Sunday, January 29, 2006

Mailbag for January 30th, 2006

Tough time-crunch for me this week. I have to write the mailbag in less than an hour, so I apologize in advance for any shorter-than-usual answers. I’ll try to get to the heart of the matter of each question.

The Creative Writing MFA Handbook is available from Continuum or Amazon or As you'll see, the best way to order is through Continuum. You should receive the book in a week.

Future questions for the mailbag can be left here. Also, there’s a post from a Low-Residency Student/Parent in this week’s blog.

Thanks also for all the code-names. I’m really enjoying them. Let’s roll…

Here’s Hoping in Hell’s Kitchen asks about CalArts in L.A. and also the USC Ph.D program. I don’t know much about CalArts. Since you’ve heard from happy students and professors, use it as one of your “wildcards.” (explanation below)… As for USC’s program, it’s terrific. But be warned: they only accept two to three students per year. So don’t bet the mortgage on it.

Wild Cards: I hope this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways… When you’re making your list of 8-12 schools where you’ll apply, do your best to figure in your criteria (funding, teaching, location, reputation, etc.), but don’t be afraid to use a wildcard or two on a less-than-famous program or one that you’ve heard about from current students. A direct recommendation should count for a lot. Good luck, HHihK.

Dilapidated and Disobedient in DC offers a knighthood for the blog, though since he describes himself as “a bed-wetting liberal,” we wonder if he truly supports the monarchy in the first place. Well, it’s the thought that counts. Thanks DD-DC.

He wonders if his political views, especially since they appear in his writing will hurt his chances of being accepted. My answer: the odds say yes. That is, someone somewhere will read your work and either be offended or wonder if you’ll be a problem within the program. But hey, you are who you are. Stick to your beliefs, stick to placing them in your writing. As long as they’re not too preachy, because that’s a turnoff no matter where one falls on the political spectrum… And in answer to part II, I think it will impact your acceptances, rather than the workshop itself… Apply to those 8-12 if you can. If you lose two because of your beliefs, so be it.

DD-DC also wonders that since I said the average age of an MFAer is 28 years old (and by the way, that is like, the king of all man-facts on this blog, though I did survey men and women with their thoughts on the age issue), will programs be less inclined to accept middle-aged applicants? Hmm, depends on the program. I’m sure there are some committee members who might hold that against an applicant. Not officially of course, as that would be age discrimination, but privately. As for me, I’d like a mix of experience in my workshops, and one of the best classes I ever taught was a Stanford Continuing Studies class where we ranged from age 27 to age 80.

It should be enough of a concern, DD-DC, that you should do some legwork before you apply. Narrow your programs, then email the coordinators and ask, approximately, how many students your age have been admitted recently. This should give you a good idea. And also, the programs who take the time to write back will likely be the ones who have admitted a diverse age group.

Generally speaking, Low-Residency Programs are more likely to have diverse age groups in their program, and this is very much to their credit. Best of luck, DD-DC.

Leopard Print in Los Angeles says the personal essay exercise in the MFA Handbook was a great help to him. He writes: “There's a section on the personal essay chapter where you asked to jot down answers to clarify reasons for writing. I thought that was brilliant. It helped me with the personal essays. I'm no longer coating the pages with cover-letter-speak, and instead, I have something clear and honest. Yeah, those answers surprised me, and have, in fact, reminded me of what matters most to me and my writing. No more clever writing, or exercises on range or any of that crap. You reminded me to write the type of stories I like to read, ones that matter to me and not an editor or an admissions board. I feel free! Thanks, man.”

You’re welcome, man. Rock on. As for Leopard’s situation: he has two teachers who haven’t responded to his letter of recommendation request. Should he contact them again? Yes. Definitely so, especially since you feel that you had a good relationship with them etc… I can tell you that I am absolutely organization-freak, and I keep every email that every student sends me. That said, a few times I’ve heard from a student: Did you get my email? And it seems that I didn’t. Maybe the error was on my end or their end or somewhere in between. Bottom line: It happens. Write them again, Leopard, and thanks for the kind words about the book.

Jittery in Jersey wants to know the tiered funding programs besides Iowa. I feel like I’ve listed these (or some of them before), but off the top of my head this would include a lot of programs. Anyplace where the funding is high for some students, mid-range for others, and very low for yet others is tiered funding. This is really the majority of programs. The difference is: how does the program treat these groups beyond funding? Equally? What about other resources? Keep this in mind as you’re doing your research. If you disqualify all tiered programs, you’ll have narrowed your list too far, IMO.

So, off the top of my head: Arizona, Arizona State, Massachusetts, Montana, Florida, Florida State, Washington. There are lots more. And keep in mind: since these are state schools, the tuition should be reasonably affordable. Not everyone reading this blog is going to get funding. So keep your options, especially affordable ones, open. Good luck, JiJ.

Okay, I’ve got to move here… Struggling to Stay Afloat in San Francisco asks: “Do you think it hurt me that I said in my personal statement that I was set on working on this one project, or that my writing was about the Holocaust?”

I’m sure the Holocaust focus didn’t hurt you, but some members of the committee might be worried if you were “set” on working on this particular project. Unless of course, the writing sample blew them away. Which, if they’re reading your personal statement, I guess it did… Anyways, my point: I’d want students who were focused, and I’d also want them to be open to new ways of writing and thinking. Does that make sense? Words like “I plan” and “I want” are good. Things like “I’m set” and “I’m committed to” work less good (er, well). Does that make sense? Hopefully, you left yourself some leeway. Overall, don’t sweat it. If they liked your writing, I doubt if they’ll be sweating too much.

SSAiSF’s second question: “If I I got my manuscript accepted for publication (not likely, I know, but just saying), do you think that would help me get into a school next time around, or would having a book out on the market make writing school irrelevant (at least career-wise)?”

Man-facting: I don’t think it will necessarily help. If they don’t like your writing sample, they won’t care if Random House does. And vice-versa. As for whether published authors should attend programs: Man-facting, part II (or, part 246 for this blog). Do they want some uninterrupted time to work on their writing, and do they want to be part of a writing community? Then they should go for it, just like anyone else.

Jaded in Japan writes: “Earlier in the blog you said that you didn't think there would be any difficulty going from an MFA to a PhD, but I emailed a few PhD programs about the question and they said while they'll "consider" those with an MFA, that it is "highly unlikely" they'll get selected into the PhD program over the MA candidates. What do you think?”

What I think is: I was referring to Ph.D programs in Creative Writing, while I think you’re referring to Ph.D. programs in Literature. In retrospect, I should’ve been clearer about this, though this is a creative writing blog. I think you should listen to what those professors have to say. If it’s your goal to be a Literature professor, but to also write creatively, then I’d push you towards a program that has a creative writing tract or concentration or the like. But make sure that the degree is Literature, if that’s your goal. I’ve listed these programs (Literature with some aspect of creative writing) in the back of the MFA Handbook.

Since your other questions are about literature degrees, JiP, I’m going to pass on them. If I stumble across a Lit Degree Mailbag, I’ll let you know. Thanks for the questions, and best of luck to you.

A quick answer to Trixie Triangle (whose blog world we apparently rock. Glad to hear it.)… I feel like we’re splitting hairs. You can describe your creative project in one to three sentences. And you should, in my opinion. If yours was a full paragraph, don’t worry it. I’m talking about what I’d do if I were a student, not what I’d do with my red pen if I were on the committee. Don’t fret it, and get some sleep at night.

Same kind of answer to Hopeless in Whoville, who wonders how she can get all her information into a 500-word statement (that’s what two of her schools are asking for). Sorry to be a hardcase about it, HiW: Just do it. Sit down and list the top five things you want to get across. (I’ve listed suggestions about the personal statement in previous mailbags). Then write to those. Part of being a writer is, when called for, being efficient. You can do this. And more importantly, you have to. Plan it out in fifteen minutes, write it in thirty. Good luck HiW.

Oh, and yes you can go a little over the 500, and no, I wouldn’t leave out your past. If you have to list your past in one or two sentences than do that. Don’t leave it out.

TK Seattle style asks about Manchester, Glasgow, and East Anglia, and I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know anything about these schools, except for the basic requirements. If anyone has insight, please comment in the comments section. Thanks.

Dangerous Diligent Delinquent wonders if applying straight out of college will hurt her chances. No, it probably won’t. But if I were on the committee it probably would. I think students who go straight to the MFA tend to burn out. Spending a year working and traveling (two years I’d say) is important not only for finding writing material but also for plain-old decompressing. And, it makes you really thankful for being back in school, which helps the motivation factor… In any case DDD, sounds like you’ve got a lot of life experience already, and I’d encourage you to include that information in your statement. And, I’d encourage you to wait on the MFA for a year or two, but I guess I already said that. Best of luck either way.

Oh, wait a second: Columbia says that they didn’t get a letter of recommendation from one of your professors, and now you’ve got to get it and pay an additional $35 late fee? Are you kidding me, an additional $35? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you about Columbia. How good does your writing sample have to be in order for them to overlook your missing letter? Sounds to me that it doesn’t matter. Sounds like they must have that letter and the $35. I guess you have to pay it. They’ve got you over a barrel, and if you’re accepted to the program my bet is it won’t be for the last time.

My advice? And my advice to all MFA prospective students: Unless you’re independently wealthy, don’t apply to Columbia. There are equally good programs out there for much less money.

Sorry about the situation, DDD. I hope things look up soon, and thanks for your kind words about the blog.

Zombie Without Coffee wants to know if I see any red flags in her list of low-res MFAs. I do not, though I’m not the expert on low-res, and the best of the bunch IMO is Warren Wilson, Lesley, and Bennington.

Second question: “In some of the required essays they ask if there are any problems or challenges you might have with the program. I was assuming it was better to not mention any challenge, however I am wondering if they assume that everyone will have some challenges and want to know how you will deal with them, or if they just ask to help weed out anyone who is unsure about taking on the program.”

I don’t know for sure, Zombie, but I smell a trap too. I’d dodge that question if I were you. Best of luck with your applications.

I’m about to dodge out of here, and I’ve gone way over my hour, and now I’m never going to get my novel done. I hope you all feel guilty. Here’s Hoping in Hell’s Kitchen should feel guilty yet also celebratory, as he/she is our codename winner of the week. Congratulations.

Okay, I’ll catch you guys on the flipside.

-- TK


A Starving Child said...

Columbia, huh? It's funny. They pulled the exact same We-Lost-Your-Letter-of-Rec Card on me too. I don't recall ever paying a late fee however. This must be a new development. Did you know that they're working on a new arts building in Harlem? It's true! So there's your late fee right: Columbia needs another building.

I will say that since I've been enrolled in the program, I've been treated very fairly. No one has tried to screw me--knock on wood.

I'm still starving, however.

low-rez writer said...

Two other excellent low-residency programs are Queens in Charlottle NC, and Vermont College in Montpelier.

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