That’s How Writers Write

John Patrick Shanley is a playwright, screenwriter and both an Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner. Shanley, the creator of works such as “Moonstruck” and “Doubt,” will speak at a free appearance May 27 at The Brown Hotel, as part of Spalding University’s Festival of Contemporary Writing.

The festival, which also features poet Jane Olmsted and many others, brings attention to the school’s low-residency master of fine arts in writing program. We asked Spalding’s Katy Yocom to tell us more.

What can people look forward to at this spring’s Festival of Contemporary Writing?
Katy Yocom: The festival includes a lineup of writers from all areas of writing and from all over the country. We have screenwriters and playwrights from New York and L.A., poets, children’s and YA authors, fiction writers, creative nonfiction – the gamut, really. Most of them are on the Spalding low-residency MFA program’s faculty. That includes some names that are very well-known in town – Sena Jeter Naslund, Silas House, Crystal Wilkinson, Kathleen Driskell, Maureen Morehead – as well as some amazing writers from elsewhere whom you might not otherwise get to hear.

Academy Award and Pulitzer winner John Patrick Shanley.

Academy Award and Pulitzer winner John Patrick Shanley.

How does this low-residency program work? Where do students come from, and how experienced are they when they enter?
KY: The beauty of low-res is that students and faculty can live anywhere and still be part of the program. It’s a full graduate degree program – four semesters, 65 credit hours – but most of the work is completed from home, which means that students can fold their graduate work into their lives. From home, each student works one-on-one with a faculty member who’s an active, publishing writer. Thanks to that one-on-one attention, the amount of feedback students receive is huge – three to four times more than in a traditional classroom model. The independent study is also a great setup because that’s how writers write – in the thick of things, while they’re also earning a living, raising a family, all that.

But there’s also a very important community aspect: Before they begin each semester’s independent study, they come to a residency here in Louisville or abroad. We also have a residency abroad each summer for a very intense learning experience…

Students come from all over the country (or world – we have a grad who came here from Singapore) and they come in at every level,  from someone with lots of raw talent but little experience to someone who has already had major book publications. One of our screenwriting alums came in with an Emmy under his belt!

How have you seen students benefit from the program?
KY: Lots of our alums have garnered excellent publishing deals, and I think that’s what most of our students really want – to get their work out there. They’ve won some major awards as well. One grad, Jackie Gorman, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, one of the most prestigious prizes in all of literature. Frank Walker was Kentucky poet laureate for 2013-2014. Those are huge, huge honors. Some want to teach, as well, and we’ve seen students land university professorships as well. Those usually require a graduate degree and a book publication.

You’ve had several types of writers in residence. Does each year’s writer (playwright, poet, memoirist, etc.) change the focus of study in the program or the festival?
KY: Yes and no. This residency, it’s John Patrick Shanley, and we’re having a special focus on playwriting and screenwriting, with several events and assignments feeding into that focus. … But that doesn’t by any means replace the intensive work happening separately in each area of study. It’s on top of that. It enhances it. In this program, every writer gets the chance to learn the best tools from other areas. It’s a great way to become a better writer – borrow the best techniques from every other area. You can’t believe how that helps you grow. VT