Monday, September 19, 2005

Mailbag for September 19th, 2005



The application deadlines for graduate writing programs begin in about three months, which means the MFA Weblog Mailbag is starting to fill up. If you've got a question, you can send it to my email address. Please include a first name, or as is becoming popular, a code name, and where you're writing from.

Our code name of the week is "Perplexed in Pensacola," and he/she asks "What do you do for references if, like me, it's been years since you graduated from college and the couple of summer workshops you attended failed to yield any 'networking relationships,' especially with the workshop leaders. Moreover, the references I do have can only address my teaching abilities, not my potential as a writer. Am I out of luck?"

Great question, Pensacola. We did speak to letters of recommendation in the mailbag a few weeks back, and I'd encourage you to check that section out. In the meantime, the short and the dirty is: The best case scenario is that you'll have three writing teachers as your recommenders. The members of the committee are teachers, and they'll listen best to other teachers. Two teachers as recommenders is fine, and your third can be someone who can comment on your work ethic, your ability to play well with others, and your value as a member of a team. Sounds like two teachers is going to be a stretch for you, so I am highly encouraging you to get at least one. The best way to do this is to take a continuing studies course at your local college. Or, you could take one online at the UCLA Extension, Gotham Writers Workshop, or other places. But, the face-to-face would be best. Taking a class will also be helpful for shaping up your writing sample.

A number of professors indicated in interviews for the MFA Book that the letters of recommendation are not weighed very heavily at all. The writing sample is king. And yes, it is most definitely king, and I think it's safe to say that the writing sample will get you from 250 applications to 25. Your personal statement and letters of recommendation may get you from 25 to the final 15. So, you'll want good recommendations. My advice is to go with who you have and who you trust. But work on that list in the next year if you can by taking a class or two. By the way, letters of recommendation will not sway the committee about your writing ability. They already know your writing ability. They've seen it in your sample. They're not even reading your letters if they didn't like your sample. So, focus on recommenders who can speak to your ability as a student and team player.

You're not "out of luck," Pensacola. Just work to make a little more luck, in the form of at least one teacher recommendation, in the next year.

Nick found us through Maud Newton, and last year he applied to Virginia, Cornell, and Syracuse. He was wait-listed at Syracuse and not accepted at the others. He's ready to follow my advice on applying to more programs (at least eight), though he's wondering if his previous rejections will hurt him if he reapplies to the same schools.

First of all, the reason I encourage prospective students to apply to eight or more schools is from my own experience. I applied to five schools. I was rejected, quickly, at three. I was wait-listed for the fourth, and then, at what seemed like an interminable long last, I was accepted at my number one choice. Needless to say, after the first four letters I wished I'd applied to more. My colleagues have similar stories. Regular readers of the blog will be tired of my refrain by now, but here it is: spread your net wide and keep your options open. Apply to between eight and twelve schools.

My answer to your question is a definite no. No, your previous application won't hurt you. If they chose five students, and you were somewhere in six through ten, then they'll remember you. Fondly. If they didn't like your work a year ago, then they won't even remember you. Committees read between 50-300 applications. And of course, that brings up the obvious: Send new work. If you've been writing consistently, then you've been improving. Send work from the past year. If you sincerely feel that one of your stories or three of your poems from the previous application is your best work, then go ahead and send them. But send new work as well. Best of luck to you, Nick.

Erin read last week's mailbag and writes: "I am really uneasy with the idea of dismissing programs from consideration based on price tag alone. I think a better approach is to be realistic about what you're going to get, what you're willing to pay for it, and how likely it is that the two will balance."

I think that's a good way of stating it. What are you willing to pay? Personally, I don't like going into debt, so "nothing" was what I was looking for, as far as what I was willing to pay. I would add that there are a number of programs that offer excellent funding packages, and I leaned toward those. I just can't see going into $100,000 worth of debt to be a writer. Being a writer is financially difficult enough. That said, readers should check out Erin's comments from last week's mailbag, as she makes a number of excellent points.

As does Anonymous, who is a current student at Columbia, and who gives us the 411 on the financial aspects and what he/she thinks of the program.

Jordan says a lot of nice things about the blog (thanks Jordan) and asks about the best of the Ph.D programs. I don't know these as well as the MFAs, but much of what I have to say at this point can be found in the first mailbag. And there is also a comment from a reader there about another Ph.D. program. Best of luck, Jordan. If anyone has comments about Ph.D. programs, I'd appreciate if they'd leave them in this post's comments.

Justin found us through Stephen Elliott's blog, which makes me immediately suspicious of him. Anyone who visits stephenelliott.com on a regular basis should be kept an eye on. That said, Justin offers his services should anyone in the mailbag have questions about the application process or about the Arizona MFA program. Thanks Justin, and we'll call your number as soon as we get a question for you.

Ted from West Boylston, MA is 35, married, has two kids and another on the way, and is looking to begin an MFA program, either part-time or via the low-residency route. He asks about Boston University, Emerson, and UMass Amherst, and also if there are particularly good or notoriously bad low-residency programs. Well Ted, I'd encourage you to look into the UMass Amherst program, not simply because I went there and benefitted from it, but because there were definitely part-time students there when I attended. I don't know the specific plan for part-time students now, but I'd expect you could take one to two classes a semester. Do talk to the program coordinator there. Emerson College has been in disarray for a long time now. I'd warn you away from there for now. Recent graduates have indicated that the price is high and the quality is low. Teaching assistants are paid a ridiculously low amount there, and there is little continuity with the faculty from year to year. I don't know about the quality of Boston U., but, since it is a private university, the price is high there also. I'd welcome anyone's comments about any of these schools.

As for the low-residency, I don't know of any that are "notoriously bad," and if someone has heard something, they can post it in the comments section also with their reasoning. I do know that Warren Wilson, Vermont, Lesley University, and Bennington College have all been around for a long time and I've heard excellent news about them.

I can't speak to the best option, Ted, as far as residency vs. low-residency. I don't know your particular circumstances, beyond what you've written. I would encourage you to explore both options and to speak with current students at the universities you are most interested in. Best of luck to you and your family.

Angie lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is interested in four programs there: San Francisco State, Mills College, St. Mary's, and UC Davis. She's concerned about the low rankings for these schools though, and is wondering if she should just wait until she can attend a program elsewhere. Angie, I know instructors at each of those institutions and I think very highly of them as people, writers, and teachers of writing. I profiled UC Davis in the MFA Book, and I wrote that it's and up and coming program. I wouldn't pay too much attention to the U.S. News Rankings if I were you. Instead, I'd encourage you to make a list of the most important aspects of a program, as far as your situation dictates. Obviously, location would be near the top. Where does tuition and funding fit in? SF State and UC Davis are much more affordable than the other two. What about having a peer group? Perhaps UC Davis is too far away for you to become a regular part of the program community. (And maybe it would be just fine). Obviously, faculty is very important. Do you want to gain teaching experience? If so, put that on your list.

I guess in answer to your question: I don't have any red flags for any of those programs. I do think that funding indicates resources, and resources indicate support. Most programs in the Bay Area are lacking in funding for their students, and I think this plays out, as far as resources and support go, in the rankings. I'd encourage you to see which programs fit your list of needs. And then apply to those programs. Keep those Low-Residency programs in mind too, as they might better fit your circumstance. Once you are accepted to a program or programs, talk with the students there, both past and present. I think it's at this point that you'll know if the school is right for you. Or, if you should wait and attend elsewhere. My answer for now is: research, and then go for it. By the way, I think San Francisco State accepts a large number of students, and that of course will increase your chances of being accepted. I hope this was helpful in some way. Best of luck to you, Angie.

Finally, MJL wants to know if I have any insider tips on applying to the Stegner Fellowship Program. I'd prefer a more specific question, but what I can say is that there are five fiction writers and five poets accepted each year, and that is out of a group of approximately 800 and 400 applications respectively. Like any program, send your best work. I can say that the writing sample is what everything turns on. The faculty doesn't care about experience (there have been plenty of non-MFA students accepted over the years) or who you know. If the writing sample is to their liking, and if they think, through your personal statement primarily, that you will benefit from the fellowship, then you make the five. I applied because one of my favorite writers, Michael Byers, was once a Stegner. A few months later I got a call from Tobias Wolff, asking if I'd like to come out to California. Send your best work. I can promise you this: every application is read thoroughly.

Man, that was a lot of questions. I'm out of here. Rock on with those applications.

3 comments:

the unreliable narrator said...

Hello Tom et alia, it's the Unreliable Narrator again.

(But can you really be sure…?)

I wanted to weigh in quickly on Ted's question about the Boston area programs. Yours truly was the Starbuck Fellow in Poetry at B.U. in 1997-98 (and no it has nothing to do with coffee). When Pinsky called me on the phone in spring of '97 I was finishing my MA dissertation at Cambridge and I had gone about $35K into hock at that point, for undergrad at Mt. Holyoke and Cambs combined (and I know that's nothing now, but I grew up in East Texas with no indoor plumbing or electricity, and it was a dazzling, incomprehensible sum to me at the time, as impossible to understand as statistics about climate change, or the volume of the sun). Pinsky made me an offer and I promptly said, no, that's not enough. Long story short, I managed to get them to pay my way and give me $1200 stipend per semester, for teaching, working in the office and Starbucking. That was the good news. Now the not-so-good.

(By the way I've heard the same dire things about Emerson—pricey and in limbo as older professors retire and the administration flails around trying to figure out the adjunct-vs-faculty situation. Stay far, far away—a dear old friend of mine became an adjunct, was devoured whole, and has never been heard from since. If Ted's a poet, he could do a LOT worse than UMass Amherst, which has James Tate and Dara Weir, though sadly no longer Shahid Ali—it's dirt cheap, he could go on to do a PhD if he wanted, and there are the not-inconsiderable resources of the whole Pioneer Valley—you can hear Nobel laureates lecture pratically any night of the week. I did my undergrad poetry thesis with Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser, both of whom now live in Amherst. And, if you have kids, the Valley is a really cool place to raise them. Where was I—ah yes, I was going to give lurid details of the "he could do a LOT worse."

The situation at BU if you're a poet (fiction writers seem to make out *really* well there—look at two of my classmates, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ha Jin, for starters—but poetry is fairly cut-throat and miserable. I've watched students and graduates at Harvard/Tufts/BU/BC practically kill each other over things like dismal $1,200/semester adjunct jobs/graduate teaching fellowships. It can get really ugly, really fast. And while Rosanna Warren is a fabulous instructor, devoted, passionate, fearsomely bright, there are a collection of Dead White Males at BU which make it almost impossible to get anywhere unless you're a Dead White Male yourself.

More in a moment—I'm making wine-dark-sea grape jelly and I think it's boiling over. (I really mean that, by the way—it's not some highfalutin' metaphor!)

the unreliable narrator said...

Right, where was I before the scorching jelly…

But first I'd like to apologize for the appalling syntax typos in the last entry. And did I really ever say I wanted to weigh in "quickly"? What was I thinking!?

Anyway, back to BU. I'd been Joseph Brodsky's student during the last three years of his life. When he died, I wanted to get as close to him as I could, so I decided on BU because that's where Derek Walcott teaches. In flagrant disregard of every single piece of advice I'd ever been given, I applied to only one school, and that one sight unseen (because I was in the UK). It's a miracle I didn't wind up back in East Texas working at the Dairy Queen.

The point, if there is one, and I'm beginning to feel a little concerned about that myself, is that at BU I was miserable Miserable MISERABLE. The two primary poetry teachers, Derek and Robert Pinsky, are both Very Busy and Important Men and really have very little time for students. The single conference I managed to have with Derek was 10 minutes while he was waiting for his taxi one afternoon. Robert is brilliant about revision, knows more about it than anyone I've ever met, and taught us very conscientiously. And when asked for a letter of reference, he has his assistant write the following:

"The Unreliable Narrator was my student for one year. I recommend her for your program. Robert Pinsky."

Lest you think I'm the only one sufficiently unreliable to receive such a letter, let me disabuse you of the notion by reminding you that one of my Starbuckly duties was to work in the department office….

Anything I learned at BU, I learned from Rosanna and Aaron Fogel, a bitter hilarious brilliant lefty poet (The Printmaker's Error) who teaches English lit because he's pointedly not invited to teach creative writing. Leslie Epstein and Susannah Kaysen and Ralph Lombreglia are, they say, great fiction teachers. Partisan Review is\ finally kaput, and AGNI's not really open to student contributions. Derek teaches playwrighting, and you have a better chance with him in the theater—he comes alive when he has actors and a script and students willing to write plays in heroic couplets.

Au fond, I can only say this: of the many of us who were mauled about by this university, financially and otherwise (and NB that BU's administrators have some of the dodgiest, most corruptly conservative politics around—there's hardly a week when one or the other of them isn't above the fold in the Boston Globe for some species of heinous kickback/scam/scheme/sordid naughtiness—and they've successfully prevented their grad students and adjuncts from organizing), only a handful of us are still writing—maybe just one or two from my year. In true kingmaker fashion, Robert and Derek each chose a favorite from my class. Derek's favorite had to beat him off with a stick, but she got into [famous residency] and now has a [big famous grant]. And Robert's favorite is a literary agent in [big city] who hasn't written a line in years. Instead s/he lies face-down on the bed and talks into the mattress, which s/he claims is far saner and healthier than writing poems.

The best poet in our year by far is a children's librarian in Northern California who dresses up in a clown suit and acts out stories every Saturday morning. He writes a poem every three or four years.

We who have survived salute you.

Alors—at this point I've narrowed things down to Utah, Denver, Houston, UCDavis, Georgia and UCLA (because in fact I have no desire whatsoever to go back East—it's just that I really wanted to work with either CD Wright at Brown or Lucie Brock-Broido at Columbia). That's six—to bring the number up to eight, I'll reapply to Brown, and see if Columbia can't kick up their woeful aid package (though I hear you when you say it's not bloody likely). As well, I'll probably contribute my annual donation to Stanford, in the form of the application fee for the Stegner.

What do you think of the PhD programs listed above? Especially when you take into consideration that I'm a very, very, very, very very odd poet? (Meaning I'm hybrid, mixed-breed and possibly sterile, which I think is only what you can expect when you cross East Texas with Brodsky, Walcott and Heaney, and then add Dickinson, Woolf and Stein. Beat vigorously. Bake at 350 degrees, or just until lightly browned and the top is springy to the touch.)

Would you like some of Clytemnestra's finest wine-dark jelly? I have magenta splatters of it all over my arms and in my hair, as befits a cold murderess of Concord grapes.

Unreliably yours—etc.

PS if my experience as a blog author tells me anything, it's that you'll only be getting more and weirder mail as the months go by. You're allowed not to answer everyone, you know—especially once it's midterms and you have to grade 80 awful critical essays on Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.

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