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.

What to say in your Statement of Purpose? (for an MFA Creative Writing)

Okay, so you’ve decided to apply to an MFA program in creative writing, and you are saddled with the unenviable task of writing a “statement of purpose” or “letter of intent” as I decided to call it in our new low-residency MFA program‘s application requirements. You’re undoubtedly flummoxed, thinking what the heck do I say, and where do I begin?

This is a kind of writing we’re not used to doing, and it’s a difficult tightrope to walk between bragging about yourself (which of course you need to do, at least a little) and sounding like a blowhard and an egotist; between describing your past and your imagined future, and boring your audience to tears. And there’s a lot riding on this statement or letter. It has to represent you to someone you probably don’t know, whose decision may decide your fate.

So I get it; you’re nervous. So was I when I wrote my first truly awful first draft of a statement of purpose. I showed it to a kind professor, who told me it was terrible and gave me some advice on what to write. Here, after many years of giving similar advice to students applying to graduate programs, and as I contemplate the letters of intent I’m about to receive for our new program, is my best advice for how to proceed, if you’re applying to a program like ours.

Tell about your past

Keep it brief and to the point, but do give some information about where you’re coming from. Remember, that your main focus should always be to convince the program that you are ready to take on graduate work in creative writing. We don’t care that you’ve always loved to write (well, we do, but we kind of assume that), or that you only recently discovered your love of writing (if so, how ready are you for grad school?). What we really care about is how you’ve prepared yourself as a writer. That might mean discussing your English major and the kind of reading you like best (in and out of class). Or if you didn’t major in English in college, then you may want to say something about your major, why it led you to creative writing, and what kind of literature background you do have. Bear in mind that writers need to be avid readers, and that an MFA can be a qualification to teach literature. You’ll need to be able to pull your weight in a graduate literature class, so you need some background in literature, and you’ll need good research skills.

If you’re applying to my program, then I’ll see your transcripts eventually, but I’ll see your letter of intent first. We don’t ask for the full application until after we’ve evaluated your letter and writing sample, so we need to know something about your educational background up front. But we’ll get more detail when we see your transcripts.

Tell about your present

If you’re applying to grad school straight out of college, this may not be much different than telling about your educational background. But if you’ve been out of school for awhile, then I’d be interested to know what you’re doing now. Even if you’re in school now, tell some about recent accomplishments and activities. Since my program is a low-residency program, I expect that most students will be working or doing something while they’re in grad school. Let me know a little about what that is. Also, if you’ve published your writing recently, it’s good to let me know about that. I’m also curious about where people live (or plan to live when they’re in our program), since you don’t have to relocate to Columbus, MS.

Tell about your writing

If I could I’d make that heading double-bold, I would. The most important thing you can do in your statement of purpose is to give a clear and concise description of the kind of writing you do. This might mean listing some of your influences, or it might mean describing your style. You can talk about what you want to write, as well as what you have written. And by all means, tell me what genre(s) you’re interested in. Our program doesn’t require that you apply in one genre only, and cross-genre work is encouraged. But remember that I’m thinking about filling classes and putting people together who will work well together. Sure, I want to pick the best writers, but I also have to be pragmatic and pick a range or writers working in different genres and styles. Your writing sample will tell me a lot, but it is likely one piece or one genre, so here you can describe your interests as a writer. There is no ‘right’ answer here, so just be as honest and as clear about your writing as you can be.

Tell about our program

Okay, we know our program, so tell what interests you in our program. What makes you want want to spend a couple years of your life in it? Be honest, but also tailor what you say to the program you’re applying to. I tell my students all the time that it isn’t lying to say you want to do different things at different places. You’re just omitting the obvious part of the equation: “[If I’m accepted to your program], I want to do X” Chart out your life if it takes the path to the program you’re applying to. What makes you excited about that path? Tell me that. And be as specific as possible. Everyone wants to enter an MFA program to learn to write better. Why is this program the one where you can do that? Why does it meet your needs? Essentially, you want to show me that you know what you’re getting into. You want me to see that you can set realistic goals and goals that my program can fulfill.

Other things you might mention

There are lots of other details about yourself that might be useful to mention in a statement of purpose. They won’t be your main emphasis, probably, but could be worth including. Your family background could be interesting, especially if it relates to your writing goals. Certainly mention it if you have had publications or work experience in writing-related fields. Volunteer work, especially if it is related to writing or literature, can be an asset. And other work experience, especially if you write about it, is worth a mention. Give a little sense of who you are, in other words, but don’t feel like you have to give your life story. Include only the most important details that are relevant to your writing or your education.

How to write the statement/letter

So far I’ve concentrated on what to write in your statement of purpose or letter of intent. But what about how to write it? I’m looking for a somewhat formal letter (which is one reason I like calling it a letter of intent). It doesn’t have to sound as stiff as a formal business letter or an academic essay, but it should sound more formal than an email or post on social media. I don’t mind if sound excited (I might even like it, unless it feels like you’re overdoing it), but I do want to see your analytical writing skills on display. Your letter should be well organized, and it should contain no grammatical errors (or very few, but do your best to make it as perfect as possible). Your letter should be concise —don’t say in 10 words what could be said in 5.

But maybe the best advice I can give you is to relax and be yourself (or your slightly formal self). After all, I want to accept you into the program. I’m looking for the most exciting and interesting and competent writers I can find. Let me know who you are and what you write (and what your background is), and let me judge whether you seem like a good fit for the program.

How to make your statement/letter better

The best way to improve your statement is to revise it several times before you submit. If you’re a writer, that’s a rule you should live by for any writing. Even better than revising on your own is if you can let someone else read your letter and give you feedback. If possible, give it to someone who knows you and knows what a letter like this should include. I often ask students to let me see their statements of purpose or letters of intent if they want me to write a recommendation letter for them. I want to be able to give advice, but I also want to know what they’ve told the schools they’re applying to. That way, i can pitch my recommendation letter in a way the complements their letter. So don’t feel like you’re burdening your recommenders if you ask them to review your letter. You may be helping them to write a better letter for you!

Follow Up: Not to GRE

This is just a quick follow-up post to my previous one “To GRE or Not to GRE” — that was the question. And the answer is…

NOT!

Yesterday our Graduate Council voted to allow our new low-residency MFA in Creative Writing to remove the GRE as a requirement for admission. This was not without some gnashing of teeth, but the proposal was successful.

For our program, this moviemaker sense. We expect our applicants to have been out of college for awhile and to be out of a testing environment. The cost and the anxiety of taking a standardized test ($195 for the GRE now) might stop many in their tracks. The scores could have kept some applicants from being accepted into the program, though we weren’t planning to consider the scores in our decision (unless it was really necessary). Even other programs admitted that low GRE scores usually didn’t mean anything because other indicators were usually low as well. At best, the GRE might confirm what we already knew, but they rarely if ever helped a student whose GPA was already low. So why force applicants to take a difficult and expensive test that we wouldn’t use?

Of course, some programs are required to have an entrance exam like the GRE for accreditation. In creative writing, that isn’t the case. Some rely on the Analytical Writing section of the test. In creative writing, the writing sample is the main indicator of success. That combined with transcripts and letters of recommendation, plus the applicant’s letter of intent, all give more valuable information than the test. So I’m glad we’ve been allowed an exemption from the standard application requirements. And who knows, maybe more programs at The W will reconsider the test. I’ve talked to a couple that are considering it.

Good Poetry Week

Sometimes things go in cycles, and this week my poetry cycle must be on an upswing. First, I heard from The Texas Review that they are accepting 4 new poems, and then I heard from Louisiana Literature Press that the proofs of Down to the Dark River were ready for review. I have one poem in this anthology of Mississippi River poems, and felt blessed to see all the names of other poets I admire in the table of contents, several of whom I have been fortunate to meet over the years.

Then tonight, I had the good fortune to attend a reading by Terrance Hayes, who is arguably one of the best poets writing today. The reading was fabulous — Hayes made the reading comfortable and accessible, as if we were all just sitting around in a living room talking poetry, not in an auditorium. I loved that he talked syntax with he crowd of mostly students, and that he told about coming to poetry through art and basketball — a basketball scholarship took him to university, where he first studied art before landing on poetry — and that he counted rap and hip-hop artists, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and John Keats among his early influences. I’m sure he inspired more than a few people in the room to follow their creative bent.

All this reminds me how important it is to cultivate the good creative times when you can. Go to readings or other art shows. Write and follow your creative muse as far and as long as you can. Be around other writers whenever possible. Like any cycle, there will come times when you feel like you’re writing on your own or that the successes are few and far between. Let the momentum of the good weeks carry you through the dry times.

To GRE or Not to GRE

Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the creative writing program, was recently approved to offer a low-residency MFA in creative writing. As part of the approval process, I had to bring the proposal to our graduate council. Most of our programs require the GRE with the application, so when there was some initial resistance to doing without that score for creative writing, I said okay, let’s revisit that issue later (after the program was approved). That time appears to be now. We’re about to begin accepting applications, and I’m learning there are other programs that might want to do without the GRE requirement or make it optional. Of course, there will be some programs who want to require it, either because they believe it is a good predictor of success in their fields or because they want an additional measure to use in making a decision. I respect that, but I also have some issues with GRE. First, the test is expensive. That’s fine, if you’re planning to enter a field where the earning potential is secure. For a writing degree, it’s unclear how much the investment will pay out in added income (though it might pay off in less income in a more enjoyable profession for some of us!). If students are applying to a number of schools, then the cost of the test is spread out to more applications, though after the initial four schools (which must be named when you take the test), additional reports cost extra. So taking the GRE is a potential roadblock for some applicants, many of whom may not have the extra cash to cover the cost of the test and reporting to several schools, so they may either choose programs without the requirement or choose not to apply to graduate school in the first place. The test is expensive and intimidating, so why bother. This is especially true for low-income applicants, women and minorities, who also are less likely to do well on the test. If the test were a good predictor of success in the graduate school (for creative writing), then it might be justified. But it isn’t. The GRE doesn’t test for the skills our students need. The closest thing on the test that might apply would be the analytical writing section and the verbal reasoning section, but even these seem to have little to do with creativity. They might test student’s writing abilities, but I can judge that better from the writing sample and the student’s letter of intent. I can judge from letters of recommendation and transcripts whether an applicant has the potential to succeed in the program. There is no minimum required score for the GRE in our programs, so essentially we’re saying you have to pay ETS a fee to take a test, spend half a day taking a test, and we might not (probably won’t) care what score you make! Now for the programs it who do care, it might make sense to require this, but for our program it does not. I asked colleagues on the Creative Writing Pedagogy group (on Facebook) to see if I was missing something. The overwhelming consensus so far is that there’s no reason to use the test for creative writing, and that it’s dubious for other areas as well. The main issue is that it acts as a gateway, keeping women and minority groups out. Since these are audiences our program especially wants to target (we are Mississippi University for Women, after all), it would see counter-intuitive to put roadblocks in their way. I’ve heard rumblings from other areas that there’s discontent with the GRE, and the graduate programs are reevaluating our admissions process and policies, so now is an opportune moment to push for the removal of this requirement, which I’ve asked to be put on our agenda for next week. Wish me luck! And if anyone’s curious about how it goes, you can watch our admissions process on our website here. I will update it as soon as possible, if I get approval to do without the GRE.

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