Sunday, August 27, 2006

Alien Stories Okay? How about a letter from the warden?

Incarcerated in Indiana writes...

Hi. I am a long time writer who hopes to enter an MFA program next year, pending my anticipated parole from state prison this fall. Back in college, I took a number of creative writing classes but always found that my stories, due, presumably, to their genre (I'd call it speculative fiction but they like to call it horror or sci-fi or fantasy or weird) received a cool reception. It hurt that their technical and artistic merits were not appreciated (i.e. assumed to be non-existent) and I became disillusioned with academia and writing. I'm not really sure why but I want to give it another shot when I re-enter society. I've written a number of pieces behind bars and the other inmates all love them. Even the correction officers say the're good. My question is whether or not you think an admissions committee would seriously consider my kind of work. I'm talking monsters, aliens, ghosts, historical fiction, and the end-of-the-world. Also, I expect to be a little hard-up for recommendations. Do you think it would hurt me if I asked the Warden for a letter (I've been a model prisoner and have helped teach illiterate inmates to read). Thanks for your assistance,

IiI, it's been my experience that the monster/alien/ghost stories don't tend to go over very well with the MFA committees. MFAers generally consider themselves writers of literary fiction, not mainstream fiction.

Can anyone on our board think of a program that might be open to more mainstream writing samples?

As for the letter from the Warden, I'll say what I always say about letter-writers: Go with who you've got. In fact, if you're going to talk about your prison experience in your personal statement, then a positive letter from the Warden seems like a must.

In any case, best of luck with your release and your decisions. Rock on.


Adam said...

On the subject of "speculative fiction": I don't know about one program vs. another, but I know that it can be accepted. A few years I heard Frank Conroy talking about the Iowa program on NPR and he mentioned a favorite student of his who wrote what he described as horror stories. And several writers who are held in very high regard in the literary write what you'd probably describe as "speculative fiction": Haruki Murakami often includes some sort of "magic" in his stories, as does Paul Auster, not to mention Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), etc. This stuff tends to be categorized as "magical realism," but that label essentially means "speculative fiction that is also literary fiction." Now, granted, you're back to the whole "what is literary fiction anyway?" mess, but that just puts you in the same boat as everybody else.

Which is all just to say: whatever you write, write it very, very well, and you'll probably have as much of a chance as anyone.

--Adam aka NNIN

jaywalke said...

I got the same response in a recent workshop: "good story until all this weird stuff happened".

I've been looking at Hollins's program. I know Dillard (RHW, not Annie) is a magic realism fan.

Nick Mamatas said...

Funny that you make the distinction between "mainstream" and "literary" fiction...speculative fiction and most other genres aren't normally considered mainstream or called by that name. (Certainly thrillers and the like are mainstream, but not SF/F/H, which is only about 7% of the adult trade marketplace.)

Anyway, a number of MFA programs have an interest in speculative fiction. U. Maine Stonecoast, Seton Hill, and Goddard all offer speculative fiction tracks, and Western Connecticut State University's new MFA in professional writing is open to speculative fiction writers, though most of their faculty is involved with the literary mainstream.

Lisa R. said...

The Stonecoast low-residency MFA (University of Southern Maine) offers a track in Popular Fiction. To my knowledge, it's the only low-res program in the U.S. to do so. I'm in the nonfiction program, but I hear great things about PopFic and I've attended seminars and discussions given by faculty members in that area and found them to be highly professional, open-minded and welcoming folk.

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