Friday, June 16, 2006

Fictionalizing the Personal Statement?

Monsooned Out writes...

I discovered your blog while websearching for information on the Iowa Writers' Workshop. My questions are specifically about that program.

1) I'm the author of a handful of paperback original SF&F books. Should I conceal this in my application or brag about it?

2) I'm in my thirties and have worked in an Asian country as a translator and interpreter for the last five years. While I'm an extremely proficient translator, I have no interest whatsoever in translating fiction professionally. But if I pretended that I did, would that improve my chances of getting in and getting financial aid?

3) Can you get away with fictionalizing MFA applications, anyway? And if so do you have any interesting examples of people who have successfully done so?

MO, I don't know whether you can get away with fictionalizing MFA applications, but I do know that you shouldn't. I don't know what the legal consequences would be, but there's no sense in risking them.

And my personal opinion: it's a bush league move.

Can't you simply talk about being a translator without promising to translate fiction professionally? I don't see how translating will help with financial aid, but I do know that if you promised to do it, and received aid, you'd have to do it.

If I were you, I'd talk about the SF&F books briefly. It's interesting. But I'd be sure to indicate how you're turning in a different direction now (if that's true).

UPDATE: It seems that a number of our readers are strongly urging this person NOT to mention those SF&F publications. Their insights are worth reading in the comments section.

I don't know if any of this matters one way or the other, MO. Your writing sample will get you in or out. As I always say about the personal statement: Come across as an interesting, nice person who plays well with others, and come across as a person serious about your writing.

And be honest too. I thought that went without saying, though now I've said it. Rock on.


Anonymous said...

Well, Mo, you need to do more “webseraching.” SF&F or any genre or even any cross-genre fiction is looked down upon in Iowa—one Iowa fac member even publicly said he doesn’t like SF. Anyway what's with the rash of trolls to this site lately?

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, others. I was going to ask a similar question about the personal statement and rec letters..

I'm a big fan of your colleague Tobias Wolff. Remember how he got into school? I believe his book jacket calls it "a stunning act of reinvention". While I'm confident of my writing sample, I'm not really too stoked about handing over three letters from employers or my aunt Sally. Why can't I have my own stunning act of reinvention? Wouldn't it be a little hypocritical of Wolff or similar others to get all huffy over that?

Anonymous said...

Pardon the cliche, but honesty is the best policy when it comes to applications and resumes. I'm a big fan of Tobias Wolff, too. I've heard him admit in interviews that he wasn't a likeable person back in the day. I think he did a lot wrong, and lying on his application materials was one of them.

Besides, you don't want to compete against people who have falsified their credentials, do you? That wouldn't be fair to you or the other applicants. Just play it straight. So when you get accepted and gradaute to move on to a stellar teaching/writing career, you can hold your head high and tell people, honestly, that you played fair and earned every bit of it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Old Scribe. While I agree with you about academic cheating in general (I've never done it), the MFA is a different animal. The issue is not grades or even accomplishments (don't tell 'em about those published books, original poster!), but largely perception. In a perfect world the writing sample would be king. But the sad fact is that it's not.

Maybe I'm disillusioned by the success of Naasdij, or--who was it--the pretend gay street kid, or James Frey, or countless others. In those cases, no one (save Rick Moody) ever raised objections about the quality of the work, which was poor. Everyone got high on the author's persona, or congratulated themselves for their PC-ness, or rallied to support these "stories that need to be told". I see a lot of this in the MFA world, if web sites, funding, and my own experience talking to administrators is anything to go by. There's too much emphasis on the writer, not enough the writing.

I don't consider biography a credential. In fact, I see this as the problem.

Anonymous said...

Hi all, I'm the original poster. Thank you, Tom and everyone who commented! All very helpful. I did have a sense that Iowa is not big on SF&F, but I wasn't sure whether it would actually count against me.

I do see the sense of Tom's original advice to "Come across as an interesting, nice person who plays well with others, and come across as a person serious about your writing.
And be honest too." Unfortunately for me, and I think for many other writers, it is impossible to implement! I'm serious about my writing, oh h__l yeah, but if I were to present myself as a nice person who plays well with others, it would be a lie. So some "reinvention" will be inevitable.

Again, thank you all for your help!

Anonymous said...

So just because you write you need to some prick? Bottom line: the faculty is looking for easy people to work with, people that want to help others. Take it for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget to present yourself as a God-fearing good-natured boy.

Anonymous said...

really is there anything more obvious and annoying than writers who think they are SOOOOO mean and horrible no one could possibly handel it? Just tell the truth I really doubt you're all that shocking.

btw, truly mean horrible people probably don't waste time thanking others for their helpful comments. They're too busy being dark and brooding and stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hate to ask a dumb question, but SF&F = science fiction and fantasy, correct?

Anonymous said...

Yes, SF&F is Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I don't think the original poster is a hardcore a-hole. If he was, he'd be looking into a different sort of degree, like an MBA. That way, instead of trying to write fiction that conveys an insight into the human condition, he could sit behind a desk, chew on a cigar, and use words like "consumers" and "human resources" and "productivity."

Anonymous said...

Well, not being a schmoozer includes being a nice, but shy person. Can you imagine that? A writer, being an inwardly drawn type? What will they think of next.

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