Nonfiction MFA Student Spotlight: Ingrid Sagor

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As promised, I continue my interviews with current MFA candidates in the Creative Writing – Nonfiction program, in order answer FAQs from the Graduate Open House and Preview Days events and to introduce you to a few of the program’s current students. This week, I interviewed second-year candidate Ingrid Sagor.Graduate students are very busy, and Ingrid is no exception. Along with taking a full load of classes, she is also a Graduate Student Instructor, works part-time at Bloomingdale’s, and occasionally helps out a classmate with a haircut. She’s a busy lady and has some wonderful advice for staying on top of your coursework and finding time to relax.  Ingrid is always hosting get-togethers at her lovely apartment for people in the program, has an adorable cat, and posts beautiful pictures on Instagram of her adventures around the city.  I’ve only had the opportunity to have one class with Ingrid, this semester, which is Form & Theory, and we found out that we share a love for Deborah Tall’s Family of Strangers, which deals with one of the themes that we both tackle in our writing: family relationships.

Here, Ingrid answers your questions:

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 was working full time as a hairstylist at the salon I’d been at for three years, in a sleepy little town in Washington State.  I knew that I wanted to attend grad school and was still figuring out what kind of program: MA or PhD in lit, MFA in creative writing, or an MAT I would pursue. When I did some soul searching, it was creative writing, workshop, and working with my peers that really excited me.  I knew that there weren’t any MFA programs in Western Washington that had nonfiction options, and my mother moved out to Chicago a few years prior for work, which helped narrow my search to Chicago/Illinois in particular.  For me, location and the option to do nonfiction or interdisciplinary work were the primary factors in deciding on a program.

I applied to Northwestern, SAIC, and Columbia and was surprised when I got into all three. I chose Columbia for a couple of factors: the opportunity to teach through the GSI program and the Follett Graduate Merit Award I was awarded. These were unique to the program at Columbia, so despite the other positives that the programs at NU and SAIC had, Columbia was the clear choice.

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

A: I completed my undergraduate degree at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.  I hold a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing, but I also took a lot of extra literature courses, which had a focus in critical theory and literatures of marginalized cultures.  I took the scenic route through college, stopping along the way to attend beauty school and obtain a cosmetology license, and worked in that field for about 5 years while in and out of college.

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

A: I would describe my writing style as lyrical narrative.  I am invested in writing imagistic stories, in particular my family history, and cultural oddities that I have encountered.  I am working towards utilizing the essay’s pervasive “so what?” in my work, but storytelling and the personal essay are still close to my heart.  I love to imagine what I cannot know in my writing—the way the tamale guy, or my ancestors, or a house might feel—and through utilizing descriptive imagery, I can make the subject feel closer, more knowable. I studied closely with nonfiction writer Brenda Miller, and her work and demeanor as a mentor are so lovely that I know she is an influence of mine.  I also love Roland Barthes, Miranda July, Sylvia Plath, JD Salinger, Octavia Butler, and a lot of critical race narratives, so I’m sure some of that has influenced me as well.

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?

A: I live in what I guess could be considered “West Bucktown”, though I am essentially in a small unclaimed pocket of West Town that some might call Logan Square, Wicker Park, or even Humboldt Park, right off the Western Blue Line stop.  I think the best thing about living in Chicago is the vast array of culture and options at your fingertips. I have really become immersed in the visual art scene in Chicago and am excited about the new galleries and stores that are opening up in my neighborhood.  I loved Bellingham (where I was living and attended college), but after visiting this summer, I find that I am really happy to be in Chicago where the pace is so much faster and the city, more vibrant.  The hardest thing was adapting to how large the city is.  Back home, it was nothing to walk five minutes from work, to a restaurant or bar, then home, but here, it is a bit more of a trip to get anywhere.  I’ve adapted really well to using public transportation, but I hate that you have to budget about 45 minutes to get anywhere! Also, the weather is very extreme, so that’s taken some getting used to.

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: Columbia has helped me to look critically at both my own work and also to articulate my thoughts on other artist/writers’ work.  I think being able to explain why or why not something is “working” and how I can revise accordingly or encourage my peers or students to revise is the biggest thing I have learned.  I am also fortunate that I was able to take a bookbinding course in the Center for Book and Paper Arts this semester, so I am really excited about incorporating a visual element in my work.  I have never had the opportunity to take a studio art course—whether in high school or college—so it has been a really important thing for me in developing my arts practice.  I think that a defining moment for me at Columbia was working with Joshua Casteel in last year’s workshop.  I brought to our first meeting a piece, “Woven Wheat”, which I wrote in undergrad about uncovering my family’s long history and settlement in North America from France. I had felt after my first semester that this kind of storytelling and narrative work was not welcome in the program, but Joshua was very interested and encouraging.  He told me that it could and should be the starting point of my thesis, and that was a very affirming moment for me. From there, I could see how utilizing the essay form into my more narrative work would complicate it and could turn into a beautiful, full thesis.  I am really looking forward to having the time to edit and continue crafting some of the pieces I’ve since written, and seeing how they can fit into a larger body of work.

Q: You are a GSI and have a full class load and a part-time job. How do you balance everything? How do you manage your time and what do you do to unwind?

It’s hard! I think for me, the answer is focusing on one day at a time. That is: what do I need to do today to be prepared for tomorrow. Is it reading, writing a response, or evaluating a peer or student’s work? Will I have time to do it while I’m at work or at home, or do I need to set aside specific time to handle it?  This method of one-thing-at-a-time has worked for me very well since undergrad, when I was also balancing work and school.  It means that I can dedicate my full attention to the task at hand, rather than multitasking multiple assignments at once. Also keeping a planner of my work, school, and teaching schedule is very important, and it could even be a bit more detailed.  To unwind, I enjoy going to gallery shows, making books, taking photos, and watching television. I think not being too hard on yourself and taking things day-by-day is the best way not to go crazy while balancing everything.

Q: What are your plans for after you graduate, and how do you think Columbia is preparing you to take the next step toward that plan?

A: My goal is to teach full-time after I graduate and work on sending my manuscript or thesis out.  I am working on developing my pedagogy and collecting samples of student work so that I am marketable as either a creative writing or composition professor.  I am a very pragmatic person, so knowing that the job market, even for adjunct work, is tough, I plan to keep my options open and not neglect my own writing.  It seems that publication in literary journals and having a manuscript or book published is crucial in obtaining tenured-track work, so that is also something I am keeping in mind as I write and progress through the Creative Writing – Nonfiction MFA program.