"The heart wants what it wants, and it wants the time and space to write. That is the gift. Our students sift through language, lands, and experiences and come out the other side with some of the finest writings being produced today. You can check out our track record and it's all there—the student successes, the publication credits, all of that. But what you can't see are all the hours our MFA students spend with faculty polishing their voice and craft, or that moment when an emerging writer experiments with another genre or medium and comes away with a hybrid artsy work that shines and shines. I'm honored to be a part of our writing community here at NMU because we are the perfect mix of weirdness and dedication, seriousness and playfulness, and we also have cats."
NMU's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program is a three-year, 48-credit degree. Students will take workshops in more than one genre (we offer fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and occasionally screenwriting), two literature courses plus one critical theory course. All new teaching assistants also take a Teaching Practicum to ready you for teaching responsibilities your first semester
How to Apply
A strong application includes a writing sample that gives us a sense of your aesthetic and your obsessions, a personal statement that helps us understand what you'd like to get out of your three years studying writing in a wintery place, and some sense that you are a kind and enthusiastic community member. Prospective students may apply as writers of poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or hybrid work, and may apply in more than one genre. Once enrolled in the program, students do not need to commit to a genre; our official MFA degree is in creative writing, rather than any particular genre, so students are free to write across and between genres.
The funding package includes a $11,236 yearly stipend and a full tuition waiver (for both in-sate and out-of-state students). Health insurance is not at this time included in the package although some free services are provided by the University's Health Center. After the first year, other Graduate Assistantships are also available, including as the managing editor of Passages North or the assistant director of the Writing Center.
What Our Professors Have to Say
Lake Superior, the most incredible body of freshwater on Earth, is part of our campus. So are the massive Northwoods. Student writers at NMU have the opportunity to take a class on an island, snowshoe into a field camp writing retreat, and workshop stories around a beach fire. There really is no other program like it.
We're a hybrid-heavy, snow-laden MFA program tucked in the north woods. Hiking Superior’s shores beneath the pine trees, watching it change moods each day, keeps me inspired. I love to see writers in our program embrace our remote landscape and cozy themselves under the blanket of seven-month winters to read and write more than they imagined they would—often in different genres than they’d imagined, too—for three steady years. It’s a boon to invite back students who have just published their first books, and to see so many of our graduates sustain writing lives and use their voices to change the world.
I love the open-minded, exploratory feel of our MFA. Both students and faculty are encouraged to try new modes and disciplines, and our collaborative community supports creative risks. Because our program allows students to change or expand their genre after enrolling, writers are free to follow what moves them, building new audiences and awarenesses along the way. Our MFA students are creative artists whose reach expands beyond written word to images performances, film, music and more. I feel so fortunate to be part of such a dynamic and forward thinking artistic community.
What I like about the creative writing program is that students have such a large and wide-ranging group of modest and accomplished writing teachers to study with, and that the community and landscape they will be living and writing and thriving in is, well, cooler than cool.
Students in our MFA program tend to build strong connections that last long after they leave NMU, keeping in touch to share writing, to play fantasy football, to continue reading for Passages North just for kicks. Maybe it’s the snow and cold that bond us together, or the fact that Marquette is so far away from everywhere and sometimes literally difficult to leave during winter, or the sublime massiveness of Lake Superior, or the encouragement to write across and between genres so that nobody, even faculty, ever feels sure-footed about the work’s end goal, but our grad students tend to build genuine communities around much more than school. Every year, some of my favorite people in the world graduate from the program and move on to something new far away with three years of UP experience (including I hope at least one albino deer sighting) and so many pages and tactics ready to carry them forward, and the loss of those people in my everyday life is, every time, a good kind of heartbreak.
I love the productive and multi-faceted playfulness of our program—the ways in which we encourage genre fluidity and the making of hybrid work; the ways in which we and our students uncover the secret conversations between nonfiction, fiction, and poetry (and, in some cases, the lyric impulse and the biological fact, verse and mathematical theorem, image and text…). Frankly, the much of the work that the students produce at the end of their three years here resembles no other work that I know (which has been increasingly attracting the attention of publishers, and compelling our disciplines forward into exciting new territory). And this emphasis on creative whimsy, alongside our TA-ships, and editorial internships with our lit mag, Passages North, yields such a close and generous sense of community, and a program that honors both art and practicality, preparing our students not only for innovative book-making, but also for careers in teaching and publishing. And all of this wonderfulness takes place next to a big beautiful lake, surrounded by the woods, the deer, the bird-life, the frogs, and the ever-inspiring dragonflies.
Below is a narrative calendar, of sorts, to guide your three years in the MFA program, including links to relevant pages. Many forms and guidelines you'll need are located on the English Department's Student Forms & Info page. We also have an English Department Share Drive, which provides teaching resources and sample documents meant to serve as models for grant apps and other academic paperwork situations. Email MFA Director Matt Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org with any specific questions.
During your first semester, many of you will take EN 509: Teaching Practicum and some of you will be teaching for the first time. We’d also recommend taking a workshop in the first semester, or at least the first year. Your time and attention will be pulled in many directions–teaching, possibly settling into a new community, acclimating to the language and power structures of academia–and it’s easy to lose track of what likely brought you here in the first place as you manage your day-to-days. A workshop will get you writing, will connect you with other writers in all stages of the program, and will introduce you to a faculty member who may end up being a part of your thesis committee. While there is often a heavy and important element of peer feedback in workshops, it’s also a goal of workshop to insist that you spend some of your best creative hours focusing selfishly on your own practice, your own work. In semesters when you may not have a workshop, your own writing time may slip to the bottom of your to-do list, but if you take a workshop early, and you establish some writing habits and expectations for yourself, you may find yourself more insistent about guarding your writing time even when it is not assigned.
Keep in mind the larger plan of study for the program. Overall, you’ll be taking workshops in more than one genre, a couple of literature classes, a theory class. There is a small amount of room for an elective: keep in mind that you can build yourself an internship (in the past students have interned with NMU’s Grants Office and Passages North, but we can talk about external internships as well if you do the leg work to set things up) or a class in another department (for example, an upper-level biology course or a directed student with a faculty member in history). Most classes can be taken in any order; EN 600, for example, can be taken before EN 500, and that may be the case for you depending on what is offered when you’re here.
Every year there will be a couple of required Professional Development days (PD days) for funded graduate students. On these days, faculty, alums, fellow grad students, and/or NMU staff will present or lead discussions about topics relevant to your professionalization: teaching, publishing, navigating the university. Keep an eye on your email for announcements about these days.
By the end of the first year, be thinking about your thesis. You won’t need to submit a proposal until the fall of your second year, but let your interests and your curiosities be guiding your reading and your writing so that when Fall semester comes around you can begin sketching out a plan. As well, be thinking about which faculty member you’d like to be working with one-on-one. Each MFA student needs to select one Thesis Director and two Thesis readers. Note that there is a cap on the number of thesis students each faculty member can work with, so you might want to reach out early if you’ve got somebody in mind.
There are several opportunities for additional funding. In early February of each year, you can apply for a $1500 summer Excellence in Education grant. Note that the Ex in Ed grant application requires a letter of recommendation, a detailed budget, and possibly--depending on your project--Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, so give yourself some time to build the application. Go to the English Department's share drive (log in using your regular NMU login info) for a handful of sample successful applications to consult as models. In March, applications open for the King-Chavez-Parks Future Faculty Fellowship.
It’s likely you’ll teach EN 111: Composition I both of your first two semesters, but opportunities to teach EN 110: Good Books, EN 211: College Composition II, and EN 215: Intro to Creative Writing will arise down the road. The Department Head will reach out to solicit your preferences. Other grad assistantships include the Assistant Director of the Writing Center and the Managing Editor of Passages North. (The funding packages of these two gigs are the same as those of Teaching Assistants.) Talk to the Department Head, the Editor-in-Chief of Passages, or the Director of the Writing Center to learn more and to express interest in those jobs.
What else should you consider in your first year? Get involved as an editor with Passages North. Attend Visiting Writers readings and get in touch with the Director of the Visiting Writers program to let them know what writers you’d like to invite to read. Consider joining the Graduate Students Association (GSA). Make friends, keep in touch with your life outside the program, read just for fun sometimes, figure out how to survive and maybe even enjoy winter, close your school email occasionally, watch your trash TV: i.e., don’t forget to be a person, and if the expectations start to feel overwhelming don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors, to the Department Head, or to the MFA Director Matt Frank at email@example.com anytime.
In your second year, you’ll be starting to hone your thesis project. In the Fall, you’ll write a thesis proposal. This is a 500-word document describing how you see your project at this time: what is your work about, what structures do you imagine, what writing from the world influences and inspires you. The thesis proposal guidelines are here, but in general state your plan. We know the work will change as you dive deeper inward, but the proposal is a chance to articulate to yourself and to some people who are not you what you envision yourself working towards. You’ll also choose a Thesis Director and two Thesis Readers from the faculty to comprise your thesis committee. Consider the creative writing faculty, of course, but also look to professors who teach in other areas of the department.
Consider when you’ll register for thesis credits. You’re required to take 8-12 over the course of the program. Taking 4 credits in two or three different semesters is the most common way to accomplish this, but they can be taken in smaller chunks as well, depending on your plan of study. When you take 4 thesis credits, you’ll do work on your thesis project that is equivalent to the amount of work you’d do taking a workshop or a literature class. You’ll consult with your Director to establish a schedule of reading, writing, feedback expectations, one-on-one meetings, etc.
Again, you might consider applying for an Excellence in Education grant or the Future Faculty Fellowship, if eligible. You can be awarded the Ex in Ed grant twice over your three years here. (Any two of the three years, even your final year.)
In your second year, continue to be a person and reach out to first-year students who are still acclimating to the program and the UP to share your tips and tricks for a balanced grad student life.
In the third year, you’ll finish that thesis (though you might not believe it while you’re actually in the pit of it). Work with your Thesis Director and Readers to build a work you're proud to share, but keep in mind that there may be a gap--of time, of revision--between a successfully completed thesis and a publishable manuscript. That's okay! You'll be working closely with your Thesis Director as you take your thesis credits, but also remember to keep your two Readers in the loop. Communicate about your progress, your timetable, and establish expectations of feedback. While in the past we had rigid page minimums, the increasing amount of hybrid and flash writing has inspired us to allow theses to be more flexible about page counts. Do think of your thesis, however, as a book-length project, and consult with your Thesis Director to establish a page count that makes sense for your particular project.
Keep in mind your thesis will include an introductory essay. This essay may be a chronicle of the building of the thesis, it may be a book proposal written with future publishers in mind, it may describe your craft as you close-read your own work in the context of the larger literary world, or it maybe be something more playful or experimental. Again, talk it out with your Thesis Director. This page on The Commons links you to recent theses submitted by NMU graduates; you can find models of the thesis introduction by reading through the pdfs posted there.
The deadline for submitting theses is one month before graduation, so often in early April or even late March if you graduate in the Winter. Leave yourself time to prepare the the thesis according to the University's specific thesis submission guidelines. Theses are submitted to The Commons, which provides public access to your work, but if you'd prefer your thesis to remain private, you may request an embargo on downloads. The process is detailed on the same page as the guidelines.
Remember to register for graduation in your final semester. Prepare to be celebrated and to share some of your work at our year-end MFA reading, one of our favorite days of the year. And keep in touch after you move on to your next wonderful thing.
A Few Other General Resources
- On campus mental health counseling is free to all students.
- Click here for accommodations or support from the Disability Services office.
- Some health services are available to graduate students at no cost through the NMU Health Center.
- Resources for queer students and queer allies are available on the NMU Allies page.
- The Student Equity and Engagement Center provides support for safe and diverse learning environments. See also these specific student interest groups if you're interested.
- Visit the NMU Food Pantry.
- Northern Michigan University is located upon the ancestral homelands of the Anishinaabe Nation. Visit the Center for Native American Studies for "active learning and service learning opportunities that strengthen student engagement, interaction, and reciprocity with Indigenous communities."
- For COVID-19 updates, visit NMU's Safe on Campus page.