How the MFA Helped Shape Kelly Schirmann's Latest Book

Portrait of poet and essayist Kelly Schirmann, who completed her MFA at the University of Montana in 2020.

Writer and ceramicist Kelly Schirmann finished her MFA at UM and published her third book, The New World (Black Ocean), in 2020. Below she'll reflect on how graduate school has informed her poetry, prose, and pedagogy. 

How has your time at the University of Montana influenced The New World and your work more broadly?

Maybe the most important part of workshopping at UM was learning about structures, form expectations, and readerly parameters. I came into the Nonfiction program with a much more extensive background in writing and publishing poetry, and was frankly sort of mystified by the prospect of organizing and planning a piece of writing outside of making intuitive decisions, or writing towards pure feeling.

I'd written some essays, though, and was drawn to the lyrical, associative, weird prose happening at the confluence of poetry, criticism, and nonfiction -- I think I wanted a broader understanding of how to make that work happen, and to practice writing pieces with more intentional structure. I didn't really realize how much weight was carried by the structural decisions in a piece of writing, which maybe sounds ridiculous, or how the narrative form creates expectations from the reader which should be addressed (if not always satisfied).

So my time at UM taught me a lot about the pattern-making aspect of writing. And over the course of editing The New World, this preoccupation with structure helped me immensely in balancing the headier aspects of associative prose. I was also lucky enough to take a screenwriting course with Professor Tobin Addington. It taught me a lot about creating compelling visual stories and centering the writing around the body: physical action, sensation, and environment. These techniques have been invaluable to me, and ultimately save my metaphorical writer's brain from blowing in the wind.

What did being at UM teach you about teaching?

I learned so much about teaching I'm not sure where to even begin. It has been such an honor and pleasure to work with students who entrust me with their work and strive to share their stories with the world. I think above all, teaching humbled me into the realization that my real role is to create opportunities for experimentation, provide the resources to do so, maybe gesture toward a shared vocabulary, and mostly stay out of the way. I've found that teaching writing is best done by first encouraging students to write in any way that makes them comfortable, so creating an environment where that feels safe and fun and accessible feels like a natural first step.

We do a lot of free writes, creative writing prompts, collaborative writing games, and have discussions about contemporary cultural figures or events, all in service of creating space for each student to practice using their voice. Taking a light approach removes barriers of fear and anxiety, and creates space for students to actually change the way they think about writing, and about their capability to write.

And in this way, what I've learned about teaching has also been a sneaky education in how to approach life -- with ease, curiosity, open-mindedness, and the belief that I might actually succeed.

The New World by Kelly Schirmann