Nonfiction MFA Student Spotlight: Toni Nealie

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During the Graduate Open House and Preview Days, I am often asked why I applied to Columbia, what neighborhood I live in, and what my writing style is, amongst other questions. As a way to answer those questions, I thought I’d interview a few people from the Creative Writing – Nonfiction MFA Program and have them answer the most frequent questions that I receive, in order to give a more complex and diverse answer to those questions and to showcase a candidate from each year of the program. For the first segment, I interviewed Toni Nealie, a third year MFA candidate who is smack dab in the middle of the process of compiling work for that big ‘ol thing we’re all here for—our thesis manuscript.

Toni and I are in our third year, so I have had several classes with her, multiple classes every semester. We started this program together, when it was in its first year, and here we are three years later preparing for graduation and soaking up this last year in grad school.  I am always impressed with Toni’s sentences, how gorgeous her prose is, and how subtle she makes references to very large issues. She often writes about motherhood and her heritage, and her writing is always on a quest, and a gorgeous quest at that. She takes her reader through lush landscapes, gives us glimpses into life in New Zealand, and brings us directly into her home, into her garden. Her writing is evocative and meditative, asking the reader to question the world she lives in, we live in, right alongside her as she questions it. I’ve enjoyed the many essays I’ve been able to workshop with Toni, and I’m really looking forward to reading her thesis manuscript and buying that first literary journal that she is published in.

Toni also brings baked goods to class and never misses a birthday, always managing to find time to whip up a lemon cake or banana bread. And when you’re running between classes you are taking and classes you are teaching, it is so very nice when Toni walks into class, pulls out a foil wrapped treat, and starts cutting and serving it for the class.

I asked Toni some of the questions that I’ve answered at recent Graduate Admissions events, and here’s what she had to say:

Q: What were you doing prior to your decision to apply to Columbia, (working full-time, completing another degree program?) and what factors did you consider when choosing to pursue an MFA in Nonfiction? Location? Faculty? Cost? Was it a combination?

A: I had an interesting and varied career in journalism, politics, and public relations in New Zealand and the UK. After moving to the U.S. in 2001, I taught part-time in the Television Department at Columbia, while raising two sons.  I took a few Nonfiction classes with David Lazar and Garnett Kilberg-Cohen in the English Department. They were such generous and stimulating teachers—they blew apart the formulaic rut my writing had fallen into and opened me up to fresh reading. I almost began a different graduate program but decided to wait for the new MFA in Nonfiction to begin, because of the faculty and program content. I am grateful to have received a Follett Graduate Merit Award, which has enabled me to study full time.

Q: What is your educational background? Where did you complete your undergraduate degree and in what area of study?

A: I have a B.A. in English Literature, University of Otago, and a Certificate of Journalism, Wellington Polytechnic in New Zealand.

Q: If you could describe your writing style, how would you describe it? Which writers influence your work the most?

A: Yikes. This is difficult. I would like to have the insight and elegance of James Baldwin, the intellect of Christopher Hitchens, the poetic lightness of Michael Ondaatje, the cleverness of Anne Carson, the beauty of Maggie Nelson, and the originality of Jenny Boully.  I am so not there yet.

Q: What neighborhood do you live in and what would you say is the best thing about living in Chicago and then, also, the most surprising or the thing that took you a while to get used to?

Oak Park, across the border from Chicago. I love the big trees, great architecture, wonderful community, and proximity to the Loop. Downtown favorites are the lake, parks, and galleries. There are so many visiting writers, artists, filmmakers, and exhibitions at Columbia that I could happily camp in a stairwell with my sleeping bag instead of going home to my family. (Who I adore.)

Not used to yet: the icy winter wind off the lake, like being stabbed by a thousand sharp needles.

Q: How has pursuing your MFA at Columbia helped you, both creatively and professionally, with your writing?  Can you pinpoint a specific moment that stands out to you as a defining moment during your time in the program, as a moment of clarity, a breakthrough moment?

A: Oh, god. My cup overfloweth! I feel that I am living totally creatively for the first time. Such a luxury. My writing and thinking is exploding—in a good way. One moment for me was stepping outside the program and taking an elective in the Film & Video Department in experimental film. It made me consider writing and reading from a different perspective. I had no film experience, so I had to draw on my understanding of abstract ideas in order to contribute to the class. I realized that came from my writing program, and I felt invigorated for the next semester. The other was taking Form & Theory with Jenny Boully and discovering a direct, fresh voice—playing with form gave me the freedom to get out of my narrative box. Also, Aviya Kushner’s Beginnings Workshop allowed me to experiment and generate new material without pressure.

Q: As a third year MFA candidate, working on your thesis, can you comment on how this process has been so far? What are you the most excited about? The most fearful about?

A: It just feels like it has gone by too fast, and I want to start again, now that I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming through the hard bits. I alternate with jumping up and down and curling in a ball about getting the writing done. I am excited about completing the journey with my cohort, the first crew in the MFA. They are supportive and often make insightful suggestions that you had never considered before. Sometimes they are geniuses.

I’m thrilled to be presenting on a panel at NonfictioNow 2012 in Melbourne, with Columbia’s support. It’s my first time presenting, so I’m teeth-chatteringly excited.

I’m most fearful about getting a quality job done in time and hoping that no disasters break out on the home front, having contended with death in the family and three boy hospitalizations in the past semesters.

Q: What are your plans for after you graduate and how has Columbia prepared you to take the next step toward that plan?

A: I am focused on getting to the finish line first. Then I need a job. Anyone?