Monday, June 8, 2009

Highlights of Spartanburg and the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program

The inaugural residency period of Converse College’s Low-Residency MFA Program—and my stay in Spartanburg—contained so many highlights, that I’m sure I’ll forget several, but here’s what sticks out for me right now:

--Sleeping in a dorm room once again. When I saw the cot that passed for a bed, I didn’t think this would be a highlight, but in the end, I enjoyed my 10-day stay in the dorm (despite the eerie yellow-green glow from all the lights) because I immediately found myself falling back into my messy college-student ways and it was a guilty pleasure to leave cosmetics and papers strewn all about. Also, the air-conditioning was at a level just above iciness, which is my favorite way to sleep.

--That great cheeseburger I mentioned having at the Nu-Way; it was named best cheeseburger in South Carolina by the Food Network—check out this photo! (And if you missed my BBQ wrap-up, here’s the link to that previous post.)

--My trip to the fabulous Beacon Drive-In. Instead of a Chili Cheese A’Plenty, advance scouts had recommended the Fried Pimento Cheese A’Plenty, which was amazing. It was really more like a grilled pimento cheese sandwich, though that name doesn’t make the blood rush as much as the word “fried” does. True to form, the man adding the “a’plenty” part had large hands, all the better for scooping out the GIANT handful of French fries and of onion rings. By the time he was done, there was easily 5 inches of fried stuff burying my sandwich. Having wised up, I shared the “a’plenty” with my friend, and we threw away about 2 inches of it. That plan meant that I didn’t get sick afterwards. (Would’ve been worth it even if I had.)

--Luncheon at the Beacon was followed by—of course! A day of beauty! My friend took me to a local department store, where we both enjoyed a delightful makeover at the Estee Lauder counter, accompanied by the usual and effusive compliments about our lovely skin and how beautiful we were. Good salespeople know just what to say…and if we reeked of onion rings and grease, no one mentioned it.

--There were so many excellent readings by the faculty that I hesitate to pick out any single writer. As usual, I ended up with a load of new books to add to the “to be read” stack. I’ll just give a special mention to my fiction colleague, Robert Olmstead, who read from his new novel, Far Bright Star, which is getting some great reviews (including this one from the Washington Post). I read from my novel in progress. This is the second chapter I’ve read at Converse, having read the opening section when I was there in January. No one there will need to buy the book if I keep going back and reading it by installments.

--The student readings were especially strong, and it was nice to feel that I’ll be able to say “I was there when” for several of these future writers.

--Sadly, the dining hall offered limited service this time around, so we didn’t have any “hot dog bars” and such, as I’d previously experienced. Still, a lot to like about what we were served, including some great bread pudding, some AMAZING yeast rolls, and some yummy stuffing (aka “dressing” down south). Notice any trends?

--The campus was empty, except for a skeleton crew of workers and the writing students and faculty, so it was nice to walk along the pretty brick walkways and find secret nooks for quiet reflection. There was a table placed on a patio underneath a giant oak-like tree with massive branches, great for staring up into, and I also enjoyed the semi-private porch swing with the pleasantly squeaky chain.

--Not to belabor the food element, but I was startled to discover one night that that I was sitting at a table of 8 people who ALL served macaroni & cheese on Thanksgiving (along with the turkey etc.) and thought I was the peculiar one for not doing so. Since I’m usually in charge of the Thanksgiving menu around here, I guess you can imagine what I’ll be dishing up in November….

--One panel featured the editors of Shenandoah (R.T. Smith) and The Atlantic fiction issue (C. Michael Curtis), and we got helpful information and some sobering facts: Shenandoah receives 15,000 poems per year and publishes 100; the journal receives 5000-7000 stories per year, and accepts about 17. As for the Atlantic, Mr. Curtis said they get about 5000 stories a year and will accept about 8.

--Speaking of Shenandoah, editor R.T. Smith is talking up the forthcoming (in 2010) Flannery O’Connor issue, which I’m sure will be fantastic.

All in all, it was an amazing 10 days—that felt like 100 days. I arrived home exhausted, overwhelmed, and inspired. For another side of the story, check out student Sarah Gray’s blog.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.