Monday, October 03, 2005

Mailbag for October 3rd, 2005



Lots of very tough questions in the mailbag this week. I'm not sure if I have the answer to all of them, so to begin, I'd like to call on our current readers for input on these two topics in particular (you can leave responses in the comments section at the bottom of this post):

-- Undergraduate programs in NYC with reasonable tuition.
-- MFA programs that encourage experimental writing in fiction

Comments and future questions for the mailbag can also be left at my email address. Here we go.

Ed's daughter from New York has her sights set on Fordham University, particularly for the strength of their creative writing program (undergraduate). She's apparently a very talented writer, and Ed would like to send her to the college that is a balance of quality and affordability. He asks about CUNY Hunter and City College in NY.

Well Ed, to be honest, I have no idea about the quality of the undergraduate writing programs at any of those three universities, so my advice will be of a more general nature: I wouldn't recommend using the quality of a creative writing program as a deciding factor in choosing an undergraduate institution. As you likely know, students attend college with one major in mind and often change their mind by the time their sophomore year rolls around. For example, I was a business major, then switched to film, then to history, then to English. Though, if I had it to do over again I would've chosen sociology. As a student takes a variety of courses in his/her first and second year, new interests and talents arise.

So, my recommendation is to do your research, likely using the U.S. News Undergraduate rankings, particularly the "best value" rankings, and decide which universities are the best fit overall. Visit the campuses. My sense is that you (and more particularly, your daughter) will, by decision time, conclude that there are more important aspects (and also more measurable aspects) to choosing a university than the writing program. By the way, most universities offer a minor in creative writing which allows students to take between 5-6 writing classes and still major in other areas. I hope this was in some way helpful. Best of luck to you and your daughter, Ed. If we receive comments about these institutions, I'll point them out in next week's mailbag.

Anonymous can't think of a good code name apparently, and while I empathize with that, it leaves me a bit dispirited. I'll carry on nonetheless. The question is "MFA straight out of undergrad? Yay or nay?" Definitely nay. A very strong nay for that matter. Reasons why? Check out a previous mailbag.

Second, Anonymous is interested in programs that encourage experimental writing. He/she lists Brown, Syracuse, and Columbia. Yet again, I don't have a specific answer here. I can say that the definition of "experimental writing" is a wide one. I think those three schools are worth your look. My best advice is to narrow your choices by location and funding (if those criteria are important to you), then make a list of the teachers at your 20 or so remaining schools and start reading and/or researching their work. This would be a manageable number. Another option is to look up your favorite "experimental" writers and find out where they attended an MFA program, if they did. Finally, I'll add the insight that a larger program will offer a larger number of styles of writing, and that perhaps you might benefit from a traditional-minded teacher for part of your stay (just as a traditional-style writer would benefit from an experimental-minded teacher). Sorry I can't be more specific in listing specific schools, Anonymous. As always, I'm trying to avoid Male Answer Syndrome. Best of luck with your choices, and if we receive comments about experimental schools I'll include them next week.

I don't know if I struck out on those first two questions, but I definitely fouled them off at the very least. Behind in the count, I press forward...

"Freaked Out in Austin" is our code name winner of the week. Good for you, Freak Out. He/she is applying to a school that has a 250 word limit on their personal statement. Freak Out wonders if he/she should leave out the braggy publication paragraph (since the school does allow an attached CV) to make room for other stuff? She (I think it's a she for some reason, though I don't know for sure) also wants to know if the same letters of reference from last year can be used again.

Well Austin, if it's an online form they may stop you at 250 words. If not, then don't worry going a little over. No one's going to count them. In a personal statement to writing programs you want to come across as a nice person who plays well with others, who is ready to learn, who takes his/her writing seriously, and who has done some things in his/her life that proves these things. I think publications proves the "seriously" part to some extent, so I'd include them, even if it's only a sentence. (And for the rest of you, not having previous publications is not a mark against you. They help, but their lack does not hurt). I'd write a little about you personally, something of your educational and work backgrounds, what you'd like to do in your time in the program, and a list of your publications. I've got faith that you can fit those into 250 words.

As far as the letters of recommendation go, yes you can use the ones from last year. My one word of caution: I'm assuming that you didn't get into any programs last year, and you should be as certain as you can be that the letters were not the reason for this. Are these individuals reliable, and are they likely to write nice things about you? If not, I'd replace anyone you have doubts about. I think this case is unlikely, but do keep it in mind. Best of luck with your applications, Freaked Out.

Peter from Minnesota is a rising senior in college and is interested in pursuing an MFA in poetry. I'd encourage him to wait a year or two after graduation, for the reasons I linked to above. He's taken only one poetry course so far, and he wonders what he can do to make up for this lack of experience, and also for the lack of possible letters of recommendation. My main advice, Peter, is for you to take a continuing studies course after your graduation. This might be through a local college or community college, or by an online course through the UCLA Extention, The Gotham Writers Workshop, or other place. This will help both with the experience and the letters. Peter also asks if two of his letters can be from individuals other than creative writing teachers. I addressed this in the mailbag from two weeks ago, and the short version is that two letters from teachers is best, but in the end, go with who you've got and who you trust.

Peter listed his possible poetry schools as "Amherst, Sarah Lawrence, Brown, Mills, Warren Wilson (full-time, not Low Res) and SFSU." I didn't know that Warren Wilson had a residency MFA, so I'd check on that if I were you. My very informal poll of a couple of poetry Stegners adds Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and Maryland to your list. Where ever you choose, best of luck to you Peter.

All right, hopefully we got at least one base hit from this week's mailbag. By the way, I've been listening to The Tragically Hip's Live Between Us during this writing, and I'd highly recommend it for your listening pleasure. Thanks for all of the questions, and I'll talk with you next week.

-- TK

9 comments:

Ryan said...

I asked the same question about programs open to experimental writing, over at Lance Olsen's Cafe Zeitgeist. Lance mentioned Brown and Notre Dame and someone else mentioned Alabama, as well as a few others. Go here:
http://forum.cafezeitgeist.com/viewtopic.php?t=35

I've since learned that Harold Jaffe teaches at San Diego State and he does some out-of-the-mainstream writing (the journal Fiction International is out of there too, and it's open to experimental writing). I wonder if anyone can comment on the MFA at SDSU?

Cynthia Bronco said...

Do you have any opinion on online universities for a MFA? I have two reasons for asking: to increase my earning potential (I'm an educator in a private school), and I really have no interest in pursuing any field other than writing though I'm sure many would probably be far more prudent.

Jenny D said...

A few words on the college/affordability front. I agree that an undergraduate major is not a good reason to pick; aside from students' later changing their mind, almost anywhere you could do 5-6 great courses in creative writing and the major per se does not seem significant. Money: the financial aid system makes it unwise to make casual assumptions about costs at any given school. A little-known secret about American higher education is that the talented student from a middle-class background who can get into top private schools will often get staggeringly large amounts of aid that basically equalize cost between, say, a Princeton and a Hunter. So don't rule out those fancy private schools if you (or your daughter in this case) are an excellent student; it's worth applying to a few reaches and seeing what kind of a package they offer.

(I blog under my real name, but if I didn't, I'd sign this post Female Answer Syndrome)

Erika Dreifus said...

If Ed is looking for additional CUNY schools with strong writing programs for his daughter to check out, he (and she) might want to look into Baruch College. The English Department website can be found here. I think the college is especially proud of the Harman Writer-in-Residence Program, too.

Anonymous said...

I'm an MFA student (fiction) at Columbia, and I just wanted to point you all to an article from Harper's this past week in which the Assistant Dean of Columbia's Writing Division, Ben Marcus, makes a case for encouraging experimental fiction in MFA programs. Clearly, then, I'd say Columbia IS such a place, and I have seen evidence of that in the brief time that I have been here.

Here's the link:

http://www.harpers.org/WhyExperimentalFiction.html

Anonymous said...

concerning undergrad programs in NYC-

The CUNYS are as affordable as you can possibly get and some have excellent writing programs. I have a friend at Hunter and she loves it. Her undergrad teachers are actually also the MFA teachers.
Fordham is pricey, but they do give a good financial aid package. Also, check out the New School's Eugene Lang College. Excellent funding. I went to NYU's Gallatin School. Not so great funding, but it is an amazing program with writers galore. An incredible creative energy to the school with phenomenal teachers.

Anonymous said...

I also went to Gallatin. Aside from the fact that the olsen twin(s) go there, it's the most incredible place ever for a creative person. I come from a middle class family and my financial aid package wasn't all that bad- i did transfer from Eugene Lang (where most of my tuition was covered by grants)
I have a friend at Hunter who is studying writing (undergrad- she is a dual writing/classics major and she loves it there.
As for experimental writing- try calarts

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