First student awarded MFA writing residency in Virginia
By Sarah Wood
Two hundred twenty-five years old, quiet and off the beaten path lies the Mill House at Glendower. The Virginia cottage is surrounded by walking trails and scenic woodland beauty. There is only one key ingredient missing from this peaceful scene: a writer.
In 2017, UK alumni Joan and Greg Swanberg offered the use of this idyllic 125-acre property to the Department of English annually for the month of July. The English Department, thankful for the generous suggestion, created two competitive residency programs—one for current MFA students in creative writing and one for published authors—each lasting two weeks.
Isabelle Johnson, a first year MFA creative writing student, won the inaugural competition for an internal applicant and will receive a small travel stipend provided by the Department of English. She will stay in the Virginia cottage and work on her thesis, which, according to MFA Director Hannah Pittard, “is a collection of magical and speculative short fiction that explores her experiences in the intersection of marginalized identities.”
Johnson wrote the winning piece, “Tsuki,” in a fiction workshop at UK. Tsuki is Japanese for the word “moon,” and the story is an intimate narrative about a young woman who wakes up when the moon is full and then goes to the park to talk with her older friend, Mrs. Ogawa, and her dog. “Tsuki” is a complex story that follows an evocative relationship, and there are twinges of uncertainty and mysticism.
"It's a story about what people do when they're not being watched, when they're free of expectations," explained Johnson.
Novelist and writing competition judge Kayla Rae Whitaker (B.A. 2007) chose Johnson’s short work of fiction as winner of the competition because of “its vibrant language, its haunting sense of place, and the delicate intimacy of its central friendship, all of which demonstrate immense promise.”
Johnson, excited to begin the residency, is ready to plunge into the forests of Virginia to write. The bustle of studying and teaching will keep Johnson busy in the future, so she wants to write as much as she can while she has free time. The residency program will give her the space and time she needs to work on her thesis.
The College of Arts & Sciences’ MFA program is one of the few in the country that offers such a unique opportunity to students. “We’re lucky to have this residency associated with our MFA program,” Pittard said. “With the Mill House, we’re able to offer the opportunity to experience the intense dedication of time to writing which is a residency, and we’re able to offer it to our students sooner than they might otherwise be eligible.”
Johnson will spend this July at the Mill House, continuing to explore the intricacies of her thesis.
“I’m really thankful to the Swanbergs for offering up their space, and I’m very thankful to the MFA program and the English Department,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited.”
For more information on the writing residency or MFA program, visit english.as.uky.edu/mill-house. &