Sunday, August 28, 2005

Mailbag, Sunday August 28th, 2005

Lots of questions this week. If you'd like to submit a question for next week's mailbag, drop me an email. I definitely welcome additional commentary, in agreement and in disagreement, and you can post those in the comments section at the bottom of this post. If they contain good advice, and if I have the time, I'll create a post to them from the main page.

First up, David writes in and has a commentary on grades regarding a question from the previous mailbag. In a nutshell, his point is that some universities will not accept students whose undergraduate grade point averages are not a 3.0 or better. This is a good point, and I'd encourage prospective students to ask their programs about this issue if it's a potential problem for them. Save yourself the time on the application and the $40-60 dollar fee. This will be an issue at some universities and not at others.

John writes in and has high praise for the blog, and we sincerely thank him for that. He's a lawyer and is wondering if the ranking of MFA programs is as important in creative writing as it is in the law. The short answer is no. While an agent or publisher may take note of your MFA program on your resume, there are thousands of example of published writers who did not attend an MFA program at all. Your degree will help you learn the skills to be a better writer, but it won't "get you in the door." John writes: "My informal poll says that in the end, only the quality of the writing by the writer counts, so one should not go into a significant amount of debt for this degree. Do you agree or disagree?" I definitely agree. We'll talk more about funding in the coming weeks. I think funding, or attending programs that charge reasonable tuition, are keys in selecting the programs that fit best for you.

Jason sends in four questions, and that's about three questions too many. Let that serve as a kindly reminder to the rest of you. Jason however was not reminded by us in advance, so no penalty, and we'll do our best to answer his questions. All of these are terrific by the way.

What are schools looking for in the writing sample? Jason asks if a story or poem should be "closest to publishable" or "not ready for print, but has some amazing lines/paragraphs/passages that speak toward promise"? He goes on to ask what the reading process is like. I guess my best advice is to second what George Saunders says in the MFA Book: Put your best work at the beginning. If you have seven pages of great work, then put that at the beginning of your ten or twenty or thirty pages. The committee is reading around 100-400 manuscripts, and if they're not taken in by the beginning of your work, I'd expect that they won't make it to the end of it. My best advice: Give your work to three friends. They don't have to be writers. They have to be people who you respect as readers. When you walk into their house or room, you know they have good books on the shelves. If you're sending two stories, give them four of them. Seven poems, give them twelve. Listen to what they have to say. Send the work that the most people think are the best samples. If there's a tie, send the work that you most believe in. And furthermore, send the same work to all of your programs. This will keep you from second-guessing yourself during the waiting period.

Jason wonders if a school asks for 25 pages, but you have two stories that total 30 pages, is that all right? Yes, it is. But don't tell them that I said that. Those final five pages will be read if the previous 25 are good enough. No manuscripts get thrown out for being a little longer. Try to stick to the limit, but 5 extra prose pages or 2 extra poetry pages won't hurt your chances. 10 or more extra pages might, as the committee may think "This person can't even follow directions. What will he be like in the classroom?" And you don't want that.

Jason has two letters of recommendation from "name" people, and one letter from someone who is not a name. Is this last letter a problem? Nope. It's much more important that your letter-writers know you as a person, student, and writer. Big names may be helpful if a committee member knows that person personally, but I'd encourage prospective students not to worry about names. You'd want three people who are teachers if possible, or two people who are teachers and one person who can express your seriousness as someone who is reliable, works hard, and likes learning. In other words, if you ask Mark Twain to write you a letter and he says "Jason seemed like a nice guy, and I read one of his stories and liked it," and if you have a community college teacher who got to know you in class and can speak to your ability as a student, then I'd go with the community college teacher hands down. Keep in mind that a lukewarm recommendation might hurt your chances. So, go with who you've got, who you know, and who you trust.

Finally, Jason wonders how much lit magazine publishing will factor into the selection process. If you've published before, then that will help you. But programs don't expect you to have published before. If they don't like one published story/poem, but they do like one unpublished story/poem, they'll definitely go with the latter. It's always good to be published, but it's not a requirement by any means. And yes, if you have some publications, do mention them briefly in your personal statement.

Thanks for the questions, Jason. I know a lot of people have the same things on their minds. Best of luck with your applications. And thanks for your comments about Bones.

Danyel doesn't have a question, but she likes the blog and would like to give us a shout-out from New York City, where she attends the MFA program at The New School. Here's a shout back from the San of Fran, Danyel. Rock on.

Matthew writes and wonders if an MA in English or an MA in Journalism would be best for his career. I intuited from his email that he was more interested in journalism. My apologies if I'm suffering from Male-Answer-Syndrome, and I likely am, but I think you should go with the journalism degree. That seems to be the kind of writing you're most interested in. Perhaps you can also take classes in English during that degree, and this way you can keep your reading list up to date.

Lincoln points my way to the U.S. News MFA rankings of 2002. It's at The top rankings are the same as 1997, but a few schools have been added to the later rankings. Thanks Lincoln.

Lincoln also asks if it's helpful to send writing samples with different styles, even if this is at the cost of not sending your best work in some cases. I understand the reasoning here: if you send different styles, you're more likely to please a variety of readers. I think we can file this under the "please all the people some of the time vs. please some of the people all of the time" category, and I'd encourage you to lean towards the latter. Send your best work. We'll talk in future weeks about how many programs to apply to (the answer by the way is at least eight), and when you send to a number of schools, you're spreading your net wide. I'd encourage you not to try to spread your net wide in your submissions. You can't control for who will read your work. You can control for the quality of your work (and for advice on how to get help in determining this, see above). Send your best work. By the way, my answer is the same for the converse of your question: What if my best work is in different styles? That's fine. Send it, as long as it's your best.

Finally, I'll need some help in answering a question from Dan, who is interested in writing humor, in the vein of James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and Woody Allen. Can I recommend specific programs? Unfortunately I cannot. I'm not saying that they're not out there, but I'm not familiar with them. My best advice is to encourage you to seek writers who teach and who write in this similar vein. Apply to the programs where these individuals teach. Which programs are those? Hopefully we'll get some answers from readers who'll post in the comments section below. I hope we can send some help your way, Dan.

Thanks for all the questions. It's late. I'll talk with you next week.

-- TK


Chris said...


I would like suggest George Saunders (Syracuse) and Aimee Bender (USC) in regards to Dan's question. Try getting your hands on a copy of "Pastoralia," by GS or "The Girl With The Flammable Skirt," by AB. Both these authors have new books coming out soon as well! In my opinion, Saunders stories are the best out there. However, at USC there's also a man by the name of T.C. Boyle who teachers there.

Bob said...

These are good questions and answers. I'm going to chime in, though, with an alternate opinion on the page limit. I had the same situation/question during my application process and consulted several knowledgeable MFA people. The strong consensus was, stick to the posted page limit and don't even fudge with point sizes or margins. The extra load can hack off an already overworked admissions committee and make you look like you think you're above the rules, or so in love with your own prose that you can't make cuts. I ended up trimming almost six pages out of my two application stories, at considerable pain. Later, after starting the MFA, I talked with one of the faculty members who had read my application. I mentioned my decision to cut my manuscript instead of running over, and he said, "Good move, when people run long we notice it." The ironic thing is that the shorter versions of those stories read better to me now. So my advice would be, trim to fit. An MFA-quality writer should be able to find graceful or even beneficial ways of getting a 30-page manuscript down to 25.

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