Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Okay, Late Mailbag has Arrived. February 22nd

Okay, I’m actually sitting in the middle of 826 Valencia in San Francisco. The kids at my table say that they’ll do their homework if I’ll do my homework. So, here we go with the mailbag. Sorry if this is choppy. I’ve got to stop every few minutes and answer Algebra and conjugation questions. Future mailbag questions here.

A few bits of business first. Here’s a testimony from yet another satisfied MFA Handbook customer:

“Just devoured your book last weekend. It was so informative and enjoyable - thank you! I wish I'd had it before to help me wade through MFA program descriptions. I've been looking everywhere for a book like this - should be required reading as a supplement to the AWP guide or on its own. Your tidbits on the website were what led me to buy the book, if that helps quell your dad's fears."
- Minnesota hopeful

Thanks for the note Minnesota. Another happy reader is here. The book can be ordered from Continuum. And hey, someone out there (you?) can be the first person to write a review at Amazon if you like.

Okay, Anxious in Aurora writes in and says:

"In response to your request, I have decided to begin my own blog concerning MFA acceptances. Please post a link to it so that people can let me know what schools they've heard back from. Thanks a lot."

Thank you, Aurora. That will be a tremendous amount of help to people.

NK caught me taking the Muppet stamp down last week and putting a tapir stamp up instead. I just didn’t like that muppet stamp. No offense to muppet fans. NK wanted to know what’s so special about tapirs. Hey what isn’t special about tapirs?

Overheated in New Jersey wrote me a short essay with some questions attached. One line in particular made me laugh: “I have no friends who want to talk seriously about literature without confusing my enthusiasm for books with an enthusiasm for them sexually.”

Ha, join the club, right?

Overheated wants to know if going to a big name school will matter later, in the publishing world or on the job market. She also offers the caveat – “I know (thanks to your blog--really--thank you) that the most important part of the whole process is ones experience as a writer and that impressive-sounding schools sometimes offer shit environments--hostile or unhelpful--all of that stuff."

Okay, since I’ve been properly caveated, I’ll answer your question directly:

It seems to be important to you. And I don’t mean that in a smart aleck way. It’s important to you, so make it part of your criteria. If you go to a smaller-name school and will feel weird the whole time, don’t do it. That said, I stand by what I’ve always said on the blog: go with funding, reputation (real reputation, as told by current and former students), and your gut.

As for Overhydrated’s list – “brown, cornell, univ. of texas at austin, new school, univ. of alabama, univ. of virginia, bowling green state univ., univ. of southern mississippi, and Syracuse”… I like it. A lot. Wish I’d had such a good list when I applied. Good luck, Overhydrated.

Pixie Tit wins our codename of the week (how could he/she not?). Congratulations. I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help on the question though, which is:

List the M.F.A. programs that would be most interested in a good bet (e.p. someone that will probably help make a name for their program in the future, be a notch in their program's belt)? By good bet, I mean someone with an increasingly good to better publication history, has been working on their own for awhile at being a writer and getting published, and does everything the honorable way: never trading favors, using friends, editorships or influence to get publications. So, by good bet, I mean someone who shows they can probably make it on their own but wants the degree to learn even more and teach full-time at the college level someday.”

Well, I’d have to list all of them. Or none of them. Committees won’t care about your credentials if they don’t like your writing sample. On the other hand, credentials might help you if you’re on the fence between acceptance and rejection. But either way, it’s not related to particular programs. It’s relevant to all of them.

And: I definitely would omit the info about doing “everything the honorable way" etc. I mean, good for you, but it makes you sound like a bit of a prude. That would be a mark against you if I was on the committee. (Not the fact that you’re honorable, which is good of course, but that it sounds like you’re bragging about it.) Find another way to indicate this, or leave it out. Good luck Pixie.

Nervous in Nashville has a list: “Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Notre Dame, Washington U. (St. Louis), NYU, Virginia, UNC Wilmington, UMass Amherst, and Vanderbilt (which is brand new).

I like it. Again, a lot.

NiN wants to know how many are larger programs, and off the top of my head I’d say NYU and UMass. Indiana and Texas are medium sized, though that has something to do with the three-year format.

2nd question: “What are some other good programs (especially in the South) that accept larger numbers of people?

Hmm. Arkansas, Florida State, and Florida come to mind. So do Michigan and Iowa. Rock on Nashville.

I received a number of questions that fell into two categories this week:

1. What if I’m accepted at one program and haven’t heard from others yet?
2. What kind of questions should I ask current students?

Well, first of all, I’m out of 826 now, and at the coffeehouse, and pressed for time. Second of all, I have a whole chapter in the MFA Handbook that addresses these questions and all the other ones you’ll have about making your final decision. So, hey, buy it. Read it. Rock on.

Wait a minute... Have I not man-facted yet? I think I haven’t. This is way late in the mailbag for no man-facts.

Nonvertical in New York wants to know why I don’t think much of the Emerson program. Well, I’d be concerned if I was a prospective student there. There’s a real lack of funding on many levels, including for paying full-time professors. Lots of adjuncts there, who I’m sure are good teachers, but who are overworked and underpaid. It’s tough to get attention there. And, if you work as a TA, the pay is horrible. I mean, really horrible.

But, don’t base a major life decision on me. Call those current and former students. Get the scoop. Good luck, Nonvertical.

Finally, Puzzled in Petaluma has an interesting observation and question that I wish I had more time for:

I am new to creative writing. I looked over the AWP Guide to Writing Programs. You have to pick: fiction. Poetry. Non fiction. Maybe creative non fiction. But then I read your blog, and I hear lots of people besides me can’t seem to fit themselves into one of these categories. Lots of great writers wrote in multiple genres and/or blended genres. So I'm thinking this business of categorization, of forcing an applicant to choose before he/she even starts, is ridiculous. In fact, I think in the culture the boundaires between the genres is breaking down, and the MFA programs are slow to pick up on this, they're not behind the 8 ball. My question: what 's your opinion on this subject?

I think this is really interesting, PiP. I’ve been thinking a lot about it today. I agree: the culture is breaking down the boundaries. On the other hand, you don’t see books that are half-novels, half collections of poetry. Or nonfiction books that also have a screenplay in the middle sections. The boundary of the forms have not changed too much yet, even if the content has. I’m answering the “why” here, not giving my opinion of how things should be. The other issue is the structure of the program. In order to teach a large variety of genres, you’d have to have teachers who are very flexible in what they can teach. I think you can actually see this on the undergraduate level more so than the graduate level at present. Recent job listings ask for two, even three specialties. As individual teachers change, so will options for students. Of course that works the other way around as well, as some current students become future teachers.

I don’t think the business of categorization is “ridiculous.” It’s there for practical reasons. That said, you see some programs (Texas for example) really encouraging genre-crossing, and yes, I think we’ll see more of this in the future.

I really liked that question, PiP. If you’ve got a follow up observation (or if anyone does for that matter) send it along.

All right: yes, there was definite man-factishing in this mailbag. But I don’t think I could be convicted, beyond a reasonable doubt, of an actual instance of Male Answer Syndrome today. That’s a first. And likely a last.

Thanks for your patience in the delay this week. I’ll talk with you again not this Monday, but next (the 6th)

-- TK


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