Shaelyn Smith, non-fiction
Why did you choose Alabama for your MFA? What were you doing before you came here?
I chose to apply to Alabama because at the time I was beginning to consider applying for MFA programs, I was in fairly regular contact with XFA Ander Monson (I had interviewed him for the lit mag I was editing in undergrad and I had taken a summer creative writing class with him years before in between my 8th grade year and freshman year of high school—in many ways, he stuck in my mind not as the kind of writer I’d necessarily like to emulate, but the kind of personality I’d like to surround myself with, and he also opened me up to the possibilities embedded in the term “creative writing”—he showed me that to be a creative writer meant mostly to be a creative and curious person—he was the first person to take me into a used record store, and also to take me down into a functioning mine). When I asked him about programs, he recommended I check out Alabama. I chose to come to Alabama because of the optional fourth year, because of the rigorous teaching load, because The Deep South is a place I had never really envisioned myself, and because of the plethora of opportunities to be found in the community here both in and out of the University’s MFA program.
Before I came I was living in New York City working as a line cook for April Bloomfield at The John Dory Oyster Bar, which I had helped her open. I thought restaurant work was a career I wanted to pursue long term, and in many ways it’s not that much different than pursuing a career in any other field of the arts—it requires one to be both a creative and curious person, not to mention dedicated and hard-working.
How have the courses, faculty, and resources here helped you define and carry out your projects?
I’d say the best way this program has helped shape me as a writer is allowing a breadth and depth of experimentation within coursework. Sure we are a cross-genre program, but that extends beyond form classes into the classes we can teach, the programs we can teach in, and the other courses we are allowed (or required) to take. Definitely flawless syllabi from just about every professor I’ve taken a class with, regardless of whether that class is creative writing or literature or something outside the department, have informed my thought and writing processes and my fellow MFAs have provided a space and collaborative space in which to realize those processes into products. I could say so much more about that, but really without each element of opportunity and circumstance I’ve been presented with and being able to take advantage of (book lists, mentors, office hours, workshops, volunteer opportunities, readings, the library, the time I’m gifted to allot to writing, my freshman composition students, football games, travel funding, developing relationships, the love and encouragement from peers, the farmers’ markets, the Bama Theater Art House series, I could go on and on) I would be nowhere near as close as I am to having a fully realized book project. That fully realized book project being something that was faintly nebulous and still would be just a spark if I didn’t have access to all of these things in my daily life.
How does getting an MFA degree fit into your goals for the future?
I’d say right now that the way this degree fits into my goals for the future is allowing me to do exactly what I want to do and explore exactly what I want to explore. Programs like the recently established Writers in the Schools (WITS) and the partnership with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project have allowed or will allow me to teach creative writing with at-risk members of the community, which is something I would like to pursue further in the future. And the program, as well as everything Tuscaloosa has to offer, has helped me, and forced me, to have experiences and build a CV and experiences worthy of following these plans.