I’m pleased to welcome back author Joseph Hiland to Niche Features, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him again for taking the time to offer advice to aspiring authors and to chat about the MFA Program at Indiana University. Joe Hiland received his MFA from Indiana University and is a former fiction editor of Indiana Review. His short story “When the Green Went Away” was published in Colorado Review, won an AWP Intro Award, and was a “Notable Nonrequired Reading” in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. His story “A Mango for the Viceroy” was published in the latest issue of Niche.
NICHE: I like knowing beginnings. How did you find yourself in an MFA Program at Indiana University?
JOSEPH HILAND: I ended up at IU because they were the only MFA program that wanted me. I’d been working a corporate job in New York for about five years and trying to write in my spare time. Aside from a few encouraging rejection letters from editors, I wasn’t making much progress with my fiction. I saw the MFA as a way to devote myself entirely to writing for a few years, to turn writing from a hobby into a vocation. So I applied to a few dozen MFA programs around the country, and IU was the only that accepted me.
NICHE: What can you tell us about funding? Is Indiana’s program fully funded? What financial assistance or opportunities does this MFA give to students?
JOSEPH HILAND: IU’s MFA is well-funded, especially compared to programs at other public universities. The program trains you as both a writer and a teacher. It’s a three-year program, which is rare, and students are guaranteed TA positions each year. The teaching ranges from basic freshmen comp classes to undergraduate fiction and poetry workshops. I even had the opportunity to teach a class on literary editing and publishing.
There are also a few other funding opportunities through Indiana Review and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference. Most of the available funding opportunities include tuition and offer decent stipends that are enough to cover the cost of living in Bloomington.
NICHE: What can you tell us about the workshop experience?
JOSEPH HILAND: I was fortunate to have mostly positive workshop experiences at IU, and I think that had a lot to do with the other writers in my cohort. I’ve been in workshops elsewhere that turned tense, if not outright toxic, because of personal conflicts and professional jealousies. I’m not saying that the workshops at IU were all sunshine and rainbows, but I think there was a basic level of respect and a desire to see each other succeed that helped keep the workshops positive and productive.
Having a story workshopped is a stressful experience, and that stress can quickly become debilitating when you feel like the people in the workshop are being petty or ungenerous with your work. The most useful critiques—even the harsh ones—always come from a desire to build the writer up, rather than tear the story down. That’s something I’ve tried to instill in the students I’ve taught in workshops, and it’s something I was lucky enough to find in most of my fellow fiction writers during my time at IU.
For me, one of the unexpected benefits of the workshop setting was getting to read so many different stories from the people in my cohort. We were an eclectic group with widely divergent styles, and that made for interesting reading week to week. Also, workshopping a story requires you to read with a critical eye and close attention to detail. That helps develop your skills as an editor and, ideally, helps you view your own work more critically as you go through the drafting process. The MFA program made me a much better reader of my own work and gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to turn a decent rough draft into a strong finished story.
Finally, I left the program with a small cadre of trusted readers who know my work and whose opinions I respect. I still trade stories with folks from my cohort, and it’s nice to know that at least a few people are out there rooting for me.
NICHE: Who have you had the opportunity to work with?
JOSEPH HILAND: At IU I had the opportunity to work with a number of great fiction writers like Tony Ardizzone, Alyce Miller, Samrat Upadhyay, and Jacinda Townsend. They each took a different approach to the workshop, and they each had unique ideas about what makes a story work. That made the workshop experience different each semester, as they each challenged me in different ways. I also had the chance to interact with poets in IU’s program like Ross Gay, Catherine Bowman, and Adrian Matejka. Even though I was never in a workshop with any of them, they’ve all been very supportive of my work.
The faculty were great models for an aspiring workshop teacher (which I consider myself to be). Tony was my thesis advisor, and we had some epic one-on-one meetings during which he’d tear apart nearly every aspect of one of my stories, only to end by saying, “Hell, it’s your story. You know what you want it to be.” To me, that was a perfect model of good mentoring. He respected my work enough to be brutally honest with his critiques, but he also respected me enough to avoid dictating solutions to the shortcomings he saw. It gave me both guidance and room to grow.
NICHE: How involved are graduate students in Indiana Review? Did you find the experience beneficial?
JOSEPH HILAND: Indiana Review is run almost entirely by graduate students in the MFA program, with a few internship positions held by undergraduates. There’s a faculty advisor, but the editorial decisions, production, and distribution are all handled by the graduate students on staff. The journal uses a mentoring model, with senior staff members guiding newer staff members and eventually handing over the editorial reins when they graduate. That means there’s a good deal of turnover on the staff from year to year, but it also means that each issue reflects the unique aesthetics of that year’s editorial staff.
I started as a reader for the journal and eventually worked my way up to fiction editor in my final year in the program. It was a ton of work, but also one of the most rewarding experiences of my MFA time. I read a few thousand submissions during my tenure, and I feel like this gave me a good understanding of just how competitive, even saturated, the fiction market is right now. I came across many stories that, frankly, shouldn’t have been submitted in the form they were. They read like rough drafts that the writer had cranked out in a night and sent out to fifty journals the next day, often without even proofreading. It’s hard not to feel a little insulted when someone is asking you to spend your time considering work that they haven’t put in the proper time to revise and refine.
On the other hand, I also came across many stories that were strong, but not quite strong enough to publish. Those were always the most difficult submissions for me to deal with, but they often turned out to be the most beneficial to me as an editor and a writer. If a writer’s story made it most of the way through our selection process but didn’t make the final cut, I would try to send him/her an encouraging note that included with my thoughts about why the story almost worked but ultimately fell short. This forced me to clarify my own ideas about what I wanted a story to do for me as a reader and, by extension, what I wanted my own stories to do for my readers.
More than anything, my time as fiction editor impressed upon me the importance of a strong opening. I tried my best to give each submission a fair shot, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated when I’d get three or four pages into a story and still not have a clear sense of the characters, or the conflict, or some other essential element that would make me want to continue reading. The worst thing I could say about a story was that it bored me. As an editor, I was praying that each new story I came across would be a gem, which meant I was reading with a generous mindset, ready to be won over by the story. If a story failed to capture and hold my interest in that scenario, there was no way it would win over our readers.
As a result, I think I write with a sense of empathy for the editors who will eventually read my work. At some point during the revision process, I always ask myself if a story’s opening paragraphs would make me want to turn the page. If the answer is no, then I don’t waste an editor’s time with it. I keep working until I’m confident that the opening is engaging enough to demand the reader’s attention.
NICHE: Could you describe your best experience during the MFA?
JOSEPH HILAND: It’s hard for me to choose a best experience, but I really enjoyed going to the AWP conference as Indiana Review’s fiction editor. I met a number of writers whose stories we had accepted a few months, or even a few weeks, prior to the conference. Their appreciation and excitement made me feel like all the hours of work I’d put into the journal were really worth it.
NICHE: Could you describe your worst experience during the MFA?
JOSEPH HILAND: I don’t know that I can describe a single worst experience during the MFA, but I definitely had times when I doubted my own abilities as a writer, teacher, and editor. Being surrounded by other talented aspiring writers can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s good to feel like you’re all going through the same experiences together, but it’s also tempting to compare yourself to other people and find yourself lacking because you haven’t published enough, or you haven’t finished a manuscript yet, or whatever.
NICHE: What has your life been like writing wise and career wise since the MFA?
JOSEPH HILAND: Career-wise, I think I’ve done fairly well since the MFA. I’m still at Indiana University, and I’ve spent the past few years working as a speechwriter and communications specialist in the provost office. Speechwriting wasn’t a career path I’d ever considered, but it often puts my MFA training to use in interesting ways. Writing dialogue in a work of fiction and writing a speech are similar in the sense that you’re putting words into someone else’s mouth, or more accurately, you’re trying to convey ideas in a voice that isn’t your own, but which needs to sound natural coming from the speaker. Speechwriting also demands close attention to details like sentence structure, assonance and alliteration, and so forth.
Writing-wise, I’ve been struggling since the MFA. In many ways, I feel like I’m back where I was when I was working a corporate job, spending most of my time trying to make a living and only writing fiction in my spare time, and usually only when I’m in the mood. There’s nothing unique about my situation, of course. Most writers struggle to find a balance between making money and making art they care about.
NICHE: What advice would you give aspiring applicants or writers?
JOSEPH HILAND: I would tell any aspiring MFA applicants that there’s no perfect program out there. Apply to programs in places where you want to live, and see what happens. If you show up willing to put in the work and willing to take criticism, then you’ll almost certainly get something out of the program. If you show up expecting everyone to tell you you’re already a genius and should be awarded a Pulizer posthaste, you likely won’t get much out of the experience.
I would tell aspiring writers to keep on writing and writing.