Thursday, November 18, 2010


You know that feeling you had when you were a kid? You'd go to bed on Christmas Eve, absolutely giddy at the thought of what tomorrow would bring. I remember going to sleep right next to the Christmas tree at my grandparents' house, convinced that I could stay awake to spot Santa leaving me, say, She-Ra's bad-ass horse, Swift Wind. And of course, I never could stay awake. The next morning, the magic spell would still be intact: the tree lit up and the toy I'd wanted so badly sitting there next to my overflowing stocking; everything was as close to perfect as I could hope for.

I've got to be honest. I didn't expect the MFA experience to be perfect. I did an MA program in a different field before this one, and when I finished, I was frustrated, seemingly more unemployable with my higher (though not terminal) degree, and without any real additional knowledge or experience to show for it. So, I went into my current program with open, even jaded, eyes. And you know what? They're losing their jadedness. I had serious concerns about burnout, or even my ability to write so consistently. I've always been the kind of writer who works when inspiration strikes. And that's usually only once every month or two. But being here, having a structure and deadlines, specific forms to adhere to? I love it. More than I ever thought I would. One semester in, and I'm still having fun.

In the last few weeks, I've seen Margaret Atwood, Aimee BenderTom Sleigh, Carl Phillips, and Kate Daniels read; I picked up former New Yorker poetry editor and current PSA president Alice Quinn from the airport; a fellow poet and I chatted with Tom Sleigh one morning about poetry, The Life of Brian, and the state of Syria and Lebanon. The weekend before last, all of us students attended an all-day symposium about work opportunities outside of academia with four published writers with MFA's who now work in different fields (while still publishing). Last week we all went out for drinks with Carl after his reading (which he said was lovely and something many programs don't do). And last night, before her reading, we all went out for Indian food to celebrate the publication of Kate's new book, and then heard her read her challenging, unflinching, amazing poetry.

All of this is to say that every damn day feels like Christmas here, if your favorite kind of Christmas is one filled with books and other people who love writing. Even when I'm writing a paper about how a stanza works in a poem or forcing myself to learn the form of a rondeau, or spending hours staring at one poem with no idea where to go with it: all of it contains a little bliss. And I really think being here is the best-case scenario.

When I applied to schools, I tried really hard not to get attached to any of them preemptively. I chose only schools I felt I would genuinely be happy at (primarily based on location and funding). I didn't spend much time researching faculty, because it's such a craps shoot where you'll get in. I'm lucky to have ended up with teachers whose work I admire and whose teaching skills I appreciate. For those of you currently in the application process, one thing I learned was to shoot high. So many people on this blog ended up places they never thought they would, myself included. Don't apply to schools unless you genuinely want to go there. And also? Keep a sense of humor about all of this. You're all about to go headlong into insanity. But I really think it'll be worth it.


The Editor said...

I'm applying for MFA programs right now. Iowa, Michigan, Brown, etc all the big ones. I'm so glad to have stumbled upon your blog tonight. It's great to hear some insight about the program and your experience while going through the app process right now. Thanks so much!!!

anotherjenny said...

Your experience sounds exactly like what I'd love. I'm applying to 7 schools, but I'm really pulling for Texas, Michigan, and Indiana (optimistic, I know!); like you said, aim high :)

amanda said...

Koty and anotherjenny: No problem! Let me know if you have any specific questions. I applied to several of the big schools, got waitlisted at a couple of them, but also rejected from some of the schools I thought I had a better chance at. I applied to 17 in all though. Crazy-making!

inkli__11 said...

please--what is the name of the toy pictured here?

it brought me endless hours of joy as a child. ENDLESS.

inkli__11 said...

oh, swift wind, i get it. thank you.

FZA said...

Oh She-Ra, she was awesome. Her horse, obviously cooler.

I kept meaning to try to put some more under the radar schools on my list. But at the end I didn't. I only put schools I was REALLY excited about and unfortunately all were in the first tier. But I think I'd rather do that and not get in anywhere than wonder 'what if I'd only taken a chance with an application to xyz school?'

I don't have a strong first choice. But There is probably two tiers to my list. Hoping for anything.

Do you have any other suggestions, Amanda, for the putting together of applications? Or how you came to decide on which school to go to (if you had choices)?

amanda said...

Hi Blob,

Well, I did a lot of research. I looked at a lot of programs that were newer and less well-known. In fact, many of the schools I wanted most to go to were not first-tier schools. I applied to Michener just to see if I could get in. I didn't really want to not have teaching opportunities and be required to focus on two writing genres. But I had friends who'd been involved in less popular programs, like U Memphis and VCU. And I knew they'd had such positive experiences that I wanted to apply to those. Other places, I was just taken with their descriptions, like on the website and such. Colorado-Boulder was one of those. Like Vanderbilt, they'd had a long established non-MFA program and recently added the MFA. And I also knew those were cities I'd love to live in. So I would definitely suggest looking at some of the other schools, like on the Underrated Creative Writing Programs list and see if any of those sound good enough to add to your list.

And blanket the field. I had applied for MFA's once several years ago and got waitlisted at 3 schools, only accepted to 1, and it would have required too much debt to go. So this time, I applied to 17, was accepted outright to 3, waitlisted at 4, and rejected from 10. I got in off the waitlist at 2 (and withdrew my name before I heard back from other two). I was completely broke when I did applications, and put most of the fees on my credit card. But now? Fully funded in a great program and totally worth it.

As far as choosing, it wasn't much of a choice. Although I really loved all the schools I got into, Vanderbilt was the only one that wooed me and was offering a full ride. So for me, although it was hard for a while to relinquish dreams of Boulder (where I got in unfunded), the enthusiasm of the department for my work, the location, the students, and the funding all led me to accepting Vanderbilt.

Staci R. Schoenfeld said...

Margaret Atwood! Be still my heart. I've organized and I'm chairing a panel for the Margaret Atwood Society at an upcoming conference. I wrote my senior critical thesis on her (as well as my first MLA style paper in high school way back when). Was she awesome? We were just talking in one of my writing groups last night about meeting her, and how we would all be freaked out.

amanda said...

thereandbackagain: She was wonderful! She read an excerpt from The Year of the Flood and even sang the hymn from it (which a friend of hers had put to music). I'd seen her once before right after Oryx & Crake came out. She is a phenomenal, sharp, and witty woman. What conference will you be speaking at?

Staci R. Schoenfeld said...

@ amanda

it's the louisville conference for literature and culture since 1900 (great conference, btw). i'm not presenting this year, just organizing & chairing the atwood society panel. i really only had the atwood paper to present, and i didn't want to put my paper in the running when i was going to be in the chair position. :) any chance you'll be at the conference?

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