Monday, September 08, 2008

A Word On Gap Years

Lately I've been seeing a lot of comments concerning taking a year off before applying for M.F.A. programs. I made this decision last year and I'm both regretful and thankful I did it. Originally I was going to mainly apply to Arabic programs, so that year off helped me to realize that I really, really wanted to write above everything else. I was also able to devote my full attention to my undergraduate thesis (which ended up being atrocious anyhow). A year off will give you the time needed to polish a portfolio and to fully understand what you want to do. It is also helpful if you have some email-phobic professors who may not respond quickly, and the other hiccups that come alone with struggling to meet deadlines while completing a senior year of college. On the downside, a year off can be incredibly boring, especially if you aren't enrolled in any classes. I'm currently stuck in the town I grew up in and working as a substitute teacher. The good thing about this is that I have nothing else to do with my time but write.

Yes, it's a lot like watching all of your friends go off to summer camp without you, but in the end I think a year off can do a lot of good. What do the rest of you think?


Sara E.G. said...

Gap years are always interesting. By the time I enter a program next fall I will have been out of college five years, and for me, it was the perfect amount of time to be "away."

Back then, I considered myself ready to continue on with my writing, but various opportunities (travel, relationships, etc) told me to take a year off, and so I did. I had my own share of things I needed to work through outside a classroom. I watched a lot of my fellow creative writing graduates go on to MFA programs straight away, and it actually was a lot like watching your friends leave for some elite summer camp that you had opted out of (and I did have moments of regret for thinking I'd be "behind" when I did choose to pursue the MFA.)

But in the past four-five years time has allowed me to live in three countries, break into the publishing business, secure a great job, get freelance experience, take graduate classes here and there and realize how truly precious writing time is. I've struggled financially, been through personal ups and downs and sometime this past winter felt truly prepared to go after the MFA.

Would I have been unsuccessful had I applied four years ago? No, not necessarily. I feel my writing was strong *enough* then, but is leaps and bounds above that level now. And it isn't even that the subject matter behind my poetry is all that different today than it was then; I'm simply better at flushing it all out and have had experiences that let me see those topics in a different light. My craft is better now, plain and simple.

This is not to say that freshly graduated applicants aren't equipped for an MFA. Not at all. Just as I spent my five years off differently than the person next to me, I'm sure there is a 20 year old who has had more life experiences than the 30 year old beside them (hell, I think I did at 20) and who can write about them just as eloquently, if not more so.

My hope is simply this: to be in a program surrounded by writers that bring a host of experiences to workshop, who take it seriously and who deserve to be there, no matter what age they are when they arrive.

jack said...

Consider taking ten or 25 years off. The average age of students in my MFA class at Bennington is 44!

Jenny said...

I think that taking time off between Undergrad and graduate school is the best thing you can do. I had planned on taking one year off and opted for 2 instead, and I think it was absolutely the right choice. Just feel it out as you go.

Rebecca said...

I'm applying this year, but only to programs that I'd absolutely kill to go to. My thinking is that things right now in my personal life are such that I can pick up and move wherever I want. A year ago I was in a relationship that really limited my options geographically so now I'm really conscious of how precious that freedom is. After time off, who knows what my life will look like?

That being said, I think I'd really prefer to take time off. Travel, work, write, be able to move with all my friends. If I'm offered an irresistible opportunity through this application cycle, I'll take it. But if I'm not, I'll just think of it as a good practice run.

Kerry Headley said...

This really is my topic at the moment as I have just decided that I do need an extra year. My current schedule will not permit me to do justice to applications and samples right now. It was a relief to admit this to myself, but also a real disappointment because I just wanted to stay in the school loop since I am already 39 years old and just now finishing my BA in journalism/communications.

The good news is that I can research even more closely my top picks, give my letter writers forever to craft great recommendations, focus on getting a job and take my time studying for the GRE.

I've already looked into creative writing classes at the junior college. I could actually fit in three of them between now and next fall.(Our local JC is great and very cheap.)That would be a great focus of my time and really get my chops up after years of writing like a journalist.

I think I will be a little sad as I read here where everybody else got accepted. Still, I think I've made the right decision. It was great to read the experiences of others who've done the same and DID make it back to apply this year.

Good luck!

Raysen said...

I'll repeat what one of my bosses told me which I now wholeheartedly adopt as one of my "rules to live by":

Everyone under 30 is stupid and immature.

With that said, I've come to believe this over the years. Don't hate me but I've come to despise and not respect anyone under 30. I've never met an under-30 person who was responsible, dilligent, sensitive, smart, mature, and fit to raise my dog.

Remember what Lorrie Moore wrote? I paraphrase: If you want to be a writer, pursue a job other than writing like lawyer, doctor, dentist, tax accountant, bounty hunter, dog walker. Anything. It doesn't matter what as long as it's not writing. Then, fail miserably at it. This should adequately prepare you for a life of writing.

You know what kids? Take 10 years off from undergrad. Do something else. And then, when you're 32, apply to MFA programs. You'll be wiser for it.

That's all.

Raysen said...

kerry, you've made the right decision. There's no such thing as "too late to apply to an MFA." You can always do it next year or the year after that. However, I do believe that sometimes, it can be "too early to apply to an MFA."

Sara E.G. said...

Whoa, a little bitter raysen?

While I'm inclined to agree that doing something else for a while besides writing will make you a better writer in the end, you've just alienated roughly 85% of the people you'll ever have workshop with.

Good luck with that. I'm sure you'll find a MFA program to be warm and fuzzy with no under-30's in sight.

Bsquared86 said...

I decided to take a year off between grad and undergrad because piling the stress of trying to decide what I would do after I graduated on top of the already daunting task of ensuring that I did, indeed, graduate was just too much. I'm only 4 months into my year off and I am terribly bored! I couldn't agree more that it feels a lot like watching all of your friends go off to summer camp without you- I feel like I'm missing out on all the fun. I’m enrolled in an online CW course and toying with the idea of a UCLA extension course not only for the writing experience but to keep myself busy. Because I attended undergrad 3000 miles away from my hometown, it feels weird being back home for such an extended period of time. Though all MFA hopefuls know what an arduous task getting into a program can be, others (like my family and friends) are trying to figure out what I’m waiting for, lol. One day, they’ll understand.

Nevertheless, I am still pleased with my decision to take this year off. Everyday I learn something new about MFA programs (thanks to this blog & others) as well as discover something new about myself and my writing. I didn’t even know what an MFA was until last fall, let alone that I wanted to get into one. If I would have just haphazardly applied to grad programs last application season, I’d probably be stuck in some theory based lit program right now- wasting precious time and money. Now, I have time to write and read to my heart’s content and figure out these applications.

Taking a break may not be for everyone but it’s definitely for me!

Laura said...
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Kerry Headley said...


Thanks for the support! I am really grateful that I did not go into an MFA program any earlier. I now have a ton to write about, including many failures, so in this way I am a huge success already. :)

Everyone else:

Thanks for sharing your stories about waiting. Seems like the consensus is to make sure to occupy myself with something that inspires me. Seems like no one here ended up regretting waiting?

But, of course, this is all so subjective. A 22-yr old could be ready right now while I needed all of my 20's to do a lot of non-writing things like work as a massage therapist and move around the country.


Raysen said...

Hey, I was just having fun and making deliberately over-the-top comments. But my boss really did say that.

Anyway, I seriously do believe that one should wait until you're in your 30s before embarking on the MFA journey. There are always exceptions but you'll get so much more out of it if you try something else and THEN do the writing gig.

And no, I'm not bitter about anything. I have never applied to an MFA program, but will do so next year (not this year). I would apply this year if I could, but due to personal reasons, I can't. No bitterness. I'm very content in all aspects of my life except for my inability to cook some decent cornbread or a paella dish.

Sara E.G. said...


Ok. I agree. Both on waiting (at least a little while) and on paella.

It's real tough.

marsupial said...

I applaud you Raysen! I'm 31 and considering applying this year, and after having life experiences that only happened in the last two years, it would have been foolish for me to attend a program at a younger age (even though I wanted to). I'm not implying that 20somethings are naive with nothing to write about, but my writing has improved tenfold because of the last couple of years.

While I believe my writing was strong in my mid-20s, had I received an MFA degree then, I don't think my writing would be any better than it is now, which has improved through my participation in writing workshops in my community.

Maybe if I'd had an epiphany at 23 I'd understand why I should get a degree that early, and of course there are plenty of 20somethings who write in ways I'll probably never imagine.

I think when it comes down to it, the admissions committees will decide whether we are in the right time in our lives to attend their programs. Unfortunately, we may feel their opinions are wrong. That's why it's crucial for our personal statements to really get across why this is the time in our lives to be in a program, whether we're 22 or 32.

And, on a practical note, having had a career for almost 10 years, it's nice to have a little money saved up to help fund my education.

Jenny Williams said...

I'm going to agree, most definitely, that gap years can provide the kind of rich life experience that helps us become better writers.

I'm 25 and will be applying this year for fiction programs after spending three years abroad and working in book publishing (in fact, my story seems eerily similar to that of sara e.g.... and I second everything she said). My time out of school has led me in completely new directions as a writer. For example, the novel I'm working on stems from my time as an aid worker in northern Uganda and South Sudan.

BUT--I also know that my life after the MFA will be equally filled with experiences I'll want to write about. Does that mean I should wait until I have "enough" life experience before applying to MFA programs? I don't think so. I'm approaching the MFA as a time during which I'll immerse myself in the craft of writing and sharpen my tools. Those tools will be as useful in twenty years as they will be during the MFA itself.

So, in a way, I'm not sure that gap years are mandatory to a writer's ability to grow in an MFA program. They're helpful, sure--but different writers need different things at different points.

Also, no one has mentioned that some MFA programs do offer elements of a "real world" experience. At UNLV, you can combine an MFA with two years in the Peace Corps. Other schools do outreach programs in the community--teaching in prisons, homeless shelters, etc. And MFA students paying their own way might also have to get part- or full-time jobs concurrent with the degree.

greentea said...

As someone who will have a "gap" of 10 years between undergrad and grad, I'll say this: The 10 years have been crucial to my development as a writer. Of course, if I'd gone straight into an MFA program, that, too, would have helped my development, and I think I still would have done just fine. But I certainly feel as though I've broadened my reading, my influences, and the ways in which I see the world. I got pigeon-holed in nonfiction as an undergrad, and I've been able to explore other genres and will be applying in fiction, now.

I also got 10 years of editing and magazine writing experience under my belt.

However, I will say this: Just because I wasn't enrolled in a grad program doesn't mean I wasn't seeking further education. I took writing workshops, attended publishing conferences, found a writing group, attended "writerly" events even though I was generally the youngest person by a couple of decades.

The result is more than just "life experiences" to write about. I have connections (and recommendations) in the writing world well beyond my undergraduate professors. I have skills that can earn me a paycheck even if I don't end up using my MFA for a teaching job (but hopefully that stuff also makes me a more attractive teaching candidate).

I had a good decade, but I can't tell you how happy I will be to ditch 60-hour workweeks, the "how to" articles, and time-wasting meetings. In fact, if I didn't have an MFA to turn to right now, I'd probably be entering a nervous breakdown.

Lisa N.R. said...

The flip side to the gap years...if you wait too long, it gets more difficult (out of the write habit, distance from professors to recommend, more rooted in place and less free to pick up and go, generally feeling alienated in your soul-killing career because you didn't have the gonads to be poor and do what you were really meant to do, self-loathing, lack of confidence, fragile ego...ahem, I guess the gap years can't do anything about those).

Yes, I'm glad I waited and followed the Lorrie Moore prescription, but I still need to LEARN about writing and it really does become more difficult to get into a school where you can learn it. I always liked this Faulkner quote:
"The young demon-driven and wants to learn and has got to write, he don't know why, he will learn from almost any source that he finds. He will learn from older people who are not writers, he will learn from writers, but he learns it."

I still put myself in the "young writer" category, even though I'm almost 15 (oh gawd, don't do the math, you GRE studiers) years out from my BA. I wasn't ready at 21, but I was most certainly ready at 31 and for lack of faith, I kept waiting. Don't wait too long, people. Seize the day.

Eli said...

I also line up with the 'the more time out, the better' crew. I finished undergrad aged 21, got a Masters aged 26, and now, at age 27, am planning to take at least another 2-3 years off - if not more - and do another couple of things that challenge me in different ways before I pursue an MFA. That doesn't mean I'm not already dreaming of it and hanging about this website. I am learning the craft late at night and in squeezed lunch hours now whilst being pummelled by non-writing demands. When I do do an MFA, I will really relish the program and get the very most out of it. I haven't wanted to do anything but write fiction this whole time, but every year I've spent since my undergrad degree working or doing something outside fiction writing (from shitty to not-so-shitty jobs to more academia) has changed and enriched my life so much. The Lorrie Moore quote from Raysen is great.

Whether I'm turning into a better writer as I get older is hard to judge. I think so. I've spent an awful lot of time writing and reading voraciously these past few years. Since these are the main points - alongside teaching - of being a writer and being in a writing community anyway, I have no qualms about not securing my MFA just yet.

Wasn't Henry Miller in his 40's when he wrote Tropic of Cancer? And I was reading recently about Junot Diaz taking 11 years to finish his Pulitzer-winning first novel. Can't rush greatness...

Eli said...

An addendum: the idea of getting out of the writing habit by applying too late in life - if that happens, and if you feel you need to be in an MFA to continue to write, then how committed are you to writing? If you have a soul-killing career that teaches you a hundred other things, and still you write (almost neurotically) on weekends and evenings as the years pass, then you know you're onto something. The MFA is a beautiful opportunity to do that full-time, and I'm so grateful such an opportunity exists, but many writers have done without and not lost their itch to write.

Zadie Smith on Kafka and his crazy work/writing schedule:

(scroll about halfway down)

Makes me aware of what a luxury a (funded, I might add) MFA is.

T.G. said...

At thirty-two, I have a wealth of life experience to bring to my writing that I did not have at twenty-two. Plain and simple, folks. I have recently worked with many writers between 18-22 years old in workshop and they do not yet possess the chops to write with depth and insight. That is not their fault. Life experience trumps all in the world of adult, literary fiction.

An original voice is carved from experience. A young writer emulates those he or she admires and relies on their imagination/talent above all else. That is two out of at least three things a serious writer needs to possess in order to write something that lasts. The most important thing a young writer lacks is credibility in their writing, and this can ONLY be attained through life experience.

This is not meant to disparage or discourage young writers! I am simply offering my impression of what I have personally observed and experienced as an emerging writer.

Guy said...
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Guy said...

Oh dear, the good ol' gap years. I've been out of school for four years now and I can not stress how important it is to take time off from school. As for me, I am prepping for MFA applications for fall 2009 and will turn 30 by the time I return to school (i.e. if any of the nine MFA programs accept me).

After earning my second B.A. in English (the first B.A. in History), I returned to Florida, worked a few shitty jobs before entering the publishing industry. Then, of course, I worked a string of publishing gigs (both editorial and publicity) in Florida and, now, in New York City. Not to mention, I've taken a few writing workshop courses and help run a reading series at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. So over the years, my writing and reading experience has reached tenfold, in ways that I couldn't imagine. I seriously urge novice writers to take time, develop as a person, gain work experience, travel, and, for your reading and writing, work in a bookstore. If it weren't for reading Lorrie Moore and mining material for my stories, I would not even considered in possibly getting an MFA.

And here's the entire quote Raysen used from Lorrie Moore:

"First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age - say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing then back up at you with a face blank as a doughnut. She'll say: ''How about emptying the dishwasher?'' Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters."

--"How to Become a Writer"

Jenny said...

I don't disagree with anyone who has said a wealth of life experience is important to be a good writer. But I would argue that, for many writers, waiting as long as 10 years could be more of a detriment than a boon. I think the argument is actually whether it is better for you to have the foundation of form and structure and to eventually bring your experiences to it, or to start with a broader expanse of experience and apply structure and form to it. I don't think either is necessarily better, but that's what younger applicants should maybe be asking themselves.

Also, for playwrights specifically (since I got on board to try to help out the dramatic writers), an MFA program is an essential connection-building component. And if you intend to work in the performing arts, this is incredibly important. In terms of connection-making, don't wait! (Though, of course, there are other ways of making connections than through graduate school).

Luke said...

Hey all--

A voice from the other side, someone who went directly from undergraduate into an MFA program. Personally I think I made the right decision, for me. I think the central point of this discussion is drowning in a sea of generalities. For some people,for a lot of people, graduate school is not the best route directly from a BA. For some people, it is.

If you continue to read and write, you're going to improve as a writer, so I'm not surprised that so many are remarking about the progress in these "gap years." That being said, it's not as if those who go directly into an MFA program aren't experiencing this same improvement, rather they may be accelerating it. And it's not as if you stop growing as a writer once you hold the degree in your hands, you're still dealing with the raw, shifting matter of language. You're still charged with the same dilemmas as any other writer, MFA or not. Maybe we should all wait until we're in our 70's to pursue MFAs and will have at that point accrued sufficient life experience to finally write our opus.

Life experience does not make you a better writer. Period. Perhaps it gives you more subject matter to work with, perhaps it gives you more time to study the craft through reading and writing, perhaps it gives you a greater appreciation for the gift of 2-3 years of funded time to write. In fact, all of these things are true. More time is an amazing thing. But the mere fact that you've been places and worked shitty jobs doesn't mean a thing when faced with the blank page. If you find a lack of perspective or subject matter as a result of having no life experience, then the task of your work is to recognize and address that absence rather than simply bemoan it.

If an admissions committee sees your work and recognizes something there worthy of further study, who's to disagree with them? After all, we've established ad naseum the value of life experience, and these people have buckets-full when it comes to recognizing a promising manuscript.

All this as a long-winded, probably overly argumentative way of saying: To each his (or her) own. The age of the author doesn't show up on a manuscript. It's about the work itself. Good writing is good writing, who cares how old the person is who wrote it?


Screwsan said...

Hmm...some people call then "gap years," I call them "having a life and a career and figuring out what you want from both." I'm a little spooked by people who rush from a CW undergrad degree into a CW grad degree (and consider one year a long time off). How do you know that's really what you want to do if you've never done anything else?

It's great if you *are* that sure, of course, but I think you are in the minority of recent college grads.

And though I love academia, I do think that never really being out of it can warp one's perspective. I guess that's true of anything, but maybe especially academia because it's held up as being set off from the "real world" when it's actually very much a part of it.

That said, gap years don't apply to my MFA, since I worked full time while I got it. However, I just started my PhD this fall. The years between getting my BA and starting my PhD are 9. And I am grateful for them. There's no way I'd have the tenacity to stick with the PhD if I hadn't had those 9 years of career experience (I was a lazy undergrad) and taken those 9 years to rule out everything else that I seriously thought I might be interested in doing with my life.

Luke said...

Okay. I just looked at my post again and the other posts and feel a bit like a dick...I guess I'm only really arguing with t.g. Apologies if I come across like a jerk, I promise I'll buy you ice cream next time I see you.

Anyway, moral of the story: an MFA is a wonderful thing, regardless of when we fits in into a life.

Jenny Williams said...

Luke, I found your post honest and insightful, and not at all dick-like. Each of us will take a different path as a writer--there's no right or wrong answer. And ultimately, you're right: we're all stuck with that blank page and blinking cursor, whether we have a decade of work experience or not.

Eli said...

True - this is definitely shaping up to be a 'to each her/his own' thread...

Raysen said...

I love ice cream!

Seriously, there's a whole world out there and I think it's foolish for one to conclude, at age 21, "I want to be ________" for the rest of my life. I read somewhere that 60% of all college undergrads change majors and that 70% end up in careers not related to their undergrad and a whopping 80% end up changing their careers more than once. The life path from biochemist to real estate agent to ice cream vendor is not out of the realm of possibility.

When you hit age 32 and conclude, "Oh, I want to be a writer," then I'll concede your statement has more credibility because I know you went through 10 years of decision-making, trying out stuff, and contemplating life's twists and turns amid a myriad of choices.

So, in sum, wait till you're 32, kids.

Andy said...

Seems like a pretty reductive and condescending response, Raysen, that doesn't really address any of the points Luke raised. I wasn't aware that one had to be older than Jesus was to become a writer.

Denis Johnson wrote Incognito Lounge at the age of 19. Fred Chappell published his first novel while he was a junior at Duke. Lee Smith published her undergraduate thesis three months after graduating. Hemingway was only 27 when he published his first novel. Faulkner was 29. Should they all have followed your prescription and waited until they were worthy of deciding they wanted to be writers?

Does it really matter why someone wants to be a writer if the writing is artful and accomplished? Or must they satisfy your real-world obstacle course first?

Raysen said...

I have no qualms about anybody doing whatever they want. If you want to do the writing at 19, go for it!

But this blog thread asked a question. I just answered it. No one needs to follow my directives.

Besides, I doubt anything anyone writes in a forum or a blog will persuade a kid who wants to be a writer at 19 from being a writer at 19.

No matter what I read on here, 99% of the time, I haven't really changed my stance on MFA issues. Certainly, some posts made me pause and reflect...and I spent some time reflecting some more...but then I always reverted back to my old position.

No matter how often Seth or anyone else rails against Columbia, for example, I will probably still attend if they accept me. Funding be damned! (Unless Iowa or Cornell or Johns Hopkins bails me out, of course)

Hey, let's not make mountains out of molehills. I consider all these blog posts to be fun and informative, but I don't read too much emotion into them that I get my panties in a bunch.

Mike Valente said...

Hi Everyone,

I like the lively discussion on how age plays an integral role in the development of a writer while doing an MFA. I think both sides of the argument can be justified -- talent can exist at age 22 and writers over the age of 27 can bring a tremendous amount of perspective to a classroom and program.

Though, having entered an MFA program after several years of working, I do support the notion that writers do spend time outside of academia before re-entering. I'd say that about all graduate programs -- business school, law and med school, and PhD. Specifically, the MFA is "time to write" as stated by in the MFA handbook. If someone just spent 4 years in academia and then heads straight for an MFA program, then didn't that person just have 4 years to write? Six years is a nice time to have to dedicate to your craft, but I think that there's a maturation and psychological wave that foments during your twenties -- I can't explain it, but it happens -- and to bring that to the table at an MFA workshop is incredible and invaluable.

I had a chance to work for a literary agency this summer -- I need to post on that experience! -- and it seems like the writers who made a splash in commercial fiction seem to be older. I think that maturity plays a huge part. One of the interviewees in the MFA handbooks says that he/she was a completely different writer in his/her early twenties.

Yes, there's no scientific data. For every Hemingway, there's a Joshua Ferris who published the National Book winner after the age of thirty AND attended grad school after having worked for several years. For every Faulkner, there's a Zoe Ferraris who went to Columbia, and waited several years before writing her first book - a blend of literary and commercial fiction.

Anyway, thanks for the discussion!


Eric said...

To the whole age thingy:

Are we talking about age (or life experience, what have you) or maturity? I think it's an important distinction because the latter is very different from the former, in my opinion, and far more important. Really, we can all agree that maturity comes with age, generally, but not always. And in some people, maturity can come faster than others. Age doesn't necessarily equal maturity.

I've been in lots of workshops and a couple conferences where the oldest people write the most immature and shallow stories. Do they have more life experience than most of the people in the room? Most certainly, but that doesn't qualify you to be a good writer. By the same token, I've known a couple younger writers who write with a maturity and weight far beyond their years.

So, I guess what I'm saying, is that there's a correlation between age and maturity, obviously. If you've been writing for a while, chances are, your stuff will probably be farther along in maturity and development than someone who's been writing for six months. But just like everything else, some improve faster than others, some don't, some need certain things to happen in their lives before they can get to a point where they start to make real progress. At the risk of sounding like an afterschool special, everyone's different.

spitpolished said...

it seems to me that the only thing a writer needs is talent. mfa programs may help to polish that, but if you don't have talent in the first place then it won't make a difference. maybe you're talent doesn't show up till you're 32 or maybe you're so talented you never need to go to a program at all. but if you're already writing well at 22 then why not push it? John Keats died when he was 28. Paul Muldoon published his first book at 21. Frank McCourt waited till he was older to write "Angela's Ashes." There are a hundred examples for either case, but if anyone has (half) the talent that Muldoon does then she will do fine at any age. Christian Wiman is suffering from terminal cancer after just turning 39. If he hadn't spent two decades of his life focused on poetry than wear would Poetry Magazine be? And his writing would never exist.

Fautsch said...

As a student of Romantic literature, I laughed so hard I almost choked at the idea of needing to be 30+ to have something to write about.

"Life experiences" can be helpful, but they are not necessary. See Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Keats, etc., etc., etc. It's really the -richness- of your experiences, and your imaginative depth, that make or break writing, imho.

There are things you can -only- write about under 20. Just like there are things you can only write about after 30. Writers who were phenomenal in their 20s sometimes get better and sometimes wash up, like rock stars tend to. I have found about two middle-aged persons who exemplified the passionate, engaged, industrious lifestyle I want at that age, but I'm definitely not going to judge all of you older folks by that narrow experience and set of expectations.

That said, I'm taking a year off, maybe two; I figure that although it is boring and I miss classes, this is a reality I will have to live with when I'm out of school, even if I should get a university post. I really feel suited to that lifestyle but I don't want to limit myself by thinking it is my only option. And honestly, though I just trashed the notion of that getting life experiences was necessary, I -do- want more experience than the MFA student who goes right out of undergrad; maybe it's not necessary, but I can see it helping immeasurably.

I have a good life right now in my city, and I don't want to jinx that; having people you love, and a place you love, is rare and important. And honestly, I want a sophisticated body of work, which would be hard to accomplish with 3+ graduate syllabi to follow (plus, hopefully, a courseload).

Kerry Headley said...

Personally, I shudder at the thought of myself in an MFA program at age 22. However, I say that only from the perspective of being almost 40 now.

Had I done it when I was 28, I think I would have been much more prepared, but still lacking the strong voice I have now. I did a ton of non-writing things and kept coming back to writing while being influenced by all of the experiences I had at other jobs or focusing on relationships and hobbies.

I remember when I was 18 and my writing teacher (a journalist) was commenting on the then very popular (and young) Tama Janowitz and Brett Easton Ellis (and others.) He said young successes give other young writers the wrong impression that they actually have anything to say. We were all shocked into silence.

I certainly had things to say when I was 21. I am also very thankful that they never saw the light of day other than that provided by the local coffeehouse. Talk about looking back and cringing!

My sense of myself is that I am in a better place to evaluate my own work and to take in criticism in a more informed way, meaning I might be more able to take it both more seriously and more lightly.

Anyway, just two more cents...


J said...

Hey i have a question...when is the earliest that one can find out about each school's visiting faculty for fall 2009? do schools announce such things?

gulfcoasting said...

How fitting that this should be the top post tonight.

I've been tossing it around in the back of my mind for weeks, but I officially decided with an email to my favorite professor tonight that I will be postponing my applications for another year.

I elected to spend a fifth year in undergrad after changing my concentration and watched all my friends go on to grad school last year, many of them to MFA programs. It was exactly like getting left behind while your friends go off to summer camp. I missed the ones who left town and I was frustrated and, frankly, I was jealous.

My fifth year was nothing like the rest of my collegiate experience. I did different things with different people in different places. I was granted alumna status from my sorority. All of my friends were in grad school or working in the real world. I wrote on a schedule every day. I actually focused on my education. I also made as many connections as possible to the local literary community. I grew more in that year as a writer and as a person than I did in my first four years of undergrad combined.

I didn't apply to MFA programs last fall because I assumed I would be burnt out by graduation. Instead, I emerged more excited about school than ever. I was also suddenly terrified of the real world.

I am currently working 80 hours a week and I love every second of it. (No one who knew me in undergrad would ever be able to imagine me saying that.) Even if I somehow managed to use some of the other hours in the day to pull off all the research, paperwork, studying for the GRE, etc., the bottom line is that my writing sample wouldn't be nearly as strong this year as it could be next year.

I hate the idea of going through this whole process only to end up shelling out a hundred grand for Columbia and spending the rest of my life wondering if I could have gotten into Iowa if I'd waited a year.

However, let me stress that I do not think my writing will be stronger in a year because I will be a year older. I know it will be stronger because I will spend at least 60 hours a week reading and writing starting November 5. My craft has grown over the last year because of the work I have put into it, and another year of hard work will bring me to where I feel I need to be in order to truly give myself a fair shot in the application pool.

I intend to begin my MFA when I am 25. If getting into a good program were solely based on life experience, then I should have been accepted by the time I was 16. There is no way to generalize when a writer is old enough or young enough to enter an MFA program. Only you know whether you are ready. However, I have seen friends who went in straight from undergrad get burnt out very quickly, and friends who took as little as one year off develop an intense appreciation for time/funding to write.

If you'll remember, in Tom's book, he says that 2 years is a good amount of time to take off. When I first read that a few years ago, I thought that either he must be wrong or I must be different. Now I couldn't agree more. It gives you a year to progress in your craft and yourself before you begin the application process and then another year to keep growing before you actually end up in a program. I don't see how staying out of school for longer than that could be beneficial for most people. After a couple years, you start finding permanent jobs, permanent partners, permanent attachments, and it becomes harder and harder to give up your current life to relocate and focus solely on writing for several years.

I'm going to audit the MFA application process through the blog this year. I'll try to help when I can and learn as much as possible when I can't. Good luck to everyone!

Jess said...

A quick note about ageism:

I look extremely young. One of my pet peeves is when people look at me and assume I have nothing to say because they think I'm just a fledgling nobody. Then they find out how old I am and whammo! instant change in attitude (or else they just squint at me in disbelief.) So I'm pretty sensitive to people's prejudice towards youth. I wish people would just listen to my words, and stop trying to figure out if I'm worthy enough to be speaking with them.

Also, I'm teaching freshmen this year, and I love it because these eighteen-year-olds blow me away with their comments and insight.

If anyone thinks people under 30 should be ignored, then its just plain ignorance and judging others based on their own limited viewpoint. Writers should always be open-minded, especially because it allows them to create well-rounded characters.

For people taking a year or two off before getting into the MFA, I actually suggest hanging out with kids. That's what I did, and it was really food for thought. Ann Lamott in her book "Bird by Bird" wrote about how we should all think like children, and stay in tuned with that open and curious mind.

greentea said...

One issue of gap years that has not come up and that I think young writers might consider is this:

If you jump directly into an MFA program, you'll be done with school, period, by age 24 or 25 (assuming you don't go the PhD route). That means you're faced with the real world from age 25 on. You get 6 or 7 years to write, and then you're likely going to have to find a real job and support yourself.

A gap, however, gives you the chance to go back and get that dedicated writing time at a time when you might really need it in your life.

However, at the same time, are you the kind of person who'd work around a relationship, a family, and such in order to pursue an MFA later on? Would you be willing to downsize your standard of living to be a student again? Would you be willing to "unsettle" yourself?

Important questions to ask yourself as you're considering this.

I've worked it out so that I'll rent my house when I'm gone (earning income, in fact)and so that my car will be paid off before I start school. But I'm also single and unattached, which makes leaving a lot easier.

Kerry Headley said...

I think a point that is maybe being missed is the idea of postponing for a time simply to compile the best applications and samples as possible. My decision to wait has nothing to do with age. I'm not going to be better if I do it at 41 instead of 40. There are a lot of reasons besides age to postpone, including the ages of one's children, money, time, etc. I don't have kids, but I am very, very busy -- something that limits my ability to truly show schools what I can do. That's why I am waiting.

-- Kerry

T.G. said...

This is a response to Luke's post and to his point that "Life experience does not make you a better writer. Period."

Respectfully, Luke, you're wrong. But I realize this is something that can only ring false for you at this early stage of your career. You might hold a different position on this a few years from now.


zola said...


i don't think it's anyone's place to say whether or not someone else's opinion is right or wrong. different writing career paths work for different people.

in my case: I'm very young (bordering on 24). When i started writing i was 13 and every year, probably every several months recently, my writing grows exponentially stronger. It's unfair to say that life experiences makes you a better writer for a couple reasons: not every writer draws from life experiences and uses it as material. Secondly, I haven't experienced much in life (never been in a relationship, haven't traveled a lot, haven't had too many jobs, haven't had any serious hardships, etc...) but i know my writing is significantly stronger now, and i know it will get better and better year after year. My writing will get better not because I'm having more life experiences but because I'm continuing to write and the more you do something the better you'll do it. I think life experience helps some writers with material but it's the time spent writing that helps with craft. It would be ridiculous to assume that someone at 45 who has never written before is going to be a better writer than someone like me who's been writing consistently for the past decade just because that person has more life experience.

Jenny Williams said...

I think it's fair to say that life experience doesn't automatically make you a better writer--writing experience makes you a better writer. Usually, the two go hand in hand. But not always.

And I've seen poetry from eight-year-olds that beats the pants off anything I could ever write.

I'm interested to hear what older writers think, though (I'm 25). Is good writing a matter of life experience or writing experience, or a combination of both?

Tory Adkisson said...

I just want to say that some of the not-so-veiled condescension in some of these posts is beginning to get on my nerves. The MFA isn't an award for being old, I'm sorry, but it isn't. It is a degree that, like many degrees, one pursues when they feel ready to pursue it. We're all snowflakes, and some of us just happen to be ready at 21-22 while others may not desire this path until their late 50's, 60's, or 70's.

As someone attempting to progress in the same way Luke did, and who had a lengthy conversation about this topic with a fellow potential undergrad-to-grad back-to-backer, I have to say that the nebulous concept of experience is one which is rarely, if ever, quantifiable. Experience, especially in regards to writing, is as much about perception as it is about what that experience actually constitutes. These exotic stories of traveling with the bush people, working as a fashion buyer in Paris, or learning how to be a bounty hunter strikes me as nothing more than novelty. And for me, the novelty "experience" can only go so far. Travel is fantastic, as are other lines of work, but those alone do not make a great writer.

The fact of the matter is that I am ready now. I have no romantic relationships, children, other vocations, needs, desires, wants or goals that can't be satisfied (or won't best be satisfied) until after I get my degree. It is not as if getting an MFA will somehow stall my writerly development or pigeonhole me into a vocation I will desperately try and escape from. It's not like I am trying to be a dentist or a stripper, which require a lifetime of dedication to the cause. Do I have other desires? Probably, but writing is my passion and the thing I always come back to. I am 100% sure of what I want and what I am doing. The only misgivings I have now, thanks to the tenor of this post, is that my colleagues, who I suppose some of you would want me to respect based on age, and age alone, may not respect me because of a bias towards those younger than themselves. I won't go so far as to suggest that jealousy exists here, because that kind of enmity should be best left to the law and medical students as they clamor for attention and strafe to be noticed. However, I cannot account for a statement like "[I] despise and don't respect anyone under 30" otherwise. It just seems like a very asinine thing to say. What did I do to deserve such blatant hostility and disrespect? Or, pardon me, I suppose the real question is what didn't I do.

The fact of the matter is that people take time off of school for various reasons. Some do it because they don't know what the want to do, others try vocations their parents force them into, or otherwise want to attempt, while others still have personal commitments to partners or children. Why should I forestall my professional and artistic development? Because I just happen to know exactly what I want now, not in ten years, but now? Because I enjoy the academic world, don't feel fenced in by it, and long to be with people who share my peculiar fascination with language and poetry? Because I have cultivated a strong voice and sense of aesthetic principle; principles I believe in but cannot wait to build upon? Please tell me so I don't throw my youth away doing exactly what I want!

What is this hang up then? Experience vs maturity, one vocation for one's life vs several throughout(writing, of course, being one of the more mutable professions there is, given it's multi-various subject matter and influences), the idea that a life lived doing amazing things predisposes you to be the next great American writer of miscellaneous prose and verse vs the idea that if you've experienced anything noteworthy it must be approved by the tribunal of those older than you and will only county past the age of 30 and must be experienced between the ages of 20-30? Just to clarify my poems are not about the things you fear most: juvenile shenanigans, beer-pong, college classes, "bomb chicks" or anything of the like. This is the, thus far, unspoken stereotype, isn't it? That someone my age has a very narrow spectrum to write from and must these pre-approved "life experiences" (a statement as vague as it always is) in order to progress beyond that stage, in order to see different things, read more, get the bigger picture. Here's the thing, I don't have to justify myself to you; my ambitions or my reasons for writing, because writing is a solitary, introspective way of thinking, being, and existing, more so than it is simply a vocation. I write this out of frustration with the profound narrowness that some of the more "experienced" minds seem to be falling victim to. I thought such experience should broaden and enhance your perspective. Silly me. I guess we weren't talking about that kind of experience. Most people here, older than me or not, seem to understand that talent is the true demarcation that separates writers from the general public, and as such I have no qualms with you. You guys are awesome. The others, though, who are "innocently" expressing their "harmless" opinions need to understand that they are fostering an ideology which is limiting and damaging to writers on both sides of that 30 year old line in the sand. All it does is convey jealousy, bitterness and insecurity; whether that is the truth or not, I am not privileged to say. All I can ask is please don't make general assumptions about people like me before you really know me, and we will try our best and do the same.

Sara E.G. said...


Well put. I particularly agree on the point that life experience should broaden and enhance your perspective rather than working to narrow your definition of the word "experience."

I'll say it again: I don't give a damn how old or young you are when you arrive at workshop. If you were accepted, clearly there is something about you that deserves to be present in that room. All I hope for is individuals who can bring their best game to the table, and to have that game not involve beer pong.

Also, I didn't know being a stripper required a lifetime dedication to the cause, Tory, but I'm glad I know now. Clearly you know some West Coast heavyweights ;)

Lisa N.R. said...

As a 40 year old prospective MFA student, I can say that life experience alone does NOT make me a better writer. I like how Annie Dillard said it in The Writing Life: "The writer studies literature, not the world. He/She lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If she has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, she spares her readers a report of her experience. The writer is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know."
When I was 22, I was patronized for my youth and my "cute" little ambition to be an artist. Now at 40, I can honestly say that nothing is so patronizing and condecending to me as the dreaded label, "Soccer Mom." I would urge everyone out there to do it sooner, rather than later. You just never know what tomorrow may bring.
The only advantage my extra 20 years grants me is that, by sheer mathematical time-space laws of hours in a day and days in a year, I have had more time to read great books. I would give anyone more senior than myself respect on that regard alone, although the average American reads less than 10 books a year (of whatever quality), so even then, it would depend.
As for "talent," that gets to the debate over whether writing can be taught. I think it's safe to say that those of looking into MFA programs believe that SOMETHING can be transmitted, even as we know that it can't make us into writers or bestow genius. Otherwise, we'd just go find a cave and have a go.
Best wishes to you all, in life, love and art.

Sonya B said...

Tory, thanks so much for writing that. Words of encouragement during this stressful application process are music to my ears. A lot of my friends don't even know what an MFA is, and my parents, who were thrown/forced into the sciences when they were kids, don't really understand either. Besides my writing instructors at school, I don't have many sources of encouragement. I know I want to write. I know I'm a good writer. I hope that CW admissions people agree with me this spring. Good luck to you on your apps and a great senior year.

Tory Adkisson said...

I am glad what I wrote makes sense to someone else besides myself. Good luck explaining what an MFA is to your padre and your madre, I am sure they'll get it eventually sonya b. I used flow charts myself, seemed to do the trick ;-)

And sara e.g. I am glad you're on my side as well, even if you don't recognize the exquisite work of the masters in artistic apparel extrication (i.e. Ms. Sweetest Taboo, and Ms. Cristal Like the Champagne), but I suppose the nuances of their fine work can't be admired by everyone!

Luke said...


Agree to disagree. I think life experience is grand, as I stated in my post, and as many have already pointed out, I think it provides valuable time to read and practice one's craft. This will inevitably improve the writing. That said, I don't think life experience, in and of itself, will do anything to bolster a manuscript. Maturity as a human being and maturity as a writer are two completely different things, and I believe they will be considered as such when applications are reviewed by an admissions committee. These are points that have been made before and will be made again.

Any across-the-board advice provided on this forum should immediately be questioned, as pursuing an MFA is ultimately a personal decision, and should be regarded as such. Perhaps that's why I'm so suspicious of your theory. I do think (or hope) I'll be a better writer in ten years, but I still harbor the romantic notion that this progress will be the result of ten years of my own hard work rather than ten years of waiting for genius to strike as I compile devastating losses and jubilant triumphs to later chronicle in my verse.

Regardless of how old you may be, all writing is working at the same problem, trying to decipher just where the hell we fit into all this mess. Obviously at twenty and eighty you're going to find different perspectives, and I think this and this alone makes both of these perspectives not only valuable, but absolutely necessary, to squelch one voice would be to cheapen the other. In the end, we're all players in the same game. Best of luck with your applications.


Fine words. Not worth pursuing the subject much further because clearly you're comfortable in your decision, as you should be. It's not for anyone else to determine at what age an MFA is appropriate. We all know this. If the work is where it needs to be, it gets noticed. That's really all there is to it.

For the record, we'd all probably make more money as strippers.


gulfcoasting said...

"It's not like I am trying to be a dentist or a stripper, which require a lifetime of dedication to the cause." --Tory Adkisson
Oh, that made my day!

I'm not disagreeing with you, but I'd like to point out that one of the reasons I chose to take another year off is because I have been so firmly entrenched in academics. I'm afraid of becoming too dependent on workshops. I want to push myself on my own (and with a little guidance from my mentors) for a while.

Regarding parents' understanding of the MFA degree: I told my mother this morning that I'm not applying this year because I need "more time." After ten minutes of trying to explain that I need fourteen more months to read and write, not just more hours in my day to fill out application forms, I gave up. I also tried explaining that I didn't want to wind up at Columbia wishing I were at Iowa and she couldn't wrap her mind around that either. So to you other kids all across the land, take it from me, parents just don't understand.

Tory Adkisson said...


I completely understand where you're coming from. I finished the last workshop for my major almost two years ago, and I remember this overwhelming sense of dread I had, because I thought "how I am supposed to revise new poems without anyone's marks on the manuscripts". Thankfully, as in Jurassic Park, life found a way. At the time I was a bit dejected that I'd sped through my workshops in record time, but now I am glad I did because I think it did force me to grow as a writer in ways postponing my workshops wouldn't have let me. It's not the same as taking time off proper, but for me, I definitely felt like I was living the student life while writing, so I can personally identify at least somewhat with your plight.

Good luck with the time off, I am sure you will put it to good use.

T.G. said...

Hi Luke,

Sure, let's agree to disagree. Sorry if my comments came off as rude to you or anyone else on here. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

The main thing I was hoping to convey is actually a piece of really helpful advice I received on credibility and life experience that was imparted to me by a terrific, accomplished, older writer. It has helped me take my writing to another level. He talked about the need to establish credibility in the world of the story, and that this is something that gets easier to do with further life experience. He noticed that young writers do not tend to know how and/or do not know to emphasize this in their writing nearly enough. And I too have noticed that one of the main things lacking in the work of my younger peers is the lack of emphasis on this specific aspect of craft. My comments were perhaps a bit too forceful, general, or hasty, but I also think my main point was misconstrued. My point was mostly about this perceived link between a certain level of life experience and communicating credibility in the world of the story.

Again, my apologies for the poor way I communicated my original post.

nisa malli said...

Perhaps the older generation of potential MFA candidates feels their undergraduate degree years were spent in an academic bubble, but my generation works co-op jobs, part time jobs and internships while putting ourselves through school. University is so expensive these days we couldn't do it any other way and I think it benefits us by tying us to the 'real world' during our school years.

Perhaps the older generation fears being outdone by a bunch of 20-somethings who have thrown their entire lives into writing and will have 20 extra years of writing to publish. Just because you were unsure at 22, it doesn't mean everyone is unsure.

An MFA gives you skills. You can choose to be an autodidact in your spare time and learn the skills when you're 40 or you can get the formal education first and play audodidact later.

As for me: I'm 22 and just finished a B.FA in Creative Writing at a high ranked university. I have 3 years of experience in book, newspaper and magazine publishing, librarianship and archival work, 2 years of TA-ing and lit journal editing under my belt and I'm currently the Assistant Editor of a magazine. When I'm not in school I take language classes and writing workshops. When I am in school I work 30 hours a week at writing related jobs. Any editing or teaching I do improves my writing immensely, even if the genres seem remote. My work in journalism makes my poetry more concise. My poetry makes my journalism more creative. I'm taking two years off from school til my partner is ready to move across the country with me for grad school. I don't consider this a gap year in the real world and I don't consider my academic years an escape from the real world. Frankly taking full time school and working 30 hours a week is harder than working 40 and freelancing.

nisa malli said...

As for commenters like Jack and Rayson:

I'd hate to be in an MFA class with middle aged men who disregard the quality of work from younger writers because they didn't spend 20 years working as a dog-walking bounty-hunter dentist.

Being a writer have to mean writing in the wee hours of the morning and the best writers find a way to make their day job connect to their writing. Not as thematic fodder but through skill development.

Lisa N.R. said...

But I most certainly want to hear poems about beer-pong. And strippers. I want it all. Roethke wrote poems about office supplies. Rock on Tory, and do what you do! I agree...the main thing is to be open and to avoid competition and defensiveness all around.

julianna said...

I always put taking a year or so off on the table with my undergraduates interested in the MFA ... and while teaching grad students here at FSU, I really can tell a difference.

The year off tends to make students hungrier upon return.

This is exactly what I did, taking a year off and substitute teaching before heading off to UNCG.

Alexandra D'Italia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra said...

I am 40, and I applying to MFA programs after many years as a professor who has managed to publish short fiction and creative nonfiction in her spare time. I am finally ready to take the leap--that's my journey. To each her own.

I've enjoyed reading the spirited and opinionated commentary. But for me, I am concerned, not about the workshop experience, but about the community experience. Writing is done alone; workshops can only be better for the diversity of its participants. But to go to a full-time residency program is also to choose to live and thrive in a writers' community. For me, as someone who already teaches people in their 20's, I am concerned that there will be no community for me in some of these programs.

Any thoughts by those already in programs? I've emailed the schools about age diversity, and the answers have been vague.

Raysen said...


Don't you worry none. If we get into the same program, you and I will belong to the exclusive Over-40 Club and I'll buy you many drinks at the local pub. There, we can discuss the Good Ol' Days Of Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Wharton, and Dickens and commiserate over the glut of "experimental" literature spewed out by the young'uns.

Take care,

Kerry Headley said...


I hear you. Being in undergraduate classes at age 39 with really young people has been fine and probably good for me. (I never would have learned to text message without their help.) But as far as community goes, no, I am not actually friends (as in hanging out) with any of my classmates.

Wherever I end up as an MFA student I will make a point to get involved in some way with the community at large or look to see what other departments might have some older people. But I guess it's hard to say what to expect. I would imagine the low-res programs would have more older students, but that's just a guess.

Good luck!

Eileen Wiedbrauk / Speak Coffee said...

Take the time off.

Even if it doesn't help you get into a program (which it likely will), by taking a gap year you'll be well aware of how much you want this.

And entering your first semester knowing how desperate you are to complete an MFA makes everything you come up against seem trivial.

Eileen Wiedbrauk / Speak Coffee said...

Re: Age.

Three of the women I admire most in my program have daughters my age.

I'm 24 and when your writing, your insight or your thoughtfulness wows me I could care less how old you are.

Matthew said...

Just to share...
I recently started a program after taking one year off and have not experienced any ageism. I agree that time away will make one hungrier and appreciate the fruits of a university a bit more. At the same time, I respect the logic that if one has the tools to get admitted someplace, and they're devout about their ambitions, it would be pretty difficult to say no.