enough to take creative risks. Today we have about 40 students and an amazing faculty (plus a top-notch assistant director) who together form the kind of community I envisioned.

What special opportunities are afforded by the program?

We keep our program intimate and affordable—we have fewer than 50 students and feature one of the lowest tuition rates in the country.

We’re also one of the few programs to offer need-based scholarships in addition to fellowships for first-semester students (including the Jacqueline Woodson Fellowship for a Young People’s Writer of African or Caribbean Decent).

[Note: Jackie is shown here with graduate Maryann Jacob Macias.]

Students are able to explore another genre in their second semester if they wish; and our third-semester students have the option of undertaking an internship in publishing, teaching, or community arts outreach.

At Solstice, we don’t separate those who write for children and young adults from the rest of the genres; the fiction writers, poets, and creative nonfiction writers are mixed together and able to “cross-pollinate” in classes and elective sessions.

Our readings also feature a mix of work for children and young adults as well as adults—something rarely presented at other reading series!

(Those who write for adults only are always blown away by YA and children’s writers; we’ve made many a convert!)

We see this as a particular strength; we have so much to teach one another. The only place the genres are separated is in workshop.

Lastly, I should mention that we’re also on a truly lovely, wooded campus that happens to be just five miles from downtown Boston.

What is the scope and focus of coursework?

At the residencies, students spend three hours a day in workshop. These workshops are the heart of the residency. The eight, three-hour sessions required allow students to experience a variety of pedagogical approaches, develop constructive critiquing skills, and enhance their own writing via close study of other works-in-progress. Our approach to the workshop emphasizes an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration between students and faculty members.

Also, we offer a variety of craft, criticism, & theory (CC&T) classes as well as elective seminars and studies (ES&S) sessions.

The two-hour CC&T classes are designed to provide students with a deeper understanding of the structural, philosophical, and historical underpinnings of the art of writing.

The one-hour E&S sessions are designed to broaden students’ awareness and initiate dialogue concerning a variety of issues and opportunities in the literary community, from censorship to new “movements” in the field (e.g. graphic novels) to strategies for improving one’s reading/public-speaking style. These sessions also give students ideas about various roles they might undertake as writers in their communities.

Students must take a minimum of three CC&T classes and three ES&S sessions each over the course of the 10 days, though they are welcome to take more.

Students are also provided with opportunities to meet with agents and editors.

There is a reading, including a student-run event, every evening.

A few days before the residency ends, students know which faculty member they will be working with for the semester ahead; at that point, they meet with their mentor to create a semester plan. In essence, this includes a reading list as well as a schedule of when packets are due (five total, submitted over the course of 21 weeks).

In semesters one and two, packets include a mix of creative and critical work; in semester three, students focus on writing a major critical essay. Semester four involves the completion of a creative thesis, a book-length manuscript of fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction (some of our students who write for young people might graduate with a YA novel, work of nonfiction, or a series of picture books).

What is required for the degree?

In order to graduate, students must have received a passing grade for 60 credits of course work and must have attended five, 10-day residencies.

The 60 credits include completion of the critical thesis (semester three) and a creative thesis (semester four), which is approved by the faculty mentor and a second faculty reader.

At their fifth and final residency, graduating students give a reading, attend workshops, and teach a one-hour lecture. (Classes are optional.) There is also commencement ceremony.

[Laura Williams McCaffrey‘s workshop is shown here.]

How is the program structured–number of semesters, etc.?

It takes two years to complete the program, which includes four semesters and five residencies. Each residency marks the beginning of a semester (winter/spring; summer/fall); the fifth residency is the graduating residency described above.

Could you describe the academic “culture” of the program?

The Solstice MFA Program is academically rigorous. We expect incoming students already to be well read in their genre, and anticipate that they will spend an average of 25 hours per week on their MFA-related work. This includes reading as well as writing—students read upward of 20 books per semester. There essentially are no breaks; as one semester ends, students are doing preparation work (reading, mostly) for the coming residency’s classes. Residencies are intense; we suggest students (and faculty) arrive well-rested!

Could you tell us about your faculty? Their credentials and areas of expertise?

Our faculty members are fabulous writers who love to teach. The most comprehensive information about them can be found on our Web site.

Those who teach writing for children and young adults include Laban Carrick Hill, Grace Lin (writer-in-residence; shown with her picture book class), Laura Williams McCaffrey, and David Yoo.

Jacqueline Woodson is one of our founding faculty members and is now a consulting writer (she “visited” us in January 2010 via Skype!).

Laban Carrick Hill writes across the genres—fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. His latest children’s picture book, Dave the Potter: Poet, Artist, Slave (illustrated by Bryan Collier), is coming out with Little, Brown in September 2010; and his picture biography DJ Kool Herc, The Godfather of Hip Hop, will be published by Roaring Brook Press in 2011.

Grace Lin, who just received a Newbery Honor for her book When the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown, 2009), teaches both fiction and picture books. She was pretty much a sensation with the release of her first novel, The Ugly Vegetables (Charlesbridge, 1999), which was an ABA “Pick of the List” selection and named Bank Street College’s Best Book of the Year in 1999; she’s gone on to publish more than a dozen books since.

Laura Williams McCaffrey is a former librarian who writes speculative fiction that delves deeply into women who are pushing against traditional roles, including Water Shaper (Clarion, 2006) and Alia Waking (Clarion, 2003), which was nominated for the Teens Top Ten Books list. Her next book, Laila’s Flight (Clarion, 2010), will be a graphic novel of sorts—it’s truly a genre-bender and we’re all very excited about it!

David Yoo is one of the funniest writers I know. He’s the author of the novels Girls for Breakfast (Delacorte, 2005), which was named a NYPL Best Book for Teens and a Booksense Pick; and Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before (Hyperion, 2008), a Chicago Best of the Best His forthcoming collection of essays, The Choke Artist, documents the experience of growing up as a Korean American with characteristic humor.

Jacqueline Woodson—well, Jackie is a rock star, and one of our greatest supporters. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including the Newbery Honor books After Tupac & D Foster (Putnam, 2008) and Feathers (Putnam, 2007); and Miracle’s Boys (Putnam, 2002), winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (made into a six-part television miniseries on Noggin in 2004 – 2005, directed by Spike Lee). She’s won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, has twice been a National Book Award Finalist, and her work has been listed several times as an ALA “Best Book For Young Adults.”

We also bring a number of wonderful guests to campus—these have included Nancy Willard, Nina Crews, Donald Hall, Louise Meriwether, Melissa Stewart, and Naomi Shihab Nye [shown below].

How competitive is admissions?

Our application requires both an essay and a manuscript of creative work, in addition to three letters of reference. We’re fairly competitive; on average, 55 percent of our applicants are admitted.

As creative writers, at what level are students when they enter the program? Upon graduation?

When we read an application, we look for students who are avid readers.

We’re also looking for students who show a willingness to work hard and evolve as a writer, as well as creative work that warrants admission to a graduate-level program.

By this, we mean command of language, freshness and originality of prose or verse, depth of understanding and clear explication of the subject(s), development of dramatic material, and demonstrated knowledge of the relationship between form and content.

Of course, these criteria are be applied differently to the work of an applicant than the work of a student who is about to graduate from the program!

I know it’s not just the faculty and I who see students grow dramatically over the course of the two years—the students see this blossoming in themselves and in their peers, and often comment on it.

How about as scholars?

While students who enter the program might not be “scholars,” per se—they could well have been math or science majors in their undergraduate years; they might be travel agents or kindergarten teachers. But I would say that, by the time they graduate, our students are deeply knowledgeable about their craft as well as about young-adult and children’s literature.

Could you give us some examples of graduate success stories?

[Laban Carrick Hill is pictured with graduate Kimberly Mitchell.]

We’re a fairly new program—our first commencement was in July 2008! But as a low-residency program, we graduate (and bring in) a new class every six months.

To date, 28 percent of our graduates have published in literary journals, and 6 percent have been selected for honorable mention in national literary competitions.

In addition, 12.5 percent have lined up teaching positions at the college level.

Among current students, 24 percent have published in literary journals, 3 percent have secured book contracts for academic publications, and 9 percent have placed in national literary competitions.

Could you describe the campus?

Located in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Pine Manor College is one of New England’s most beautiful campuses. The College is situated on sixty wooded acres where buildings of a former estate blend architecturally with state-of-the-art facilities. It’s quite easy to navigate on foot.

Whether traveling to our campus by car or by public transportation, Pine Manor is also easily accessible. The College is fifteen minutes from the heart of Boston, approximately one hour from Providence, and three and a half hours from New York City.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Our students and alumni are always happy to email or chat on the phone with prospective students. I’d be happy to arrange that for anyone who is interested.

There is also an opportunity to audit classes at both our January and July residencies; we list the classes open to auditors on our Web site about a month before each residency begins.

Lastly, I’d urge potential applicants to visit our Web site, where we not only have comprehensive information about our program, but also profiles of our faculty, students, and alumni.