The first year of my Creative Writing PhD

Since I started my PhD in Creative Writing, several people have asked me what the experience is like. This, therefore, is a rather detailed post explaining where I've got to after one year–and what's coming next.

My proudest achievement, this year, has been the rewriting of my novel. In August / September, just as the PhD began, I used my mornings to first plan then write a “final” draft, taking on the advice of my agent and my writing partners.

I finished that rewrite in late November and sent it to my agent. He and I have since then been fine tuning and re-shaping the few chapters that were still a problem. There may be more editing to do before we send the book out to publishers, and of course there remain elements in it that make me nervous, but I feel wonderful for having done so much rewriting all this academic year. It's a very good novel: it's been exciting, editing lines in chapter three, and seeing the story broadening and deepening, the protagonist, Robyn, getting herself in more and more trouble.

Ironically, of course, this had very little to do with my PhD coursework, although the calmness of Knoxville and the intellectual stimulus of the department have been immensely helpful. The point is: I have continued writing fiction, despite the course load and other responsibilities. Getting published by McSweeney's was also very cool.

For the coursework itself: I arrived with a good number of transfer credits from my MFA, and so I have to take ten classes in total. Because most incoming PhDs receive the John C Hodges fellowship (for our first year), we only teach one class per semester in our first year, and therefore we are supposed to take three classes per semester, and then two per semester in our second (when we teach two classes, the fellowship having expired).

In other words:

Fall 2012: take three classes, teach one

Spring 2013: three, one

Fall 2013: two, two

Spring 2014: two, two

I have all but completed the first six classes. In the fall, these were a fiction workshop, a Victorian novels class, and a James Joyce class. In the spring, I have been taking classes on fiction writing and editing, modernist theatre, and the mid 20th-century American novel.

So far, does this sound simple enough? To complicate matters, I also am required to show reading proficiency in two foreign languages. This semester, I took a French reading class (my fourth class of the semester, although not credit-earning), and a few weeks ago managed to pass the French language exam. So I have to pass one more reading exam.

This means that next semester, I either need to re-teach myself Spanish (I learned a fair bit of it in Mexico and Guatemala), and pass the Spanish reading exam, or take a year's worth of German classes (both in the fall and spring), and thus automatically fulfil the requirement, or take a year's worth of graduate-level French classes, or take an introductory Portuguese class that a colleague recently recommended, and then pass an exam in Portuguese.

Right now, Spanish seems the easiest option.

For the coming year of classes, there's a lot I'm excited about. Over the summer, I'm taking a narrative theory class with the remarkable professor Amy Elias. In the autumn, I'm taking a three-person “independent study” on novel writing with the head fiction writer at Tennessee, Michael Knight, and with two of my fiction writing PhD cohort, both of them excellent writers. In that class, I plan to begin my second novel, set in 18th century Scotland. Then, in the spring, there'll be a visiting writer offering a new special subject in fiction writing.

Normally, I would additionally be teaching two classes of Composition each semester. However, the Tennessee English Department arranges a number of research assistantships, offered competitively to grad students each year, which in return for a certain amount hours' work per week, reduce one's teaching load by one or two classes.

Earlier this semester, I applied, was successful, so now I will be only teaching one class a semester next year, in exchange for a lot of editing, proof-reading, and other assistant-style work on some very interesting literary projects. This is a pretty cool result: I like teaching Composition, but the fewer essays to mark, the more I like it.

Would you like one more complication? Once I complete my coursework, which I expect to happen this time next year, I will then begin my exams. These will consist of two topic exams, like “the novel” or “modernism,” and one special subject relating to my dissertation. I can only take exams on subjects which I have taken two graduate level classes in. So my choices next year will be complicated by my decisions about which exams I want to take.

The point is, I suppose, that doing a PhD in Creative Writing is very different to doing an MFA. In an MFA, one simply has to take the workshops and lit classes as they come and write a thesis. A PhD, in contrast, involves a lot of planning.

 

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