Mulling It Over in Michigan...
I've published almost twenty stories so far, all independent of my undergrad program. Some of these have been in very nice magazines and I'm understandably proud of the stories. I'm tempted to use two of these published pieces as my writing samples, but at the same time, they're not the freshest things I have either. Due to the delays in submitting and the often slow printing process, some of my most recent publications are also two year old stories. I'm afraid they might not be very representative of what I'm working on now. At the same time, I've got a lot of faith in the published stories, for obvious reasons, but I like what I'm doing now too.
I guess what I'm asking is, what's a good way to determine which stories to pick? Will the fact that the stories have been published in good print magazines matter, or am I better off representing what I'm currently working on, even if the new stories might not be as polished?
MIOM, first of all, congratulations on all of your publishing success.
I suppose this is a complex question, but I'm going to make the answer as simple as possible. Look, you should go with your best work. I know: No duh. I guess what I'm really saying is: if the committee doesn't like a particular sample, they're not going to be particularly impressed that it was previously published.
I've told this story in the book and on the blog before, so I'll make it brief here: I ran my stories by a friend of mine before I applied to the Stegner Program. Cathy said, "Definitely send Groundskeeping." I was like, "That's my old stuff. I want to send something new." Cathy said, "Send Groundskeeping with something new."
So, that's what I did, and I got in. A year later, one of the faculty members told me, "It was Groundkeeping that got you in."
My point: Choose your best four stories. Or, in poetry, your best eighteen or twenty pages. Hand it out to some trusted readers. Try to choose two or three people. Ask them which work you should send.
My advice? Go with their opinion on at least half of the sample. If there's something you really believe in, then send that in the second half. Either way, get some outside opinions to help you with the whole perspective issue.
And keep in mind: You don't have to ask writers. Just ask trusted readers. Most of the time, people will be flattered that you asked. Good luck, MIOM. And let us know how it goes.