ATT’s Strong-Arm Tactics

Today I was surprised to come home for lunch and find the following error message when I tried to browse online:

Important Message                      NRCM

Your Internet access, including any VoIP services that utilize your Internet connection, has been temporarily suspended.
Please call us as soon as possible!

We have sent you a number of notifications about an important network upgrade to AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet service for your area.

You need to contact us to have your access restored and set up an appointment to have the necessary equipment installed in your home for the upgrade.

Please call 1.877.377.1686 at the times listed below:
8am – 7pm Local Time Monday through Friday    8am – 5pm Local Time Saturday    Closed on Sunday

It is important that we hear from you so that your current high speed Internet service is not disconnected on the date provided
in your notifications.

As you might expect, I was shocked and pretty PO’d at these strong-arm tactics. Yes. we’d received what we considered junk mail solicitations to switch to U-verse from our current DSL. This would mean a disruption in our service, figuring out a new wireless configuration in our home, and possible added cost with no benefit other than possibly faster internet speeds. (Note to ATT, maybe if you actually provided the internet speeds we pay for on a consistent basis, we’d believe your promise of faster speeds with U-verse). Like most junk mail, we ignored them. After all, we pay our bills, so why would they suspend our service?

It’s pretty reprehensible that they did. Yes, we were warned, though we never took the warnings that seriously, and in fact we had good reason not to. We called the number, and were told we needed our account number from our bill. Since we use auto-pay, we don’t get a bill. We couldn’t even access a recent email with that information. So the initial call ended in frustration. We had no internet and no way of providing the information we needed to restore it. We had done nothing wrong, yet our service was interrupted (not cancelled, of course).

Fortunately, when my wife, whose name is on the account, called back, the person she talked to that time was able to use her name and social security number to update the account. This operator also revealed that DSL service, which I had been told would be discontinued in our area, probably wouldn’t be discontinued for another year or two. We certainly have enough time to make our decision of whether we want to switch to U-verse or find another option. ATT’s tactics of turning off our service just to get us to call when there apparently isn’t a rush to make a decision don’t make us very happy customers. We’ve had consistent phone and broadband service at this address with BellSouth and then ATT for over 15 years. That’s no way to treat loyal customers, if you ask me.

We have two main issues with switching to U-verse. One is that we use internet constantly for work and for personal communication, so we don’t want an interruption (and really didn’t appreciate losing an hour out of our day to sort this out today!), so IF we decide to change our configuration, we’ll want to do it at a time when we won’t be using it heavily and when we can test out and deal with any incompatibilities that will undoubtedly arise. The other issue is cost. Yes, they make it sound like it will be cheaper, and for the first year it will be. But after that the charges go up, and there’s a $7 a month charge for a wifi router that we don’t want or need. Though we do need a modem or gateway for broadband, we have a wireless router that we’re happy with, so why should we be forced to use one provided by ATT? Yet ATT seems intent on either driving us away or forcing us to use their U-verse service. It may be time to investigate alternatives.

Are All MFA Grads the Same?

This is a follow-up post to my last one about what a Creative Writing MFA should do for you. In the wake of describing some of the goals for MUW’s new low-residency MFA, I’ve been thinking about that old saw that MFA programs have ruined literature. The idea, which has been around almost as long as there’ve been MFAs, usually gets stated something like this: ‘Because workshop classes act as peer pressure groups and the strongest voices (most dominant personalities, not necessarily the best writers) usually win, the writing coming out of MFA programs is all alike. Professors teach students how to write one way, stronger students bully the others, and the one way becomes the norm. What writers need to do instead is to read copiously and to develop their own individual style outside the influence of group-think.’

These prophets of doom usually seem to privilege a Romantic idea of literature, where the writer is conceived as an individual genius who distinguishes himself (and I use the masculine pronoun intentionally because often this argument has sexist overtones) by his unique style. Some of the best critiques of this argument remind us that the idea of individuality in literature or any art form is a Romantic trope that bears little resemblance to reality and that has a relatively short history. Any writer owes much, not only to the other ‘great writers’ of her tradition, but also to the many writers around her or him, who often go ignored in a concept of literature that only privileges the ‘greats.’ Maybe being unique is not what makes one great, in other words, but recognizing and acknowledging the multiplicity of voices in literature is a better model for understanding its means of production.

That’s not to say that most writers don’t want to stand out from the pack and be acknowledged at some level for the excellence of their craft. But we still might acknowledge the role the pack has had in our formation. In this case, one pack might well be the MFA program or MFA culture, and ‘making it’ as part of that culture is no less valuable than ‘making it on your own,’ which often seems to be the implied argument.

Nonetheless, whether we see the creation of great literature as the product of individual genius or of a communal effort, I’m still left wondering about the role the MFA program, as I’ve tried to describe it, might play. If the goals of an MFA are to provide breadth and depth to the writer’s experience, then it seems to me that the idea, summarized above, that the workshop will somehow homogenize American writing, is essentially flawed. The goal to the workshop should not be to make everyone sound alike, but rather to cultivate respect and understanding of difference. I learn more from working with writers whose writing is radically different than my own than I would by working with writers who write like me. I test my ideas against writers who are different — no one has to win, but each will change as a result. Perhaps my writing will move in the opposite direction of my colleague’s as I become more assured that my way of writing is right for me (and the other writer may have the same experience in her direction). Perhaps we will both learn from each other and adapt some qualities of the other writer’s style to our own, but it should always be an adaptation, not a pure appropriation. Rather than homogenizing American literature, the MFA experience ought to enrich it.

One need only look around at current writing to see that it is far from homogenous. If MFA programs have attempted to act as cookie cutter assembly lines stamping out perfect copies of their teachers, then they have been a miserable failure. But I seriously doubt that has ever been the overarching design of the MFA. To those who fear that their individual style might be stamped out by the MFA workshop, I would say that your writing will change (why would you pay for a degree if you didn’t want your education to have an effect on you?) and you should embrace that change, but not because it will make you just like everyone else, rather as an opportunity to explore common ground at the same time that you stake your claim to difference. Let the views of other writers challenge you to delve the depths of your own writing habits and styles. Make the difficult choices required to make your writing the best you can make it, but with the confidence that it will still be your writing. Only your writing will be tempered from the experience in the sense of making it purer and stronger by passing it through fire.

What can (should) a Creative Writing MFA do for you?

As many people will tell you, you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer. Many writers, even since the MFA became ubiquitous, have proven that point (not to mention the greats that somehow managed it before MFAs existed). So why bother (or pay for) getting a degree?

The traditional wisdom used to be that since the MFA is a terminal degree, if you had one, it meant you could always teach at the college level. But that hasn’t been a given for quite awhile. For one reason, the reality always has been that to teach you needed an MFA and significant publications to be considered for a teaching gig. And AWP continues to maintain that significant publication ought to be considered the equivalent of an MFA (though I don’t know that I buy that argument entirely—there is something about learning about academic discourse and research that happens in an MFA or PhD program that you don’t get from writing on your own—but that’s a discussion for another time).

So if an MFA in writing isn’t necessary to be a writer and may not be a guarantee of becoming one (no MFA program I know of is brash enough to claim that it will be), what does a writer gain from entering a program besides 3 letters after her or his name? That’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot as I read applications from prospective students for our new low-residency MFA program: not only “what can they expect,” but also “what do we owe them.” I’ve seen some very good writing samples in recent weeks, some of which could be published as is. What might they gain from our program?

Breadth

One way to think about the value of a creative writing degree is in terms of breadth. We all do some things well, but exposure to other writers, both the writers teaching in the program and the other student writers, can present you with new possibilities you might not have considered before. Responding to other writers whose style differs from yours can push you to think differently about your own writing, not necessarily to adopt the other writer’s style, but to try something in that direction.

And of course the readings in forms and literature classes can also expose writers to new possibilities that might extend the range of writing you do, whether that is new subject matter or a new genre — in our program we encourage students to work in more than one genre and students will be exposed to other genres in the mixed-genre residency workshops. So a students sense of the range of possibilities open to them ought to be broadened by the time they’re done.

Depth

Besides learning about more kinds of writing, an MFA program should help you become more intentional and thoughtful about the kind of writing you are most familiar with. Someone with good instincts still becomes a better writer the more he or she is conscious of the craft decisions to be made. Discussions in workshops and reading in forms classes should complicate and clarify our understanding of forms we work in. The goal is to dig deeper and get more out of the story or poem idea that might be ‘good enough’ to be published, but could be better or more rewarding (for the reader and for the writer). Ultimately, the experience of writing a thesis will present the student with the opportunity to explore a subject extensively, both in the creative writing portion and the research component. A thesis involves a defense, and the the creative thesis should still involve a reading list of other creative work in the same vein, as well as theory about the genre or genres represented in the thesis. Defending the thesis based on the tradition out of which it emerges requires a deep understanding.

Either of these qualities (breadth or depth) are ones you could learn on your own through extensive reading or by cultivating a writing community that challenges you to push further and explore more options. But it can be hard to find that community or to broaden your reading habits on your own. An academic program should have these features (extensive reading and a diverse community) built in.

Practical Knowledge

Another thing that most MFA students hope to get out of their experience (and that therefore ought to be provided as much as possible) is an entry into the writing life: specifically, networking and advice on how to become published. Though no program should promise publication — much depends on the talent and drive of the writer, after all — any MFA should be conscientious about providing its students with the information and tools they need to be successful writers, and these tools include advice and information on the publishing industry. Recently the argument has been made that no one can know what will happen to publishing in the near future. Changes in the industry are happening at a rapid pace: the publishing houses that have been dominant may or may not survive and the way that they do business may change radically. Still that is no reason to throw up our hands and say we can’t prepare students for the future.

When I was in graduate school, I would have laughed if someone had told me I would someday be teaching online. In fact, at that point, the world wide web as we know it did not yet exist. AOL was starting, there was Gopher and ftp, but html was only beginning to catch on. And yet, the graduate education that I received allowed me to adapt to a changing instructional environment, and in a similar way, the skills that we teach our students now about the publishing world as we know it today, will help them navigate the publishing world of tomorrow. And as we bring in speakers to talk about the current state of publishing, or as we help students and former students begin to get their feet in those doors, we will also learn more about how things are changing. I may not be able to predict what the world will be like in five to ten years, but I can give students the skills and the confidence to  be able to navigate those changes successfully.

Besides practical knowledge of the publishing world, though, students in an MFA program should gain practical knowledge of other writing-related careers, whether that is within publishing as publicists, agents, editors, etc. or in other fields such as technical writing, public relations, writing for the web, etc. These forms of writing shouldn’t be presented as a fall0back position in case you fail to ‘make it’ in the literary world, but rather as ways to combine literary writing with earning a living. We hope to accomplish this through internships, courses on new media, and seminars during full residencies that focus on publishing and other writing-related careers.

An MFA program, in other words, may not be able to guarantee a teaching career or a career as best-selling writer to all of its students (when was that ever the case?), but it should see one of its responsibilities to its students as giving them the knowledge and skills they will need to earn a living, as well as the knowledge of craft they will need to produce great literature. Too often these are presented as an either/or option, when in fact students and programs should demand both.

AAA: Epic fail

Note: I posted the following comments on the AAA Facebook page, but the way they have it set up, those comment posts don’t get broadcast beyond their page, so all the complaints and some accounts of good service don’t have much effect in social media. So I decided to post my account of last night’s fun with AAA here.

Our faith in AAA is shaken after last night’s epic fail. Dead battery in parking garage at Huntsville airport, so I tried calling AAA. First I was on hold for 7 minutes until my cell phone cut out, then my wife was on hold with them almost as long, until my mother-in-law called and got through. The operator promised service within the hour (!?!), but the operator said she’d put a rush on it.

Half an hour later, they called to say it would be another 45 minutes, so I stayed on the line to talk to a person. On hold for another 10 minutes. The guy explained that they had called two companies, since the first declined the job (after ten minutes). Later, the second service guy called to say he couldn’t get to the 3rd level of the garage in his truck, WHICH WE HAD TOLD THE OPERATOR initially! Why they sent a truck that couldn’t get to us is beyond me. He was going to try to get someone in a vehicle that could reach us.

I finally went back into the deserted airport (it was late at night), found someone who helped me call security, and they were able to jump the car and get us on our way, no thanks to AAA!

One bright note: we were able to cancel the service call without sitting on hold. Now, will it be as easy to cancel our membership? The snafu with the service contractors might be a fluke, but the long hold times on a Saturday night are extremely disappointing. What’s the point in having roadside assistance if you’re stuck on the side of the road listening to some of the most annoying hold music and a recorded voice continually thanking me for my patience, which ran out long, long ago.

Writing for New Media

Many things about The W’s new low-residency MFA in creative writing get me excited, especially communicating with prospective students, but lately the most exciting part has been putting together a fall schedule. That is still very much in flux and will depend on the needs and desires of the students who actually apply — as I’ve told our faculty, I have to have students for a class to make, and if we attract enough students, we’ll add classes to meet their needs. We have faculty lined up to teach fiction, poetry, and drama, so I’m excited to start teaching a new course in Writing for New Media.

This is a course that I proposed for the program because it seemed like it would fit a need. It will be cross-genre and will explore the way genres are adapting or can adapt in a new, electronic mode of production. I want to look at everything from e-books to hypertext and social media tools like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.  I want to explore how form changes or might adapt to the different media, and I want to look at how still photos and video can be used by authors, including short narrative films, poetry videos, book promo animations, and you name it: whatever writers are doing on the web might be part of this class!

The excitement I have is tempered just a little by the name I chose for the course, which is a bit of a compromise. I wish there were a better term for it than “New Media,” in other words. Some of what we discuss isn’t new at all (I might bring in some late-medieval emblems and talk about the use of image and poetry, for instance). And some of what we discuss will be obsolete within a few years (who knows how long Facebook or Instagram will last, for instance). Something newer will come along and everything will change or shift slightly. That’s one reason I do like the name, of course. Rather than naming what new media will entail, I leave it open to explore. But I do realize that it can lead to some confusion. I’ve had more than one person (prospective student or prospective faculty) ask what the class is about, and as I tell them, they usually get excited, too.

That’s in part because the course is meant to be one that encourages students to rethink genre and rethink how they will get their words out into the world. A genre-bending class can be very useful in any MFA. But the other part of the class that is exciting to me is that I want it to be as much about how writers make a name for themselves, how we “brand” ourselves, as it is about creating “great literature.” As I think about it, I’d like to include practical discussions of the marketplace in any graduate workshop, regardless of genre. But in Writing for New Media, I want to look at all writing on the same level, whether it is a poetry video or a book review blog or a book or reading promo animation. All can be creative means of expression, and all can lead to opportunities to publish. Some will be paid or will lead to paying gigs. A book promo could lead to other advertising jobs, maybe for non-profits or hip local companies.

I wanted to offer Writing for New Media this fall for a couple of reasons. One is that I want to figure out exactly what it will entail by teaching it once (even though I expect it to be the kind of class that never remains static but always evolves). Another reason to offer it is that I think it can be an exciting class for all of our students, regardless of their primary genre (if they have one). I’ve begun collecting resources on different kinds of media that are out there, and I’ll ask students to take an active role in finding the kinds of new media they are interested in. I especially like a class where the students teach me as much as I teach them (isn’t that always the goal), and I’m willing to make this class a very open format in that regard. It should be a great way to start our new program, and if all or most of our students end up taking the class, it will provide a good common experience for the inaugural class as well.

Letters of Recommendation for MFA in Creative Writing

Recently, after posting on this blog about the Letter of Intent and the Writing Sample, I received a question about who should write letters of recommendation for a program in creative writing. I thought it might make sense to elaborate on that answer here. Let me preface my comments by saying that I can only discuss how I will view letters of recommendation, so what someone else might think about it could be different!

Prospective students applying to The W’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing may face a bit of a challenge in this regard. I assume that many will have been out of college for awhile, so they may not be in touch with their undergraduate professors. Of course, my first advice is to get back in touch with them! Don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve been happy to write letters for students who I haven’t taught in as many as eight years! And I’ve had a pretty good track record writing letters for them. I always ask the former student to catch me up on his or her life after graduation, and I always ask to see a statement of purpose, so I can help them with that difficult task (see my previous post), and so I have a better idea of their plans. So be prepared to answer some questions from your former professors, but don’t be shy about asking us for our recommendations. That’s part of our jobs!

Still, it is good to include one or more letters from people who are familiar with your recent writing. So if your former professors can’t speak to your creative writing (or can’t do that effectively), what can you do? Choose people to write your letters who will be able to speak to your potential as a writer, a teacher, and a scholar. Having at least one recommender from an educational program you’ve been in does seem like a good idea because that person can discuss your strengths as a student and as a scholar, and can probably assess your potential as a teacher, which is especially important if you are interested in teaching as a graduate assistant. Also choose recommenders who can speak to your creative writing strengths (why not let your former professors read your recent writing if they’re unfamiliar with it) and/or who can discuss your potential as a scholar.

You are looking for people to recommend you who are well-known enough to pull some weight in the admissions decision, so choose someone who has academic credentials, if possible. Balance that against choosing recommenders who know you well and can represent you well in their letters. A famous writer who doesn’t really know you will write a worse letter than someone who isn’t well-known (but has some credentials like publication or teaching) who knows you and your writing/teaching well. Also, try to pick recommenders who write this type of recommendation frequently. They will know what to say and what tone to take. Again, someone in academics who knows your work is the best choice. If you can get one or two who are (also) creative writers with some publications to their name, even better. If you’ve been to any weekend or summer workshops or if you are part of a writing group, then maybe a published writer from one of those experiences would be willing to write a letter for you. Or if you’ve been published in a literary magazine and have developed a working relationship with one of the editors, then he or she might be willing to write for you. But don’t imagine a relationship where there is none. Your recommenders should know you fairly well.

However, I would recommend against getting letters of recommendation from family members, bosses, or friends, unless they can write impartially and unless they are involved in either education or writing as a profession. If you work for a school or newspaper, then your boss might be a good recommender; if you work at a pizza place, then probably not (unless your boss is also a published writer). Similarly, if you work at an independent bookstore or at a publishing company, then your boss might write a good letter about your writing and your work ethic, but do include at least one letter from someone in education, if at all possible.

Yes, a letter of recommendation should speak to your character, but more importantly, it should speak to your ability to succeed in a creative writing MFA program. Someone who has experienced you in a classroom or workshop setting will be better able to write that letter. And someone who has written other letters of recommendation for similar programs, or who has read similar letters for the program they teach in, will be in a position to write for you.

Will I throw out your application if your mother writes one of your letters? Probably not. But I may not take it as seriously as if you have more appropriate letters, and that isn’t because I don’t believe or trust your mother, but because I won’t have as much to go on, when making my decision.

Thoughts on the MFA Writing Sample: What are we looking for?

As I begin to review writing samples submitted for The W’s new low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve been thinking about what it is, exactly, that I hope to see in them, and how I will make my final decisions. The writing sample is the main ingredient of the application packet; everything else either confirms what I learn from the writing sample or rounds out the picture I have of the applicant and therefore helps me make my decision. That “everything else” primarily consists of things you have little control over because it has already been done or is based on what you’ve done: transcripts and letters of recommendation are pretty much out of your hands by this point—your letter of intent and writing sample are the only parts you control, so concentrate on them.

What should you include in your writing sample? Clearly, the obvious answer is “your best work,” but how do you decide? Send us the writing that you care the most about. Wouldn’t it be a drag to be admitted into a program on the strengths of your most polished piece of writing that doesn’t represent the kind of writer you really want to be? You might end up in a program whose values are very different from your own. On the other hand, if you send me the poem you wrote last night because it’s the one you love most right now (but tomorrow that may be different), chances are that poem will be too rough and won’t adequately represent your capabilities. So strike a balance: somewhere between the stories or poems that have been workshopped to death over the years (and are polished but not alive for you anymore) and the stories or poems that you wrote last week (that haven’t had a chance to really mature). This should result in work that represents you well, that is the kind of writing you want to continue to do, and that is work you’ve had a chance to fully explore and make as good as possible.

Quality is more important than quantity. As long as you meet the minimum requirements (10 pages), there’s no need to send more. If you’re writing poems: send me 10, though if you want to send 15, I won’t complain if the additional poems better represent your range as a poet. Don’t send more just to pad your writing sample (it will look weaker if it’s padded); send only your best poems. If you’re submitting prose: don’t send me 2 stories at 40 pages. Send me 1 story as long as it’s 10 or more pages. If you write flash fiction, send enough to get within the range and send your best, but there’s no reason to send more just to get close to 30 pages. I will thank you for giving me less to read. In 10-20 pages, I should have plenty to base my decision on, but some stories might go 30 pages. And if your absolute best story is 32 pages, I’ll consider it. But don’t send me many more than 30 if you can help it. (Send a novel excerpt, if that’s your best writing, and keep it at or under 30 pages).

When I read your writing sample I will look at it and give it a score (my grad council wants me to have a rubric, and though I’m not a huge fan of those for creative writing, I can work with that). Here’s what I’ll base that on. First, how publishable is it? I expect to see some writing samples that could be publishable already and some that are close. What I want to find are writing samples that show strong potential to be publishable. I want to see that applicants have taken care with their samples, and that they have a sense of what is being published today. I don’t really care a lot about what style you write in, at least not initially. I’m mostly looking for care with language, feeling for form, and attention to detail. Once I’ve found that in a piece of writing, then the style might begin to make a difference.

A second criterion will be: how appropriate is the sample for our program. Yes. We want you to send your best work that is also most appropriate for us. That’s a difficult task, and one you may not be able to have complete control over. You can try to get a good sense of what we do in our program and what we would want to see, of course. This will help you decide what to send and how to write your letter of intent. What you can’t predict (nor can we) is what other writers will send us. But that is one practical side of the admissions process. When accepting writers into the program, I need to be thinking long-term about what classes I’ll need to fill and what kind of balance and mix of writers I have in a program. You can’t predict whether I’ll have twice as many poets apply this year as fiction writers, so the competition in poetry might be stiffer. Nor can you know whether a couple of my nonfiction writers are graduating early, so I have extra space in that area (because my other nonfiction students will need some more people in their classes). I will likely consider both the writing sample and the letter of intent in deciding this, so describing what goals in the letter can also be important.

Besides these big picture kinds of criteria, I will also consider how polished and sophisticated the writing sample is. This is important because a writing sample that contains a lot of grammatical errors or that doesn’t show some understanding of the conventions of the genre you’re working in (even if you break them) might not go very far in the process. I would consider understanding the basics here to be absolutely vital for the successful applicant, but I would also hope that most everyone would have a very high score in this area. So the differences here may be small — if you do your work to send in a writing sample that is absolutely clean.

In then end, though, I hope you’ll remember that I don’t see my job as ‘weeding people out’ as much as it is ‘making a good selection.’ I’d like to let everyone into the program, but I also want to find a good group of writers who will work well together, and I’d like to let people enter the program when they seem ready for it. If I turn down an application, I don’t want to send the signal that the writer has no potential, but rather that the writer may not be a good fit for us right now. This may mean that the writer should explore other opportunities to improve his/her writing and apply again later, or it may mean that the writer should consider other programs that would be a better fit for the kind of writing he/she wants to do. Far be it from me, in other words, to judge someone’s value based on a 10-30 page writing sample! All I can do is work with what I know and make the best decisions I can, subjective and human as those will undoubtedly be.

And I hope, as long as the number of applicants remains manageable enough to make this possible, to engage each writer in a dialogue about their writing, to offer some encouragement, and to make the process more of a discussion than a decision.

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