Monday, January 16, 2006

Mailbag for January 16th



Lots of traffic on the MFA blog this week, and a corresponding full mailbag. I’ll get to the “Iowa Issue” in a just a minute. First, some business.

There’s been a dispiriting lack of “codenames” in the mailbag of late, so there’s a new rule on the question submission page. No codename, no answer. After this week. Humor me. I enjoy them, and so do most of our readers. And thanks.

Second, Sumac has written in, and she’s a graduate of the Low-Residency Vermont Program. She offers a lot of excellent insights for students considering the Low-Residency route. Do check out her post. Thanks so much, Sumac.

Okay, I posted three program profiles last week, including one for the Iowa Writers Workshop. This created some notice on the web, including posts from Maud Newton, Earthgoat, and Galley Cat. Thanks to those litblogs for linking to us. They, and we, received a number of comments in response to the profile, and they ranged from the angry to the elated to the insightful to the underwhelmed. You can read those comments on their sites, and also on the actual original posting. There’s a particularly terrific comment from a current Iowa student on our blog (scroll down).

This week, I’ve posted the introduction to the program profiles chapter, as well as three additional profiles. I hope this will make my profile system clear to any visitor.

In any case, I want to be clear about a few things, not the least of which is that I am not “badmouthing” the Iowa program. In my profile I gave it its much-deserved props, and I think I was clear about why I don’t consider it a top ten program. If I’ve not been clear, I want to be now:

I didn’t list any program as “top ten” that doesn’t fund all of its students and fund them all equally. I think this issue is extremely important, as it levels the playing field in workshops and makes for a less-competitive atmosphere. That said, because of the number of students the program accepts – over 80 – the Iowa Writers Workshop ends up fully funding many more students than many of the programs I’ve listed as ‘top ten.’ They simply do not fund them all, and this ‘tiered funding’ system is not unique to Iowa. And it is also a reflection of the reality of graduate school. Most students in other fields pay full tuition for their graduate education. As a number of current students point out, the tuition at Iowa is very reasonable, and the cost of living in Iowa is very low, especially in comparison to other areas of the country. And, yes, it is a great college town.

Bottom line: If I were applying again, I would apply to the Iowa Writers Workshop. That said, I stand by what I wrote in the profile. Thanks to everyone who wrote in.

Okay, enough on that subject, and enough with the link-o-rama. On to the mailbag…

Anonymous wishes she’d discovered the blog earlier, but hey, better late to the dance then not at all. She also discovered, through our blog, the Purdue program, an excellent choice in my opinion. Anonymous applied to thirteen schools: Arkansas, Cornell, UC Irvine, Utah, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michener, Montana, Iowa, Oregon, Brown, and Washington U. in St. Louis, and she would’ve added Arizona, Florida, and Florida State to the list.

Her question (by the way, I hope you’re a she. I’m guessing. Sorry if I’m wrong): “I really don't want to have to ask my professors for more letters. Do you think I should apply to (these other programs, Purdue, Arizona, Florida, and Florida State)? Or do you think I have my bases sufficiently covered?”

I’m man-facting, right off the bat. Why wait till the late innings?... I think those four programs are excellent, yet I think you’ve got your bases covered. You or I can’t predict where you’ll be accepted and where you won’t be, but I feel like you’ve spread your nets wide enough. Since deadlines are, like, now, I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. I’m sure, like me and the rest of us, you’ve got enough on your plate.

Since I’m using all sorts of bad clichés (bases, nets, plates), let me add one more: At the end of the day (oh man, At the end of the day? Actually the end of the day?), I think you’ve made some excellent choices. See where your chips fall. (Arrgh. Can’t get. Out. Of. Bad cliché. Cycle.) If you’re accepted, you’ve made good choices. If you’re not, you’ve got other options for next year. Rock on, Anonymous, and thanks for the question.

Sheepish in the Chi is relieved to find our blog and thinks it’s “the shit.” We’ll be optimistic and hope that’s in the best sense of that word.

Also, I don't know what Sheepish in the Chi means, but you're our codename of the week winner. Congratulations.

Sheepish cheats, and tries to get around our two question rule by breaking her questions into ‘issues.’ Man, that is cold, Sheepish. I admire it. Instead of listing your questions, I’m going to jump straight into my answers. 1. If you don’t think a professor will remember you, as far as letters of recommendation go, then he/she probably won’t. 2. Why don’t you ask the editors you worked with to write your letters? Go with the people who can comment on your work ethic and your ability to play well with others. Man-facting, but that’s much more important than someone who can comment on your talent, or your ability as a writer. The MFA committee will already have an opinion of your talent, based on your writing sample. And if they’re reading your recommendations, then they obviously think highly of it. 3. Get an editor to write a recommendation. And then another editor. And someone else you’ve worked with, or a professor (even if that’s in another subject) to write the third. 4. As far as that writer who has inspired you: Write to him or her. People like to hear that they inspired other people. Yes, do ask if you could call or write her for advice about your career. Make it clear that you just want ten minutes or so. Often, people will end up giving more than that. Flattery will get you everywhere. Don’t over-flatter (since you asked), just be direct about their influence on your writing and life. Say that you could talk/email at her convenience.

That sounded like a coded message to Sheepish. It was not. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sending a note to an admired person. I can’t predict what the response will be. Give it a shot. Good luck on your applications, and thanks for the question.

Delia in Durham has no question, but says thank you for the blog. Thank you for your note.

Two-Timer in Tucson returns and asks “Under what circumstances, if any, would you recommend pursuing a second graduate writing degree?” I guess my answer is: when you can afford to be a graduate student for a few more years and when you feel this is your best choice to create time for your writing. Sounds like you’re working on a specific project, and that sounds like a good reason. TTiT, I’d encourage you to do a cost-benefit about 2nd MFA vs. Getting a part time job and writing as much as possible. I don’t know which of these will be the best choice for you, but sit down and write out the pros and cons of each. Talk it over with a friend. I think a decision will come clearer to you.

TTiT also asks if his first MFA will hurt his chances of being accepted to another MFA. The program assistants he’s talked to said no. I guess my feeling is that it wouldn’t bother me if I was on the committee. I’d go with the best writing combined with the personalities (based on the personal statement and recommendations) that might fit best in the program. Since I’d be looking for a diverse group of students on a number of levels, that 1st MFA might work to your advantage. In any case, I’m man-facting, but I don’t think, in the majority of cases, it will hurt you. Rock on.

Cyn also returns and asks “Is it fair to assume that the earlier the application gets in the more likely you will?” No, definitely not. The committee will likely not begin reading the writing samples until the deadline has passed. In most cases, the application arrival date will have no impact. Unless of course it’s late. Then you’re screwed.

Also, Cyn wants to know “If you get rejected from a school is it worthless to try again the following year?” No, not worthless. But you won’t know where you came close and where you didn’t. If I were rejected at, say, ten schools, I’d reapply the next year to four of those places (the ones I really liked, and perhaps the ones that accept the most students), and add six new programs to my list. Rock on, Cyn, especially since, if memory serves me correctly, that you work in a rock n’ roll bar.

Anonymous is a busy person this week. She writes in with kind words for the podcast of my story “The Boots.” Thanks for that, and she also wants to know if the poetry writing samples have to be unpublished work? No, not unless the application says so, and I’ve never seen this. If a few of your poems are published, then hey, those might actually be some of your best work. Send them in. That would go for fiction writers and others too, though I think it’s wise to send in a mix, and I wouldn’t send any work that is older than three years.

I hope I’m stating the obvious here: you’d send this work formatted just like your other work. As a Word document or the like. Not as copies of the publications. Otherwise, it seems like you’re bragging. You can state your publications in your personal statement if you like.

“Carroll, Violinguist" asks two questions: “Is it possible to balance a 'dual' career as a scholar in the humanities and a writer of fiction; why or why not?” and “Is it possible to succeed as a writer of fiction without ever obtaining an MFA; why or why not?”

Man, that “why or why not” makes me suspicious that CV may have worked as a high school history teacher at some time. As for the first question: Yes, it’s possible. Why? Because people work as fiction writers and hold all sorts of other jobs. Doctors work as fiction writers, and they don’t get their summers off. Professors do. My answer is yes to the second question, and my reasons are the same: Lots and lots of people are successful fiction writers and have never had an MFA. I’d assume that the majority of writers are not MFA graduates.

An MFA degree allows time, instruction, and community. Many writers don’t need these things, and others can find them in ways outside of a graduate program. I can’t tell anyone whether an MFA program is the right choice for them or not. But this blog, and the book, is all about providing information so that students can make that decision on their own. Thanks for the questions CV, and thanks for your enthusiasm about the blog.

“Guy Who Would Rather That His Name Weren’t Disclosed” asks if he should included “professional” bylines since he doesn’t have “literary” bylines. As in: should he list his magazine publications, even if these are not fiction or poetry. He also adds “Please discuss” at the end of his question, which leads me to believe that he also may be a high school history teacher. Yes GWWRTHNWD, add those into your personal statement. It’s part of who you are, and it shows that you can meet deadlines and work with editors. One word of caution, since you’ve listed so many in your email: If I were you I’d choose the top four publications and list those only in your personal statement. Maybe talk about one or two. They’ll get the message, and you won’t seem like you’re bragging or assuming that these will “punch your ticket” to the program. If you want to include a resume in your application, I think that’s fine. Rock on.

Los Feliz Navidad says his favorite poet teaches at Alaska-Fairbanks. He’s worried that this program is ranked low on the U.S. News Rankings. What should he do? I would worry more if the program is right for you, rather than how U.S. News, or I for that matter, rank the programs. If you’re going to follow my advice and apply to 8-12 programs, I think you should consider using one of these for Alaska-Fairbanks. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of that program, but it’s worth your while to contact the program coordinator and ask for more information if the website doesn’t provide the insight you need. And hey, why not write your favorite poet and talk about your interest. You may get a response, and it may give you insight into a possible fit. Go for it.

Another of LFN’s favorite poets works at UC Davis. The question: “If I get into Davis and an MFA program or two, should I choose the MFA over the MA? Do I have a better shot at getting a teaching job with an MFA than I do with an MA?” That’s an interesting point, LFN. Man-facting again here: I think the MFA gives you a better shot at a teaching job. It’s a terminal degree, though that is becoming less so, because of the addition of many Ph.D. programs in creative writing. (That’s a discussion for another mailbag). In any case, when I look at job listing on the MLA or AWP (Modern Language Association and Association of Writing Programs), I see many more listings for MFA graduates than M.A. graduates. So yes, you should factor that into your discussion. That said, I think very highly of the UC-Davis program, and you should in no way write it off. If you’re accepted, you should talk with a professor there about your concerns before you make your decision. Thanks for the questions, LFN.

Anxious Latecomer writes in with a comment about the MFA Handbook: “I'm so happy I've got your book on the mail the other day! I'm enjoying it a lot. Not only is it full of useful tips, but it's really funny, too. Sort of like the mailbags, which is great.”

Awesome. Glad to hear it, AL. I’ll have to summarize his question: His undergraduate transcripts have not arrived at some of the graduate programs. This is likely, in his opinion, because his undergraduate school is overseas. His M.A. transcripts have arrived. Should he worry? I’d say that you should worry but not panic. For the most part, programs will look at the application contents, then send their picks for students onto The Graduate School (the university office), which has to approve the selections. My sense is that this buys you some time.

If I were you I’d continue to try to get in touch with your undergraduate school office and try to see what the holdup is. And, I’d write to your graduate programs in an email and explain the situation. This way, you’ll be on record for trying to solve the problem. I had a problem with my GRE scores for UMass, but I was able to work it out by staying in touch with the program. Make sure you do that, and do that now. Follow whatever instructions they send back. Good luck AL, and I hope it works out for you. Keep at it.

Whew! That’s it. That was another long one. Good luck to everyone out there, and I’ll talk with you next week.

-- TK

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