Sunday, October 23, 2005

Mailbag for October 24, 2005

Okay, first up this week is a favor to ask of you, then on to a very packed mailbag.

The favor: If we've been helpful to you on this blog, we'd appreciate it if you could drum up some attention for us by sending an email or two. We get about 200 hits a day, which is not too shabby, though I'd like to get more. If you're a regular reader of other blogs -literary blogs, information blogs, anything related - could you send them an email and point our site their way? The more links we get, the higher we move up on Google and Yahoo and other search engines. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks in advance. If we get super popular and the mailbag gets too full for me to answer every question, just add to your question: "I'm one of your original, old school readers, so you've got to answer my question." I will.

Future questions and comments here.

"Needing Advice in New Mexico" writes and wonders if there are any resources that talk about the quality of schools, without being associated with those schools. The short, and shamefully self-promoting answer is, yes, The MFA Book, which is due out in December, plus this blog. Do check out our previous mailbags, NAiNM, by clicking on the month links to the left. The other resource that I can think of is the Poets and Writers discussion board, which has a very good current discussion, plus archives, from former students. If anyone has any other links, please add them to the comments section.

To summarize where NAiNM is coming from: He'd rather write than teach, he likes Milan Kundera and David Foster Wallace, and he'd like a program that features both fiction writing and screenwriting. The programs he's leaning towards are "UT Austin (Michener Center), Brown, U of Arizona, UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UVA, Hollins, Goddard (WA), and UMass." And he's also thinking about are "Johns Hopkins, Warren Wilson, U of Denver, U of North Carolina, Wilmington, Alabama, Mills, U of Washington, National, George Mason, Utah, U of Colorado (Boulder), Arizona State, and BU" He'd like to apply to 10-12 schools.

We'd appreciate any other readers out there if they could post their knowledgeable insights about these programs. I don't see any red flags out there except for BU, if that's the BU where the Tea Party took place. Too expensive, not enough funding. I definitely like the look of Texas, Brown, Irvine, Virginia, UMass, and Johns Hopkins. And I think UNC-Wilmington is an up and comer, and Alabama is another good one. Do explore the others as well. Good luck NAiNM.

By the way "Anonymous" adds Virginia and Penn State to the well-funded list in last week's mailbag. Right on. But keep an eye on Penn State, because during certain semesters, graduate students teach two classes. That's a lot to handle and still write.

Albert from Madison points out that a few schools ask "Why Us?" in the application. He wants to know what he should write, and his real reasons are program reputation, funding, and location, though he wonders if he should approach the question like a job interview and give them what they need to hear, or if he should be totally frank and give them the honest reason. Well, first of all, your sentences should not be as long as my last one, and second of all: treat it like a job interview. Tell them what they want to hear, which would include reputation and location, but would not include funding. Rock on, Albert.

"Going Gray in Greenwich Village" is an honorable mention for codename, and she loves our blog and asks about recommendations: She's quite some distance from her college years, and she doesn't think her past two fiction teachers will recommend her very highly. She does have a few non-fiction editors, plus a contemporary in her fiction writing group. Who should she go with? I think you already know this answer, GG, but I'll confirm it: Go with the people who will write the best recommendations. I want to share a quote from George Saunders from the MFA book:

Q: How much do letters of recommendation influence the committee?
A: "For the first couple of picks, we don't really worry about the letters. We feel that, if we really like the writing, the rest will take care of itself. So, you find out your number one choice is, per a letter of rec, a homicidal murderer. Well, our feeling might be: maybe that's okay, maybe we can work with that, we can get him a little portable jail cell, whatever. For the rest, we really only look at them if it's a close call -- two equally matched writers, and we can't decide. Then we try to see who might be, say, more adaptable, or who might be the harder worker. My advice is to choose three people who are going to say nice things about you, and don't worry too much about finding big names. Mostly, these letters are a way for our committee to enjoy ourselves once we make the picks. We say, 'Look, we did the right thing! Look at this letter!"

I think that says it all. Go with who will write the best letters, and go with who you trust. That also, I think answers a letter from Delia (who doesn't list a location, so we'll place her in one of the fine states of the Dakotas), who has a similar situation with the letters.

Delia also likes the stamps on the blog, and that reminds me: I'm running out of cool stamps. If anyone out there has a good one, send me the jpg file, or point me to the website.

My subconscious writes in and wants to know if I'm aware of how many colons I use in these mailbags. The answer: yes. I like colons. Who doesn't? Thanks for the question. Rock on, subconscious, and you too Delia and GG.

We talked a lot in last week's mailbag about the question on applications: "Where else are you applying to?" I don't like this question at all, and I think it's none of a program's business. I can't imagine this could be used to an applicants advantage. I wrote three very polite notes to program directors this last week, at programs who ask this question, and I received no reply. Which is exactly my advice on how you, applicants, should answer their question. Leave it blank. By the way, Jenny D has an opinion on this in last week's comments, and we thank her for that.

Erin from Connecticut wants my opinion on obtaining a second MFA. I didn't know I had an opinion on this till you asked. I think a second MFA should be used to buy yourself some time while completing a specific manuscript, while the first MFA should be used to learn the craft. That said, I guess I'm not too excited about a second MFA. If time is what people seek, then they can probably find it by working a part time job and living in an inexpensive location. My other thoughts: There's plenty to be said for earning an MA first, and an MFA second. And finally, I think it might be a good idea if the second MFA, if you choose to seek it, comes from a Low-Residency program. You'll work more closely with faculty this way, one-on-one, and that might be the most helpful in completing a manuscript. Plus, it leaves open the possibility of fulfilling career and family obligations that tend to be more relevant in one's late 20s, all 30s, 40s and on up.

Oh no, I forgot about Tantalized in Tarrytown's question: "Will schools hold it against me if I leave the 'What other schools are you applying to' blank?" I guess I can't imagine if they would. And if they would, that's not likely a program you should attend. I can't possibly express how much I don't like that application question. It's none of their damn business. I'd appreciate anyone's opinions in the comments section.

Ellen in Elk wants advice on the Stegner personal statement. Well, first of all, I'm not at all part of the Stegner selection committee, and I don't have any inside information. I do know that they're read and considered, though of course they are a far, far second to the writing sample. Yes Ellen, do focus on what you'd do with the two years. Being project-specific is always a good idea. Also, talk about your writing experience, what you'd like to do in future, and what your interests are outside of writing, especially if those thing affect your writing. And very important: come across as a nice person who plays well with others. Good luck, Ellen.

Ryan writes in again, now under the codename of Curious in Santa Cruz, and he wants to know the protocol for asking for letters of recommendation. More specifically, he wants to know if he should send a large SASE for return to him, or many stamped envelopes that they will send on. Definitely the latter, for the simple reason that these letters will be sealed, and they're not for your viewing. That's just the way it works. Sometimes schools will want your letters as part of the packet that you send in. In that case, include two envelopes, one unstamped but addressed to the school, and one larger, addressed to you. The smaller one holds the letter and goes inside the larger envelope. Am I stating the obvious here? If so, my apologies.

Overall, think about - and I mean really think about - what will make the whole letter writing process easier for your recommenders. This includes sending all the materials all at once, not sending them in two or more packages. Include SASE (that's self addressed stamp envelopes for those of you wondering), include brief but clear directions on anything that seems complicated. Include your resume, and if it's a long one, attach a quick half-page summary. Finally, don't hesitate to prompt your recommenders with two or three items you'd like them to address. Writing a letter is a difficult thing. Including some guidance will be appreciated.

Your directions and guidance should be brief and efficient. When I'm a recommender, I want to read a half page, glance over the CV, and get down to writing. I don't want the process to last more than a half-hour. Be sure to make it easy on your recommenders.

More questions: What's the best way to approach them? Email is good. Make sure it's formal and respectful, and not a text message. Is it appropriate to give a small gift when they're done? I received a box of chocolates last year, and this was the first time I'd received anything. (This was well after the letter was written, obviously). I appreciated that my efforts were noticed and valued. A gift is not necessary, of course. But be sure to write a thank you letter. Your mom will be proud. Rock on, Curious.

Finally, Rebound in Richmond wins our codename of the week award. It was close this week. Photo finish. Rebound was not accepted to her schools of choice this last time, and she wonders what advice I might have. First of all, in relation to your specifics about GPA and recommenders, what you have sounds fine. If for some reason you're doubting one of your recommenders, then you might try a new one. But I see this possibility (that you received a bad recommendation) as very low. If I won't recommend someone then I'll tell them that, and this has happened, like, never. But that's how I'd handle it. A recommendation is supposed to recommend, so I can't see a person taking the time to write a bad letter.

So, my advice: Read a lot, write a lot. Shake up your reading list. Read new writers (new to you). Stretching your influences is always a good thing, for MFA candidates, fifth graders, and Nobel Prize winners. Apply again. Send your best three poems from this last time, and five new poesm. Keep your chin up. I'll leave you with another George Saunders quote for good measure:

Q: What if a student is not accepted anywhere? What advice would you offer? Should a student apply again the next year?
A: “Yes, I’d say you definitely apply again. Not necessarily to the same programs. To some different ones, and maybe the two or three that you really wanted to go to. I look at my own writing in my twenties, when one year I was writing very poorly and the next year I got suddenly, mysteriously better. Progress seems to happen in surges. You have to shake things up. You should get feedback on your writing, maybe take a class, definitely work on new samples for the next round. My feeling is, acceptance to an MFA program is not diagnostic in either direction. People who turn out to be great writers could be rejected, and people who turn out to be poor writers could be accepted. There are so many unknowns: How long has a writer been working on their portfolio? Where are they in their developmental arc? I think a good deal of humility is in order in every direction. Teachers should be unsure of their own powers of selection, and writers should be humble, and hopeful, about their ability to transform their own work, suddenly, unexpectedly… I sense that some applicants don’t read much. We get a lot of TV stories. If you’ve been rejected, one way to shake things up is to question your reading list. Find writing that is new to you. Two or three writers that you’re really excited about. Follow their lineage back. Know everything about them. Immerse yourself in those writers. For me, it was Stuart Dybek. He was from Chicago like me. Reading him, I suddenly understood the unique power of truly contemporary literature. I felt things I hadn’t ever felt before while reading. That was empowering and exciting. The thing is, if this is going to be your life, you have to go at it with everything you’ve got. This may be the great hidden blessing of being in an MFA program: You see that being a writer is not so rare. The deeply personal question becomes: Which writer are you going to be?”

All right, it's late. Enjoy those Halloween parties, and I'll see you next week.