City/State of Residence: San Diego, CA
Genre: Creative Nonfiction
Brief Bio: Valerie Due is a freelance writer with career stints as a reporter, marketer, magazine editor, and ghostwriter. Her work has won fellowships from Writers@Work and Tomales Bay and has appeared in publications as varied as River Teeth, Forbes, Fourth Genre, and U.S. State Department books. She has a BS in journalism, an MFA in creative nonfiction, teaches writing online, and is the author of a memoir, The Skinning Board.
What initially drew you to Ashland's MFA Program? I was seeking a program that focused on creative nonfiction in all its forms, but it seemed that most MFA programs had tacked on nonfiction as an afterthought or stepsibling to fiction and poetry -- their focus always seemed to be elsewhere. A mention on a respected MFA blog about a new program with roots in nonfiction and poetry led me to Ashland's website just as I was beginning to apply to other programs. I liked what I read. After all, art is grounded in nonfiction; the highest praise of any work is that it lays bare the bones of truth. After a few emails and one long phone conversation with Steve Haven, I decided to come to the first residency and see if this was, indeed, the right place for me. One day in workshop with Joe Mackall and an afternoon session with the poet Ruth Schwartz, and I knew Ashland could expand my abilities.
What did you appreciate most? The open and supportive culture of the program, its faculty, and staff. Writing programs in general are liberal and eclectic, but they are often also competitive and cliquish. I've heard from graduates of top-notch full residency programs that their writing was stifled for years thanks to the negative workshops. But Ashland's workshops were nothing but positive for my peers and I. The culture is one that encourages you to expand your own view of writing, its limits and possibilities, to include work that you wouldn't normally seek out. The faculty also encourage learning through broad reading and identifying the positives of any given work, not just finding the points that don't work. We still looked for those weak spots and identified ways to improve, but the greater focus was on seeking the positives and taking chances in our own work, and for me, this led to several breakthroughs and ultimately publications.
How do you feel this program impacted you? During the program, I wrote and submitted essays I would not have even attempted had it not been for the feedback and encouragement of faculty and peers. Two of those pieces won literary prizes; my thesis garnered an agent. My writing improved, and so did my personal goals and expectations. Ashland's MFA program helped me set the bar higher, and reach it.
But the greatest value, by far, was the network I gained -- the peer writers and faculty I still rely upon for feedback, encouragement, and those long email discussions about structure and ethics and how best to handle a tetchy real-life character on the page. I've tried local writing groups and open college courses, but have never found such an insightful, generous, and flexible network of peers.
What do you feel was the greatest takeaway? Balance. A low-residency program requires juggling a full-time course load with a full-time job and full-time life. This isn't an easy program; you'll have to work hard. Low-residency does not mean low workload.
The truth is that it's harder to write when you also have to earn a living and care for family. Creative writing is often considered a selfish hobby, one that requires a lot of time alone. This is true for graduates of full-time programs, too -- except they haven't had to learn how to balance the two before graduation. Deadlines for reading and critique, for pages written and rewritten, for online discussion and peer feedback -- all force you to learn daily dedication and focus, and the persistence to face the blank page even when the boss, the in-laws, and the ticking clock stack against you.
What was the subject or theme of your thesis? I set out to write a journalistic book about family farms, with a bit of my own experience blended in, modeled loosely in the style of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. The writing veered en route. My thesis became The Skinning Board, a journalistic memoir about growing up and working on a family farm in the 1970s and 1980s farm crisis, watching as our way of life died around us and America turned its back culturally on family-owned farms, instead glorifying corporate-run ones.
It's a coming-of-age tale not just for the narrator but for American agriculture and culture: for the first time in American history, owning land and working with your hands became not a dream or respected occupation, but a dirty secret, a past to escape. Children had been fleeing the hard work of family farms for a century, but they'd been buoyed by pride in ownership and occupation. By the early 1980s, pride had been replaced by pity. Americans didn't want to know where their food came from, and they blamed farmers for economic blows brought on by world markets and government policy changes that favored corporate-style farms. In today's economy, the 1980s farm crisis looks eerily prescient.
Finally, what are you up to now? Current occupation, or otherwise: I'm a freelance business writer, editor, and marketing consultant in the high-tech and telecom worlds. I also ghostwrite articles for executives, edit book manuscripts, and write the occasional freelance feature article or profile for magazines. Most days, I work on personal essays and book projects as well. And I teach writing online for a local university and for a private group. Working with other creative writers inspires me; writing technical and business copy hones my skills.
Feel free to contact Valerie with any questions you might have about the program: firstname.lastname@example.org.