Monday, November 21, 2005

Mailbag for November 21, 2005

A light mailbag this week, or lighter at least, and that's a good thing for me. Also, we'll be taking a week's break for Thanksgiving, which means that the next installment of the mailbag will be December 5th, which will be just in time for the first batch of applications. If you have a question for that mailbag, drop me a line here.

"D" writes in, and he wins the worst codename of the week award, though we hope he won't take that personally. He wonders if my bud Adam Johnson will be teaching in a graduate program next year, and I don't think he will be, D. He's settled pretty well in San Francisco, and he'll be working on his third book.

D has a great insight into the problems in contacting MFA programs: "My problem is that each program I contact is stingy with their information. Most react as if I should be ashamed for even asking questions. It goes like this: Where can I read work by current students? (Bastard! Famous people studied here, long ago! Read their work! That's our quality!) Do teachers tackle sentence/paragraph construction, or do they focus exclusively on more abstract ideas, like plot and 'humanity'? (Insolence! That question is taboo!)"... and he goes on.

On the one hand, D, we can't expect every program to answer every email they receive from prospective students. That said, the average quality of program websites is truly atrocious, and that fact and your comments bring a quote to mind from the MFA Handbook from Johanna Harris, who is a first year student at Trinity College this year:

Q: What were your experiences with program websites?
A: “Some websites indicate ‘We’re friendly. Here’s the information. If you have questions, let us know,’ others seem to say “It’s really hard to get into our program. You probably won’t make the cut.” And a lot of them seem to say ‘We don’t really care about you or about designing a helpful website.’…This was really frustrating, because if you called a program, often the person on the line would indicate, ‘You should know more about our program before you call,’ but then there’s not helpful information on the website. Where am I supposed to get this information?”

It's frustrating, to say the least. My quick answers to your questions, D: You won't find work by current students, unless it is published. And it's rarely published while they're still students because of the lag time for literary magazines... Overall, I'd encourage you to stick with our advice in these mailbags and in the book: narrow your choices using the criteria of location, funding, and teaching assistant experience. Then apply to between 8-12 programs. Then, contact current students of the programs where you are accepted. They can answer your questions. Working in this order will save you a lot of time, D.

As for the accessibility of programs: I received a very nice email from Porter Shreve this week. He's the program director at the Purdue MFA program. Because I want to encourage more program directors to be open and direct to potential students, I've added a note from Porter about the Purdue program in a separate post. Readers should check it out, and then check out the Purdue program. It's flown under the radar on this mailbag, and that's been an oversight on my part. It seems to fit each of the criteria that we've talked about, and the proactive style of the program director speaks volumes for the community feel of the program. Thanks for your note, Porter, and I expect you'll get a few more applications your way this winter.

Back to D: he also asks if there is any way to gauge one's writing sample's chances. Answer: No. Give up on that. It's why you apply to between 8 and 12 programs. If your work is good and it finds the right reader, then you'll be accepted. As for editing services: I'm going to plead MAS on this one, and simply say that I don't have any experience with them. If any readers out there have insight into outside portfolio appraisal, I'm sure D and other readers would like to hear about them in the comments section. Best of luck, D.

Sleeping on the Couch Tonight in Charlottesville, long time reader of the mailbag, is the winner of the Female Answer Syndrome contest, and he'll be receiving a copy of the MFA Handbook in just a few short weeks. He writes something I'd like to re-publish here, since it goes to the heart of narrowing searches, similar to what we just discussed with D:

"Your blog has been an incredible help to me as I tried to figure out where to apply over these last few months. I think a book such as yours is definitely needed, there is little information available about MFAs and deciding where to go is daunting. When I have talked to MFA professors in the past their main advice was to check out the faculty at different programs, read their books, then see who I'd like to work with. A nice idea in theory, but I don't have the time to read a book by every fiction faculty member at 50 universities. I had also been under a naive impression that almost all the MFA programs had good funding and it was good to read some specific information on that. (If you are curious, I ended up with a list of 11:: NYU, Columbia, New School, Iowa, Brown, Michigan-ann arbor, Houston, UMass-amherst, UC-Irvine, UVA, Johns Hopkins)"

Thanks for the kind words, SCTC, and your list of schools seems spot-on to me. Check out the note about Purdue if you're looking for #12. He also sends a question, which I'll reprint also, since he's so clear and articulate about these issues:

"In an earlier mailbag I asked a question about sending your best work versus sending a variety of styles. You took my question to mean trying to increase your chances of appealing to judges and that you should not worry about that and just send your best. I think that makes sense, however I was really asking because I wanted to show the diversity of my writing. "If I could be specific, I have a one or two stories and a few shorts that I'd like to use which are very similar in style and tone (and indeed are all first-person stories written from the same characters view, in my mind.) I have some stories I'm thinking of including which are not worse as much as vastly different. They are basically Donald Barthelmish stories, surreal and word-playish. Do you think it would be a good idea to use one of those or those to show some diversity or should I make my manuscript more cohesive? I feel that if I was a reading applications I'd look down on someone who only wrote one type of story with similar characters and tone. But then again, I know some people just send in a novel excerpt..."

A complex question, SCTC, but a simply answer: Send your best work. I honestly think you are out thinking yourself with these concerns. It's similar to sending specific work to specific programs: the idea definitely has merits, but it doesn't trump the quality of the work. I am by no means saying that your portfolio should be consistent in voice and tone, but I am saying: Decide on the quality, and don't worry about the rest. As SCTC knows, we've talked about making decisions about your writing samples in previous mailbags. The short of it: Find two or three trusted readers and get their opinion on which is your best work. Then use their opinion on any tie-breakers for your own opinion on what should be sent.

As always, good luck SCTC, and congratulations and thanks for the FAS answer.

Anna Mae in Oregon is codenamed Broken-Handed in the Beaver State this week. She broke her hand playing rugby. Ouch! BHBS has had many codenames in the past, and since she's got both quality and quantity on her side, and even though she doesn't have a question for the mailbag, she wins the codename of the week award. Congratulations Anna Mae, and we hope that hand heals up soon.

Finally, Adrift Ad Nauseam in Arkansas writes in and says:

"i have finalized my list of schools for application and i was wondering if you could offer me your professional opinion. i found out as much as i could about each program, but i just thought i'd see if you might redflag any of these programs for any particular reason. many of them are programs you've already spoken well of. "the list [assuming i can afford the cost of application to all of them]: Cal-Irvine, Syracuse, Brown, Michigan, UMass, Florida State, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Washington-Seattle, Notre Dame, and Johns-Hopkins. "issues i'm concerned with: are there enough "larger" programs on my list? do any of these schools pose funding problems? do any of them have competitive funding? am i applying to too many "high profile" programs, where i might as well be donating my application fee to the graduate school?"

No red flags. Funding will be more competitive at Arizona State and Washington. You are applying to a lot of high profile programs, but you have nice mix of large (Michigan, UMass, Florida State) and the small. I like your list, AANA. Go for it. Read what Porter Shreve had to say about Purdue. Look into it and see if it's a good add for your list. I kind of think that it will be.

Okay, got to roll out of here. Have a safe and happy holiday everyone. Best of luck with those applications.

-- TK