Sunday, January 08, 2006

Mailbag for January 9th, 2006

Well, I thought I was getting a week off, but since we’re almost up to the final January 15th deadline for most programs, I’ll give it another go this Monday. Future blog questions can be sent here. Meanwhile...The MFA Creative Writing Handbook can be ordered from Continuum Publishing. It will arrive in your mailbox in a week's time. Let's roll…

Matt is applying next year, and he’s thinking of his criteria as city location, good funding, and a strong fiction program. He lists UC Irvine, UC Davis, NYU, Brown, and Johns Hopkins. He asks my opinion on these and asks if there are any other programs meeting these criteria.

That sounds like a good list, Matt, though keep in mind that Irvine and Davis are not exactly in the heart of L.A. and San Francisco. They’re both excellent programs though. As for others, it’s a problem: the programs in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and the like are not very good in the funding department. That said, keep UNLV in mind. It’s a funky and well-respected program, with an emphasis on world literature. Keep an eye on Brooklyn College too. The funding there is average, but it’s available, and I think highly of that program. Best of luck, Matt.

By the way, in general, the programs with the best funding are state schools in college towns. That’s just the way it is. On some level, you may have to choose between funding and city location, and I’d encourage you to apply to a mix of both. Keep your options open. A number of smaller cities – Austin and Northampton, MA come to mind – have all the amenities of a large city, just not as many of them.

That last sentence makes no sense. What I mean is: you don’t have a hundred coffeeshops, bars, dance clubs etc. to choose from. You get a dozen instead, and a dozen good ones. I hope you get the drift.

Intrigued in Iowa City asks: “How does your book differ from the AWP Guide to Writing Programs? Since you only profile 50 programs, are you essentially endorsing these 50? Perhaps you can post an excerpt?”

The AWP Guide is an excellent publication, and it was invaluable to me when I made my choices, gulp, almost eight years ago. That was before the web was so prevalent, and I would’ve been out in the cold without it as far as information goes. I think of the AWP Guide as the Yellow Pages of writing programs. It lists hundreds of programs and includes the information that the program directors or coordinators send to the AWP. Plus, it has information about writing colonies and conferences.

My book (The Creative Writing MFA Handbook), whether it’s better or worse, offers advice about the application process, and it profiles 50 programs. It lists all the creative writing programs in the United States, plus as many (around 40) outside of the United States that I could find. It includes interviews with program directors, students, and professors. It offers insight into making final choices and all sorts of advice about making the most of your graduate experience, including sections about teaching and workshops and publication. By the way, there’s a table of contents on the Continuum site, and that will give you an idea of what the book contains. Heck, I’ll post it here too.

I don’t know if endorse is the right word for how I approach the 50 programs. I state the basic information (about number of classes and requirements, which is often very difficult to find, grrr, on program websites), I talk about reputation, funding, and resources, and I give my opinion of the program as a whole. Basically I’m telling readers what I’d tell my students. What I do tell my students actually.

Anyways, you ask for an example, and I’ll post three in a separate entry. I’ll include Iowa, since that’s where you’re writing from. Thanks for the question, and best of luck to you.

Paula writes in and asks: “I plan to attend medical school after completing an MFA. I plan to remain active -- creative writing-wise -- even as a physician. But should I 'show my cards' in a personal statement? I think I make a convincing case for why I want to study poetry before medicine, but will they count my lack of desire to be a professional writer against me?”

And I thought I might make it a little longer till the first man-fact of the mailbag... Oh well. Here goes: If I were you, I’d state my interest in medicine, and I’d even say that I plan on attending medical school at a later date. But I’d keep this short in the bio section, and then another mention when you talk about your poetry. What you want to avoid: Coming across as a person more interested in medicine than poetry. If I were a member of the committee I’d be interested that your long-term goal is to be a doctor, but I’d want to make sure your short to medium term eye is on the poetry ball. (If there is such thing as a "poetry ball." There should be, in my opinion, if there isn’t one yet.)

Make sure your main enthusiasm and interest is in poetry, Paula, and your secondary interest is in medicine. I hope that man-facting helps. Best of luck to you in both careers.

The Funky Flunky is a great codename, and it’s the runner-up this week. The question is “Does anyone actually get into Iowa?” Not sure why the questions this week are so fixated on Iowa, but the answer is, yes, a lot of them do. Between poetry, fiction, and nonfiction they accept at least 60 students, which is a heck of a lot. So, though they receive a large number of submissions, they also accept a lot of students. The percentage there is not as minute as at other programs, and that’s a good thing for applicants. So go for it.

I want to include a paragraph that Funky added at the bottom of his/her email. I think it’s important to illustrate the reasons behind some of my advice on this blog about the number of schools to apply to. I’ve taken out the name of Funky’s current program: “More personal note - i wish i'd found this blog about a month ago. i love your 8-12 school mantra, i should have been smarter and less impulsive in planning to reapply. i guess i'm a case study in what not to do: last year i applied to only to ______, got in, hate it, now this year i've once again only applied to one school. and it's one to which i apparently have significantly less chance to be accepted. i guess i'll have to bite my nails until april, or whenever the decisions are sent out.”

Thanks for including that, Flunky, and I hope it was okay to post it. If not, well, it’s already up, so my apology will have to be too: I’m sorry!... But one word of consolation: we all go into this process with little direction. It’s the main reason I wrote the book. As I’ve said in the past, I applied to only five schools. When I was rejected from the first three and wait-listed at a fourth, I wish I’d applied to more. Now I know. And so do you. And thanks to your email, others do too. Thanks, and best of luck to you.

And by the way, I hated my first year, especially my first semester at UMass. Why? That’ll have to be for another mailbag. In any case, once I got my feet under me and understood the game a little better, I liked it much more. Now I look back on those years as some of the best in my life. Hang in there. Read a lot, write a lot. And keep your chin up.

All right, starting to get mushy here. Starting to sound like that motivational speaker guy on late night TV. The one with the big teeth. Time to push forward…

Victoria writes in with some kind words for the blog, and I thank her for that. She says she has a friend with a published book who has been giving her advice about her application. She wonders if this is enough of a second opinion, or whether she should seek third and fourth ears and eyes. Hmm, man-facting again, I’d say yes, seek out other opinions as well. I’m sure your friend is very helpful, but just like charting a point on a map, it’s helpful to have other points to get that direction just right. You don’t need other writers, just other readers. Who do you know who is a good reader? Ask that person as well. Additionally, you might check out the message boards on Poets and Lots of people in the same boat as you there. They might lend a hand if you lend them yours.

Geez – chins, hands, ears and eyes -- enough with the body part metaphors, Tom. Best of luck to you, Victoria.

Oh, wait, another question: What do I do when I’m having trouble being inspired? I read. I read things in fiction, I read things in nonfiction and in poetry. I find a photographer I like and I choose a few photos and tape them up on my wall. I find characters through these things. I look at writing books like The Writer’s Block, and I do a few exercises from there. One of them might turn out to be a story. I read my old work and I discover that I’ve done well before and that I can and need to do better. Both of those things are important to remember. I travel, even if it’s just a day trip. When I go to the video store I go to the shelf with the staff recommendations and choose something I’ve never heard of before.

My main point: set aside time in your week, even if it’s just a Thursday night or a Sunday morning. Do one or more of these things. Seeing others being creative often stirs the creativity in me. Good luck to you, Victoria, and yes, do let us know how things go.

Harried in Houston asks where he/she can get his/her hands on successful personal statements and manuscripts. I posted about personal statements in the past, and I’ve been hoping that someone will send a link if they find anything on the web. I posted my Stegner statement a few weeks back. As for manuscripts, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. What Arizona takes might be rejected by Oregon, or Cornell, or Washington, or Maryland, or Notre Dame. And vice versa (If that term works with lists. I’m not sure. This mailbag is not building any self-confidence in my word management skills). Write, rewrite, get some opinions. Rewrite again. Send your best work. And since the deadlines are here, for now read your work one more time, make sure the t’s are crossed etc. and get it in the mail.

HiH also asks my opinion on the following low-residency programs: Warren Wilson, Pacific Lutheran, Spalding, Goddard, Bennington, Antioch, Fairleigh-Dickinson, Queens, Lesley, Univ. of Illinois, Seattle Pacific, and Vermont (Union).

I’m not an expert on low-residency programs, but of those, I like Warren Wilson and Lesley the best. I’ve heard from graduates, and they speak very highly of them. Goddard, Bennington, Antioch, and Vermont have been around for some time, and I’ve heard good things. In general, HiH, contact the program coordinator and ask for emails of current students. That will get you the best and most relevant information. I don’t see any red flags in your list. Best of luck to you with your decisions.

Is it just me, or is this the week of the endless mailbag? I’m going to try to pick up the pace here…

Perspicacious in Pittsburgh sends good words about the blog, and ding, ding, ding, ding… we have a winner for codename of the week. Congratulations PiP.

The first question: “How does my list sound to you? As such: Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Virginia, Pitt, Washington U (St. Louis), UT Austin, the Art Institute of Chicago, the New school. I know that funding isn't incredible at Iowa, the Art Institute, or the New School, but I'm just going to wait and see what happens.”

I think your list sounds great. Since you’re looking in the Midwest, keep Purdue, Michigan, and Notre Dame in mind too. As far as funding at Iowa goes: We’ve talked about the ‘tiered’ system before, and that is not true only of Iowa, but of other programs as well. Some students receive full funding, others half funding, others no funding. This sets up a competitive situation, in some to many cases, in the classroom and hallways. But do remember: since Iowa accepts many students, they actually offer more full rides than other schools that fund all of their students. Your chance of funding might actually be higher there.

Second question: since PiP will be at the AWP convention this year and hopes to run into current students, she wants to know: if she could only ask one question to gauge a program, what would that question be? That’s a great question in itself. If I were you, I’d ask something specific, and not just: Do you like it? I’d ask: “Are you happy with your choice of programs?” and “How are students treated there?” and “Do you feel like your writing has improved there?” I know that’s three questions, but one can lead to the other. That should get you a good overview.

And yes, I know that paragraph has more colons in it than Frankenstein’s laboratory. I like the colon. Best of luck to you, PiP.

My girlfriend is amazed with the amount of personal information people write in their emails to me, and she’s equally amazed that I read them all. Well, I do. I like to hear where people are coming from. I’m a little amazed too. To give you an example:

Cyn is 30 years old, has written two novels, went to undergrad at NYU, lives in the East Village, and bartends at a hipster rock and roll bar. Sounds a little like a personal ad, though that’s only when I summarize it that way. Sorry about that, Cyn. Her questions:

“Is a need to know other writers and a sense of community a good reason to apply for an MFA?” Yes, definitely. Those are two huge reasons. It’s hard to be a writer, especially if you don’t see writing valued around you. One of the smaller but important values of an MFA program is: You read a great book, you go to school the next day, you hand the book to someone else and say: “This is a great book. You should read it.” And not only do they not give you a funny look, they actually read it, and then you talk about it later, and then they give you a book to read.

I’d expect that this kind of thing happens in the East Village, just not perhaps in your hipster rock and roll bar. In any case, being around writers and thinking of yourself as a writer is a huge part of an MFA program. I know it was critical for me. I needed to think of myself as a writer. Other people may not need a graduate program to think this of themselves. But at that point in my life, I did. If you feel the same way, I’d encourage you to go for it.

I’m going to paraphrase something that Michael Collier said in the MFA Handbook, and I’ll specifize it to your case. (Specifize, I suppose is not a word. But it should be.)… You’ve got to think of yourself as a writer who has a job as a bartender, not as a bartender who also writes. The distinction is important. The sense you have of yourself as a writer is more important than anything else.

Finally, Cyn says she missed the GRE and has only one week to apply to programs. She’s got the recommendations, she’s got the transcripts, she’s got the writing samples. Is the writing sample really “the thing,” or does she need to have the perfect personal statement?

The writing sample is definitely the thing. It’s 90% of the reason why you’d be accepted. The personal statement is the next most important thing. I’ve written a lot about personal statements and how to write them in previous mailbags. Check them out.

Good luck to you, Cyn. And to everyone out there. I don’t know if there will be a mailbag next week. I’d say it’s unlikely. The previously mentioned girlfriend is returning from her adventures out east. And I’m starting back at Stanford, including teaching a screenwriting type course. But check back. You never know. That’s called a cliff-hanger. Rock on.

-- TK


Anonymous said...

Your comments about the value of an MFA program ring true. Does your chapter on low-residency programs cover programs that are optimal for working students? I'm in a program that allows me to work full-time and go to school two nights a week. (It's about all I have time to do, since the program is rigorous, but that's my choice and I'm very happy with it.)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I just received my copy of the book. It's a great read. Thanks Tom.

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