Monday, June 12, 2006

Too Young to be Apprehensive

Apprehensive in Iowa writes in...

I'm a junior undergraduate student contemplating an mfa in creative writing--emphasis on poetry. I plan to apply to the Indiana University @Bloomington, University of Iowa and the Michener Center @University of Texas among others. I'm slowly starting to realize that I might not get into these programs or any program. I don't have many contacts in the writing/academic world (besides my undergrad) and I fear that if I just stop--and start working odd jobs I won't return to graduate school or have those opportunities again. Any suggestions? I've considered applying for an English PhD because it would serve me more (according to my advisor) but my heart's not in teaching. It's in publication, editing, and writing opportunities.

Man, Apprehensive, quit being apprehensive. I've said a million times on here that you shouldn't go directly from undergrad to grad. A lot of readers will back me up on that. Pay them some attention.

Get out there in the world, whether that's odd jobs or traveling or whatever you like and can do. It will help your writing in the long run, and perhaps most importantly, and I'm sorry to sound like the old guy here: You won't have opportunities to do these kinds of things later in life.

So, work your butt off over the summers. Move to New York or San Francisco. Take an internship with a publisher. Work in a restaurant the rest of the time. Meet people. Learn. Relax. Enjoy. That's what I'd do, man-facting, if I were you. Rock on.


Jason Michael MacLeod said...

I did my undergrad at Grinnell College in Iowa, applied to MFA programs, and got into Arizona, one of my top choices. I didn't go because I knew I was way WAY too burnt out from school and, frankly, needed some experience in the real world. So I lived in Iowa City for a few year. Soaked up the free readings and the good Indian food next to Praire Lights. Don't regret it at all. And now I'm almost finished with my MFA at Montana. If anything, those "odd jobs" you do while out of school will encourage your journey to grad school. (There are only so many essays you can grade for ACT prior to going bonkers). Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Hey too young....I'll chime in here with the same. Think about Americorps for a year or two....service work, pays crap but your loans are deferred and you have health insurance--what else do you need? You'll soak up so much life experience (and even get a little help with grad school---which is an incentive to follow through on it.)

Anonymous said...

I'll third that advice.

1) I wouldn't be afraid that you'll get off-track out in the working world and never want to head back to grad school. I have yet to meet a person who had interest in grad school when in undergrad and didn't have it strengthened by being out in the working world. I bet you'll appreciate grad school a lot more after a few years out of undergrad--or at least I'm betting I will this fall. Work makes you appreciate the luxuries of school, which is a good thing.

2) Working weird jobs in weird places can be a pretty awesome experience. Genuinely. If you don't mind real work, the world's got a lot of interesting stuff to offer. Seasonal employment, americorps, teaching esl, the list goes on ...

Anonymous said...

Hey, Apprehensive,

I understand your concern. Yes it's true that your teachers might not remember you well a few years later, so it'll be hard to write ref letters. But there's a solution for this. Get the letters right now when you're still fresh in their memory before you leave college and seek other adventures as folks here recommended. Keep your copies and show them to your recommenders years later when you apply. It'll make things easier this way.


Anonymous said...

It CAN'T BE STRESSED ENOUGH how important it is to take a year or two off after undergrad!!!

Outside the bubble of academia, I realized that everything I was writing bored the hell out of me. I also realized that the structure of the creative writing workshop was holding me back from doing work that was truly interesting.

One year later, my new work is getting published, I'm working on my first novel, and grad school seems a piece of cake compared to the 9-5.

My advice:

1) Find someplace cool to live that's relatively cheap. (I chose Cleveland.)
2) Find a job that offers health insurance.
3) Start networking and exhaust your surroundings. Get into a writing group, attend every reading in your city, start a blog, etc.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

It's easy to forget that not everyone takes the straight from high school to undergrad path, in which case it makes sense for some people to go straight from college to the MFA.

Anonymous said...

Here's something to consider: if you're afraid that one year off between undergrad and grad will throw you that far off-track, what happens when you finish your MFA and don't have the option of being in school anymore? It can be really hard to write without that kind of formalized support structure, but if you're going to be a writer, you're going to have to find a way to write no matter what -- whether you're in school, not in school, working a crappy office job, or living a life of luxury off the proceeds of your Macarthur Fellowship. Take the time off. Find (or start) a writers' group if you need a way of meeting up with fellow writers on a regular basis. Then, if you still feel the MFA will help you become a better writer, go for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the anonymous writer who pointed out why some people may go from undergrad to an MFA program straightaway. Unfortunately, not all of us go about experience building as if it were an exercise akin to resume padding. That people need to go out, work a few odd jobs to make them feel as though they have lived, goes to show why people in these MFA programs are so homogenous.

Anonymous said...

If you want to write great things, you need to live first.

You may have all the talent in the world, but you don't necessarily have the content yet.

Maybe you do.

Go see the world. Live in a hostel in Dublin and work in a bar. Bicycle through France. Write your way across America, taking simple jobs and tiny apartments. Work your tail off for a few months first to save up the money. Then just go.

Then come back for an MFA to give yourself a little more time and training to write about the world you see.

Anonymous said...

Amen to Dan--we seem to agree on a lot of things.

The point isn't to build an experiential resume, the point is just to live the life you want to live, in which the experience you're having at a given moment is the experience you're invested, and interested, in having--whether that's washing dishes in Birmingham or biking in Toulouse or kicking it in a bar in your hometown with old friends or doing data entry in an office.

Original Poster: if you really want to get an MFA in order to have the experience of getting an MFA, go for it. I don't think anyone's advising that you go "have experiences" simply to check, "have experiences" off a to-do list.

But your original message led me (and, I think, most of the responders) to b'lieve that you are actually experiencing a nervousness borne of expectation. And it seems that if you're already nervous about whether or not you might or might not get back to an MFA at some theoretical date in the future (yes, that's a lot of theorizing) then maybe you want to think about whether an MFA is what you want right now, or whether it's just the step you think you're supposed to want.

I felt that sense of nervousness for a long time, but I figured that I should wait and apply until I was applying out of excitement, not out of anxiety or expectation. And I'm glad that I did. It's not that you can't do it now; it's just that it might not be the most positive experience for you right now ... and it might be really positive later.

And now, this is a particular response to the comment just ahead of Dan's: why the condescension and assumptions made about people in MFA's? Seems like a pretty presumptuous thing to say.

I imagine it was just said for effect, but 1) it seems laced with anger and 2) it seems like a depressing thing to say if you're either in an MFA program or heading to one. I doubt everyone is really the same, no matter where you are.

Anonymous said...

Do what you feel ready for. If you feel you need a break to work on your own, take a break. If you feel you want to go right away to the MFA, go to the MFA.
"If you want to write great things, you need to live first," is just another formula (and, with its implications of slumming, of getting "real" experiences to write about, a bourgeois meets beat one at that), and formulas don't work in writing. Some writers started publishing when they were twenty, some when they were forty, and some not until even later than that. Some took years of struggling to develop, others had the style and the content early on (like Joyce). I have nothing against the idea of taking a few years off to bum around, but don't feel like you have to. After all, I think it was William Maxwell who once said he worked on a freighter so he would have "experiences" he could write about, but then ended up devoting most of his career to stories from his childhood.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't see any implications of "slumming" in what people wrote. Who thinks biking across France is "slumming it"?

What I see above is people offering ideas of things to do if you're ambivalent about heading to grad school. The original poster sounded ambivalent and nervous--confused as to whether or not he/she should be scared about getting into programs. People are trying to say: don't worry about grad school as the necessary next step. Do what you like. Do something fun. Do whatever comes your way. Go where you're interested in going.

No one is saying you MUST go have
certain experiences. They're just suggesting certain experiences that they might have had and therefore that they know to have been 1) fun, 2) productive, 3) enlightening, 4) lucrative (or not so).

I know what you're getting at in terms of not "getting out of the box", just to jump back into the "out of the box" formula, but come on--no one was advocating anything close to that.

Above all (and in regards to the, "some people are ready at 20" argument) no one is saying, "don't write next year". Of course spend time writing. An MFA isn't "writing", it's a program. Hopefully we all write regardless of enrollment in an MFA.

The question isn't whether or not to write, it's whether or not to get an MFA now. And to that I think a person should decide whether or not he/she thinks this is the best time in his/her life to get an MFA, and then go for whatver seems most energizing.

But if you're ambivalent, or making the decision out of a sense of anxiety over whether or not you'll ever go back and do it later, then you might want to look into other jobs, places, activities for the next year (or however many years). An MFA isn't the make-or-break for writing, it's just a way to find a community and time and, ideally, someone to support you while you write for awhile. It's a really amazing set-up and I just think it's a good idea to figure out whether or not now is the time you want to take advantage of that opportunity, or whether you think that you might make better use of that opportunity later on down the line. That's is a thoroughly personal choice--but an important one.

Also, you know what I would say to the William Maxwell example: he probably had a different relationship to his childhood stories after having lived on the freighter--not because it was a freighter, but because it was an experience. One of many. All experiences influence us, even if we don't write about them directly.

Anonymous said...

I just graduated from Iowa, and am headed to an MFA program for nonfiction in the fall. I met with some of my future peers this week, and learned that I will be the only one (I believe) to enter the program directly from undergraduate. I am quite nervous about my lack of experience, being especially that nonfiction requires quite a bit. However, I think it also fair to say that you need to look what you've already experienced in your life. Someone graduating from college may have lived quite a bit more than someone a few years older. So I think that is necessary to weigh too. I guess I'll find out soon. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

notsopithy--valid points. But Apprehensive doesn't strike me as ambivalent about grad school. His/Her stated concern is that they won't get in.
My suggestion--if you want to go, but are only worried about not getting in, then go ahead and apply and see what happens (unless the cost is prohibitive). If you're more worried about going _now_ as opposed to later, then take some of the advice here and keep working at your writing.

Anonymous said...

notsopithy--awesome comments. I'll bet you're a super teacher!

Anonymous said...

notsopithy always want to be the top dog!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Recent Undergrad From Iowa: do you post on P&W? I think we had a recent conversation there about your acceptance at Pitt. Where did you end up choosing to go?

Anonymous said...

hey arizonapie, yup that's me. I was deciding between The New School and Pitt in the end, and Pitt won. I just visited for the first time and fell in love with the city. You are applying in the fall, right? Any idea where?

Anonymous said...

If you're in your early twenties, as long as you're writing, it doesn't matter whether you're in a program. That's my two cents. It might matter if you never, ever get an MFA (maybe you wouldn't realize the artistic potential you have if you don't). But for the next few years, you're making progress if you're writing, wherever you are, in the world of work or in the academy. I wish you the best.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually going to wait til 2007 to apply. Gots to get my ducks in a row first. But I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the MFA at Pitt! It'll definately be a program on my list.