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The Writing Life: An Interview with David Biespeil

2013 December 3
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The Writing Life

Note: David Biespiel, acclaimed American poet, is the author of numerous books of poetry including the newly released, Charming Gardeners (University of Washington Press). Furthermore, he is a writing instructor and author of a book about creative process—Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces (Kelson Books). Biespiel is the founder and president of an independent literary studio, The Attic Institute, in Portland, Oregon. I met with David, at The Attic in southeast Portland, to discuss Creative Writing, Master of Fine Arts programs. With application season for MFA programs upon us, I thought it would be interesting to hear about Biespiel’s opinion on the matter, and, let’s face it, I wanted to glean some wisdom from this long-time writer and mentor.

David Biespiel earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland; however, he never actually applied to the program. He was pursuing his PhD at the University, and fell into the MFA program, then continued on to earn his PhD. He’s been variously involved in MFA programs around the country, and currently conducts a yearly graduate workshop at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Biespiel also teaches for a low residency program—the Rainier Writers Workshop, through Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington.

I wondered what drew Biespiel to a low residency setting. He says, “I came to it coincidentally. They asked me to give a presentation and things just developed from there.” Biespiel speaks highly of the people involved in the program and their sense of community, and also the excellent work he’s seen over the last few years.

Given Biespiel’s long career in the field of Creative Writing, I asked him to tell me what he thinks are the most important criteria for selecting an MFA program. “You need to look at who you want to work with, study with.” He says it is important to seek out writers with whom you have “kinship” or share in creative “sensibility.” Again, Biespiel advocates for the value of working with a community of writers: “The more you think about what you can be a part of rather than what you’re going to get out of it, the more you’ll actually get out of your experience.” As other sources say, Biespiel agrees that the number of people in the program, the location, and the setting are all relevant factors in selecting a program. Most importantly, in his eyes, the program has to be a place where you’d be happy to get off the grid. “That’s all the MFA is, a rest stop on the highway of reality, where you can look inward, grow, and write.”

David and I get off on a tangent about genres, dynamics within workshops, and space for experimentation in different writing programs. I ask Biespiel why it seems that so many MFA programs advertise the opportunity to study more than one creative writing genre. He says that you have to step outside of the context and take a look at the bigger picture. Faculty are hired as writers within specific genres, but once they’re engrossed in poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, they realize what a narrow focus that can be, and they may see room for cross-fertilization. “This is radical to the Academy,” claims Biespiel. By offering multi-genre study, these programs see it as a way to break down the borders between genres. “Really, there are no borders” Biespiel insists, and adds that to younger writers coming into these programs, it doesn’t seem quite as radical because they’re approaching from outside Academic environments.

In terms of the workshop experience of MFA programs, Biespiel says that sometimes competing aesthetics in the programs can create such tension that you can lose control. The argument can come down to the value of the aesthetic instead of making the poem the best poem that in can be. Biespiel’s advice? “It’s important to protect yourself. But, for the most part, once you’re in a Creative Writing program, it’s not nearly as competitive as it seems from the outside.” He says that writers tend to be very supportive. And, realistically, people’s talents and strengths are all over the place. David did add that, in his opinion, the problem with some Creative Writing programs is that they might try to steer you away from failure; so, sometimes you end up not discovering something because you’re protected from potential failure.

Of course, we’re really just talking about approaching the MFA, but still I ask David Biespiel if he thinks it’s important for candidates to think about what they will do after they earn their MFA degrees. “No,” he says, “There’s a lot of anxiety about that, but the MFA is really just an opportunity to look in thyself and write.” And the point of the programs is that you’re not alone as you do that; you develop as artists within a community. Literary friendships are an important component of these programs. Speaking of his own literary relationships, Biespiel explains, “It’s fascinating to observe their [literary friends’] writing and work as it develops over the course of a lifetime. I was a Stegner Fellow… Oh… 25 years ago! And those relationships are still intact. They’re some of my closest friends. They have to be.”

If we could return to the rest area/highway metaphor, David says to think about it this way: “You have to keep driving after you leave the rest area. You’re driving on to other destinations… you don’t just magically arrive at them.”

Just because I can, I ask Biespiel one last, grandiose question: Why is it important that we continue to do this—to write poetry, to pursue writing as a Fine Art? “Poetry is a precious commodity,” he answered. In a society that so heavily emphasizes materialism, Poetry is the antithesis of commodification. “A poem is an experience, not a tool, not a commodity.” Of course, he admits, poets are not outside the commodified world, they do participate, “but in their hearts, they resist materialism. Poetry exists in a gift economy; you can barely sell a poem!”

And this is no news, really. But Biespiel says that by studying poetry, that in programs like the MFA, “it’s about the making.” It’s not about readability or selling a poem, in his opinion, “it’s about writing better and better poems.”

What do your “literary friendships” mean to you and your creative process?

If you’ve ever experienced “failure” on a creative project, what did you take from the experience?



Learn from My Mistakes: Advice on Applying to an MFA Program, part 4

2012 June 12
by Timothy

This is the fourth and final post in a four-part series on applying for an MFA. See part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.


At this point in this series, I should mention something that you won’t want to say out loud: you might not get into some of the schools you apply to. Hell, you might not get into any schools you apply to. And that’s ok. If getting an MFA feels right to you, then you’ll apply again. Use the extra time you’ve been given to make your portfolio even better, get more life experience and use that to say to schools, “Look! I’m dedicated, passionate, and positive! I will do wonderful things in your program!”

Throughout the whole application process, from the moment you decide to apply, to the moment the last acceptance (or rejection) letter arrives in your mailbox, keep reading and keep writing. Do this apart from your work on applications and your portfolio. Keep writing because it’s the only way to remember why you want to keep writing.

Here’s what I mean: For awhile while I was applying, I didn’t read a whole lot, and I wrote even less. I mean, there was a ten-day blank in my notebook—I didn’t even write down the weather. Then, after those long days of feeling totally discouraged, I said, screw it and set aside all my application materials, and considered telling my letter of recommendation writers that I wasn’t applying. I was done. I spent the evening reading and feeling relieved. I devoured everything I read. I sat next to my bookshelf pulling collections of essays and poetry and reading at random. I read the latest issue of the New Yorker and fell asleep reading A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin. The next morning I felt invigorated and excited, so I wrote a poem and two more drafts of my personal statement. I had inadvertently reminded myself why I was applying in the first place.

You’re applying to get an MFA in writing, so make sure to remind yourself why you’re doing it. You wrote about why you’re doing it in your statement of purpose, but sometimes you can lose sight of those things, and some of the small things that make you want to be a writer. Keep reading new things and letting yourself be inspired by them. Keep writing new things. It’s easy to spend a few months revising your portfolio, and then simply not write a thing while you wait to go to school. Remember, though: you’re doing this for you not because anyone wants you to, and especially not for the sake of the program. In the end, an MFA program should serve you, not the other way around. Keep writing, keep reading.

And to those of you applying to MFA programs, I wish you a hearty good luck! It ain’t easy, but it sure is rewarding.

This is the final part of this series of advice, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few things. Feel free to leave comments on any of these posts with your own stories and advice. If you’re still feeling lost, you can email me at timothy[at]hazelandwren[dot]com and I’d be glad to share some encouragement. Better yet, contact someone at a program you want to attend and ask their advice.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Learn from My Mistakes: Advice on Applying to an MFA Program, part 3

2012 June 5
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by Timothy

This is the third post in a four-part series on applying for an MFA. See part 1 here and part 2 here.


If you’re applying for an MFA, you probably have some well thought out reasons for doing so. If you don’t, writing your personal statement is the time to stop, reevaluate, and articulate why you want to further your education. If you can’t articulate why, beyond “I just want to write!” then you might not be ready. You can write successfully without getting an MFA (and many wonderful writers have), but an MFA will help you with other aspects of your writing life, beyond simply writing poems or stories.

In thinking about getting an MFA, I read many blogs and articles about why I shouldn’t get an MFA, and many of them were very convincing. Ultimately, I decided that there are certain paths I’m interested in taking that are much easier to pursue with an MFA. I used these goals as the framework for my statement of purpose, and illuminated those goals with past experiences that led me to articulate those goals. This isn’t your undergraduate application essay, however, and the readers aren’t interested in reading about your trip abroad. Write about personal experiences that changed your writing process, and how getting an MFA will continue to help you grow as a writer based on those experiences.

Your portfolio is the main thing that professors will consider when deciding whether to accept you into their program, but your statement of purpose will give them a better understanding of you as a person. Without a solid statement of purpose, your portfolio is just a collection of good writing. Here are some questions to consider as you write your statement (but keep in mind, these questions were what helped me; you may find other ways to approach laying out your statement of purpose):

  • What are you interested in exploring with your writing?
  • What are you interested in pushing against?
  • What experiences do you have that influence your writing?
  • What is surprising about your process that might interest others?
  • What questions will you be asking of your work and process while pursuing a degree?
  • Are you interested in teaching in the future? Why, and how will an MFA help you?

Think of your statement as a chance to introduce yourself to the readers. You can describe what brought you to where you are, why you’re choosing their program out of every other program out there, and what you plan to do once you’re there. This is your chance to stand out from all of the other applicants as a person, not just a portfolio.

Here’s a tip about applying for an MFA: organize. Beyond your statement of purpose and your portfolio, there are a million other things to think about, including transcripts, application fees, letters of recommendation, and, in some cases, GRE scores. Each program you apply to is going to be affiliated with a university, and each program and university is going to have different requirements. Find out what’s required for each program you’re applying to, and write it down on an easily readable sheet. For me, having a ton of checklists allowed me to focus on one task at a time. This is Time Management 101, but it really helped me when I started feeling too overwhelmed. All I had to do was glance at my checklists to know what needed to be done next.

In the introduction to this series I advised starting the process a full year before actually applying, and the above list of additional requirements is exactly why I suggest that. It can take a few weeks for transcripts to be sent from your undergrad, and then you have to follow up and make sure they’ve arrived. All of this stuff takes a lot of time, energy, and planning, so the sooner you can begin organizing the pieces, the easier it will be to drop them into place.

Next week—the last part in this series—is about the intangible things you’ll encounter in applying: being overwhelmed and worried, and reminding yourself WHY you’re applying. Right now, share some organization tips, and share some tricks about writing a great personal statement!

Part 1
Part 2

Learn from My Mistakes: Advice on Applying to an MFA Program, part 2

2012 May 29
by Timothy

This is the second post in a four-part series on applying for an MFA. See part 1 here.



In looking for programs, the first thing to consider is whether you’d like to enter school full time or part time. There are benefits to both options, but you’ll have to weigh them yourself to decide. There are fewer low residency programs out there, but many of them boast impressive faculty and beautiful locales. Entering school full time will give you more options for programs, especially if you’re looking for a less traditional program.

Are you willing to quit your job to enter school full time? If not, a low residency program might be for you. The point of a low-res program is that you can continue living your life, but with some focused direction in your writing. You’ll have mentors and classmates, and even face to face workshops several times a year, without having to uproot from your current home.

One of the drawbacks of a low-res program is that there are often fewer opportunities for funding. Scholarships, financial aid, and grants are sadly lacking from low-res programs, so entering a low-res program means you might spend a little more out of pocket on tuition. If you’re working full time and can swing it without taking out loans, then you’ll be just fine. If you need funding, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

In opting to pursue an MFA full time, consider where you want to be because you’ll be there at least two years, if not longer. If you hate the cold, don’t apply to Minnesota schools. Love New York City? Apply to schools there. You’re not just looking at an MFA program, you’re looking at a home for a little while.

Don’t forget to look at who is currently teaching at a program. You’ll be spending a lot of time with them, and will be indelibly influenced by them. MFA programs should help you become a better writer, not churn out clones of the faculty, but you’ll be in close proximity to other writers whose ideas will become a part of the way you think and work. Make sure you want your work to sound like your mentors’.

Finally, once you’ve identified the schools you’ll be applying to, make sure you’d be equally happy to get into each one. Having “safety schools” can set you up for disappointment. The best problem to have is to get into multiple programs and struggle to choose which one you want to go to because they are all a good fit for you.


There are a number of tools you can use to begin your research. AWP Writer’s Official Guide to Writing Programs is a great place to begin. Poets & Writers magazine has resources for finding programs as well, though their list of “best” has been controversial. (I won’t get into that here, but keep in mind that every resource you use has drawbacks, biases, and strong points.) Literary journals often have advertisements for schools, and while I don’t advocate letting an ad sway your decision, those ads are a great way to get a sense of what programs there are. Additionally, many journals are affiliated with institutions, so if you adore Ploughshares, check out Emerson College, if you dig FENCE, check out University at Albany.

For me, looking into the educational history of some of my favorite poets was a great way to build a list of schools I wanted to look into. I found out if they taught, and where, and looked into those schools. I found out where they got their MFA (if they got one) and looked into those schools. Of the schools I applied to, the majority of them I discovered by looking at the author bios provided by poets I admire.

In hindsight, one thing I wish I had done before applying is attend the AWP Conference. When I went, I discovered a dozen more programs, met people from the programs I did apply to, and talked with people about their own experiences with MFA programs. While it’s not a cheap way to research programs, it is an incredible experience that could lead you directly to the program of your dreams.

How many schools should you apply to? I don’t really have an answer to this question, but there are a lot of factors that come into play. How much time do you have? If, like me, you’re busy and can’t devote all your time to filling out applications, then you’ll apply to fewer programs. If you have the time to perfect applications for a lot programs, go for it. Here’s the thing, though: don’t submit a subpar application. It’s a waste of time (yours and the people reviewing your application), money (fees!), and, if you’re not applying online, paper.

There are a million pieces to consider when researching MFA programs. The best way to begin is by identifying what you want out of a program, where you want to be, and who you want to be with. Having some defined terms to limit your search will help when you finally dive into the wide and wild world of programs. It’s fine if these paramaters shift as you begin finding schools, but they’ll be an invaluable jumping point.

Next week’s post is about the application itself: what’s needed beyond a portfolio, how do you format it, and how do you even begin writing it? For those of you who are in an MFA, how did you choose your program? For those looking, where are you struggling, and where are you finding success?