Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"What are you looking for?"

At the moment, along with the rest of the creative writing faculty at Cornell, I'm presently engaged in The Big Read--we've divvied up this year's MFA applications and are each reading dozens of them, to prepare for the decisions we'll be making next month on which students are admitted. Seeing me surrounded by mountains of folders, Rhian called my attention to this post on the MFA Weblog, in which applicants ask writing professors questions about the application process, their schools, and being a student writer.

I'm not going to comment on the specifics of this year's applications, or how we do things at Cornell. But I wanted to respond more generally about a particular breed of question--not representative, by the way, of the whole--that keeps cropping up in the comments of that post. Here are a few examples, from various commenters:

I'd like to ask an MFA faculty member what is the biggest and most common mistake applicants make. What (if anything) makes them place an applicant immediately in the "no" pile?

what is the most common mistake a first year MFA'er makes either specifically in their writing or in their academic work as a whole (so that we can all avoid it, of course =)

I think the question I have for faculty may be unanswerable -- but here goes -- what are you looking for in applicants' writing samples?

Now, I am not going to pretend that the MFA is not a professional degree, or that it's misguided to want to attend an MFA program in order to make connections, learn the ropes of the publishing world, and get an "inside track." Without question, these are benefits that the MFA offers students, and I took advantage of them myself, back when I graduated from the University of Montana in 1995.

But none of this is remotely useful if you don't have something to write. And the questions I quoted above seem to me to be hopelessly misguided--they are focused not upon the writer's work, but on the people who are judging it. And let me tell you, there is nothing that can be done about the latter.

Here's my MFA story: I applied to U of M because I'd never been west of Wisconsin in my life, and I went there because it was the only place I got in. In retrospect, I lucked out--I loved Missoula, and studying there. But the fact is, my application sucked, I didn't know what I was doing, and it was only some bizarre fluke that got me in. Somebody there must have seen something in the hideous muck of my writing that I might someday make something of. But honestly, compared to the people we let in to Cornell, my writing at the time was simply awful. The me of today would have rejected the me of 1993 after a page and a half.

My point is that, the only reason anyone gets in anywhere is that something they wrote connects with somebody who reads it. There is no forumla to this. There's no way of calculating it. It's like falling in love--it just happens, practically at random. Sure, some writers are especially talented, and are able to connect with more people than others, and probably those writers will get offers from a lot of places. But I wasn't one of those writers, and I might easily have not gotten in. And I like to think that, if that were the case, I would have done the right thing--put it out of my mind and dug back in.

If you're asking what we "want," or what mistakes you should avoid, you should go back to square one and do a little soul-searching. Because we don't know what we want, and there are no mistakes. There's only the same kind of connection between people that happens when anyone reads something they like. You have no control over us, but you can control your work. So do that: write what you want to write. If I have one piece of concrete advice, it's that you should do everything you can to forget about your "career," forget about the possibility of teaching, forget about publishing, about book parties, about the "in" crowd, about blogs, about everything except your personal obsessions and their expression. Though it's necessary to get a few recommendations, to write a personal statement, to send transcripts, to take the GRE, those aren't the things that really matter to readers. What they want is what they want when they read anything--to be surprised. To make a connection with another person. To feel some kind of spark. They want the same thing you do, when you read.

And when you send out the applications, forget about them completely and forever. Do not post on the internet about them. Go write something else. If you don't get in, it's nobody's fault, and you didn't do anything wrong. You just got rejected. Rejection is the norm. Most of what I write does not get published; most of my stuff that is published has been rejected a dozen times. It's not failure, and you shouldn't think of it that way. It's just that it didn't stick. That's the way it is now, and it's the way it will be in 25 years, when your tenth novel has just come out. You just have to shut it all out and write.

Ultimately, if we don't want you, you don't want us. It's that simple. The MFA is like any degree: it is all about what you bring to it. You could say that some schools are "better" than others, and I guess there's a case to be made for that. All of us like to think our program is the best, and yes, I'm really proud of the one I teach at. But the fact is, Princeton is "better" than SUNY Binghamton, unless you drink yourself to sleep every night at Princeton and study like a madman at Binghamton, in which case Binghamton is better. The point is that someone with internal resources can take advantage of every opportunity to learn. You need to be that person, so that you can kick ass at Iowa, but could also kick ass in your crap apartment, in your crap town, after your crap job is done for the day. You and your work are all there is, and it's nice to get to do it at school, but if you really mean it, you will do it no matter what. Keep that in mind, and good luck.


Kent said...

This is such an excellent post. And I guess I just wanted to emphasize the primary focus that needs to be held on the work. The first time I applied for an MFA, I was rejected from all six programs I applied to. It was a VERY tough April. When I look back now, though, I know it was one of those very important moments in my life as a poet. I dug back into the poems. Why? Because no matter what any school said, I knew I couldn't give up on those. As it happens, I reapplied the next year and was accepted into a program that was exactly what I needed.

jrlennon said...

Glad to hear it worked out for you! Ultimately, in the best of situations, I think it ought to be a comfort to be alone with your work--for it to be just you and the writing, and no one else in the world. When eventually this kind of writing finds an audience, you can tell. it feels intimate and real.

I fear that too many young writers are spending too much time worrying about getting into school, especially in this economic climate. However important it is to you, you gotta let it go...

jon said...

This is perfectly said, and yet I rarely read anything like it about the business of writing.

Aaron said...

Just want to add my appreciation for laying out the right priorities so clearly. I say much of the same stuff to my undergrads applying to MFA programs, but this just really lays it all out perfectly. Honestly, I think students find a lot of this to be quite daunting and have difficulty wrapping their heads around these ideas because it's so counter-intuitive to them after the whole process of undergraduate/financial aid applications -- you mean, I'm just supposed to focus on the work? But how can I focus on the work if I don't know what YOU want from the work?

And it IS counter-intuitive -- any application process can be so nerve-wracking, full of second-guessing, etc. But thanks for clearing the air so well.

Next year I'll be sure to direct anyone with MFA aspirations to this post.

Anonymous said...

Aaron wrote:
"But how can I focus on the work if I don't know what YOU want from the work?"
How true - and depressing. To have to worry about the right strategy to get into the place where you'll make contacts and thus progress.
The writing itself is half the game now. Learning "what you want" - whoever that "you" may be: professor, established writer, editor, agent) is the other half.
Since this blog uses the name of a Chekhov story - can you visualize him working on an application to a MFA program?

Anonymous said...

How about Nabokov?

jrlennon said...

Hmm. I'm not eager for this to turn into an "it wasn't like this in the good old days" post. Chekhov and Nabokov were great artists without any kind of writing school. But some of tomorrow's great artists are going to have MFA's, and there isn't anything wrong with this. It's just the nature of the age.

A great artist who goes to school will use school as a tool to explore her art. The MFA does not spread conformity and mediocrity evenly across the writing population: Flannery O'Connor, David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders all earned MFA's in fiction writing, and they are iconoclasts and innovators.

Aaron said...

I agree, J. With every workshop -- in class or just amongst friends -- every author has to negotiate following the RIGHT advice, and simply leaving behind any feedback that even with the best of intentions is wrong-headed or smooths out all the supposed "rough edges" that might actually make the writing the most interesting. I remember once in a class of mine, after discussing Denis Johnson, a student who loved Jesus' Son said, "I have to say, I wonder, what would a workshop class say about this? Wouldn't they just tear it to shreds? Who gets to finally say all this out-there stuff is okay?" To which I pointed out that Denis Johnson was a product of the workshop environment, and as for who protected this work and kept it from being bland or run of the mill -- well, Denis Johnson did. It's so easy to second-guess and cave in, and it IS crucial to know when to re-evaluate what you're doing, but it's also just as important to stand by your work, too. No workshop or MFA program can ever really teach that, but it can be encouraged. Thanks for doing so in this post.

Lisa N.R. said...

Thank you for this wisdom. I just have to get better, and an MFA seems one way to do it. I do think writing programs have a lot to offer the young writer. My question for the CW faculty would be..."what book or books changed your life ?" I'm always curious about people's "conversion", when they saw the light, fell prostrate, etc, etc. For me, it was Anna Karenina and 100 years of Solitude.

jrlennon said...

Lisa, that is a very good question, and something worth knowing if you want to apply somewhere. You should just email the profs and ask them. If they take their teaching seriously, they'll get back to you.

As for Denis Johnson, not only is the he the product of a workshop environment, he taught here last year, and was a great colleague, teacher, and friend to all. You don't think of him as an "academic" guy, and he's not. But no good writer is. A good writer carries his writing self intact through the sometimes constricting environment of academia. Like Johnson, you can be a part of it, and still be apart from it. This is how a prospective MFA student should go into it: as an independent artist nonetheless willing to give to, and learn from, a community.

I won't argue that MFA programs don't create a lot of mediocre fiction. But really, 99% of fiction is going to be mediocre regardless of how it's made. I like to think that what we do is give students the opportunity to become themselves more completely, to really figure out what they want to say. That's what grad school did for me, anyway.

reading blogs after a few beers said...

"A good writer carries his writing self intact through the sometimes constricting environment of academia."

I've sometimes wondered, how exactly is academia constricting? (Since tone doesn't often translate on internet postings, I should clarify that this is genuine curiosity from a non-academic.) I mean, when people talk about that, is it just the day-to-day world of it, the fact that it's removed from "the real world," whatever that is? -- or is there something more specifically stifling about the academic world?

JRL, have you ever felt constricted in academia? Your work certainly doesn't seem too academicky, by which I mean you're not David Lodge: your characters exist outside universities.

jrlennon said...

As jobs go, an academic one is about as freeing as they get. I mean, as a teacher, I can work however I want, with little supervision...I'm trusted to do it right.

But I think that, for those who are heavily invested in the system, there is a temptation to allow oneself to be unduly influenced by the structure of do things that will win approval from the system, rather than please oneself. There are always rewards for doing what people hope you'll do, which is usually bad for the work.

There's also the tendency to generalize while teaching writing professionally--to generate rules of thumb to give to students, so the task of criticizing their work can be simplified. And if you do this, after a while you begin to believe it. And you forget how to be inspired, how to be strange. Writing can become a rote thing, a duty, that you accomplish with a forumla.

I largely find the academic experience enriching and pleasurable. But the kind of structure and heirarchy that academia depends on for its existence is anathema to what I'm trying to do. So for most teacher/writers, it's necessary to build some kind of firewall, which is time-consuming to maintain. This is why a lot of writers' work drops off precipitously when they get a full-time teaching job.

This is not to say I'm criticizing the academic system. I think that, by and large, it works marvelously. But its relationship to the creation of art is uneasy, and you have to stay on your toes to remain vital--this goes for teachers and students alike.

Anonymous said...

"Excellent," "perfectly said," and "Thank you for this wisdom."
Hmmm... Sounds like adulation to me.
To "a few beers" - here are some thoughts in answer to your question regarding the constricting effects of MFA programs:
Such programs exist in a climate of careerism, which carry pressures. Students/teachers (same thing, actually) are concerned with impressing mentors, with residencies, tenure; they operate in a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They’re sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, etc. that absolve them of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not another academic might enjoy, might even buy.
The effect of how we live on what we write is vital. For most of the young writers who follow today’s career path to success, the breadth of their experience base is limited. There’s a big difference between the story one might get from a writer strolling past a construction site versus the story one might get from the writer who is pouring concrete.
Chekhov wrote that the aim of literature “is truth, unconditional and honest.” And: “My business is to illuminate the characters and speak their language.” His extensive and varied experiences in life enabled him to speak the language – and express the true feelings – of a wide range of characters. I can relate to his peasants and aristocrats; I cannot relate to what is being published by our young MFA grads today.

By the way - the fourth and fifth paragraphs above are actually the thoughts of John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation (the recipient of a million dollar endowment from Ms. Lilly; he’s beholden to no one). I’ve paraphrased his words, cut out a lot, etc. (sorry, Mr. Berry). But the gist of his comments remains. You can read the whole essay by Googling his name and "American Poetry in the New Century."
He doesn't see the next Whitman coming out of a MFA program.

the other guy said...

Damn, dude. Calm down.

jrlennon said...


Ben said...

Do I detect the whine of a bitter loser?
What I get from W6 are information and inspiration.
If that makes me an adulterer, so be it.

zo said...

Is Max in the house?

Lisa N.R. said...

Adulaters, ingratiators, adulterers (Freudian slip, right, Ben?) Wow, anonymous, ouch. I know MFA programs churn out a lot of crappy writing, but is there any room for true mentorship (in OR out of an academic program). Hemingway admired Turgenev, Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway, Eudora Welty had Chekhov, E.M. Forster said he owed a debt to Proust and Jane Austen. (So says Annie Dillard in The Writing Life) I read an essay that I admired (ack, more cursed ADULATION...why is praise always considered insincere, while the blood sport of someone like William Logan is deemed "unrelentingly honest?" Must praise always be servile or hypocritical?)---Donald Hall's "Poetry and Ambition"---where, yes, he rails against the McPoem, crafted in the workshops of Hamburger University. He also acknowledges the need in America for a type of Parisien "salon," a place where writers come together and have artistic intercourse.(Please, god, more intercourse!) Hall says that the MFA does fill that sort of function for us geographically challenged. These blogs are also serve some of that purpose. I appreciate the mentorship; I'm not above it and it doesn't make me an adulationator.Vive le salon.

Anonymous said...

Of course writers should read!!! Reading widely (and not just one's contemporaries) is the best writing program. But now a MFA is a route to success, based on contacts made.
I don't mind praise, but the excessive, repetitive nature of it on this blog - well, it makes me want to gag. So I throw in a monkey wrench.
You know how, when someone wants to get in the good graces of somebody important, they praise them to the sky? What they say can be false to the core - just meant to score browny points. A LOT of that goes on in the literary world. Read an interview of an established writer by a young writer.
(There's more derogatory ways to describe this practice than "score browny points.")
I didn't make a Freudian slip, Lisa. It was a stab at humor. I wanted jrl to :lol:

zoe said...

I love it - adulationator! The best new word I've read in ages. And btw I am not trying to score brownie points. Sometimes people like things and express it. I'm not quite sure what a predominantly American website could do for my Scottish career - so I'm not trying to ingratiate. Believe it or not, I like JRLs writing, I find myself (gasp) thinking when I read the blog and I (generally) enjoy the cut and thrust of people's intelligent, considered opinions on here. That's why I read and sometimes comment. Of course an MFA isn't the only or necessarily the best way of becoming a writer, but there is something to be said for an organised mentored approach to craft. That doesn't mean it's a conspiracy.

rachel said...

At the risk of sounding like an "adulationator"...right now I'm regretting the fact that I let someone talk me out of applying to Cornell.

Thanks for the reminder of what it's all really about.

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