Thursday, November 16, 2006

"My MFA Research Process"

The Lonesome Hutterite writes in with a terrific post. Thanks so much for this!

I’d like to sketch out an approach to learning about all things MFA. I may have gone nuts with my research, but I hope to make a career of writing novels and teaching (ha ha, good luck), so I needed to figure out all I could. Or look at it this way: I have a dull job; here is how I made the most of it and learned to love the office. This is addressed to newcomers to the site.

About a year and a half ago, I decided that I wanted to study for an MFA, but the world in which trained creative writers live and breathe – a world that includes the programs themselves as well as contests and literary magazines and conferences and ways of looking at stories and essays and ways of making a living while writing – seemed highly mysterious and intimidating, so intimidating to my timid self, in fact, that I needed a nice, safe angle of approach just to begin learning anything at all.

Blogs and Web Sites. I started here, of course, by reading through the inexhaustibly informative archives posted at left and by visiting the site often. You can also find a number of intriguing blogs that are written by current or recently former students at various MFA programs. Try Earthgoat (about Iowa; leads you to a host of other Iowa Workshop bloggers) and The Inner Ear (Johns Hopkins; beautifully written), in particular, for clues as to what it’s like being in any program and for the occasional behind-the-scenes tidbit. You should also, obviously, visit the program Web sites themselves. My view is that these are the most useful in helping you get to know the faculty (but not as useful when you need to find basic stuff such as application deadlines, because the program information is usually so poorly organized; you can get faster answers in other places, such as at the Dozen Dozen blog [see below]); plan on doing a heck of a lot of clicking to figure out who on the faculty wrote what and on doing just as much googling to find out whether what they wrote interests you. And, no, you won’t have heard of 90 percent of them. When you start to recognize the names of some of these folks, you feel much more oriented, as though you’re on the edge of figuring out what’s going on.

Books. As you work through the archives on this site, I would suggest that you also read Tom’s book. (The book is actually the most useful resource I’ve found so far, bar none.) There’s also a book by Amy Holman that’s very useful when it comes to learning about conferences, colonies, grants, and the like; it’s less so when it comes to the programs themselves, but still, you absolutely need to read this book if you’re going to get a sense of the opportunities for creative writers that exist beyond the degree. Associated Writing Programs (AWP) publishes a kind of reference text listing every writing program around; personally, I didn’t use it much, probably because I was focused on programs in just one part of the country, but you may find it helpful. I’ve actually found another reference-type work, Anna’s A Dozen Dozen MFA Programs in Creative Writing blog, easier to use. This blog isn’t all-inclusive, as the AWP book is, but the information that’s there is of better quality; we all owe Anna a tremendous debt in that she did the hard work of figuring out how much 100+ programs cost, what you need to include in all these application packets, etc., so that we don’t have to. She should expand it and publish it as a book.

Message Boards. The Poets & Writers magazine Speakeasy: this is where you go when you need to ask someone who is currently in a particular program what it’s really like. Information here has the potential to be more current, unvarnished, and gossipy than you’re going to find anywhere else. Some of the posters might seem to be unhinged at first, but they’re probably not. Figure out how to search within threads, and you’re all set.

Writer Magazines. I finally began to put two and two together after I joined the AWP and started receiving The Writer’s Chronicle. Partly it was reading articles by people who teach in MFA programs and seeing how they think about literature, but mostly, I confess, it was reading the ads for MFA programs, conferences, etc., that helped my fluency with all things MFA. Example: Who is Clint McCown? I had never heard of him, but then the name started popping up in various places (ads and Web sites), so I learned little by little what he had written and where he had published. And then finally there he was again in a Writer’s Chronicle ad for an upcoming Gettysburg College conference. Ah yes: that Clint McCown. I know Clint McCown. Poets & Writers magazine also has ads; browse them and use your offhand late-capitalist excellence at comparison shopping to begin making sense of all that MFA program data.

Literary Magazines. A strange thing happened when I started reading the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Iowa Review: my beloved New Yorker started to have all the intellectual gravitas of People. There’s been an unfortunate string of lifestyle journalism articles (where in God’s name is Alec Wilkinson when you need him?) and silly stories in the New Yorker lately, but still, when you read a literary magazine in which MFA types publish, well, then you get those parts of the New Yorker that you look forward to but not the fluffy garbage in between. It just goes from magnificent personal essay to great story to substantive book review and back. And this is where all those nameless creative writing professors publish, and man can they write.

Online Writing Courses. Maybe you’re in a similar situation: you need recommendations, and the best way of getting them would seem to be taking an online class. I’m skeptical that this is true, but, anyway, part of my goofing off at work has meant evaluating the online course options. The New York Writer’s Studio has its own, virtually “branded” approach to creative writing, so if you want something different from just submitting a story for workshop, if you want to be led through a series of exercises designed to help you write in a certain way, that may be the place. The Gotham Writer’s Workshop appears to be a more popular vendor of online writing courses, and so you have a wider selection but you probably end up critiquing more genre writing. The UCLA Extension is another option; there you can take a bunch of sequenced courses and get a certificate in creative writing — earn your own preliminary writing “degree” before committing to an MFA program. MediaBistro has classes also. It kind of accelerated the demystification of the MFA world for me when I took an online writing class and got a feel for how workshops might run in a program.

So that’s it. Thank you, Tom, for starting up this approachable and highly informative blog. If codenames are still needed, please call me "The Lonesome Hutterite."


Anonymous said...

Rock ON, Lonesome! I've done a bunch of these things, but not all, and seeing them listed comprehensively is the first step towards taking the suck out of applying to MFA programs. ("Suck" is a highly technical term meaning a potent combination of pain and frustration.) I hope you're happily enrolled now and I'd grab a cup of coffee with you anytime! Thanks...

aliyaa said...

There are so many students who ask what is a reaction paper. This is quite funny because reaction papers are basic of their subjects which must be understood by them.