Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mailbag for February 13th, 2006

Okay, back at it this week. I’m going to attempt to keep this shorter than usual, for my sake and yours. Future questions can be sent here, and the MFA Handbook can be purchased here.

I’m getting a number of emails asking about a variety of programs. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on all the programs. Who is? The students who attend those programs. If I can’t answer your question here, I’d strongly advise you to take two steps:

1. Get in contact with the program coordinator and ask for three or four emails of current students. These individuals will have the best insights to your questions.

2. Navigate over to Poets and They have a terrific message board called The Speakeasy. Current and former students often post there, and you can read what they’ve said, and you can post topics and questions (and answers) of your own. It’s a terrific resource. Go to “MFA Programs” once you log in.

Finally, I’m happy to post any reasonable and helpful opinions from current and former students about their programs. There seems to be particular interest in Low-Residency programs, but I’d welcome information from students in any program. You can send them to my email address. Thanks in advance.

“Stumped in Stumptown” writes in again and says he/she loves the blog is working to get the Handbook stocked in Powell’s in Portland. My thanks on both counts. I’ll work on Powell’s from this end too. The questions:

This will probably involve man-facting, but based on your experience, what's more important to a successful application: the potential of a writer or the "polish" of the sample? Perhaps this is a better way to put it-- how many successful manuscripts do you think are already of publishable quality, and how many are diamonds in the rough?

All right, man-facting already. I’d say that part of showing potential as a writer is polishing your stories. A gift for language as well as the ability to articulate a narrative is better as a combination than simply one or the other. I don’t know if committee members are looking for “publishable” quality. I do think they are seeking writers who show originality, tell an important story, and construct the narrative in an understandable and memorable way. Genuine humor or smart description or lively dialogue go a long way as well. Understanding different forms in poetry is a huge plus as well. It’s a difficult question to answer, which brings us to question number 2:

Have you ever been part of an application committee for a program, or had the chance to evaluate the manuscripts of successful applicants? If so, what was your experience like?

No, I’ve never been on an MFA committee. I have been on committees for undergraduate programs, writing awards, and literary magazines. My experience: It’s about the committee, so there’s a lot of compromise involved. A committee member may go to bat for one particular writer, and likely win, as other committee members will also champion their favorite applicant. Then, the rest of the selections are worked out by a give and take approach. Basically, the submissions go into four piles: Definitely Yes, Yes, Maybe, and No. But these piles are different for each committee member. Obviously, one No can be a killer. The applications with the best combinations of Definitely, Yes, and Maybe get selected.

One more thing: Make those first few pages count, whether that’s in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, whatever. If you haven’t impressed the reader with your skill by page four, you’re sunk. Put your best work at the beginning.

Rock on, Stumped, and thanks for the kind words.

Anxious in Aurora asks:

Have you considered (or would you consider) keeping a list or chart of schools that have sent out MFA acceptance and financial aid offers? Readers could send in confirmations as soon as they hear from schools and you (or someone else) could record and compile them. Might take some weight off of your readers' shoulders.”

Well, that’s true, it might take some weight off our reader’s shoulders. But it would put a heck of a lot on mine, and I’ve got – in life, in work, in everything – enough on my plate right now. It’s easy to start a blog, so if Aurora or anyone else would like to set something up to track this information, go for it. I’ll be happy to link to it on a regular basis.

Mystified in Mansfield writes: “Would commitees be impressed to see I had attended well-respected writing conferences and, if so, could you direct me to a list of these (especially ones that are a big bang for your buck)?

Well, you should certainly list this information in your application, but no, it won’t have a significant effect on your admission. Your writing gets their attention, or it does not. Writing conferences are a difficult issue. They can be extremely helpful, or they can be a total racket. Mansfield, you can find all sorts of information about them at that Poets and Writer’s site I mentioned. Best of luck to you.

EZ Bake asks “Can you tell me the four or five cheapest low residency MFA's out
there?”… Well, no, I can’t. I do list them all in the book however, including their websites. My advice is to decide which ten or so interest you for quality reasons, then look at price. A cheap program where you’re given little teaching or writing support is not a good investment, no matter the price. Thanks for the question, EZ.

And also, EZ Bake, in an upset, is our codenameer of the week. Rock on EZ and congratulations. I like writing “EZ,” and that’s probably why you won. EZ.

Mumbleminded in Madison gives me a couple of easy questions: He’s thinking of going to Japan for a couple years. He wonders if this will hinder his chances of attending an MFA program (as opposed to applying straight out of college), and he wonders if he should take the GRE before he leaves.

No, it will not hinder your chances. As I’ve said often, I think it’s a good idea NOT to go straight to an MFA from undergraduate. Go to Japan, and have a great time. And yes, take those GRE’s before you go. It’ll be easier to take them here than in Japan.

Busy in Brooklyn writes in…

I work as an editor at a well-respected visual art magazine and am very active as a freelance reviewer and essayist. Too active, in fact. I'm eager to reduce my workload, focus more intently on individual projects, and consequently broaden my range as a writer. (I read widely and am interested in eventually reviewing and writing about books as well.) I suspect that a MFA program with a non-fiction track would offer me the space and time necessary to turn my reviewing into criticism-with-a-capital-C. Two catches: I need to be in or near a city with a major contemporary art scene (New York or LA, essentially) and I would like to keep my name in print. Is a low-residency program the answer? Will an emphasis on "creative nonfiction," as most programs term it, not cater to my interests in criticism? (I don't particularly want to write personal essays.) Is there a point when "slowing down" to attend an MFA program becomes a hindrance?

Busy, it’s my sense that an MFA is not the right fit for you. Nonfiction programs tend to focus on personal essays, memoir, and to some extent journalistic-type pursuits. I’ve never heard of a program that focuses, or even has a secondary focus, on criticism. I’m not saying it’s not out there. I’m saying I haven’t come across it.

Seems to me that you’re looking for either an MA in Art History, American Studies, or English. And unfortunately, I don’t have any insights into those areas. I don’t want to make the decision that’ll alter your life significantly, but I am concerned that an MFA program (in creative writing) would not meet your needs. Best of luck with your decisions.

Finally, Aspiring and Perspiring in Portland doesn’t have a question, but she does offer some insights into her struggle with choosing a genre. This is relevant to a number of readers who’ve been having trouble choosing fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. I’ve discussed this in previous mailbags. Here’s what AaPiP has to say:

Just wanted to say howdy, and also to let you know that I'm a little unsettled about something you wrote in the blog recently - about writing what you read the most of.

“Tom, I write poetry, but I've been second-guessing myself a bit, and I think that entry was a bit of a catalyst. You see, I do read poetry, but I read more fiction than poetry. I don't write fiction, except for the flash fiction. But now I find my mind tumbling the situation around and around. Thinking, what if i made a mistake and I should have been writing fiction? I remember telling my creative writing professor that I thought I was better at writing fiction but I loved writing poetry more. What if I'm not really a poet? Oh god oh god.

“But then again, I've read fiction my entire life. I've studied it, I've learned from the world about it, I've used it as an escape - all those things and more. As a reader, I will always love fiction, and there is room for it. I just need to make sure my reading load is balanced so that it doesn't get too fiction-heavy - work a little harder on boosting the poetry intake - don't you think? (Man oh man, I hope so!)

“Anyway, thanks for letting me hash out that anxiety. I've already rolled the dice, so let's just hope someone else reckons I'm a poet too.”

Well, I’m certain that Perspiring is not alone in her anxiety. MFA students don’t have to abandon one form for another, but in most cases they do have to choose and concentrate on one. We’re all rolling the dice with all of our decisions. Best to think it through, make the decision, and then not second-guess yourself. Choose a path, or you’ll stand at the entrance when you could be learning and writing.

Thanks Perspiring. And thanks to everyone who wrote in these last two weeks. If I didn’t address your question it was likely concerning a particular program that I’m not familiar with. Do check out current students, directly or through Poets and Writers Speakeasy.

Have a good week everyone.

-- TK


Anonymous said...

Anxious in Aurora wrote:

Have you considered...keeping a list or chart of schools that have sent out MFA acceptance and financial aid offers? Readers could send in confirmations as soon as they hear from schools...

I'm thinking once someone receives an acceptance letter, they'll likely want to forget about the whole stressful application process. But why don't you set up such a page through Blogspot and see what happens? It could be interesting...

Anonymous said...

Well, there used to be a site like that called "" It was pretty useful, and it's not up this year. I think people are missing it.

Anonymous said...


Here's the Wayback archive of that web site:*/

Anonymous said...

All that stuff -- from up to date info on who got in to rejection letters -- is available on the Speakeasy at the Poets & Writers Web site.

Anonymous said...

There is a site that is keeping track of acceptances and rejections (a la at

My blog said...