Monday, September 05, 2005

Mailbag, Monday September 5th, 2005

Only a few letters in the mailbag this week. Future questions can be asked at my email address. We start with a great letter from Lorri, in Washington State, and we'll publish it in its entirety:

I'm sure you've read Lynn Freed's piece in the July issue of Harper's ("Doing Time: My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag")? I won't go into all the intricacies of the piece, but the gist is that she teaches in various creative writing programs because she needs the money but doesn't believe in them or the students' ability to write. I'm not exactly clear on what she's denigrating: the proliferation, and so watering down, of the programs? The students? You could view this piece as another spoke in the argument of whether writing can be taught, but Freed herself has a PhD in English Lit, which, although it isn't the same type of program, surely shares a sensibility and has contributed to her success.

The kicker for me is this quote, which comes from Freed's own website:

“I have no rules for this process of finding one's voice, but I do know that, for me, it took time. Years. A decade or more . . . It took a lot of false writing to come upon a voice in which I could tell the truth . . . What is more difficult to get across in this age of instant gratification is the TIME it takes, the lifetime it takes, to come to this. If ever.”

So isn't a creative program about, among other things, making the time to find this voice? Why can Freed allow herself, but not her students, the time to find it?

Before I get all worked up again about this piece, what is your take on it? And for those of us considering an MFA program to further our writing, do we need to fear that our teachers will be secretly despising us?

I did read that article, Lorri. I'd been told that it was outrageous, and that it openly questioned the value and necessity of creative writing programs. I didn't find either to be the case. What I did find was an author who didn't seem to like teaching, or be very well-suited for it, and who had regrets and resentments about choosing this career. I don't think she's the only person in this boat. To be honest, a great number of writers choose the teaching route because it's steady pay and it allows one to write during the summertime and other breaks. I understand the necessity for making a living, but one should choose to be a teacher because one enjoys and values the profession. Of course, there are many outstanding teachers in creative writing programs, and more importantly, many ill-suited teachers are simply overwhelmed by large class loads (teaching 3-5 classes a semester), by little support from administration, or by the drudgery of teaching the same classes over and over again. But blaming the lack of talent in students doesn't make much sense to me, and there is much of that in Freed's article.

One of the most important student needs, as Lorri points out, is time. Time to grow, time to try in various voices and styles, time to fail, time to make progress, time to stretch as a writer. I definitely found a real impatience in Lynn Freed when she referred to her students need for this time. There was not a sense of students being "writers in progress," but instead there was a quick judgment of "they either have it or they don't." (My quotes). I don't personally believe in the school of talent. I believe that talent comes from hard work, from reading and writing and rewriting a lot, and from receiving smart feedback from smart people at needed times during a student's career.

I digress. Yes, time is of the utmost importance, and is one of the most important reasons to attend a creative writing program. The rub of course, for teachers, is that the more time they spend with their students' work, the less time they have with their own. Obviously, the best programs not only have good teachers, but these programs also support their teachers with good pay, benefits, an acceptable teaching load, and time off, so that they do not begin to see their own students as enemies of their time.

Yes Lorri, there are definitely teachers out there who will secretly despise their students. But, it's not really a secret. Students know who the best teachers are. So, it's very important to speak with current and past students of any program you are thinking about attending. These students will give you a good feel for the quality, talent, and patience of the current faculty. The best time to make these phone calls and emails is after you've been accepted to a program. I've got lists of questions and an entire chapter about "What Makes a Good Writing Program" in the MFA Book. Thanks so much for your insights and questions. I'd welcome comments from anyone else who has read the Lynn Freed Harper's article.

Geeta, a writer and teacher in Pittsburgh, asks if I can cover letters of recommendations, in particular about how and when to ask faculty.

Again, there is much more about this in the MFA book, including a checklist page, but the short version: Students should allow two months time between asking an instructor and the deadline for the letter. Be sure to ask formally and respectfully. No one owes you letter. Also, remember that writing a letter of recommendation is about as much fun as scraping paint, so be sure to make the process easy on your teachers: Send ALL the material from ALL the schools at the same time. Provide very clear and very brief instructions on where each letter needs to be sent. Do provide a short resume, so that teachers can be reminded of your achievements or capabilities.

A rule of thumb perhaps: Make sure that a teacher can read your material in less than five minutes. It will allow for more time for writing the letter, and it will remind them that you are organized, capable, and appreciative.

Don't hesitate to send a friendly reminder a few weeks before the deadline, and don't forget a thank you note, as this is generally a thankless task. Though a very necessary one to the student.

I'm certain there is much to add to this, and again, I welcome additional comments in the comments section.

Carrie and Ryan say that the publication date (early December) is too late to help them this year. While I agree that October would be much better, there is much information in the book about making the final decision, about the first year of graduate school, about working as a teaching assistant, and all sorts of advice about workshop and other classes. I definitely designed the book so that it would be helpful for many years of a student's experience.

Carrie also wanted some tips about my rankings of programs. I didn't actually rank them, though I did provide profiles of fifty programs, and if a particular program was top five, or top ten, or top twenty in my opinion, then I indicated that. Either way though, those opinions are top secret at the moment.

I'll list some programs that anyone would mention though: Michigan, Texas, Johns Hopkins, and Indiana, and some that perhaps wouldn't be mentioned often, but are definitely notable: UNLV, Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Oregon. The UNLV program by the way has an international emphasis, and you can even hold a Peace Corp post for your time in the MFA program.

Those were actually all the questions I received this week. More next week. See you then.

-- TK


Carrie Hall said...

Well, okay. I understand that you can't print your top secret list, and I appreciate the tips you dropped very much. I absolutely promise to buy your book!

Now I have another question. I might just keep bombarding you with questions, so I'm sorry. You're free, of course, to ignore me.

What the hell should I write about in my personal statement? Any tips? I'll buy SIX COPIES of your book!

Jenny Davidson said...

One more thing on letters of recommendation: many colleges provide a service for current seniors and recent graduates where they will keep on file one copy of each of your letters and send out the full "dossier" to any place you need it. Do take advantage of this option if it exists, it means your letter-writer need only send one copy of the letter to the campus address--I will send separate letters if necessary (many law schools used to require this, for instance), but this is much more convenient. In this day and age, faculty members do not have secretaries and feeding lots of letterhead and second-sheet pages through the laser printer does not usually feel like a happy use of my time.

For PhD application personal statements, which are more often what I'm advising students on, I tell my students that they should think of the genre as something very different from a college application essay (faculty readers don't particularly want to see stories of conversion experiences--how I came to decide I was a writer--or passionate avowals--I love reading and writing!). It's more like an intellectual or writerly self-portrait, a bit like what Montaigne does in his essays--you want to show yourself in action, as it were, making observations and using turns of phrase that will give the reader the clearest possible sense of your writerly self. Look at something like the most recent collection of Best American Essays to get a sense of the way accomplished essay-writers craft a first-person voice that's related to their real-life personality but that is very much a creation in its own right. If you *sound* right--thoughtful, collegial, perceptive, interesting--that's half the battle.

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