Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mailbag for December 5th, 2005

Well, welcome back. Hope you had a good two weeks. A very busy mailbag this week. Lots of great questions, lots of great code names. I've put up two short guidelines for future questions, and you can find them here, along with the link to sending questions. Let's get to this week's queries...

Overwhelmed in Oakland has two stories on the short side for her writing sample, and she's used all the font/margin etc. tricks to extend them out to 24 pages total. She has a third story that she feels is not as good, but she's thinking of including for applications, like apparently Iowa's, that allow applicants to send up to 100 pages. (Wow, that's a lot). The question: Send the two stories (24 pages) or the three (presumably 35 or more pages)?

Man, I don't know. The two arguments are of course: 1. Send the three, because otherwise the 24 pages will look too short, or 2. Send the two and that way all of your pages will be of high quality. Since OO has given me the green-light to man-fact, I'm going to say that argument #2 carries more water with me. You want quality over quantity. I would strongly suggest that you include a few of your reader friends in this decision before you send. Maybe they'll give you a different perspective on the third story, positive or negative. If that doesn't sway you, I'd go with the two and the two only. Thanks for the greenlight to man-fact. It's a tough decision, so I'm simply saying what I'd do. Best of luck with your applications, Oakland.

Saltwater Farmer wishes us a belated Thanksgiving and has found the blog to be incredibly helpful. Good to hear on both counts, SF. He wants to know if the blog will continue next year, and if I know anything about Hamline University, Columbia College Chicago, and the University of Minnesota. Yep, I'll continue on with the blog. It will likely go to once every two weeks at some point, definitely from April through October. Of course, The MFA Handbook can answer lots of these questions as well. As for your schools, I know only about Minnesota, and they're an excellent choice. Good funding, good teachers. A current Stegner is from there, and she speaks highly of the program. Best of luck Saltwater.

Anna Mae gives us an update on her broken hand, reported in the last mailbag: "i just finished up the rugby season on saturday; i took off my splint and taped up the broken hand to play the last game - and it was a stunner. we beat seattle (who was previously undefeated and beat us pretty brutally about a month ago) - 30-29 - and i scored the gamewinner with five seconds to go! ahhhh, it was thrilling." All right! Rock on, AM.

Neurotic Novelist-Aspirant is only applying to one program, and it's UC-Irvine. She's aware of our advice to apply to 8-12 programs, but she needs to stay in the Irvine area for family reasons. She wonders if it's taboo to say this in her personal statement. Well, I think it would be unwise to say that this is the only program that you're applying to, but I think it would be smart to say something on the order of "My husband and I live in the area, and I we would like to keep it that way." And of course it's smart to first mention just what you did to me, NNA: that you like the reputation and the faculty.

Apparently Irvine asks for an autobiographical sketch in addition to the personal statement, and NNA wants to know if some of her information can overlap here. I think definitely yes. It's like a resume and letter: Don't count on the same people reading each document. Highlight your most important interests and achievements in both.

Finally, NNA wants to know if teaching upper school English gives her an edge in the selection process, and if she should state her enthusiasm for teaching. Definitely yes on the second part of that question. As for the first, it won't help you get from the 400 applicants down to the 5, or even from the final 15 to the final 5. But, and I'm man-facting here, projecting if I were on the committee: I think it might come in handy if there is a tie among 8 or so applicants for the final 5 spots. In any case, state it in your personal statement, and then don't worry about it. They'll make their choices however they see fit.

You've narrowed your odds by going with one school, Neurotic, especially that top school, but understandably so. Best of luck to you. Let us know how it goes, and thanks for your kind comments about the blog.

This is way off the subject, but if you're interested in the MFA Blogger has been up to this week, you can check out my post about the Jackson Award Ceremony at Intersection for the Arts this past week. It's at

More kind words from Baffled in the Big Apple, who also wishes that we were a little higher in the Google search. I agree. I think it's a time and link issue. We'll see what we can accomplish over the next few months. And since I've slammed a few New York City programs in this space, and would like to make ammends with the city so many love, and because it's a great name, Baffled in the Big Apple gets the codename of the week. Congratulations.

BBA wants to know if committees look at an applicant's location, especially for borderline candidates. The answer is yes, but I'm afraid it will be an disappointing yes. One director I spoke with said that he likes students who live close to the program: it makes the transition easier. Another director said that he likes students to make a move: it knocks them out of their comfort zone and opens them to new possibilities. Bottom line, BBA: Don't worry too much about it. Apply and let the chips fall where they may.

BBA also wants to know if one needs "connections" to get in to a program. I think the answer in 95% of cases is no. There are certainly cases when a good word in a letter or phone call from someone you know who happens to know someone in the program will help you, but again, don't worry about it. It's rare. And what a lousy sentence of mine that was. And that one too. Sigh.

Your list of Michigan, NYU, Austin, Virginia, Amherst, Syracuse, Washington, and Cornell all seem like excellent choices. Keep in mind that only Michigan, NYU, and Amherst are larger programs, so you might consider adding another larger program or two to help your chances. Maryland is one that comes to mind, though the funding there is average. It's a great school though, and it fits with your geographic preferences. You might look into Minnesota as well.

And, believe it or not, I actually have answered your final question before. You've got to dig deep in that mailbag. I'll save you the trouble this once: When reapplying, I wouldn't mention your previous applications and rejections. If you were close, they'll remember you. If you weren't they won't notice. Sounds to me like you've done your homework about programs. Good luck this time around, and thanks again for your kind comments about the blog.

Aspiring Writer #28476 also showers praise, so much so that I'm getting the big head and in danger of slipping into man-facting again. I'll try to control myself. The questions is: Do GRE scores help in the funding department? The answer: rarely. They would factor only in university-wide funding. In other words, a "University President's Scholarship" or the like. Here, you'd be up against graduate students in all the disciplines. Honestly, these are available widely, but are rarely won by MFA students. To be honest, the hard science students and the like often win these. As for MFA funding: committee members will go to bat for the writing they admire, not the scores. That's likely disappointing in your case, AW, but there's nothing wrong with kicking the GRE six ways from Sunday. Good for you. And best of luck with your applications.

Maladroit in Massachusetts is the codename runner-up of the week, and he/she wants to know what kind of "hook" to use in the personal statement. I wouldn't worry about that. I listed some questions in a previous mailbag to consider, and it would be worth your while to surf back to them. I can't remember how many weeks ago that was. MM worries that he/she hasn't had anything dramatic happen in his/her life. Again, I wouldn't worry about that. Tell you what: I'll post my Stegner Fellow letter here. I'm not saying it's a work of art by any means. It gets the job done, which is the least you should shoot for. Be direct, sincere, friendly, and formal. If I had my UMass letter, I'd post it, but it's long lost. Consider that committee members want to know who you are, what you've done, and what you'll do at the program. And, what kind of person you are. The latter will most likely be determined by your voice, rather than anything much you state. My bottom line advice: Set aside twenty minutes to write the letter. Use the first five minutes to write down, handwritten, what you want to get across. Then write the letter in fifteen minutes. This shouldn't be your final draft by any means, but put some pressure on yourself, including the time pressure, and see what comes out. My bet is it will give you something good to work with.

As you mentioned, MM, avoid the cliches. Be direct and calm in your writing. State your interests and achievements without bragging and without modesty. State them as fact and fact only. Best of luck with your letter and your applications.

Busted Flat in Baton Rouge has a question, and since we didn't have a mailbag last week, I'm handing out an additional codename of the week to him. I'm just handing awards out like crazy. You've caught me in a generous mood. When the heck is the book going to be available? asks BFBR. Excellent question. Soon. I'm going to talk with the people at Continuum on Tuesday, and I'll try to post a blog about it soon after that.

BFBR is interested in programs in the south, and his picks include Texas, Houston, Arkansas, Florida State, Miami, UNCG, and UVA. Any others? he wants to know. Sure: check out Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas State. Rock on, BFBR.

Bumbling About in Boston deserves an award too, but I don't want to be accused of grade inflation on the blog. Great codenames this week. To say that I'm pleased would be an huge understatement. BAB "truly rejoiced" when she stumbled upon the blog, and she has a couple of questions, which, to be honest, I'm not sure if I understood fully. I'll do my best to answer here. If I didn't quite nab them, write me back for next week's mailbag BAB.

Readers. As in, who to read your writing sample before you send them out? BAB points out, indirectly, that it's easier for fiction writers than poetry. Most people know a good story when they see one. Not the same, necessarily, about poetry. So, if you don't live in a family of poets, who can you ask?

Since BAB has exhausted her local writing workshops, I'd offer three avenues to her. I'm approaching this as what I'd do, were I in her shoes. But before I get to those, I'd mention this: finding good readers is not dissimilar to dating. You don't meet someone you like and say: "Will you be my girlfriend/boyfriend?" You talk, you share your ideas and your opinions, you don't push too much. You meet again. You don't say "Will you read my work?" on the first or second meeting. You let that person get to know you as you get to know them. A good reader is a rare find, and worth your while to cultivate.

So, horticultural metaphors aside, I'd...

Go to readings and open mikes. At the open mikes, I'd read. You can look these up at your local coffeeshops and sometimes online. I'd say hi to some people. I liked your work. I'd make some connections that way, with an eye toward colleagues more than mentors. If something comes from that, and it will over time, then I'd start to share work. There's something invaluable in this beyond just MFA applications.

Second, I'd consider some online workshops, like those of the UCLA Extention and the Gotham Writers Workshop. I'd drop a few hundred dollars on these. It would give me a chance to read and write, which is what a writer does, and if I find a person or two through these classes, then all the better. You'll likely find people who are in the same boat as you, with the same needs as you.

Finally, I'd log on to the Poets and Writers message board. Lots of great information there, and lots of great writers around the country and around the world who have been through MFAs and who are seeking MFAs. Post a message. Send an email. Put out your nets. See if you can make a connection. My sense is that if you do all three of these things, if you have the time, you'll increase your chances of finding kindred spirits, and you'll make some friends and readers.

Best of luck, Bumbling. Let us know how it goes.

Oh, hold on, a final question from Bumbling: "Bottom line, do you go for the reputation of the program and the funding etc, or do you at least try to go for the people who are currently teaching there?"

C'mon Bumbling. You know the answer to that. I thought you read the blog. It's not that the latter is not important. It is. But it's not measureable. You don't necessarily know who'll be teaching from year to year, and you don't know if a good writer is a good teacher. Often they are, sometimes they are not. Go with what's measureable -- funding, location, teaching experience, reputation -- and let the rest take care of itself.

Whew! A long mailbag. I'd like to close by wishing my good friend Stephen Elliott a very happy birthday. We had a party here for him last night. Still some cake leftover, if anyone would like to stop by. Otherwise, I leave everyone who is stressing about their applications and writing samples with Teddy Roosevelt's mantra:

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Rock on.

-- TK