Alumnus Interview: Sarah Shaffer (’05)

Mar 26, 2012 by

Taylor English and Writing alumni are doing great things! Recently, I caught up with Sarah Shaffer (’05), who graciously agreed to chat about her travels, reading, writing, and her MFA, which she completed in early 2012.

Sarah, thank you for doing this interview for our new departmental blog. Tell us about yourself.

I’m an Illinois girl who’s found myself living in the Southeast for the last seven years. I love reading, cooking, running, and watching movies with my husband. We both love to travel, our favorite places so far being Ireland, the Colorado Plateau, and northern California. Whenever possible we like to see the country on road trips. We also love animals, and right now we foster two cats for the Humane Society.

You graduated from Taylor in 2005. What have you been up to since then?

I got married and moved to the Atlanta, Georgia area, where I found work as a proofreader/copy editor and an English tutor. I still wrote, but very intermittently. In 2008, I started applying to MFA programs with the intention of establishing sustainable writing habits and learning how to practice my craft better. I graduated from the low-residency program at Lesley University in January.

Talk about Lesley University’s low-res MFA program. What genre did you study? What made you choose Lesley? What was the low-res experience like for you—what was best/worst about it? Any advice to prospective graduate students?

I absolutely loved my time at Lesley! Aside from other great things about Lesley that I’ll discuss below, my fellow students were like family to each other. Age, genre, cohort distinctions didn’t matter, which is truly remarkable compared to my perceptions of some MFA programs. A few of my closest friends and I plan to regularly meet and encourage one another in our writing even though we live in four scattered states this side of the Mississippi.

I picked low-residency because a few years ago when I was applying, my husband and I couldn’t relocate. Low-residency allowed me to practice the writing/work/life balance at home while still getting the intense, on-campus seminars and workshops for ten days every six months. I studied fiction, but part of the reason I picked Lesley was the interdisciplinary component—which was something I looked for when researching programs. For the first three semesters I had to pick a different interdisciplinary course, either one they offered or one I made up. My first semester I worked on non-fiction, then I took a “toolkit” course on preparing for the writing life post-MFA, then my third semester I translated a Spanish short story into English. The faculty was great, too. Not only had they collectively been awarded many prestigious prizes, grants, fellowships, etc., but once I got to know them, they turned out to be fun, down-to-earth people. The third criterion in my MFA search was a great location, and Cambridge, MA is a great place for anyone loving literature and history and culture. I fell in love with Cambridge and the Boston area.

The one downside about low-residency programs is that at the time, I found little to no financial aid other than government grants and loans. In a traditional program, you can usually get an assistantship or something to help defray the cost of tuition. But if you don’t live in the same city as your school, that’s kind of hard to do. In a low-res program, you do get to keep working, though; so if you have a decent job, you can keep that source of income while getting your MFA.

Which writers do you love to read most, and why?

I still feel like I’m just getting acquainted with some of my favorites, there’s so much to them. Alice Munro—her stories are almost perfect in tone, in detail, in clarity, and I love how she often writes about everyday people doing everyday things but brings dramatic grace into their stories. Raymond Carver—I’m inspired by his brevity and insight into people’s psyches. Flannery O’Connor—for her keen vision of the world. Lydia Davis—the queen of flash fiction, which is something I enjoy writing and reading. How she packs so much into a sentence or a paragraph. Often that’s how long her stories are!

Barbara Kingsolver—the master of verbs and voice. One of my mentors turned me on to her because of what she achieves with strong verb choices. And the dexterity with which she writes the four different voices in The Poisonwood Bible captivated me. And finally (to keep this list from going on and on) Wendell Berry—I appreciate his view of the world and the poetry of his fiction. One of his stories, “The Boundary,” is perfect in pacing and structure and motif and it makes me cry every time I read it.

What advice would you give beginning writers—say, junior and senior undergraduates who are just starting to think of themselves as “real” writers?

Start practicing calling yourself “a writer.” I didn’t grasp hold of calling myself a writer till I was in grad school. You don’t have to be paid as a writer to be a writer. I found that taking pride in telling the world “I am a writer” helped me to prioritize writing in my life, over other uses of my time that I thought people expected from me. Also, constantly read as a student of writing. Stretch yourself in what you read and in how you write. And even though writers are known for being solitary creatures, at least on occasion surround yourself with other writers who will teach you and challenge you and encourage you in your art and in the writing life.

DB: Looking back, what would you say about your time studying English and writing at Taylor?

My time as an English/Creative Writing major at Taylor set me on track to become the writer I am now. I think I turned a corner there in my understanding of literature as art rather than pastime, and of faith as a deeper abiding current in the writer than whether the writer mentions Jesus in his or her story. I remember Prof. Satterlee’s gentle nudges to read outside of my bubble of “Christian fiction” and being introduced to a world of more beautiful, more faith-filled, more complex, more risky, more rewarding literature and writing than I’d known. I remain grateful for the way my profs in the English department stretched my mind, my imagination, and my faith for the better.

Sarah, thank you for these good words. Keep us updated on your life and writing!

Sara Shaffer’s blog is Or you can  follow her on Twitter for more.


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1 Comment

  1. nicole

    how cool! its like coming full circle!

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