In the last week of July, I attended the Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW) as the inaugural Attic Institute Fellow. RWW is a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and the Attic’s David Biespiel is among the distinguished faculty. This year, for the first time, the Attic sponsored a fellowship enabling one lucky writer to attend at no cost the first week of this residency that is usually open only to the program’s MFA students. I was thrilled to learn I’d been selected: This was a rare chance to experience an MFA program from the inside. (And heads up: the Attic has announced they will offer this fellowship again next year).
In the spring, the emails from RWW began. It turned out there was quite a lot of pre-work to be done. We were to submit a piece to be workshopped (two pieces, for the MFA students); read and critique our classmates’ work in advance; and choose from a tantalizing list of classes, most of which had required pre-reading. For days, I flipped through the agenda, agonizing about whether I should take “The Literary Detective: Mystery Techniques in Fiction” or “Fiction Fundamentals;” deciding easily on classes about first chapters, secondary characters, and “Transformative Altered States in Fiction,” among others.
I wrote; I read. In late July, I packed my bags and drove up to Tacoma and the campus of PLU.
Participants were housed in PLU’s Harstad Residence Hall, a quiet, off-season dorm. Within fifteen minutes, I’d met a friendly first-year in the hallway bathroom. “I’m nervous about who I’ll get for my mentor,” she said. “Not sure who I’m going to request. They say not to worry about it, that everyone’s great. But I don’t know, it has such an effect on your program.”
Together, we headed over to the first event: an alumni reading. About fifty people were milling around in the room holding cups of lemonade. Their diversity in terms of age was striking: there were men and women in their twenties, and many in their thirties to sixties. A couple of women had brought their very young babies. A friendly woman sitting next to me was in her eighties.
We settled down. Meagan Macvie, an RWW graduate from 2014, read from her novel The Ocean in My Ears about a girl who wants out of her small Alaska town, and Michael Schmeltzer, 2007, read from “Elegy/Elk River,” and his other books of poems.
Time for dinner. We filed upstairs, where I sat with a couple of people who were graduating. After completing their three years in the program, these women were back on campus to present their Creative Thesis and Critical Paper, to get final words of advice from the faculty, and to graduate.
It’s unusual for an MFA program to be three years long – most are two – and RWW does this so students can take more time to develop their work’s potential and to juggle other life demands. Three years of mentorship instead of just two, I was thinking: great. “I have a full-time job,” one of the women said, “I had to do this.” The other was working on a memoir while continuing to write poetry. “With two genres, I figured I needed the extra year.”
I decided to pick their brains about a few things. “What did you do for your Outside Experience?” This is another distinguishing feature of the program: a custom-designed, independent project that’s required in the second year. One of them had done a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. “It was great,” she said, “and it counts toward your OE credit. Another student our year fulfilled her OE by taking classes in Circus Arts. She’s writing a novel set in the circus,” she explained.
We walked to the door. It was time for that night’s Faculty Reading. “Graduating is bittersweet,” one of the women said. “You hate to leave all this.”