My MFA in Creative Writing Program Explained

Lesley UniversityIf you hadn’t heard, I’m getting my MFA in creative writing at Lesley University.

This week, my third semester wraps itself up as I claw my way toward the finish line and a degree.  Technically, I should have finished up last week, on Friday to be exact.  Life doesn’t always work out the way we envision it, though.  Since I started this blog as a way to document the madness (check out my About page for more on that), I thought I’d write a post that gives my take on the program.

Lesley University’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program Explained:

Each semester kicks off with an intense–and I do mean intense–nine-day on-campus residency in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The summer residency happens in June.  The winter residency happens in January.

I live just up the way in Salem, so I commute on the train.  During the residency, which kicks off at 9am each morning and doesn’t wrap up until 8pm each night, I attend interactive workshops taught by creative writing faculty from one of five concentrations (Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing for Young People <– that’s my concentration, and Graphic Novels).  I also attend seminar lectures from visiting guests such

Author Jason Reynolds
Mr. Reynolds, an incredible writer and mentor in our program

as Jo Knowles M. T. Anderson, and Jason Reynolds (who also teaches in the program) just to name three whom I particularly enjoyed. 

Not to mention all the wonderful social time that happens each evening after the day’s classes and lectures wrap up.  I’ve met so many talented, funny, wonderful, and supportive people at the two residencies I’ve attended thus far.  If I’m lucky, I’ll stay in touch with some of these fine folks for the rest of my life.  

Prior to each residency, I write and submit two creative pieces, each about 6,500 words long.  A designated faculty member and other students workshop both of them.  I have to say, there are so many things that I have loved about this program, but the critique workshops are my favorite.  Not only do I get to read about six pieces of creative writing by others and practice my skills as I give feedback on them, but I get to receive nuanced and thoughtful feedback from six people who are as passionate about writing as I am.

As the on-campus residency wraps up, I work with my mentor to build a study-plan for the rest of my semester that will play out long-distance via email and texting and Facebook messaging, etc.  It’s a personalized study plan based on what I think are my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, what my mentor sees as my strengths and weaknesses, and what my writing goals are in general (to become a famous, globetrotting novelist!  Ha ha.  *sigh* Just let me dream, okay?)

Break-down of Semesters 1 & 2: In a Word, Busy.

First Semester at A Glance

I take three classes, though it feels in practice like I’m only taking two.  I’ll just treat it like I’m dealing with two classes.  For my “main” class, I work with my mentor.  Over the course of the semester, I read craft books and novels and write reflective or analytical essays about them.  At the same time, I work on my own creative stuff.  I submit my essays and my creative writing four times (once a month), and each time I get an in-depth analysis back from my mentor on what I did well and what I need to work on.  As if that’s not enough to keep me busy, there’s that pesky second class I mentioned.

The second class is an interdisciplinary studies class, which means that since I’m in the

Artist's Way Final Project
This is my final project for my first Interdisciplinary Class: The Artist’s Way. It’s supposed to be a collage representing my journey as a writer.

Writing For Young People concentration, I have to take something that ISN’T related to writing for young people.  For my first semester, I took a class modeled after Julie Cameron’s Artist’s Way. I took a science fiction and fantasy class in my second semester that focused on the short story.  This semester, I took a follow-up to the science fiction and fantasy class that focused on the novel.

For this second class, the I.S. class, I also have to read books, write reflective or analytical papers about them, and write my own creative stuff.  All that stuff gets submitted four times per semester, too.

Sound like a lot?  Yeah, it is.

It’s great, but it’s a lot.  Cue the stress.

Ah, but that was just the first two semesters.

Semester 3: Odin, It Was Rough.

As I said, I’m wrapping up my third semester in this program.  A week late, it’s true, but at least I’m finishing.  Not everyone does.  Third semester is notorious in this program for being insane.

People ReadingIn addition to managing all the work for my SFF novel-writing class (which has been off-the-hook outstanding, by the way), this is the semester when I had to write my big “craft essay.”  Now, I want to pause here for a moment and say that the folks at Lesley really ought to call this our “Craft Thesis” since we aren’t allowed to graduate if we don’t write it.

This beast to which I am referring takes the place of reading a couple of books and write a 2-4 page reflective paper about them four times during the semester.  Instead, we have to pick a craft topic of our own choosing, research the holy heck out of it, and write a 12-18 page paper on the topic.

What did I choose to research?  Glad you asked.  In an attempt to marry my two great loves

in life–biology and creative writing–I elected to write a research paper exploring the neuroscience behind writing that “hooks” readers.

Neuroscience Articles
Look at all those scientific articles about neuroscience and reading!


Sounds pretty rad, am I right?  

It was, but don’t forget that while I was doing all that research [shudders at the thought of all that research], I was also writing and submitting about 24,000 words of my own creative writing spread out over four submission cycles.

Semester 4: The Future Looks Bright

I submitted my craft essay (they really should call that sucker a “Craft Thesis” to give it the psychological weight it deserves) last Monday and cheered.  I’ll be submitting my last batch of creative stuff on Wednesday, and I am looking toward the horizon with a sense of optimism steeped, perhaps, in a bit of denial.  It would be nice to get at least a couple of weeks of down time to catch my breath, but we just got the email with instructions on how to format or workshop pieces, which are due December 1st.


Fourth semester is the one in which I devote 100% of my attention on my “Creative Thesis.”  This is the culminating creative project, the thing that showcases my supposed mastery of writing fiction (for young people, mind you).  No pressure.  No problem.

Did I mention that my right eye has been twitching for the past week?  No kidding.  It really has.

Three Excellent Books
Books I’m reading to inform my creative thesis this semester.

Fourth semester will be great.  I’ll have no I.S. class competing for my time and attention.  I’ll have no analytical craft essays to write, big or small.  It’ll just be me and my book and my mentor trying to help me make it not suck so bad.  I’ll need to put together 100 to 150 polished pages of a YA novel that I and the program administrators won’t be embarrassed by.  I think this is doable?

Technically, I already have 150 pages of my Creative Thesis written.  As of last night, Scrivener informed me that I’ve got 159 pages, to be exact.  The problem is… oh, there are so many problems.  The biggest problem is that, from a structural standpoint, Under the Purple Sky is a hot mess.  I attempted to tell a YA sci-fi survival story in the first person POV via two different timelines that weave together as readers experience the main character’s psychological ruin during a global disaster that wipes out 99% of the human species, and her tentative road to recovery three years later.  Ugh.

I’ve got my work cut out for me.  But, I remain hopeful.  It will be nice to be able to focus on just one single project for a full semester, and if I play my cards right, I’ll walk away from all of this in July with a degree.  I might even have a decent draft of a book, too.  That, however, remains to be scene… er, seen.  Ha, ha.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to this past year-and-a-half.

If you are curious about Lesley’s Creative Writing program, specifically their low residency program, feel free to ask in the comments.  I’m a subject sample of n=1, but I’m happy to share my experiences thus far.


  1. Sarah

    It sounds like a baptism by fire, but what an amazing way to get the basics of the craft down! Awesome opportunity, and you’re making the most of it. I can’t wait to follow along and see how Purple Sky turns out 🙂

    1. Post

      It really is an incredible program. I’m taking a timeout on Under the Purple Sky to do some work on my other project. It’s completely different: early MG steampunk piratical fantasy adventure. I’m hoping to be able to hedge my bets for fourth semester. Since I’ve already got the required number of pages on UTPS done, I figured I’d write the heck out of Felix and the Last Man, get that closer to 100 pages, and then I’d have a second viable option for my creative thesis. We shall see. NaNoWriMo is definitely helping. Thanks for stopping by. Happy writing to you. 🙂

  2. Bryan Fagan

    Hi Kathy. I found your blog when you and I replied to an article on the site Fictorians. I’m thinking of starting a blog myself. Yours is really impressive. Anyway – back to the topic of this post – The program you are attending is training your mind and reminding you that creativity is hard. I’m sure it’s weeding out those who love the idea but do not love the work. That is a key separation and the only reason I did not pursue this in my youth. Thanks for the article. Well Done!

    1. Post

      Isn’t the Fictorians a great site?! I love it. So much good stuff. Same goes for the IWSG site. Glad to have crossed digital paths with you, Bryan. If you end up starting a blog, let me know. Have a good one, and happy writing!

  3. Post

    Thanks for stopping by! The program is a four semester program. Because it’s so intense, many folks spread it out across five or six semesters, though, by taking their I.S. classes in isolation of their “Craft & Reflection” classes (the two others that I bundled together as one in my discussion.)

  4. K.L.M. Moore

    That program sounds awesome! I did a low-residence cultural sustainability program at Goucher in Maryland and know how intense those kind of programs are. I’ve still got to finish my capstone to graduate from Goucher, but I’d love to join a program like this once I do finish. How long does the program typically run?

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