Monday, March 14, 2011

Q and A with Lori May, Author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook

Writing instructor and author Lori May talks about juggling several genres, what kind of temperament a writer needs to have and much more.

You're a triple threat, a poet, nonfiction and novelist. Is there one discipline you prefer over the other and why?

I love each of these genres for a variety of reasons, so I really don't have a preference. They each serve a purpose, both for the audience and for meeting my creative needs. While I tend to write more nonfiction and poetry, it doesn't mean I care less for fiction; for novels, though, I really do need a different mindset to get into the heart of a story and I find that takes some mental preparation to devote such necessary time and attention. On a daily basis, I write poetry and nonfiction, but once a fictional story creeps its way into my mind, that can distract me-in a good way-for months at a time.

You are a writer instructor as well. What kind of temperament does a successful writer need?

Flexibility helps, for sure. As writers, we need to be flexible not only with regards to recognizing what the market-and our readers-is responding to, but also how we personally react to what we're writing. I may outline a story to play out one way and whilst writing it, I may discover my characters have something entirely different in mind. I rarely try to fight my characters or what the story is telling me. So, adaptability and a willingness to listen-to our characters, the story, and the audience-combined with the confidence to try things outside of the comfort zone certainly help all of us writers. It's important to be open to learning new things along the way and changing things up, being flexible, is a great attribute. Sometimes, of course, that's easier said than done!

You have a literary and genre background. Why do you think there's some friction between these types of writers?

Ah, the age-old question that never really seems to have an answer anyone likes. I think it can be frustrating for some, in that there does seem to be a divide between the two. Yet, for every time a writer is told something is too literary for the commercial market, there's an example of it working for someone else-like Michael Cunningham's novel, The Hours, which went on to be an award-winning film that pleased a commercial and literary audience. Then, for every time a literary novelist is told something may be too commercial, there are examples of that working as well. I think the two can happily co-exist yet the divide will seemingly always be there. And that's okay, because sometimes we want a more trendy read that will have us on the edge of our seats and other times we need something deep and thought provoking that leaves us with many questions. There doesn't have to be so much tension and friction about this; we should just write what makes us happy and fulfilled. One time that may be more commercial, another time it may be more literary. So long as we're artistically fulfilled, labels shouldn't bother us in the process of writing.

Your book The Low-Residency MFA Handbook just came out. What are a couple of advantages of a low-residency program over a traditional MFA program?

By far, the biggest advantage of a low-residency MFA is the ability to adopt the writing life immediately. Setting our own deadlines, writing daily, and making writing a part of our regular life is all encouraged through the self-discipline required to complete a low-res program. Without the daily classes to attend and with the ability to complete a program from your home base-without moving the family, selling the house, or quitting the day job-low-res students need to find a way to make life work, inclusive of writing desires and obligations. The low-res model helps train you for a lifetime of writing, independent of the class work, so that you're better able to keep the momentum going after graduation. Plus, with a built-in support system of peers and writing mentors that connect with students via email, phone, and online workshops, there is greater flexibility in having a go-to person at just about any hour of the day. Often these relationships last longer than the degree, so the low-res model is a great way to build-and grow-a community as well.

Since you wear so many writing hats, how do you divide your time? Do you work on more than one project at a time?

I certainly do work on more than one project at a time. Right now, I'm taking a few moments for this interview, which is really a break for me in between finishing up a magazine article deadline and returning to edit some poems I was working on this morning. Later today, I'll also continue to make some notes on a new nonfiction project I'm working on so, yes, I usually multi-task! I do try to find a balance, though, between getting things checked off the to-do list and spending lengthier amounts of time on a project when I'm deep into it. There are days when I will only work on one project if that's what needs my attention at the time. Generally, though, I start the day with something quick but creative-like working on a poem-and then I'll get a few business items out of the way, before settling into a larger project. Then I reward myself for a day of hard work by cooking something enjoyable or watching a movie with my husband. I work hard throughout the day, but I think we all can benefit from taking down time and having fun, too.

You do a lot traveling around, giving writing seminars and such. Do you have a memorable or funny experience to share in that regard?

Like most people, I've been victim to layovers and other flight delays, but I always try to make the most of whatever situation I'm thrown into. Recently, on my way back from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference and bookfair, this year hosted in Washington DC, I was delayed with a layover in Philly. Rather than hop the next available flight, my husband and I decided to make a mini-vacation out of it and stayed the weekend in Philly so we could tour downtown and get a cheesesteak at our local favorite, Sonny's Famous Steaks. Sure, we could have made it home earlier, but adding in a bit of fun on the way home from a hardworking conference made for a nice detour. If our flight hadn't been delayed on account of the weather, I would have been back home at my desk and at work. Instead, we had a great time shopping, visiting the historic sites, and eating some signature Philly food. I'll take travel mishaps any day!

Lori A. May is the author of four books, including The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum Books). Her work has also appeared in publications such as Rattle, Two Review, Phoebe, and anthologies such as Van Gogh's Ear. More information is available online at

Lori A. May
Available Now! - The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students available at Amazon or Continuum Books
Also available at Barnes & Noble or Amazon - stains: early poems by Lori A. May


  1. Great interview, Lori. I checked out your website and I love all the writing quotes. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I've known Lori on the Internet for a long time - awesome interview!

  3. "...we should just write what makes us happy and fulfilled. One time that may be more commercial, another time it may be more literary. So long as we're artistically fulfilled, labels shouldn't bother us in the process of writing."

    Amen to that, Lori! :-)

  4. Lori, Thanks for writing about low-res MFA programs. I think many writers will find this book quite useful and perhaps even life changing.

  5. You've sealed the deal for me! I've been accepted into a low-res program and was wondering if I should consider a FT program instead. But this sold me: "the biggest advantage of a low-residency MFA is the ability to adopt the writing life immediately." How exciting!

    A very informative interview on many fronts. Thanks!

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