Monday, November 14, 2005

Mailbag for November 14th, 2005

Before we start the mailbag, two notes:

First, we're almost to publication, and a summary of the book, plus the table of contents is available on the Continuum website, plus in a post on our blog.

Second: The Female Answer Syndrome nominees are in. Thanks to everyone who sent in their ideas. As we said in last week's mailbag, we're trying to figure a definition for FAS, since Male Answer Syndrome has already been defined. Before we get to the winner, we'll allow Gruntle in Ory-Gun to get this final word on man-facting:

"I believe that most *solicited* man-facting arises out of a genuine desire to help. It's not an attempt to mislead, to BS, or pretend expert knowledge, but simply one's best guess. Now, unsolicited man-facting - that's a whole nother armadillo. And man-facts also seem to be habit-forming; the more you man-fact, the more you man-fact."

For the record, GOG is a woman, and a charitable one at that. For those of you new to the blog, I've been working hard to cut down on my own man-facting in my answers. I appreciate everyone's support.

Congratulations are in order. Chellis Ying of San Francisco chooses "Sleeping on the Couch Tonight in Charlottesville"'s answer as our winner for Female Answer Syndrome. Chellis especially appreciated SCTC's use of man facting throughout the answer, including percentages:

I tried for a while to think up a clever way to sugar coat the answer (or perhaps smother it in chocolate, 89% of women love chocolate covered things), but I could not. So here is the real answer, damn the consequences: FAS is the tendency for women to bring every conversation to a personal level and relate every fact to their own life experience. If MAS commonly makes up statistics, FAS commonly fails to understand statistics. Allow me to illustrate by juxtaposing man-facts with their FAS responses:

Man: "Did you know that historically the leading cause of death in western civilization has been Germans?" *made-up man fact.*
Woman: "I used to a date a German guy and he was real nice so I don't believe you!"

Man: "I just read a study* saying twice as many women prefer sushi as men." *note: a lie!*
Woman: "Well I'm a woman and I don't like sushi."

Let me finish with a 100% true example:
Me: "Did you know that left-handed people die an average of seven years earlier than right-handed people."**note: I'm pretty sure I read this somewhere*
Female: "I'm healthier than you, there is no way you are living seven years more than me."

So there you have the un-sugared truth.

Okay SCTC, thanks for the answer and congratulations. Hopefully a copy of the MFA Handbook will keep you good company on the couch next month. We can send one of Adam Johnson's prizes before that. Drop me an email this week. Thanks so much to everyone who sent in a nomination. A list of many other answers is here. You provided a lot of laughs for my friends and family, not to mention the readers of our blog.

On to the mailbag...

Mad Manda is a new fan of the blog, and she asks how much weight is put on undergraduate work and previous publications. Not much, Manda. A publication might help you, but if it's a story or poem (that you include in your application) that the committee doesn't really like, then the publication won't help too much. As for undergraduate transcripts, I've never heard a professor even mention them. Though, you will have to send them in for the application. Bottom line: Writing sample is 90% of the decision process. Then personal letter and letters of recommendation. This has been addressed in a variety of ways in previous mailbags, so do check those out. Good luck, Manda.

A Fictitious Fresnan asks an interesting question: "I was wondering if you had any advice for fiction applicants on submitting short stories versus part of a novel as a writing sample. Do you think one is received better than the other? Or can you share some common pitfalls of both? I think my novel introduction is my strongest work, but I'm worried that because it doesn't arrive at a sense of closure, and doesn't have a super strong sense of what'll-happen narrative immediacy, that it might be less likely to stand out in the minds of the readers."

I don't know of any common pitfalls, FF, but I will say: send your best work, and especially send the work that starts the best. Make sure you grab the reader's attention from the get go. If your submission doesn't arrive at a sense of closure, I'd add a note at the beginning and end. Beginning: "This is part of a longer work." Ending: "End of Sample." That should be enough to let readers know. As for your comment about narrative immediacy: Make sure that your sample has narrative immediacy on the page, even if it doesn't hold a hint for the narrative of the longer work. If it's all an "intro" to the longer work, then it needs to hold tension in and of itself. Good luck FF, and thanks for your question.

Oops, another question from FF: Do I have any tips on writing a plot synopsis? Yes, but first: You should buy Novel and Short Story Writer's Market. They have great info on this topic, as well as detailed information about the markets. And by the way, to all fiction writers out there: Novel and Short Story Writer's Market is an absolute must for your bookshelf.

As for a summary for the application, I'd write something like this about my novel, The Winged Girl: "The Winged Girl concerns Natalie, who is 15 at the opening of the novel. We'll follow her through age 30 over the course of four sections. Natalie has wings like those of a flying squirrel. She can glide more than she can fly. She'll live in Amherst, MA, Boston, and San Francisco during the course of the novel." Keep it short and to the point. I think. Show where you'll go, even if you don't know what you'll do when you get there. My advice: try summarizing in ten sentences, then edit down to five. Good luck.

Paula in NYC asks about the New School, and I'm pretty sure a few readers wrote in about this program in a previous mailbag. You'll have to do some hunting. As for literary non-fiction programs, there are dozens of them. I've listed them in the MFA Handbook, and an incomplete list is Alabama, Alaska (2 of them), Arizona, Arkansas, Cal-Davis, University of San Francisco, Colorado, Florida State, Georgia, Hawaii, Boise State, Notre Dame, Iowa, Minnesota, Columbia, The New School, North Carolina-Wilmington, Ohio State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, George Mason, and Wyoming. Good luck Paula.

Anonymous, in response to a note last week writes: "The UC Davis' Grad Studies website is a bit deceptive at first glance, but applicants to the Writing program are not required to take the subject test:" Thanks Anonymous, and I'll make a change in last week's mailbag.

Stupid in San Francisco asks if $125 is too much to pay for an application fee. My answer: a definite yes. That's way too much money. An application fee should be, at very most, $70. The fee should cover costs, not be a money-maker. I'd avoid any program that charges an excessive application fee. If they try to milk you at the beginning, they'll milk you throughout. That's my opinion at least. Great question and thanks.

Moribund in Maryland is runner up for codename of the week. She asks way too many questions, though I'll try to get to them all. She gives a shout-out to Eric Puchner's stories in Music Through the Floor, which we spoke about in the last mailbag.

Moribund wonders if committees realize that all applicants "are not Eric Puchner at this moment in their careers" and if she should explain in her personal statement that she focused on other endeavors besides writing. Yes, do explain that, but don't state it as a way of explaining your writing. Your writing sample will either be up to their standards or it will not. That's why I'm encouraging applying to 8-12 schools. Do explain that you're a well-rounded person with many interests. But don't talk about the quality of your writing, either positively or negatively. But do have confidence in it.

Moribund also wonders if she should mention her desire to teach writing in her personal statement. Definitely yes. And in reference to your question, no, it should not outrank writing, but should simply co-exist with it. Committees want to see a desire to teach if in fact that will be part of your program experience. This should not be the focus of your letter, but should be made clear.

Since Moribund is convinced that she should apply to more schools, she wonders if it's rude to ask her recommendors to reprint their letters? My answer is: You don't really have a choice. Do make sure you send them all the materials for all the additional schools at the same time. Make their job as easy as possible. I wrote about this in either last week's mailbag or the one before that.

Finally, Moribund wants to know if it's truly foolish to enter an MFA program right out of undergraduate work. It's not foolish, but I don't think it's smart either. I've talked about this a lot in the past. The main reason is that people who go straight into graduate work often burn out. So, as you ask "Should I listen to the wise?" I'm not sure if I'm wise or not, but I do feel strongly about it. Good luck, Moribund. By the way, there's no harm in applying and then seeing what your options are. Many programs, especially the larger ones, will allow you to defer for a year if you are accepted.

Simpatico in Santa Clara is our codenamer of the week, and congratulations to her. She asks if San Francisco State considers experimental writing, and yes, they definitely do, though they are not limited to that. She asks about the reputation of City College and San Jose. I don't know about City College, but I do have a former student who went to San Jose, and she really liked it a lot. Both the teaching and the atmosphere. My advice: apply to these schools, especially since you're focusing on the Bay Area. See where you are accepted, then talk with students at those schools. Your options will become clearer then. Best of luck Simpatico.

Finally, Adrift in Arkansas says the timing for the release of the book is "terrible, or worse," though he thinks the blog is amazing and has read every post. His question: "Is this a degree that can help me get a job which involves writing? will this *artistic/non-professional* degree help me or hinder me (considering i myself am able) when i look for a job in, let's go crazy and say, the entertainment industry as a staff writer? is it realistic to believe that i can get an MFA degree and find work afterward that will allow me to write, or is it congratulations on the degree, publish or perish, hope you don't starve?"

First of all, sorry about the timing of the book. The publishing world is a tricky one, and Continuum is doing its best to get the book about there ASAP. As I've said before, it will be available in early December, and it does hold lots of information about making your final decision and about how to make the most of your graduate experience. And thanks for your kind words about the blog.

I'm not sure how to answer your main question. The MFA is an artistic degree. It's about craft primarily, and not necessarily about career. Some programs will help focus you in a future career by offering classes on teaching, editing, technical writing, and a whole host of other subjects. Some will focus primarily on the art. There is definitely something to be said for publication. When editors take note of your work, other editors and employers will take notice.

It is what it is. It's not a degree in sculpting or painting, but it is closer to those than it is to degrees in business or law.

I think my best advice is not advice at all, but is simply an observation. And it's not my observation, but that of Adam Johnson, whose essay "Counterpoint: A Guide to the MFA and Beyond from an Outsider Who Became an Insider" appears in the book. Adam says...

"A graduate writing degree? It's deciding to live the writer's life temporarily in the hopes that it becomes permanent. This means writing every day, devouring books, drafting, listening to the advice of others, and taking risks with your work."

And I think that's the best thing said in this entire blog. Thanks for your email, Adrift, and best of luck in your applications.

It's late. I'm out. Thanks for everyone's questions. Future questions can be sent here.

-- TK


Anonymous said...

That is too funny. I approve of the final answer selected for FAS.

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