Sunday, September 30, 2007

Oy! Mail Bag!

OK, so it's almost 3:00 in the morning, I'm watching Jamie Kennedy impersonate a gangsta on Comedy Central (instead of working on a story for next week's workshop, natch) and not feeling like I got much done last week--or like a lot is gonna happen in this one, for that matter.

So at least I'm starting off this new seven-day stretch on a constructive note.

For all your MFA asking needs, ladies and gents, I give you... This Week's Mail Bag. Leave your questions here, one and all, and give your resident MFA bloggers a chance to feel productive, helpful, necessary.


Great White Cory said...

Is there a website or a link to an author's blog out there where we can see example submissions? I know we really shouldn't be comparing writing samples and should be worrying about making our writing as best we can, but I just want to get a feel for what I'll possibly be up against.


Lincoln said...

I imagine that could be pretty helpful in theory, but unfortunately anything that was publicly viewable would be considered "published" by magazines and couldn't be submitted anywhere else.

Matthew said...

Eleven years removed from college, I have decided that I really want to go on and get an MFA. Unfortunately, my GPA in college was poor (a result of immaturity). In addition, being so removed from college, I am not confident that I will be able to get really good recommendations. I have taken some JC classes over the last few years and always gotten A's, and I am signed up tp take the GRE in a couple of months -- but do you have any additional advice for me? I have read that the writing sample is the most important part, but how true is that really?

Rachel said...

I'm interested in MFA and MA programs in England and Ireland. However, I haven't been able to find much information about such programs. Mostly, I've been looking at the websites of schools I already know about (Trinity, Queen's in Belfast, Oxford).

Does anyone know how else to obtain info about creative writing schools overseas?


Caroline said...

In response to rachel's question --I know the University of East Anglia has a well-respected CW program -- I've also heard good things about the University of Sussex in Brighton. You should look at for information on studentships + funding at English /CW programs. The site might also give a list of UK univs that offer CW masters degrees....

Clive said...

I'm an Australian and I want to get into an MFA in the States. I have a bachelor of arts, but our BA degrees are only 3 years long, as opposed to the American 4. I've had Boston tell me they don't care, Hunter tell me I need another year, and I've seen on a couple of others' websites that they require 4 years, but most don't say. How many courses can I expect to be eligible for?

JoeyD said...


I'm not a MFA--I'm attempting to get into a MFA program, but I'm completing a MA in Literature this fall. I may not be the most qualified to comment on your situation, but as a fellow returning student with a 10 year college hiatus, and as someone who also had shitty undergrad grades, I recommend taking courses at a university. To prove your academic mettle, get those A's in lit or writing courses (I had to take prerequisite undergrad units in English before they accepted me into the Master's program). But if your writing sample is awesome, grades shouldn't matter too much...depends on the program, I suppose. You could address your poor grades in your SOP, as Tom Kealey mentioned somewhere on this blog (or in his book, can't remember which).

Elizabeth said...

I have two questions, really. I am currently working on my own MFA search, and I would of course like to choose some programs with faculty whose writing I respect. Unfortunately I find that I rarely recognize the faculty names or titles they have written. What would you suggest as a good way to become familiar with faculty writings? Thus far I have been trying to search out faculty written books at my local library, with limited results.
I was also wondering if you had any ideas for other methods to learn whether or not one would like to work with a school's faculty? Many thanks!

Lizzy said...

Hi Clive,

It's not clear to me what you mean by "how many courses can I expect to be eligible for". Can you reword that, maybe?

Lizzy said...


I'm not sure how well this holds for every program, but I was in a situation similar to yours (sixteen years out of school, grades on the shitty side of mediocre) and I think I was helped in the end by a high score on the GRE Verbal, in conjuction with the writing sample (of course). This is guesswork at best, even now, one-third of a semester into my first year. But it's my best guesswork, and I don't think I'm too far off. I hope this helps.

Jensen Whelan said...


I'm just finishing up my undergrad out of the US and I've encountered this problem too. I opted to take a fourth year, though, thinking it'd qualify me for teaching or more funding. Instead I'm hoping it gives me the equivalent to a BA. The best I can tell you just have to contact each program seperately. Some of the programs' websites will list degrees that are equivalent to the BA. University of Illinois does this, I think. It's kind of a hassle, really. Like you said, some schools won't care, some will say you need 4 years. Just check with the program. I don't think this will keep you out of a school. If the program wants you based on your writing sample, I don't think a technicality like this will be an issue. You do have an undergrad degree, afterall, and there are some programs that have students without those, so.

As far as courses you'll be eligible for, I don't quite understand the question either. Do mean, like how many master's level lit classes or cross-dept. electives you'll be able to take? I don't know the answer to that question. But one program (can't remember which) says on their website that you must be able to demonstrate that you have the equivalent to a US BA. If you can't do this before the start of the program you have to afterward. I have no idea how. Maybe you can take a lit survey course or something.


anybody else?

Catherine said...

To echo Matthew, I too had not the best undergrad grades and am interested in getting an MFA. I am looking at taking university courses and postponing applying until next year. How many courses should I take? A couple, or more? I'm looking at literature courses.

JoeyD said...


Sounds like Lizzy has the best answer (above), in terms of getting into the MFA--A polished, acceptable writing sample and a good GRE score. My situation was that I thought I wanted a literature degree, until, after writing theoretical essay after theoretical essay, I felt that that was not what I wanted to do with my life, to vivisect and deconstruct other people's works of art. Over a year ago, I took a creative nonfiction course at my university, and, after receiving tremendously positive feedback, and experiencing a profound sense of 'awakening' of purpose, I knew that I was a 'writer' of fiction and autobiography, if that makes sense. I had been writing for awhile, but I didn't take it seriously until I found people who responded to my work.

Well, my boring background aside, it's really hard to quantify exactly how many literature courses you should take...literary criticism in graduate courses (and undergrad classes) takes a certain amount of academic rigor, so you certainly would not look like a slouch if you received A's and A-'s. However, literature seminars are not creative writing workshops...and a literary critical essay will not get you into a MFA program. I've been taking creative writing courses at the university, on top of the literature courses--I'm fortunate enough that they offer workshops here.

To answer your question (if the question was actually asked), I took five undergrad courses to fill in my gaps of American/British/ Postcolonial English literature knowledge (I was an Asian Studies BA), and after receiving the A's to prove that my undergrad grades didn't reflect my true 'potential,' they let me into the graduate program.

I don't want to lead you astray. I would email some professors (both literature PhD's and creative writer's) to get their opinion. Or, search the info on this site; it's fairly comprehensive. Hope this info helps a little.

Catherine said...

Hi Joeyd,
Thank you for your prompt and thorough response. I am in NYC, so I feel there is wealth of resources in terms of literature courses. I've been taking some writing workshops classes that I enjoy immensely, but they are not graded. Thanks again!

Devashree said...

Hey, I'm writing from India. Planning to apply for MFA this Nov-Dec for Fall 08. Just wanted to know something critical about the writing sample. In Columbia's appli'n form, they give applicants a particular scene and we have to write our perception on what happens next...So, are we supposed to write that in a script-like format or like a simple story, with paras and all?

M.J. Kramer said...

Does anybody out there have a sense of how well-regarded UMass-Amherst's fiction half is? I've heard quite a bit about how fab the poetry is, but nothing at all about fiction. Any thoughts are welcome.


M. Ramirez Talusan said...

fyi... in england and australia, a course doesn't mean a class but rather a course of study, i.e. clive is asking how many *programs* he would be eligible for... at least if i understand him correctly.

and my answer, and this is just woman-facting, is that he should just apply. i would imagine that only the most isolationist programs would penalize you for going to a school that has a different set of requirements for a b.a...

Lizzy said...

Yeah, I'm with M. on that, Clive. Look around to get a sense of who will definitely bar you from entering because of your 3-year degree. But every other place is fair game, I think. Go ahead and apply. The odds in this MFA admission game aren't always predictable, and there seems to be a lot of room for subjectivity. Go for it.

Lizzy said...


I know of at least one U-Mass Amherst fiction graduate who went on to become a Stegner Fellow: Tom Kealey.

Sounds like the program's doing something right.

(No, Tom did not pay me to say that. OK? Nor did U-Mass. Sheesh! ;-)

Susan said...

clive, I'm inclined to agree with those who say the 3 year degree should be fine. Should being the operative word. However, check with individual schools. Some are part of graduate schools that have requirements the MFA program can't do anything about.

In some countries an "honours" degree is offered that takes a 4th year, or some additional arrangement in the 3 year program. I've seen universities here actually require that for admission to some grad programs.

Call 3 major American MFA programs and just ask. That should give you a good sampling.

Quotidian Poet said...

This is for Rachel -

I also replied to your same comment over on the Tip Sheet page.

University of East Anglia was the first UK CW program, I believe, and is well regarded.
Does Oxford do a proper MA-level degree for creative writing? Last I checked they just had a 'diploma' - and the brochure for that, which I picked up this summer, was terribly underwhelming. I haven't really researched things there, but my perception when I did study abroad there in 2004 was that creative writing, or at least the notion of having an academic program that teaches creative writing, isn't given much respect in Oxford. The Oxonian approach would be to do a critical degree and then do your writing on the side. If there is a program now, I expect it's quite new and not very well supported - but I could be wrong.

I know the program at Queen's University Belfast has been fighting to earn full respect within the department - but they've actually just started a CW PhD, so that should give some indication that the program is pretty successful. My friends had varying experiences - the fiction / scriptwriting faculty are very good, but Medbh McGuckian, while a very interesting poet, is abysmal as a poetry teacher. But I think Sinead Morrissey is now taking over more of the teaching duties, and she's great. Ciaran Carson, who's director of the Seamus Heaney Centre, is not terribly accessible, aside from post-reading receptions. Oh, and they've hired Carlo Gebler, who previously gave a lecture for the program that I sat in on, and he was superb. So, in general, I'd say the prose side of the program is quite solid, while the poetry side is somewhat more rocky, though not to an extent that it should be discounted.
Beyond the program itself, the social element of the writers' community around Queen's/Belfast is really, really great - I met really top-notch people there, who are now both some of my best friends and best readers. I don't remember Belfast as a city very fondly, but that community made for an experience I truly cherish.

As for Trinity in Dublin, I don't really know anything about their CW program, but I chose Queen's over Trinity for my critical MA because I liked Belfast better than Dublin (Dublin has become very cosmopolitan, such that it's pretty similar to any other major European city, with little Irish character left - plus it's one of the most expensive cities in Europe), and when visiting I got a much warmer sense from Queen's and the community there, as was borne out by my experience.

That experience of a community of writers is one of the most important things for me in looking for an MFA program - I think it deserves as much weight as faculty and location, though (hopefully) it can be relied on a bit more to take care of itself.

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