I met Anna Marsh at a Yale alumni event where her name tag told me she had received a PhD in psychology there in 1985. I expected to hear stories of a career in academia, musings on current psychological research, and perhaps tales of her illustrious classmates (one of whom currently serves as Yale’s president). We did, in fact, do some reminiscing. But our conversation took an unexpected turn when Anna mentioned being a fiction writer.
I soon learned that Anna had completed a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins after leaving her career in government. I wanted to know more, especially about the value of formal writing education in a person with a wealth of learning and life experience.
TZ: What prompted your decision to leave your job and go back to school after all those years?
AM: A chance encounter with a stranger on a train in 1978 led to my love of writing. I had just begun a doctoral program in psychology at Yale, when I hailed the commuter train to New York for a study break to see the King Tutankhamen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. A man I didn’t know took the empty seat beside me. He turned out to be David Milch, a brilliant writer and later executive producer of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Deadwood. After I audited a residential college seminar in screenwriting that Milch taught at Yale, I was hooked.
However, I chose what seemed the sensible course of completing my doctorate in psychology and accepting a position with the federal government, where I administered mental health and substance abuse programs for twenty-eight years. As soon as I was eligible to retire, I turned to writing fiction.
“While some writers bring enormous natural talent to the task, most of us benefit from instruction and critiques….That said, no training program can ensure a writer’s critical or commercial success.”–Anna Marsh
TZ: I wasn’t sure whether you said you got a Masters in Fiction Writing or an MFA—can you briefly explain the differences? Which program did you do, and why did you choose it?
AM: I earned an M.A. in Writing with a concentration in fiction from Johns Hopkins University’s Advanced Academic Programs. This part-time program, with courses in Baltimore and Washington, also offers a concentration in nonfiction writing and an M.A. in Science Writing.
Johns Hopkins University also offers an M.F.A. in The Writing Seminars, a full-time program in Baltimore with highly selective admission. All students in this program receive full tuition and a teaching fellowship and must demonstrate foreign language proficiency. Course requirements include pedagogy and more literature courses than in the M.A. program.
I chose the M.A. program because I wanted to attend part time in Washington, and I wanted to focus more on developing practical writing skills and less on literature or pedagogy.
TZ: How did your writing and/or expectations about writing change from this program, if at all? Did you get what you expected? Any unexpected benefits—or surprises?
AM: I emerged from the program with a clearer understanding of and honed skills in fiction techniques—concepts such as structure, plot, characterization, dialogue, setting, description, point of view, voice, and style. I now see that fiction writing is as much craft as it is art. I was exposed to more experimental fiction than I would have read on my own. I have a newfound appreciation for the study of syntax and the deliberate varying of sentence structure. I have a clearer notion of voice as reflected both in the author’s tone and in the characters’ speech and thought patterns. All of this has improved my writing, which is what I sought.
“[T]he Johns Hopkins program has provided me with a writing community from whom I can continue to draw support and constructive criticism of my work.”–Anna Marsh
TZ: Many writers argue that fiction-writing can’t be taught, while others attribute their careers to the lessons learned and/or contacts made in writing programs. Now that you’re on the other side, would you recommend getting a fiction-writing degree to other aspiring fiction writers? Why or why not?
AM: I would recommend that fiction writers seeking to improve their skills consider such a program. While some writers bring enormous natural talent to the task, most of us benefit from instruction and critiques of our work by those with greater expertise. Academic programs are a structured approach to such instruction. That said, no training program can ensure a writer’s critical or commercial success, so that is not a reasonable expectation. I do feel the Johns Hopkins program has provided me with a writing community from whom I can continue to draw support and constructive criticism of my work.
TZ: So, what’s next? What projects are on the horizon for you?
AM: I’m currently working on a collection of linked short stories. One is about a successful representational painter who is challenged by a student of abstract expressionism over Thanksgiving dinner. Another is about a rock band on the road with an egotistical lead singer. Once I’ve completed the collection, I plan to return to a historical novel in progress about a society scandal in early twentieth century Washington, D.C.
Anna Marsh is a writer who lives in Brookeville, Maryland. She earned a B.A. from George Washington University, a Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University, and an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and she served as a member of the Senior Executive Service in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her fiction has been published in Italian America and under the pseudonym of Crystal Moore in Psychotherapy: Portraits in Fiction.