Wednesday, January 6, 2010

MFA application time

At Cornell, we are just now digging in to the massive pile of first reads for next year's fiction MFA class. I'm not going to discuss how we make our decisions, but I can tell you that all previous volume records were broken this year--by a huge margin. And I suspect most other schools are experiencing a similar surge. Who wouldn't want to shield themselves from this economy, and live for a couple of years in their own imaginations?

Anyway, a few tips for those of you who are hoping to be accepted into an MFA writing program this year, to keep you from going too crazy. First, don't spend too much time on the MFA Weblog or other websites and forums--you will drive yourself bananas. Second, don't worry about getting your first choice. Really. If you're any good at all, you will do well wherever. Third, don't worry about not getting in anywhere. If you're any good at all, you will do well without doing it in school.

Yeah--easy for me to say. But it's true, and you all know it. MFA programs are great resources for inspiring writers, but you don't need us. You can be good without help--at least without the formalized assistance of an academic program.

When you get rejected, don't take it personally. How people react to your writing is entirely personal and idiosyncratic--we choose the students we think we want to work with, not the students whom we consider most likely to end up with a three-book deal at Knopf (if, in fact, such contracts even exist any more for literary writers). And so you are not being rejected by the establishment itself--you're being rejected, this time, by a handful of people who don't share your taste. If we don't want you, you probably don't want us, either.

If you get in somewhere, go read your future teachers' work. It's helpful for you to know where they're coming from--and it's helpful for your teachers to be able to refer to their own writing experiences and have you know what they're talking about. If you don't like your teachers' work, no problem--our advice, if we're doing our jobs, is not intended to make you write like us, but to make you write like yourself, only better.

Finally, you may feel, at some point along the way, that the whole world of writing is entirely insular, a tightly-knit community of snobs whose job is to hold back the deluge of wannabes and up-and-comers. Don't succumb to those feelings. Certainly there's as much nepotism, logrolling, and favoritism in publishing as in any other line of work, but the world of writing has little to do with that. The writing is the thing you can control--the publishing is a crapshoot. Focus on the former, no matter what news you get this month.

Good luck!

33 comments:

zoe said...

What, no Max?

Seriously though, good advice. Especially the if-we-don't-want-you-you-probably-don't-want-us point.

Just out of curiosity - how many people applied for how many places?

rmellis said...

Back in 1990, I was rejected by Cornell! And it was (stupidly) the only grad school I applied to.

I did Teach for America instead, and got about three lifetimes' worth of writing material out of it. Then went to a grad school that suited me much, much more (now that I know what Cornell's like, I see how wrong I was for it).

No hard feelings, rejecters!

Hope said...

After years of waffling, I have finally decided to apply to an MFA program. Partly, it was due to the latest issue of Poets & Writers, in which each and every "hot, new" poet has an MFA. But mostly, I think, it's for the networking and the structure and accountability around my writing. (Plus, assuming I get in, I can go for free because I work at a university.)

Are there any tips you can share that the applicant CAN control?

jrlennon said...

Hmm...well, for my part, keep your personal statement short and simple, without any fancy writing in it--don't try to be clever, it just comes off as insecurity. And don't make any big pretentious statements about what writing is.

That said, other people probably like those things. And I'd bet most readers don't even glance at the personal statement until the final rounds.

So what it comes down to is the work. That's all that really matters. Put all your energy into that and don't spend even a second worrying about the other crap.

ed skoog said...

As one of the poets mentioned in the Poets & Writers article who has an mfa, I have to say that most of my education of a poet started after the degree, at 1) in the stacks of Open Books, the poetry-only bookstore in Seattle, and 2) teaching high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, starting when I was 29 years old, which was the first place I felt taken seriously, which helped me take my work seriously (not myself, still, not yet).

So, the MFA was fine, fun, but not terribly important in my own development as a poet. I should have considered other alternatives: professional school, which would have been remunerative and given me financial freedom (becoming a writer is like burning down your house); staying in my hometown/state and reading and writing with the support and kindness of family and friends and whatever job I could find; moving to New York or San Francisco or Chicago or Los Angeles or London or Berlin or Shanghai etc and committing to city life; working for newspapers (which many college friends did, happily at first, panicky lately); following a more scholarly, academic path in languages and literature and criticism; taking Milton's advice and gone off and live in a cave and drink water and write cleanly.

Best book I've read lately about becoming a poet is W.S. Merwin's "The Lays of Ventadorn," which never talks directly about his own development as a poet, but is about nothing else.

jon said...

I don't have an MFA and have no regrets, though at this point a teaching job would be a lot better than what the alternatives have been over the years. I like what Ed said about getting a professional degree of some sort, especially for a poet. poetry doesn't take a lot of time per se, the way fiction does. It just takes an unbelievable amount of reading and short bouts of concentration. The MFA does teach you about all kinds of things in the writing business that wallowing around out there does not. oh yes, the water and the cave sound good too.

Sung said...

It's all good advice, but man, it hurts. It hurts when they say no. I know it's nothing personal, entirely subjective, blah blah blah, but those words -- no...we regret...best of luck elsewhere -- it's like getting your heart carved out with a rusty knife.

So for anyone who does apply and is rejected (I was rejected by Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Columbia!), you have my sympathies. Keep writing and keep trying.

jrlennon said...

Getting rejected is THE signature experience of having a writing career...

rmellis said...

It IS the signature experience, and you have to figure out a way to deal with it. I recommend making voodoo dolls of your rejectors and putting them in the wood stove. Feels AWESOME.

zoe said...

Ha ha. Like it Rhian.

It's so hard to get knocked back though isn't it? I say to myself, "of course, nothing will come of this," when I press send, but at the same time I'm thinking, "maybe, maybe, maybe".

I'm not at all cut out for rejection, but there's nothing else I'd rather do. Write that it, not get rejected.

rmellis said...

Yes, rejection is terrible, and I won't pretend for a minute I like it or am brave about it. When I was rejected from Cornell, I was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant and living in a single room without a kitchen. I made oatmeal in a hot pot and got the rest of my meals from what was left over at work. I remember hanging up the phone after my mom told me about the rejection (had it sent to my parents, since I didn't have a mailbox, either) and crying too hard to eat the salad I'd scored from work.

I remember crawling into bed in the middle of the afternoon after being rejected by an agent who liked my book, but...

Argh. Rejection sux.

Mark said...

Hey Ed,

You forgot to mention that the MFA is good for finding a spouse. The best reason to get an MFA I think is that you will almost certainly meet people you like. And then for two years you just get to fuck around with them.

Nancy said...

I was inspired by what Ed Skoog said, and he is definitely someone to listen you.

On a personal level, the best education I ever received was when I was a mature student.

I am convinced that artists do better by studying any subject other than writing.

Honor your art and make a living to support it.

Wallace Stevens was an insurance broker, and I think he studied Philosophy...

jon said...

"I am convinced that artists do better by studying any subject other than writing." Bravo.
my inability to take rejection with even many grains of salt and a shot of tequila depresses me as much as the rejection, almost. I say almost because not even dental pain equals it. there must be something wrong with writers. maybe we are like dogs, eternal optimists. but i find that hard to believe.

zoe said...

There has to be something *wrong* with a group of people who keep working away on something so personal and hard won with the constantly reinforced notion that there is very little chance much will happen with it eventually.

I know that I'm meant to say that it's all about the writing and if it gets published then that's just an added extra, but, ffs, I can make things up in my head anytime I want.

I'm writing for someone other than myself to read it and (sharp intake of breath) like it.

Hope said...

My brother is an actor and that is an even tougher racket than writing, IMHO.

Regarding the MFA, though, I wonder ... is it a prerequisite for getting published at all? At least, for those of us born after, say, 1960 or so ...

jrlennon said...

I don't think it is, but it sure helps. I suspect it's not that the letters "MFA" confer legitimacy so much as that it puts you in the network of people who know other people. "Oh hey, this was Bob's student, I should give this a look." Or, "Hey, Betsy, do you have any friends who are working on a novel?" It's a convenient short cut for editors who are deluged with far, far, far more manuscripts than they can possibly read, and the first wave is often just passing through an assistant who is half your age.

There's nothing sinister going on, but I do think it tends to work out this way.

ed skoog said...

Maybe so, John, but as publishing is changing so quickly, I think the MFA may shelter young writers from the more interesting and important developments, and what meaning is there to connections to magazines and publishers when the magazines and publishers disappear?

jrlennon said...

Could be, could be. We should then be starting magazines instead of trying to make connections with them?

I recall you having a fairly good time at Montana, though, Ed. With us fiction writers, anyway!

jon said...

i used to think it all depended on what kind of writer you are, but at this point every flavor of writing is taught somewhere. the unaffiliated writer or freelance intellectual still exists, but there are fewer and fewer opportunities in print. the web is wide open, You guys didn't need MFAs to do what you're doing here, but what you're doing here doesn't feed the chickens.

rmellis said...

I certainly don't need a degree to run the cash register at ye old book shoppe. In fact, it's a liability -- I went to school with some of the people whose books I'm supposed to be selling. Conflict of interest!

If I hadn't gone, I'm not sure I'd have published a book, though. Writing's hard for me, and it helped to have those years, those people, that guidance.

But who knows? Maybe I'd have found a different way into it.

Diana Holquist said...

I know several published writer friends who are rushing for MFA's so that they can teach. They're mostly folks who have lost day jobs. They see an MFA as a way into academia, not a way to learn to write--although that may be a nice bonus. Not a bad strategy in today's market (although I can't imagine the debt they'll accrue to get their creds...)

christianbauman said...

Diana, that's a really good point, and not a minor one. Eventually, most of us have to make a living. What is it, 2% of published novelists can make their living off of only their books? My advances and occasional royalties were nice and needed, but hardly floated the family. So if you have to make a living, teaching is one appealing way of doing it. You're surrounded by other writers, you get your summers off, etc etc. (Am I correct in my assumptions, JRL?)

But here's a funny thing: I have 3 published novels from two different respected houses, have work in 4 anthologies published by major houses, had a stint writing essays for NPR...but I could not get a job teaching undergraduate or graduate if I wanted one. I'm not qualified. Because I don't have an MFA. An unpublished MFA is considered qualified.

Now in my case, that's okay. I'm one of the few who really doesn't care to teach...I barely made it out of high school, didn't go to college (let alone an MFA program)...I just don't get along with an academic setting. It's not for me.

But it would be a shame if I did want to teach. I wouldn't be allowed to do it. (Only caveat to this would be if perhaps my name was so well known that it was a draw to the school, so they might hire me anyway. Not a fear, in my case.)

What I do for a living is much more suited to my brain's wiring.

But if you're a writer and have an academic bent, you might want to consider an MFA for that reason alone...possibilities of employment down the road.

Mr. Lennon, am I off with this at all?

ed skoog said...

You're right John and Mark. I loved Montana and the program. Heck, I married it. No regrets for going to Montana for my MFA. I fished a lot. I fell in love, I found my best friends. I learned up good in poetry and was challenged in the workshops. (And as much or more on the fiction side.)

But my real development as a writer and reader came after (if only because I was so young when I went for my mfa) -- but, crucially, it was still in the context of my friends (you, rhian, etc) that I have written--first readers, intended audience--and read (recommendations, keeping up with the conversation, surprise, delight).

Speaking of which: have you guys read _I Served the King of England" by Bohumil Hrabal?

Hope said...

I have to respond to Christian -- I agree that it's ridiculous that professional experience doesn't qualify a writer to teach. I had a dual BA in Magazine Journalism and English from SU, more then ten years of experience as a journalist, and had published poems and short stories in fairly respectable litmags, and I could not even teach a writing workshop at the community college. Does an unpublished 20-something with a new MFA have a lot more to offer a classroom? Yes, I am diving into the MFA world at the ripe old age of 45 because maybe I do want a crack at teaching someday, and I know I can't without it. Unless, as Christian said, I publish something so sexy and Oprah-worthy that schools are clamoring for me. Hah!

rmellis said...

It's true that academia wants a degree -- I guess since it's in the business of giving them, it has a bias...

But an unpublished MFA, even with teaching experience, wouldn't be able to get anything but a crap adjunct job teaching freshman comp, paid by the credit hour, no benefits. That's all I'd be able to get, and I have a book and a couple years of experience.

Hope said...

That's true, Rhian. It's insanely competitive. There's a woman working in my office as an administrative assistant who's won prestigious poetry awards, had fabulous publications, and racked up great teaching experience. And she can't get an adjunct job here.

jrlennon said...

There's nothing controversial about needing a graduate degree to teach at a college. You have to prove your investment in the system--academia is a subject in and of itself.

We have occasionally had guest stints from writers who don't have graduate degrees--especially if they have proven themselves to be working at the top of their field. They are often superb teachers. But tenure track jobs go to people who have been in the system and are willing to administrate as well as teach.

You can get teaching jobs without a degree, but they are usually adjunct or, at best, lecturer gigs. These can be great jobs, but often they are not.

I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it is fair, considering what an academic job actually consists of. To complain about this is like the atheist getting turned away at the pearly gates: "But I'm a nice guy!!" It's not enough, you need to kneel down and pay your respects to The Man.

Personally, I don't mind this, but it isn't for everyone.

jrlennon said...

And I should add that an unpublished MFA has no chance of a decent job, either. The published writer without a degree is more qualified, but only up to a point.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I Served the King of England is wonderful, but have you read Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude? That's a perfect book.

jrlennon said...

I haven't even heard of Hrabal...another good rec from Ed. I will check it out, you guys.

christianbauman said...

Yeah, to be clear: I wasn't slamming the policy (not that it's a "policy," but you know what I mean). Just making a statement on the reality of the situation: if you DO want to teach, you should get the MFA.

ed skoog said...

Arrggh. But that's what so ridiculous. The only point should be writing. Writing writing writing. Teaching is like this whole other thing, speaking as a teacher.