Sunday, March 19, 2006

Mailbag for March 20th, 2006

Okay all, seems like it’s been a long two weeks. Lots of great questions for the mailbag, and I’ll get to them in just a moment. Spoiler warning: Lots of man-facting ahead.

I want to remind you of three things:

-- Josh Mc. has set up a blog that lists the acceptances and rejections from different schools. You can read, then add to the list.
-- Future questions for our mailbag can be sent here.
-- The Creative Writing MFA Handbook is available here.

Let’s roll…

First, some good news: old-school blog-reader Busted Flat in Baton Rouge got offers from Iowa, The Michener at Texas, and the Stegner Fellowship. Man, talk about the hat-trick, triple crown, or whatever you want to call it. That’s great, Busted Flat. We wish you well with your decision.

A Soon to Be Starving Artist writes in and says “So I got my first acceptance and it is to a great, but expensive program, you can probably guess which. They offered me some money, which hopefully means they are interested, but not enough to cover tuition. I know from your (very helpful) book that funding can sometimes be negotiated. My question: Is it better to lay out your financial situation/wants early on (when maybe funding hasn't all been given out??) or to wait until late April when you have heard back from everywhere (and maybe you have some leverage and maybe other accepted students have gone elsewhere freeing up funding???)?

Great question, SBSA. I’m guessing that your program starts with a “C” and ends with a “olumbia.” There’s the obvious positives and negatives to both situations, but I’m guessing that by now you’ve heard from most programs. If I were you I’d contact “C” and make clear your other offers, and if none exist, I’d still tell them what you need as far as funding. You don’t demand, you ask. Politely, yet directly. Hey, it’s not like they’re going to revoke your acceptance. Negotiation is all part of the deal. I’d contact them now, SBSA, if you haven’t already. Best of luck.

Wish It Was April asks about the MFA program at the U of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Question: “Should the fact that it's relatively new be a concern at all?” Well WIWA, I don’t know anything about that program, and the newness is a cause for investigation, rather than concern. If they’re that new, then the program director should be very much available to speak with. (What a horrible sentence that was). Call them up. Talk with them. If they don’t make themselves available, then cross them off the list. If they want to build a reputation, they’ll put forth the effort. Ask some of the questions I’ve listed in the book and in previous posts. My sense is, because you’re interested, it’s worth an hour of your time to investigate. And hey, let us know if you find out anything. Thanks WIWA.

Waitlist Girl’s application has been twice rejected from Columbia, and now she’s dreading a third time. She’s got two questions:

1. Is there any point to ever applying again (assuming I'll be rejected or waitlisted this year), seeing as I don't quite meet their requirements?

2. Is there any way or to find out from the school what magical element I'm missing? Some schools are very approachable, but Columbia doesn't seem so.

And wow, she also points out the $100 application fee. I know we’ve talked about it before, but man, that’s outrageous. In any case: Three times is enough, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t apply there anymore, Waitlist. Choose other schools. Your writing is simply not matching their tastes, and they may very well be the lesser for it. And no, there’s no way to find out why or how etc. If you call, any program will say “I’m afraid that’s our policy, we don’t discuss applications etc.” Don’t waste the time on the phone call. Move on (and up), Waitlist Girl. And thanks for the questions.

Bedazzled in the Bay Area sends a nice note:

When I started this process I had no idea how emotional it would be. Your blog and your book -- even more, your generosity -- have been a great help. I got in to Davis today. I wouldn't even have known that Davis had a program before you recommended it. I'm so happy and thankful. Cheers."

Hey, thank you, Bedazzled. Glad to hear that things are working out, and glad to hear that the ol’ mailbag can still throw a few strikes over the plate. Rock on.

That said, I want to point out a place where we haven’t been throwing many strikes, and that’s The Low Residency Programs. I’m definitely not as knowledgeable about this area of MFAs as I am for residential programs. Erica Dreifus points this out in her mixed-bag review of the Creative Writing MFA Handbook. As I said in the book, and I’ve said before on the blog: I’m just the bus driver. I can give you an overview of the MFA city, but I don’t know every side street, coffeehouse, and restaurant.

On that note, new reader Low Residency Queen writes in with questions, though she ended up giving us many answers, as in: her opinion of many of the programs based on her application experience. I’ve listed much of her email on a separate post. I’m going to let her comments stand as they are, and I think they’ll be very helpful to future applicants. If any readers would like to add their two cents, you can email me, or leave your comments (long or short) in the comments section of that post.

Thanks very much, Low Residency Queen. I’m working to become more knowledgeable in this area, and I’m looking forward to the summer when I’ll have time to make that happen.

Dolorous Bell Tolling writes in and says:

Loving the blog, buying the book. I received an email from American University inviting mfa applicants to a graduate studies day. It's scheduled for March 24. It includes a meet-and-greet with faculty and current students, something called a "literary open house," and workshops on financial aid, the admissions process, housing etc. and a happy hour. My questions are:
-- Is it safe to assume that they won't be sending out the acceptance letters until after this open house is conducted? (man fact away)
-- Will attendance influence acceptance? (man fact away again)

My man facting thinks that March 24 is late to be sending out acceptances, so I’d hope you’d already received word one way or the other. --> CLARIFICATION: On the matter of "late": I mean that it's later on the "bell curve" of acceptances. There are still programs sending out acceptances. Thanks to Julie for pointing this out. -TK <-- As for attendance influencing acceptance: I don't know if it would. I do wonder why this open house is at this date. Seems to me that it should be 1. In November or December for potential applicants, and 2. In March/April for accepted students. I suppose there could be an element of the 'interview' to the experience. If faculty are there, they might remember the person who said this or that. If you’re truly interested, DBT, you should go to the open house. You’ll get many more answers there than you can find on their website (I hope). Let us know how it goes, okay?

Mystified in Mansfield writes: “I am submitting a manuscript for an application which specifies that you can submit up to 6,000 words in the form of one or more stories. Should I stick to my two best, which add up to about 4,000 words, or throw in a third to get closer to the limit?

Is the third story almost as good as the others, MiM? If so, send it. If it’s definitely not in the same league, then don’t send it. Rock on.

Disappointed in Brooklyn applied to five programs and is wondering how many he should apply to next time. C’mon DiB. I’ve said this a hundred times. Eight to twelve programs. Why? Because it’s not like applying to undergrad or law school or medical school. It’s a far more unpredictable process. Spread your nets wider next time. And I wish you the best of luck with that. Finding those new schools should be part of the fun.

Careful in Chicago asks two questions:

1. I've heard mixed reviews of Penn State's fiction MFA, but I have yet to gather any opinions about their creative nonfiction program. An advisor told me that several years ago, the department was in a "stage of transition," but he guessed things had improved since then. Any insight?

2. Just how competitive are creative nonfiction programs, anyway? Do they share the appeal of the other genre programs, or do they attract fewer applicants?

CiC, the only thing I have to say about Penn State is that their teaching assistants are responsible for a lot of classes. Often two in one semester. That’s a lot, to my mind, for a graduate student who wants to focus on his/her own writing. As far as nonfiction programs in general: Only about 20% of programs offer nonfiction programs (that’s a ballpark figure, but I think it’s close), and that will be growing. I can tell you that more and more universities are seeking nonfiction teachers for the undergraduate and graduate level. Just check out the MLA and AWP job listings. My answer: very competitive. There is a growing interest, but not yet enough slots. I’d say, man-facting, that the nonfiction programs are the most competitive.

Creeping Crisis in Cleveland says that the NEOMFA program “(the consortium including Cleveland State, Kent, U of Akron and Youngstown State, website at in case you're not familiar)” pushed back its application deadline from Feb 1 to March 1, in February. CCiC wants to know if she/he should be worried.

Well, that’s unusual, that’s for sure, and I’d guess that they didn’t receive as many applications as they wanted. You have every right to call by now, CCiC, it’s mid-March. Call them up, be polite, and ask about the status of your application. Ask when a decision will be made. You’re well within your right to know what’s going on. Again, be polite and direct. And, understanding to a point. These things happen rarely, but they do happen.

Stymied Storyteller writes in, and I’m afraid that I don’t have a direct answer to his/her question. But it’s an important question nonetheless, and they’ll be no stymieing here on the MFA weblog. I think that posting your email will help give a voice to others who are in a similar situation:

I started writing seriously later than most--in my 40s--and now I'm in my early 50s, wishing I could study in an MFA program but pretty sure that there's no way to do it. My age is relevant because, as an adult with a settled life and a low-wage job, I'm (1) not in any position to move to another city even if I were lucky enough to be accepted into a program that offered free tuition and/or a stipend; (2) completely without money to pay tuition if I were accepted into a program here in NYC; (3) not able to take out any education loans since I'm already staggering under way too much debt; and (4) couldn't afford airfare to a twice-yearly session in a low-residency program in some other part of the country.

In other words, I'm a regular middle-aged working person living paycheck to paycheck. As far as I can tell, there's nothing available for folks like me. The programs with free/waived tuition are all full-time, and the low-residency programs supposedly designed for people with jobs are outrageously expensive. So I'm pretty sure the answer is no, but the question is whether there's any MFA program that would meet my needs--NYC area or, if low-residency, within driving distance of NYC, AND free/waived tuition.

I feel foolish even asking -- free access to graduate education for working-class people in the USA? Absurd! -- but, hey, maybe you know something I don't.

Stymied: I can’t think of any MFA programs that will fit your needs. But I do encourage you to look into the community college classes in your area. Many are taught by former MFA students. The main thing for a struggling writer: keeping that enthusiasm and interest going. Being part of a class can go a long way toward making that happen. And, if not a class, then how about a writer’s group? Look for postings on the internet in your area (Craig’s List and the like), and on notices in coffeehouses and bookstores. And if you can’t find one, hey, start one. Keeping that enthusiasm and interest, as well as pushing forward the learning curve, is a group effort. You give it to others, and you get it back in return. Best of luck to you, Stymied.

Man, this is like the longest mailbag ever? Starting. To. Lose. Steam…

Numb in the Northeast was accepted at Oregon and a few other places. Oregon gives, by far, the best funding. Which should she choose? Well, Oregon. Go with the money. Just as important: They’re a great program.

However, NiN also has a fiancé, who won’t be moving to Oregon till next year. How can they do the long-distance relationship? Man, pay attention here. I know of what I speak:

The first year of a residential MFA program is like the first year of college. Everyone’s giddy, everyone’s excited, and a lot of people are hooking up with other people and then other people and then other people. Or, thinking about it. What about that person they left behind? Hmm, not. Thinking. About. That. Person. As. Much. Because. Not. Around. And. He/she. Doesn’t. Understand. Everything. I’m. Going. Through. Right. Now….

Okay, steering away from the melodrama, know this: People who made their long-distance relationship a priority were fine. Those who didn’t, lost it. Make sure:

-- That there’s a deadline on the long-distance. No longer than a year. You’ve both got to see this as temporary.
-- You talk on the phone for a significant time at least every other day.
-- You visit every three weeks. That’s him coming to visit you and you visiting him. But what if that’s not convenient? Tough. Make it convenient. You want to keep this relationship, right?
-- You share your writing with him, and he shares whatever he’s working on with you.

Man, what am I? Dr. Phil? Anyways, these are some basic things. I bet you could google long-distance relationships and come up with some other tips, especially specific things you can do together, even distance-wise. Making IM dates etc. Best of luck, NiN. If you make it a priority, and keep it a priority, then you’ll be fine. But that’s done with a lot of hard work.

That was my favorite question this week. (The mailbag has been desperate for a little romance action.) Rock on Northeast

Our friend Fiscally Fretful asks: “Does my stipend get taxed?

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that you’re our codenamer of the week. Congratulations. Do I even have to tell you the bad news? Is there a rock that Uncle Sam doesn't look under?

Moving along, Smitten in Sarasota was accepted to the Iowa NonFiction program, and he/she asks why some people receive writing fellowships and others don’t. Well, I’m generalizing here, but those fellowships at most programs will go to the students who the committee really want. i.e. the writing that they were the most impressed with. This may or may not end up being the writer they are most impressed with a year or two later, but that’s what they think for now. Teaching assistantships and cultural or other fellowships are based on other things such as experience, financial need etc.

As for the differences between the nonfiction and fiction programs, SiS, you’re best off to contact current students to get the scoop. Best of luck to you, and congratulations.

Agitated Attorney-cum-Adjunct in Athens wrote me a three volume email, which I really enjoyed reading. But I’m too tired to explain it all here to the rest of you. So, AAcA: Go to Colorado and get the M.A.. It’s the best funding, and just as important: You can then decide whether to go on to an MFA or Ph.D., and you will also have time to work our your issues about rankings. I had a number of colleagues who did the M.A. before a later degree, and they felt they were the better for it.

All right people, it’s sunshiney in San Francisco. A rare event in March. I’m over and out. Talk to you in two weeks.


Julie Du. said...

I adore Tom -- and his book. With all due respect, though, I am sure he's wrong about it being "late" for programs to be sending acceptances. I have heard from only seven of my 11 applications in nonfiction. I am still waiting on:

American University
University of San Francisco
Boise State

I hope that helps if anyone felt a surge of panic or dread with that statement. True, my first acceptance came on February 6th; but there is plenty of time to get acceptances from any number of schools out there.

Let's keep our minds positive, folks!

Julie Du. said...

Correction: Now I'm down to only three. Just heard from American this afternoon (March 20th).

Anonymous said...

wish it was april--

you probably know, but ui-uc has the great new magazine "ninth letter" (

i'd recommend seeking it out at your local indie (borders and b&n carry it too). a magazine like that is sure to get the program some attention, no?

Michelle said...

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Sara said...

About the NEOMFA--I'm a student in the program and I've heard buzz that they haven't made any decisions yet. Also, they probably pushed the deadline back because of AWP, but that's purely speculation. Don't give up on us yet!

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