Why I Pursued a Popular Fiction MFA instead of an MS in Psychology

Savannah Montoya standing in a forest wearing a yellow zip-up hoodie and white t-shirt. Her hair is long and brown.
Savannah Montoya, current student in Emerson’s Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing MFA

If you’re looking for a career in writing or publishing with a focus on genre fiction, Emerson’s Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing MFA may be for you. Today we’re interviewing Savannah Montoya, a current student in the program. She’ll share what led her to graduate school and what her experience has been in the Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing MFA. 

What led you to graduate school?

“In undergrad, I double-majored in English and Psychology,” Savannah says. During college, Savannah also gained leadership experience through teaching, tutoring, and working at a mental health organization. Based on her academic and professional experiences, Savannah knew that she wanted to become a professional therapist. A year after graduating from college, Savannah applied to multiple psychology and counseling graduate programs. 

However, as she applied to these programs, she had a change of heart. “I kind of had a crisis when I realized that I didn’t want to go into psychology quite yet. I really wanted to continue writing and pursue that first.” 

While she knew she could pursue writing independently, Savannah wanted the accountability and community of a graduate writing program. “I wanted to meet other people who were as passionate as I am about writing and genre fiction,” she explains. 

Savannah decided to pursue a writing MFA because she hopes to use writing as a tool when she becomes a therapist. “I would really love to create group therapy sessions that involve nonfiction and fiction writing as a method of coping, healing, and connecting with other trauma survivors,” she adds.  

Ultimately Savannah changed direction and started applying to creative writing graduate programs with the intention of circling back to psychology later on. 

Why Emerson’s Popular Fiction MFA?

Savannah looked at many graduate writing programs, but she ultimately decided on Emerson for a few key reasons. When visiting Emerson’s websites and looking through their social media accounts, Savannah says that Emerson’s commitment to equity and inclusivity impressed her.

The program’s online format was also a major deciding factor for Savannah. Because the Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing program is online and asynchronous, Savannah could enroll from her home in California without having to move to Boston. She also notes that the asynchronous format of the program was appealing to her because she could complete her coursework according to her own schedule.

“I also liked that this was a relatively new program,” Savannah adds. “It was new enough to be malleable and fit my personal needs, but it’s also offered at an established, respected college.” This flexibility within a well-recognized institution attracted Savannah. 

What is your thesis about?

In the Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing program, students complete a thesis manuscript of at least 100 pages in length. The manuscript needs to be of near-publishable quality and is intended to be the start of a novel in the student’s preferred genre. 

For her thesis, Savannah is writing a young adult fantasy novel about a 14-year-old boy named Turk, who stutters. Turk is a blacksmith’s apprentice and stumbles upon a murder that has the potential to shatter both the Human and Mage realms. 

As Turk learns more about his own powers, he finds himself accused of murder and stealing artifacts that power life in both the Human and Mage realms. “The artifacts are the source of power for life and nature in both realms. This draws on Indigenous respect for the natural world and desire to honor it by protecting it,” Savannah says. “As an Indigenous person, I wanted to incorporate Indigenous themes into the book.” 

As the realms begin to fall apart without their artifacts, Turk learns that he has unique powers that could help save the realms. Reluctantly at first, Turk begins learning how to use his powers to help save the realms.  

How do you stay connected with students in the Popular Fiction MFA?

To help students in the program stay connected, Savannah started a couple of clubs and events. With help from Katie Williams, the Graduate Program Director for the popular fiction program, Savannah started a monthly virtual happy hour. During the monthly Zoom meeting, students and professors in the Popular Fiction program chat over coffee, tea, or a cocktail. This event is a chance for students and faculty to build relationships and connect outside of the classroom. Be sure to follow the popular fiction program on Instagram for more information.

In addition to the monthly happy hour, Savannah started a Graduate Student Organization for the Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing program. This club is intended to create a more robust community for students in the program. The organization plans to host writing events, social events with current students and alumni, a mentorship program, and professional events for pitching work. 

How do you balance school, work, and your personal life?

“I rely on Google Calendars a lot,” Savannah says. At the start of the semester, she enters all her school deadlines into her calendar, as well as her work schedule. “I work two jobs, so it can get quite busy. Having my schedule laid out for me is really helpful.”

Additionally, Savannah has a registered emotional support dog named Koda. “His name is inspired from the character Koda in Brother Bear, and ‘Koda’ also means ‘friend’ in Sioux,” she explains. Taking care of Koda is helpful for Savannah to make sure she takes breaks and makes time for herself.  

A potted plant in a white pot is in focus. Out of focus is a laptop showing a group of people meeting on Zoom
Online social groups help Savannah stay connected to her peers. Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Do you like the online format of the Popular Fiction MFA program?

“I do!” Savannah says. One of her favorite aspects of the online, asynchronous format is the workshops. “Instead of having limited class time to workshop someone’s piece, you get the whole week to think about the piece and provide thoughtful feedback.” By having workshops via discussion boards, Savannah says that she receives more in-depth feedback from her classmates, which she appreciates. 

What’s next for you?

Savannah has multiple plans for after she graduates in December of 2024. In terms of writing, she hopes to continue publishing her work and giving back with the proceeds. Savannah has already published one poetry collection, Began with a Rose, and donates some of the sales profits to mental health organizations. Savannah shares, “The reason I titled my book this was in honor of the people online who supported my writing by commenting red roses everywhere.” She hopes to continue giving back with her first novel.

In addition to writing, Savannah hopes to teach at the college level. She currently teaches middle and high school students in a specialized school, and Savannah would like to continue teaching. 

Long-term, she would also love to get her PhD in clinical psychology so that she can work as a therapist. Savannah plans to work part or full-time as a therapist and continue writing on the side.

How can people keep up with you and your work?

To read more of Savannah’s work, be sure to follow her on Instagram and check out her website, where you can buy her poetry collection, art, and merch. 

If the Popular Fiction MFA program had a trope, what would it be?

“I think we would be the Training Sequence trope,” Savannah says. In this story type, a reluctant hero learns an important skill and then uses the skill to solve a larger problem. Savannah says that, like in the training sequence trope, popular fiction students learn valuable writing and publishing skills in graduate school. With this professional training, students have the skills they need to publish important stories. 
Hopefully, this spotlight has given you a sense of what it’s like to study in Emerson’s Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing MFA program. For more information about Emerson’s writing programs, check out our Q&A blog or schedule a call with an admissions counselor today.

Follow Olivia Wachtel:

Writing Assistant

Olivia is a second-year student in Emerson's Communication Disorders MS program. Originally from Ohio, she is loving Emerson and city life. When she's not writing for the Grad Life blog, she loves to read, bake, and crochet.

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