Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mailbag for January 23rd, 2006

The Mailbag is busting at the seams this week, and that’s even after I dropped all the emails that didn’t include codenames. I’ll do what I can to get to everyone’s question this week. First, some business.

Much better news this week about distribution of the MFA Handbook. Sounds like many of you have received copies (and thanks for the kind notes), and we’re now listed on and Amazon, though the best way is to order through Continuum. Hope this solves the problems that some of you ran into last week. On to the mailbag…

(Oh yeah: the question submission page is here.)

Lurking from L.A. L.A. Land says the blog helps to calm her nerves, which is good, because it tends to frazzle mine. LfLLL asks how important letters of recommendation are? C’mon L, I’ve answered that question many times before. They’re the third most important item, a little behind the personal statement and waaaaay behind the writing sample. Lots of info about letters in previous mailbags. L.A. L.A. is applying to SFSU, New School, Oregon, USC, American, Mississippi, Iowa, and Pittsburgh. She wants to know what I think.

What I think is that’s about as eclectic a mix you could shoot for. Nice going. But, I only see three schools – Oregon, Mississippi, Iowa – with good funding situations, so that may be an issue for you. Otherwise, very sound choices and no red flags.

Matt didn’t include a codename this week and also asked four questions. What gives, Matt? I’ll answer one of them: yes, 826 Valencia has a chapter in Washington State, right in Seattle. It’s brand new. Check it out.

Ancy Ambivalent Artist writes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. She needs help deciding which genre to focus in. Okay, we almost got through a half-page without man-facting. Almost. I don’t know Triple A, but I can say that I work in the photography and nonfiction fields as well as fiction. These first two are for fun. They help keep the ‘play’ in creativity for me, especially when my fiction is not going as well. Is there a similar relationship in your interests? Is there one or two that you’re simply more serious about? Another thought: What do you read? If you write poetry, but don’t read much, then that’s not the choice for you. Same goes for the other two genres. With which form do you spend the most time?

Also, you don’t have to make this sort of decision in a vacuum. Get your writing into the hands of readers you respect. Ask them about your dilemma. They may have some insight that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Triple A also asks the followup: Which programs offer degrees in multiple genres? Well, I’ve got a list of all the concentrations for each of the 300+ programs in the appendix section. And, I’ve listed when programs offer dual concentrations. Unfortunately, I’m at the Ritual Coffeeshop this morning (yum!), and I don’t have a copy of the book. Off the top of my head, I know that Texas actually requires students to concentrate in two forms. I like this, and of course I like that program. Check it out, Triple A. Best of luck with your decisions.

Mancel Laconic writes in. Is that a real name? I’ll assume it’s code, though I’d be interested to know for what. ML wants to know if it’s okay to turn in stories from his writing sample to the first workshop. Yes, it’s okay, and none of the other students will know that it’s from your sample anyways. But you shouldn’t turn in work that is “done.” Otherwise, it’s a waste of your time and the teacher and other students. On the other hand, turning in your stream-of-consciousness piece from your previous night’s writing session isn’t the best choice either.

My man-facting advice? Write like hell this summer. Turn in work from then. As Geoffrey Wolff points out in the MFA Handbook (paraphrasing): It’s important for students to arrive and hit the ground running. In other words, don’t take an acceptance as a reason to relax. Take it as a reason to crank up the time you spend on your work. Good luck, ML.

Oh, and yes, most workshops will ask you to turn in two to three stories per semester or quarter.

ML also has some kind words for The Winged Girl and adds a long and winding question, the basic of which is: How did my work change during my time in the MFA? It changed radically, and I think the best illustration of this was my attitude toward fiction writing. I remember my professor, Sam Michel, talking about voice, style, and rhythm, and I asked him “Isn’t that mostly an accident? Isn’t the story the most important thing?” He about laughed himself out of his chair.

It took me years to learn that voice is not an accident, and I began to look very closely at my sentences and my word choice. For lack of a better term, I “hear” my sentences now. They have a rhythm to them, they have voice. Now, what quality of voice and rhythm that is, that’s for others to determine. “Bones” is a story I wrote during my MFA with this idea in mind.

Also, I read a number of books during my MFA that I wouldn’t have come across myself. For craft, it was The Writer’s Digest Guide to Short Story Writing. For content, I found the authors Jose Saramago and Jonathan Kozol. Those were on the recommendations of John Edgar Wideman. And, I based my story collection on Michael Byers’ The Coast of Good Intentions.

In any case, Mancel, yes, be prepared to change, and be open to change. My voice is not the voice of any of my professors, but is rather parts of the voices of those professors, plus those authors, plus my mother, plus Dr. Seuss, plus the last five books I’ve read, plus all the experiences with story telling in my life. If it helps you to think about your voice as “expanding” rather than “changing” in a program, then do think of it that way. Experiment, fall on your face, get up, try again, get those words down on the page.

All right. Slipping. Into. Motivational. Speaker. Voice. Again. Must. Break. Out of. This. Cycle…

I Heart the Mailman in NYC brings us back to Pragmatic-ville. “If any of us have the stupendous luck to be accepted to several schools, do you have a fair amount of time to decide which to attend? Many websites state that you have "x" amount of time to respond to the acceptance. What if you haven't heard from your dream school yet? Or are acceptance deadlines all around the same time?”

Generally speaking, the acceptances will go out in late March to early April. If you haven’t heard anything by April 1oth or so, it’s okay to contact a school. If you’re being pressed by another school, it’s okay to contact another program and ask your status. Keep a cool head though. Don’t send off a half-dozen emails the day after your first acceptance. Stay calm and see what comes your way. Generally speaking, you’ll have about two weeks to decide. Good luck Heart.

Puzzled in Purgatory asks about the Whidbey Island Writer’s Workshop MFA. Does this degree get as much “respect” as an MFA from a university? PiP, I don’t know much about that program, but I can say that they can’t call themselves an MFA without passing standards within Washington State and the U.S.. So, they are definitely certified to grant that degree. If you have specific questions about the nature and/or quality of the degree, I’d contact the program directly. And ask your questions directly. Obviously your concerns are valid, even if they turn out not to be legitimate. (Or is that the other way around? You know what I mean). Sorry I don’t have additional insight. Best of luck to you, PiP.

Oh man, Writer Mom in CT wrote in with some nice words about the book and blog, and then had a single critique about the book, and I went ballistic on her. I wrote her back a flamer of an email. I don’t know what got into my head. It’s not only Male Answer Syndrome around here, it’s apparently Male PreMenstrual Syndrome as well. In any case, Writer Mom, I apologize. I wrote my book and now I’ve got to take what criticism comes with it.

The nature of WMiC’s criticism was that, in her opinion, the book seems to be aimed at people who are single and without children. So, she asks:

“I'd also like to know more about how people in my situation (family, job, etc.) have made low-residency programs work. I'm trying to decide whether now is the right time to do this or not, and I think it would be tremendously helpful to hear first-hand from people who have done them while balancing all those other things. Perhaps you could post my email address?

Consider it done, Writer Mom. And people are welcome to post on the comments section below. My advice? Choose three of the low-residency programs that you’re interested in. Contact those programs and ask if there are current students who you can talk with. Mention that you’d like to specifically talk with moms and dads. This should be a large percentage of their student base. They should put you in touch with the right person.

And by the way: If any current or former MFA students would like to write in (on this subject or others) about their experience, send me an email. If it’s relevant information, such as Sumac’s from last week, I’ll post it up on the blog.

WMiC’s second question is: How specific does one have to be about the project/manuscript in the personal statement, and, can you change the project once you’re in the program? Hmm, unless a program asks specifically, I wouldn’t spend more than two sentences on your project description. I’d spend more time on your writing interests, rather than notching them to a specific project. And, yes, the project (thesis) will change as you move through the program. The work is reflected in the thesis, not the other way around. My sense is, in a two year program, you won’t worry too much about the focus of the thesis until the beginning of the second year, after a long summer of writing. You’ll see what you have, and then the focus should come clearer.

Thanks for your questions, WMiC. And thanks for your kind words and your criticism.

All right, I have to pick up the pace here. Los Feliz Navidad: If a program doesn’t ask for your GRE’s, then don’t send them. They’ll just be tossed out. And, if the program director says you need a 3.0 GPA, then you need a 3.0 GPA.. If your source is accurate, then I can’t see anything trumping that requirement. Sorry if that’s not the news you wanted to hear.

Sort of on that note, VT Volta asks what “University Requirements” means. That’s pretty easy: If the MFA committee likes your work, they send your application (mostly your undergrad transcripts, your GRE scores, your letters of recommendation etc.) on to the Graduate School. Then the Graduate School determines if your application meets the basic requirements for graduate study at that university. If you’re below a 3.0 GPA or a 1100 GRE, then this might be a worry. But it doesn’t mean you’re out. The MFA programs will fight on your behalf if your writing sample blows them away. And if they, themselves, don’t have specific requirements like in LFN’s question.

VT also asks: “My friend at Columbia went there because she loved all the
major fiction faculty they listed as working there, but she has never
actually had a class with any of the "big names." She has still had a
good experience, but if we have been drawn to a particular program
because of specific faculty members, what are the chances of actually
getting a class with him/her?”

I’m not going to man-fact here, VT, except to say that the bigger the program, the less likely you are to get a specific faculty member, and the smaller the program, the more likely you are. If you’re applying to a program because of a specific faculty member, make sure you contact the program with this question before you agree to attend.

This is one of the main reasons I ranked faculty as fourth in my list of criteria in the book. It’s not measurable. Just because William Shakespeare is on faculty doesn’t mean he’ll be there that semester, and just because he’s a great writer doesn’t mean he’s a great teacher. Good luck, VT.

Moldy in the Marigny is our codename winner of the week. Congratulations, and a shout out to New Orleans. Hope things are looking up there. Moldy received a FAFSA form, along with some other financial information from Hollins College, and he wondered what this meant. He said it was okay for me to man-fact, but I don’t have to: This is just standard bookkeeping for some schools. It doesn’t mean much. It’s too early to indicate an acceptance, and no, it’s not part of some conspiracy to find out who has money and who doesn’t. It’s just standard procedure for a lot of programs.

You make a good point about the mail in New Orleans though. If that’s a problem, I’d contact the program(s) by email, and tell them your situation. I’m sure some kindly person there will make a note on your application: If accepted, contact by email. I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

Moldy in the Marigny adds a P.S., and I’ll include it here: “(Just so you don't think I pulled this unconsciously from some nickname-ether, the Farbourg-Marigny is the section of New Orleans directly east of the French Quarter). Even though we took no water, mold and dust has been making a strong showing lately when the wind whips up in the early evening. So you might not even have to answer this e-mail at all, because this time next week I could be laid up with a respirator at the local do-it-yourself hospital now residing in the convention center. And boy do they not have wireless internet there. Finally, thanks for keeping the blog going every week. Reading it for the past few months has been a fun, enlightening, and occasionally masochistic activity. See, I applied to schools in late October, and every week your responses usually warn against application crimes that I have already committed.”

Okay Moldy. Sounds like things are not looking up after all. You’re on my mind though, and I hope my answer is some help to you. Rock on.

Biting Nails in Boston asks where I “rank” a particular school. I posted my profile introduction last week, and you should check that out. Actually, since you have the book, you’ve already read that. Bottom line: if it was clear to me that a program was top five, ten, or twenty, I stated that. Lots of programs that I left unstated that might be the best fit for you. I listed top ten etc. based on funding and reputation, since these things are measurable.

Boston wants to know about the funding at UMass Amherst. It’s there, and while most students find it, not all do. My advice: Be persistent in finding a teaching assistantship or other on-campus work. If you get 20+ hours a week, you can qualify for a tuition waiver. And yes, you’ll apply for the teaching assistantship after your acceptance, not before. If you’re accepted, and if funding is an issue for you, I’d contact the program director. I did, and I received an assistantship. Others did too. Of course, you need to be qualified to teach, so do complete that teaching application to the best of your ability. And don’t forget to be polite in your interactions with the coordinator and director, as this might have a rather large impact on how things work out. Good luck.

Busted Flat in Baton Rouge has some kind words for the Handbook, and we appreciate that. And, he offers an easy question: One of the stories from his application has been accepted for publication. Should he contact the program? No, definitely not. Don’t contact the program at all until you hear about acceptance or rejection. Keep in mind: even if you were published in The New Yorker, the committee won’t care if they don’t personally like the story.

But congratulations on the publication nonetheless. And best of luck in the waiting game.

Nervous in Nebraska is hitting me at a time when I’m starting to lose some energy. Need. Power. Bar. I’m going to have to wrap this mailbag up…

NiN, I don’t see any advantage to sending to magazines connected with programs you’re interested in. The editors and the committee members are not necessarily the same people. As far as journals vs. contests, yes, I agree with you: send to journals that you read and love. This is where you stand the best chance anyways. It’s always been my goal to send out to five contests every year. This costs me about $75 bucks, and that’s manageable. You might consider doing the same. Thanks for your enthusiasm for the site.

Loquacious in Lowertown is our final questioner, and wow, great name. Definitely codename runner up this week. My answer to you is the same as the answer a few spots above: don’t contact the committee during these couple months. You’ll be seen as an annoyance. Okay, so you single-spaced your personal statement instead of double-spacing it….

By the power vested in me by the MFA Blog, I absolve you, Loquacious, and I decree that you shall sleep soundly at night and worry no more on this subject. It’s no big deal, LiL. You won’t be the only one who does this, and it will have no impact on your acceptance or not.

Whew! I’m out of here. Thanks for everyone’s questions. See you next week.

-- TK


samin said...

hi tom,
i want to send you an email, but my computer won't let me follow "email-to" links, and i can't find an actual email address for you anywhere. would you please let me know what it is so that i can send you a note?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the absolution TK!! I can finally get a good night's rest...

V. Wetlaufer said...

I was always told that letters of rec. are the 2nd most important, with personal statement being third. Are the letters really so unimportant? If so, I'm worried, because they are definitely one of the strongest parts of my apps.

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