I’m pleased to welcome author J. Bruce Fuller 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 PhD Program in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
NICHE: There’s a lot of discussion in the MFA Draft on Facebook, and other forums, as to whether doing a PhD in creative writing is beneficial. Obviously you decided to apply. Can you tell us why?
J. BRUCE FULLER: I’m not sure where people are siding on this issue lately, but when I applied five years ago many people finishing up their MFA were opting to not get a PhD. It seems as though the number of people going on to PhD programs now is on the rise. I decided to apply, but even in the moment was unsure about what was the right path for me. I applied to both literature and creative writing PhD programs, but also jobs and residencies. I decided to let the market determine my future and take the best offer I got.
Looking back on it now, I feel like the PhD in creative writing was what I most hoped for, but I was afraid of what direction that might take me in. For one, I had two small children, and a wife that had just put up with three years of me in grad school. We had to decide if 4+ more years of school and poverty were worth it. I got an offer that was exactly what I had been making at the MFA level, with the same teaching load, so the transition was not too difficult for us.
As to the benefits of a PhD in creative writing: I don’t see how 3-5 more years of directed study of your craft could be a bad thing. I learned a lot, and made many friends and connections. I also got paid to write another book of poems. But it all depends on your definition of beneficial. I made the choice that allowed me to write more, which was important to me, but I was lucky to have financial support from my spouse and a fully funded assistantship. I also knew that with a family, if I took a year off and went to work full time, it might be impossible to give up the money and go back to grad school. We made the decision to put our heads down and finish school in one shot.
NICHE: What’s the difference between earning an MFA in creative writing and a PhD with a concentration in creative writing?
J. BRUCE FULLER: The main difference lies in what each degree prepares you for. In my experience, the MFA is focused on your writing. Workshop is the most important class at the MFA level, and at least at my MFA program, writing and workshop took precedence over our academic work and teaching duties. It was stressed to us that we were there to write and writing came first. I grew as a writer exponentially at my MFA program.
The Ph.D. however, to me, is a degree that prepares you to be a professor. If teaching in academia is not what you ultimately want to do, then the Ph.D. may be disappointing. The Ph.D. in English with a concentration in CW is primarily a scholarly degree, so workshop is only one part of your coursework duties. In my experience, there was more focus on critical theory and pedagogy. The creative dissertation is a book length project similar to the MFA thesis, but the critical introduction requirements were, for me, quite a challenge. The Ph.D forces one to become a scholar. The other thing that surprises many is that the student is for the most part left to figure it all out on their own. Approaching faculty, designing coursework, designing classes, developing your dissertation projects, and research, is ultimately left up to the student. I’ve seen many students become disillusioned by this. I’ve seen students have trouble forming a dissertation committee because they haven’t fostered relationships with the faculty. As a doctoral student the real test is learning how to navigate academia. This is not to say that professors are cold or unhelpful, only that the impetus is on the student.
NICHE: Is the PhD Program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette fully funded?
J. BRUCE FULLER: They offer a certain number of fully funded fellowships and assistantships, but they are competitive.
NICHE: This is a question that’s asked repeatedly by prospective candidates: what did you send in for your creative writing sample? What did you send in for your critical sample? How did you decide what to send?
J. BRUCE FULLER: Seems trite, but obviously send your best work. Send them what it is you do. This will be the overwhelming project in your life for the next 4+ years so send them what you want to work on the most. For me, I sent my best poems, but I also curated them as I would a manuscript, based on the themes/ideas I would use in my dissertation project. For my critical sample I sent my best essay from my MFA degree, which I wanted to expand into my critical introduction. I was lucky that I stumbled upon that research early, but it is alright if you are still unsure. I guess I started my dissertation before I even got accepted anywhere. My MFA prepared me for that.
NICHE: Can you give prospective or current PhD candidates any advice on how to find time to write in between teaching, scholarship, and a part time job?
J. BRUCE FULLER: The same advice that was given to me when I started graduate school, which is, set a time to write and defend it. It is easy to forget that writing is your job. Sometimes it feels so extraneous when you have deadlines and classes to teach and papers due. I have felt quite a bit of guilt at sitting on the porch in the Southern sun writing poems, when I have students who count on me and a family that sees me too infrequently. But writing poems is what got me here, and to stop writing them would be an insult to everyone who supported and sacrificed and believed in me.
It will be difficult at times. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
NICHE: Which authors did you have the opportunity to work with?
J. BRUCE FULLER: I worked with Marthe Reed, Skip Fox, Daniel Smith, and the incomparable Dayana Stetco. I also pulled former Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque out of retirement to sit on my committee. His help and support was crucial. That’s one of the great things about a Ph.D. dissertation, you have the opportunity to work with whoever you need to, from any discipline or location. I was fortunate to be able to work with writers outside my genre: Daniel is a fiction writer, and Dayana, who was my committee chair, is a playwright.
J. BRUCE FULLER: Yes, graduate students run both of those publications, at all levels of production, from editing to final printing/publication. It is a great way for students to get real experience in the publishing field.
NICHE: You’ve published in several notable literary journals, and four chapbooks, including Notes to a Husband (Imaginary Friend Press, 2013), Lancelot (Lazy Mouse Press, 2013), 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World (Bandersnatch Books, 2010). Your latest collection of poems was entitled Flood (Swan Scythe Press, 2013). What can you tell us about the chapbook?
J. BRUCE FULLER: Flood is a chapbook in two parts, one part about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, the other about Hurricane Katrina. As a Louisiana native these two disasters shaped me, from the stories my great grandmothers told me about 1927, to my own experience with Katrina. I found it hard to write Katrina poems after the storm, but writing these persona poems set in 1927 helped me understand my own disaster better. The two events are eerily similar.
NICHE: What are you working on now?
J. BRUCE FULLER: I have a new chapbook called The Dissenter’s Ground coming out in February from Hyacinth Girl Press. I’m also finishing up a new full length manuscript called The Woodsman’s Son. Aside from that I am always busy with my own small press publishing house, Yellow Flag Press.
NICHE: Who have you recently published at Yellow Flag and where can people purchase the latest work?
J. BRUCE FULLER: YFP has new poetry books out this year from Stella Ann Nesanovich, Darrell Bourque, and Jack B. Bedell. We have a collection of essays forthcoming from Christopher Lowe, and a book of plays forthcoming by Dayana Stetco. Our in print books are available at our website.
NICHE: Is there any other advice you would like to give those who want to continue onto the PhD?
J. BRUCE FULLER: Don’t be afraid to go for it. It will be hard, but like anything, you will get used to it and it won’t seem that hard. I’m glad I did it…now that it’s over.