Words of Paradise
UCR’s low-residency MFA celebrates 10 years turning students into published and produced writers.
By Shad Powers
Photos by Carrie Rosema
A ghost chimpanzee, space pirates, a cougar-stealing war veteran, and a brave Estonian matriarch. The start of a very odd guy-walks-into-a-bar joke? Nope. Those are just a few of the primary characters conjured by the fertile minds of the Masters of Fine Arts students at UC Riverside’s low-residency program, who gathered in December to workshop and hone their craft for 10 days at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage. In other words, paradise.
The unique program is the brainchild of Associate Adjunct Professor Tod Goldberg, its director and an accomplished crime novelist, and Agam Patel, associate director of both the MFA program and the UCR Palm Desert Center.
The academic year includes two rousing residencies where students work hand in hand with some of the top authors, poets, and screenwriters in the country. Think of it as a literary fantasy camp.
“The low-residency model has existed for years, but what I wanted to do was have it take into consideration the 21st-century writer,” Goldberg said. “That’s not someone who wants to work in solitude. It’s not someone who wants to avoid talking about publication and production. It’s someone who is as business savvy as they are creatively savvy. I wanted to integrate a robust online platform, allow all genres, and provide easier access to professors and professionals. I imagined a low-residency that was not low interaction.”
The program celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018, and dozens of alumni returned — as they are encouraged to do every year — to join in the process and celebrate the newest batch of graduates.
The residencies consist of classes with published authors, working screenwriters, and esteemed guest lecturers. There are also daily workshops in which students share what they’re working on with peers and instructors to get thoughtful critiques and ensure their writing is as polished as possible.
“It’s a great program, because it’s about fostering content for the students in whatever writing industry they want to work in,” said playwright Michael “Mickey” Birnbaum, an assistant adjunct professor and program graduate. “And whatever kind of work you’re doing — poetry, screenwriting, plays, fiction, nonfiction — they are capable of supporting you in that specific field.”
The success of the MFA program, which takes seven quarters and five residencies to complete, comes through clearly in the numbers.
According to Patel, the first class in 2008 had 22 students. Today, the total student body consists of about 80 students spread across four majors, making it one of the largest MFA programs in the nation. The program has produced more than 300 graduates in its 10-year run, and 75 percent of them have published or sold their work within two years of graduating, not including self-publishing.
The list of success stories includes Suzy Fincham- Gray ’15, whose book “My Patients and Other Animals: A Veterinarian’s Stories of Love, Loss, and Hope” was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2018; Natashia Deón ’12, whose novel “Grace” was published by Counterpoint in 2016 and was a New York Times Best Book of the Year; Jalysa Conway ’13, who became a staff writer for the ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy” shortly after graduation; and Liska Jacobs ’16, whose novel “Catalina” was a direct result of her work at the residency and published by MCD x FSG in 2017.
“I was timid about letting anybody read what I thought was a bad novella, but everybody just said keep going and really championed it.” — Liska Jacobs ’16
The 35-year-old Jacobs, who lives in Los Angeles, said when she started the MFA program, her version of “Catalina” was a 40- or 50-page novella. When she left, she had an agent, a finished book, and five published essays. She has now turned in her second novel, “The Worst Kind of Want,” with an expected publication date in November.
“I was timid about letting anybody read what I thought was a bad novella, but everybody just said keep going and really championed it,” Jacobs said. “I was trying to flesh these characters out, and that’s what I did in every single workshop I had. Every single time I worked with someone on it, the story just grew bigger and richer, and I got to know the characters more.”
Each of the five residencies helped Jacobs mold “Catalina,” her thesis project, into the novel it became, she said, noting she loved the interaction of the students during the workshopping process, but it was the professors who really gave her confidence.
“Every time a new person would work with me on it, they just kept … asking me questions I hadn’t thought about,” she said. “They were almost like weird fairy godmothers, where each one I learned something different from.”
The distinguished list of instructors — literary heavyhitters across the board — is one of the program’s major selling points. They bring with them writing expertise, of course, but their goal is to teach students how to think about the craft in a more elevated way.
“‘Write this way’ — to paraphrase Aerosmith — I would never encourage that,” said author and Assistant Adjunct Professor Deanne Stillman. “I just want to make sure students are in touch with their own voices, and that they’re staying true to that and not catering to what other people tell them they should be doing or how they should be sounding.”
The student cohort is as eclectic as the stories over which they are slaving. You’ll find 20-somethings fresh out of college, retired professionals in their 70s who finally have time to pursue their passion, and hardworking servers or midcareer engineers in their 30s and 40s still trying to scratch their writing itch while juggling real-life responsibilities. Even published authors sign up to stretch their writing muscles in a new genre or to stay sharp. In this year’s class, there’s even a mother-son combo and a mother-daughter duo.
“I’m a waitress, and a baby sitter, and a writer,” said 33-year-old poet and nonfiction writer Maria Duarte of Long Beach, who adds an excited lilt to her voice on the word “writer.”
“I’ve been writing since I can remember, and I am the first person in my very big family to have a graduate degree, so that’s important to me,” she added. “I joined this program to get better as a writer and make important connections, and it’s happened. It’s changed my life completely.”
Daphne Nikolopoulos, a 53-year-old magazine editor from West Palm Beach, Florida, has already published four books, but said she gets just as much out of the program as a beginner.
“You never know everything. There are several other published writers in the program, but we all come here to learn because you can always learn,” said Nikolopoulos, who is working on a contemporary family drama, branching out from her previously published works, which are historical fiction or historical thrillers. “That’s the exciting part of it. As a writer, you’re never finished. The world evolves, language evolves, and you have to evolve with it. This is a great safe place to do that and to form connections that will last a lifetime.”
Goldberg and Patel’s dedication to getting their students published is evident. In addition to the authors and screenwriters who give lectures and work with students during residencies, book publishers and film and TV producers are also brought in to unravel the mysteries of the industry.
That’s an important aspect that either doesn’t exist at other literary low-residency programs or, in some cases, is actively frowned upon.
“This program teaches the business of writing, and a lot of programs think that sullies the creativity, like it annoys the muse to learn about business,” said Jill Essbaum, a published poet and novelist, and an assistant adjunct professor. “But it’s really nice when a writer can feed herself.”
That concept appealed to Mark Johnson, a 60-year-old superior court judge in Riverside County and retired Army Reserve colonel, who graduated from the program in December. He’s working on a novel about a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who can’t make sense of the world and kidnaps a cougar from a bar in Rosarito Beach, Mexico.
“My writing has improved, of course, but the thing I really like is the emphasis on the practical,” Johnson said. “They don’t just help you write a flowery piece and then send you out and say, ‘good luck.’”
Students are also required to select a cross-genre to work on, which serves as a sort of minor. For example, a poet would also learn about screenwriting, and a fiction writer would also study nonfiction, etc.
“The cross-genre element is really, really huge,” said author David Ulin, an assistant adjunct professor. “I think we live in a culture that likes to specialize, but I think that a writing genre is a blurry concept anyway, and genres inform each other. I think having a comfort or an experience with a different genre than your main genre is really useful creatively and professionally.”
The program’s benefits don’t end with graduation. Alums are encouraged to come back to the residencies to reconnect with people, check out the lectures, and talk about what they’re working on. The community of students and instructors lives on in Facebook groups and online chats where the support, encouragement, and feedback continues.
“My writing has improved, of course, but the thing I really like is the emphasis on the practical.” — Mark Johnson ’18
“We’ve come back to every residency since we graduated,” said Senta Scarborough, a 51-year-old award-winning journalist who lives in Los Angeles with her wife Katie Thomason, a 50-year-old book editor and former teacher. Both completed the residency program in 2017. “I’m writing a memoir, and I’m still working with the professor I was in the program with … so it’s been really satisfying.”
Thomason, who writes fiction, nonfiction, and plays, said she has developed close relationships with the other students and instructors.
“You care about each other and each other’s successes, and you know that group of people is always going to be there for you,” she said.
The communal nature of the program was not lost on student PJ Nutting, 32, who teaches English in Hanoi, Vietnam, and completed his first residency in December. He used to think he would just open his laptop, commit words to the page, and that would be enough to call himself a writer. But then he shadowed his mother Kaia Gallagher for a day at the residency in December 2017.
“Where I needed convincing was the idea that I couldn’t go it alone on this path toward getting the book done,” said Nutting, who’s writing a sci-fi noir novel about space pirates. Gallagher, a 69-year-old based in Denver, meanwhile, is working on a memoir about her mother who fled Estonia on the last day before the Russian invasion.
“It went from, I’m just sort of going to do this in my private time in cafes and in my bedroom, to now I have a very extended family that not only will help me with it, but is excited to help me with it,” Nutting said.
Visit palmdesertmfa.ucr.edu for more information about the program.