Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mailbag for December 12th, 2005

Ho, ho, ho, this is the last MFA mailbag till the day after Christmas. Lots to get to, mailbag and otherwise. Let's hop to it. Future questioners, click here.

First of all, word from Continuum: The Creative Writing MFA Handbook will be available on their website on December 26th. You can pre-order it at any time. While this may be a little late for the application process (which is one reason why I'm running this blog), there's lots of important information in the book about making program decisions and making the most of your graduate program. As well as interviews with George Saunders, Aimee Bender and others, plus tipsheets on publishing and teaching. I hope the book proves helpful to you.

The most popular subject in the mailbag this last week was my Stegner personal statement, which I posted on the site. Franny D read it over and had this response:

"I am not in this field -- I write nonfiction, but I am amazed at the casual tone of your essay. Obviously it worked, as you got the fellowship, but I would be afraid to be so colloquial. Why did you decide to take this tone? Were you worried at all that it would seem disrespectful or did you know the admissions people were former-MFAers who might appreciate your lighter tone?"

I guess I definitely didn't see it as light or casual, though Franny is not the only one to disagree with me. I saw it as friendly and formal. My goals were: 1. To get a lot of information across, 2. To come across as a nice person who plays well with others, and 3. To set my personal statement apart from all the many that began "I'm writing to express my interest in the Stegner Fellowship..."

I think we've got to keep in mind that these committee members (for Stegner, MFAs, others) are not going to read the personal statement unless they like the writing sample, and even then, it will be one letter among around 50 or more. I wanted mine to be memorable, without being too radical or scary for the reader.

In any case, it's there for people to read and agree with or disagree with. Hopefully it will serve as a starting point for applicants. Make your letter your own. Thanks for your comments, Franny D, and to everyone who wrote in.

Awash in Arlington gives a shout out to the personal statement, the blog, and to our meeting a few years ago at Breadloaf. Shout back to you AiA. Unfortunately, he asks a question that I don't have insight to: Changes at Arkansas (David McCombs as director) and Memphis (Richard Bausch has come aboard). I haven't heard anything positive or negative about these changes. My best advice: Go ahead and apply if the programs meet your other criteria, then, if and when you are accepted, talk with some current students about what they hear and what they experience.

I feel like this is the answer I give on a weekly basis. I'll continue to do so. Keep your eye on aspects that are immediately measurable (funding, location, teaching opportunities, program size, etc.), and research the teachers once you are accepted. Best of luck Arlington.

Eric "Sorry, No Codename" definitely wins the worst codename of the week award, but that's okay, he's got a great question: He's applying for poetry, and some websites specify that writing samples be typed in 12 point font, double spaced, with one inch margins. Should that be the case with all samples? Well, definitely with fiction. Exactly those dimensions. As for poetry, the double-spacing sounds very strange to me. So much of poetry is form. Use the spacing that is right for your poetry. I have a feeling that the double space for poetry is a misprint or mis-post from the webmaster, perhaps intended for the fiction guidelines. Good luck, Eric.

By the way, I hope this goes without saying: You should use Times New Roman or Arial or Courier or the like for your font. If you feel the need to use Cursive or WingDings or anything else for effect, you're in trouble.

Anonymous writes: "In my personal statement and in my writing sample, I talk about Deaf culture and growing up Deaf. I've emphasized that I've done well in workshops and the "hearing" world, but I'm worried that my honesty on this topic will send up a red flag to programs worrying about me "fitting in". this brings me to my first question: do you think I have to worry about discrimination in terms of "fitting in" to workshops?"

Hmm, that's a very good question. I can say that we had a hearing impaired individual when I was at UMass, though I don't know whether she included that information in her personal statement. She was one of the best writers and best people in the program. I think it's wise for you to concentrate on the "fitting in" for your personal statement, even though this should not, legally speaking, be a consideration for the committee. I understand your concern. I honestly can't say what others would do, but if I were you I'd keep this information in my personal statement. As a teacher, I'd like to read about it. It may very well work in your favor, as far as making an impression on the committee, and besides: I'm not at all for people hiding who they are. Go for it. Be who you are.

Anonymous also asks about Emerson and my red flag for it. I feel like I've already said this, but the adjunct teachers (many, many of them) are overworked and underpaid, and the teaching assistant (where you teach your own class) funding is ridiculous. A "partial" tuition waiver and about a $3000 stipend. For living in Boston? That's lousy, especially for a private institution with a very high tuition. Check out options elsewhere. If anyone would like to add a comment, positive or negative, they are welcome to do so in the "comments" section below.

Flummoxed in San Francisco is applying for nonfiction programs. She's looking at Arizona,
Iowa, Columbia, Emerson, Univ of Pittsburg, Penn State, Sarah Lawrence, UNC Wilmington, Mills, San Jose, State, Ohio State. She wants to know what I think.

Well, I've already discussed Emerson. Sarah Lawrence has a good reputation but is very expensive. Mills too. If finances are not a problem, then don't worry about it. Otherwise, I'd check out George Mason, Hollins College, Pittsburgh, Alabama, UC-Davis, and Notre Dame in addition to what you've listed. Overall, I think your list is quite good.

Her second question is really a statement: "I am not sure whether to apply to Columbia or not because of the cost and the lack of financial aid options available. Who can afford Columbia besides trust-fund kids? I don't get it! It seems like if I went there, it would be a great school and all, but I'd be in debt for the rest of my life!"

I agree completely. Check out those other options, Flummoxed. Good luck.

Manic in Manhattan asks about humor in personal statements. My quick answer: I don't think it's wise to lean on humor in the statement. Humor is so subjective, especially when it's addressed to a specific person (and a letter is). Show your humor in your writing sample. Be direct, friendly, and formal in your personal statement. Good luck MM and thanks for the kind words.

Jersey Girl wants to know if Low-Residency programs are worth it. Only you can say that, JG. They've been tremendous for some students, not as helpful for others. Same goes for residential programs. Check out the programs on the web, then get in contact with the administrative person and ask for the emails of a few current students. Their responses, and your cost/benefit analysis will be the only way to know. As far as Low-Residency programs in the northeast (as you'd asked), check out Bennington, Goucher, Lesley, and Vermont. Best of luck with your decision.

Sara has no codename either. What gives this week? She thinks highly of the blog and has read every posting. Glad to hear it. I'm afraid I don't have any insight into the Cal Arts program, though if anyone does, they can leave their opinion in the comments section.

I have a feeling that Sara already knows the answer to her second question: She's got a 26 page story, which is her best story. Should she send this "longer" work or lots of shorter work. Or should she send three stories and go a little over the page limit?

Sara, you can go a little (3-5 pages) over the page limit in fiction. Don't worry about it. But always go with your best work. If your best work is long or short, send it. And don't "fill in" the remaining pages with poor quality work. Don't worry about being pages short of the page limit.

Send that 26-pager for sure if that's your best. Then decide on the rest. Good luck.

Finally, the codename of the week and also the email of the week comes from Muffled in Moscow. Congratulations MiM. He's got a very odd final question, which I'll print as a whole below.

First of all though: Do students have a better chance of acceptance to an MFA program or an M.A. program? MiM, I have no idea. The reason: it's all percentages. Number of people accepted over number of applications submitted. I don't think the degree itself has any impact.

And no, I'm not calling the University of New Hampshire on your behalf. I appreciate the offer though.

Here's the question I love. Beware readers, it's complicated:

My wife is applying to MFA programs in poetry writing, but living overseas has made it hard to gather info on different programs. We ended up devising a “blind taste test” which worked as follows:

1. We made a list of MFA programs that met our geographical
2. For every professor at each of these 48 programs, I
found several poems online.
3. These poems were printed in anonymous packets such that
the poets’ names appear, but the name of the school does
4. My wife read the packets, rated each poet on a scale
from 1-5, judged the overall scores for each school, and
identified about ten universities whose professors’ work
appealed to her.
5. We unblinded the results and learned the names of the
ten schools.

The results were sometimes surprising. Several programs with excellent reputations didn’t make the cut, and a couple of lesser-known programs really shone (University of New Hampshire, University of North Carolina at Wilmington).

I know that this method is not foolproof – a good poet is not necessarily a good teacher, and things like financial aid and program size still had to be factored in. However, this system helps eliminate programs where the professors’ interests differ so greatly from the applicant’s that the
school would not have been a good choice.

The reason I’m writing all this is because it took a lot of surfing to find poems by all the professors at four dozen different schools, and I’d be happy if others could benefit
from this work. I don’t know if copyright laws permit you to share this info with others, but feel free to do so if you learn of anyone who might be interested. I’m attaching a zip file containing all of the poems.

That's awesome, MiM. And complicated. I love the method you two went through. It sounds like a lot of fun. No, I'm not posting a Zip File on the site, but if you'd like to send me permission to post your email next week, I'll be happy to do so.

One thing I'd like to add: A student might very well benefit from a professor with a very different writing style. That was definitely the case for me at the University of Massachusetts. The style I had going in was very different (and I think better) going out. If you view someone's poetry as of poor quality, then that's one thing, but if it's simply not of similar style, I'd caution you before you rejected that program or professor.

Thanks for the great email Muffled. Good luck to you and your family.

Okay, that's all. I feel like this mailbag was less helpful than others. Seems like we have covered a lot of the most important issues already. We'll see what arrives in the next two weeks. Till then, good luck with those applications and happy holidays.


jaywalke said...

I like the casual tone of your Stegner letter. I think it is important to keep in mind that while you are applying to THE PROGRAM (ivy-choked reputation and all) the application itself is being read by plain humans. Now if you happen to be a formal, cold person you may wish to make that impression. Personally I hope to project informality: (clean) blue jeans rather than a monkey suit. I am a writer, not a banker.

Anonymous said...

I'd love, if possible, if i could get a copy of that zip file that MiM sent you?

Jenny Davidson said...

I like your letter too, but I don't know that it's a useful model. I think most people should and do write rather more formal (or perhaps formulaic) ones, and that the challenge is to come up with your own _equivalent_--something that lets your own voice come through in the way this example does.

I would caution applicants against following any model too closely, in any case; usually some trace of derivativeness comes through.... When I'm doing a workshop on PhD applications, I usually have a handout of three sample (successful) ones that I think are excellent, and I make a point of choosing ones that are so different from each other that nobody realistically thinks that there's a single model to emulate....

Ad Blaster said...

Some people must make a good career of clumsiness.They couldn't be so good at it by accident." W.G.P"

magnolia avenue said...

The link to your Stegner statement doesn't seem to work anymore. Is it still possible to get a look at it? Many thanks!

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