A Few Do’s for the MFA Applicant

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things). That title was a little tongue in cheek because I’m not a big fan of numbered lists (since there’s no magic number), but they were some good things to at least consider before embarking on an MFA. I thought it would be good to follow up A Few Don’ts with a few things to do, and revisiting that list is a good place to start.

  • Read literary magazines both so you can get a sense of the many kinds of writing that is out there and to begin to get a sense of the many places your writing might land. It’s a little daunting to see how much good writing exists, and it’s exciting to see how many people, programs, and organizations are busy publishing that good writing.
  • Submit your work, get rejected, maybe even get published. If you can’t handle the pain of having a magazine not love your poem, story, or essay, then you won’t be ready to handle rejection by an MFA program. Odds are, some program will turn you down; and odds are, if you apply to enough of the right programs (for you), one or more will accept you when you’re ready.
  • Learn about the business side of writing. Yes, a good MFA program should be the place where you learn more about how to make it as a writer, but the truth is, most programs focus more on your writing than on the business side of things. That’s because here’s no one right way to go about making your life as a writer, so we can present you some options, but ultimately it will be up to you. Why wait until you get in a program to start that journey? Inform yourself about the practical side of your chosen career by reading Poets & Writers and books like Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer or Stephanie Vanderslice’s The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, two great resources that didn’t exist when I wrote the original post.
  • Research the programs you want to apply to. Don’t just apply to the top-rated schools (and don’t give up on them either). Find the programs that seem right for you! Those should be programs that will support the kind of writer you think you want to be and programs with a culture that fits the kind of person you are. Consider fully- or partially-funded programs, and consider low-residency programs that allow you to work your way through your degree on your own terms. Depending on where you are in life, one might be the better option for you.
  • Make a financial plan. This doesn’t have to be super formal or complicated, but it also should be realistic. Consider how much your MFA could cost and how much you have saved or can earn while you’re in school. Yes, you can consider taking on (more) student loan debt, but don’t bury yourself in debt to get an MFA. There ought to be ways to earn your degree and keep your debt load to a minimum. If you already have a lot of student loans from college, you may need to consider paying them down somewhat before starting another degree. Talk to your loan counselor, so you know what your options are. And try not to live above your means while you’re a graduate student. You shouldn’t starve, but you aslo may need to live simply. Know what you’re getting into.
  • Consider whether you really need an MFA. Might there be other opportunities for you to grow as a writer through writer’s colonies, summer workshops, residencies, local writer’s clubs? I believe in the value of a good MFA program, but I also realize that for some writers it may not be the only or the best way to obtain your goals. No writer has to have an MFA, but many have benefitted from earning one. If you do your research and decide it’s right for you, and if you find the right programs for you, then you will be happy with your decision and your application will be stronger.
  • Write, read, and write some more. Don’t wait until you’re in an MFA program to get serious about writing. Write right now, and read, read, read, so you’re informed in your writing. And write and read what you enjoy. Find a community of writers where you are and get involved. You’ll be preparing all the skills that will make you a successful member of your MFA community, should you decide to apply.
  • Take time for yourself. Walk the dog, pet the cat or feed your goat. Fall in love (or not). Live your life, and let the MFA application be one part of that, but don’t let it become an all-consuming part. It will happen (or not) and you will be happier with your choice if the rest of your life is also happening when it does, though life can get complicated—that also keeps it interesting and maybe good material for writing.

A Few Don’ts for the MFA Applicant

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when college seniors and graduates planning to go to grad school start thinking about their applications in earnest. I’ve written a fair amount about the process and even compiled some of my best advice in a Guide for Applicants for my MFA program in Creative Writing that I hope is helpful for anyone. I even compiled a list of things I think you ought to do before applying for an MFA program. Recently, as I was going through some old emails and cleaning up my office, I decided it might be good to add a list of things to avoid when applying. These may not get you into the program you most want to go to, but they might help you avoid giving the wrong first impression. So here they are, in no particular order.

  • Don’t apply to grad school because you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your life. Realistically, many people do this, and sometimes it turns out for the best. But you risk wasting time and money on an education that you won’t use, so it’s better to figure out realistic goals for your education, and especially when applying for a creative writing degree, to have Plan B. In other words, if you’re going to grad school just to avoid getting a job, then figure out how going to grad school will help you get a better job when you’re finished. Or consider taking a year or two off after college to work in a job (that doesn’t have to be your career) and figure out what your goals really are. Why is this important for your application? Grad programs make an investment in you; even if they don’t provide a scholarship, they give more than you pay in tuition, trust me. They want to admit students with clear goals who will stick with it throughout their degree program.
  • Don’t apply only to the top-ranked programs. I tell this to my undergraduate students all the time. Pick the programs that seem like the best fit for you! It’s fine if some are highly ranked, but you need to remember that the odds of getting in are stacked against you (just because they receive so many applicants, many of which could be as great as you are, and they only have a few spots). There are great programs that may be a better fit for you, so do your research and find a good range of programs. You will be happy if you have two or three programs to choose from at the end of the application process! You may be happy if you have one school to choose from! But you won’t be happy if you apply to one or two highly competitive schools and don’t get in. If that happens, though, then learn your lesson and apply to a wider range the next time — it doesn’t mean you can’t write, only that you didn’t find the right program for you.
  •  Don’t wait until you apply to ask for letters of recommendation. Your recommenders will appreciate some advance notice, and they’ll be able to write a much better letter for you and get it in by the deadline. Contact your prospective recommenders as soon as you decide you’re going to apply. Ask them politely if they would be willing to write for you. Esp. if it’s been awhile since you had them as a professor or worked with them, it is a good idea to say something nice about your experience as a reminder and to fill them in on what you’ve been doing since you saw them last. Give them a list of the programs you’ll apply to and the deadlines. Getting your letters in on time can help your application a lot, so it’s up to you to give your recommenders everything they need to make that happen.
  • Don’t send a writing sample that is too long or too short. I’ve seen writing samples that definitely seemed padded and others that really needed more material. Either error can be a deal breaker. Length is fairly subjective, though, so how do you know what is too much or too little? First, follow the guidelines for each program! Ours states that you should send 10-30 pages. 10 pages is for poets or flash fiction writers. You can probably show a good range of work in short genres in 10-15 pages, so there’s no need to strive for 30. Fiction writers may feel that 30 pages doesn’t give them enough room to work with, and though I’m willing to entertain 31-33 pages if it seems necessary, I don’t have time to read your full novel. I tell prose writers to send me one or two pieces. If your stories or essays are short enough, you could send two or three if that shows the range of work that you’re doing. But I’d rather see one 15-page story than two, unless the second really adds depth to your portfolio. Either the first one is going to be best, so why give me another that is a let-down? Or the second is best, in which case you may have lost me before I got there. Send your strongest work and send a good selection (esp. of short work) that represents the kind of writer you are. But don’t send more just because you can.
  • Don’t use non-standard fonts. Trying to reach the minimum page count? Don’t do it by increasing your font size. Trying to keep within the maximum? Don’t make your font tiny. You want me to be able to read it! And don’t use a funky font unless you’re a poet and there’s a reason for it. For prose and most poetry, 12 point Times New Roman is a good standard font and size. Don’t stray to far from this golden mean.
  • Don’t make your letter or statement of purpose too long or too short. I’m more than happy to read a 2-page letter, but probably don’t want to read much more than that. On the other hand, a letter that is less than a page shows that you haven’t put a lot of thought into your application. You do want to tell some about who you are, but you don’t have to describe your full résumé (especially if you’re allowed to include one with your application. Hit the high points and give more personal detail in your letter than in the résumé. You should also indicate why you’re interested in the program you’re applying to and what your goals are for the program and for your writing career.
  • Don’t be too informal in your letter and in your follow-up correspondence. An MFA is a professional degree, so you should act professionally. Yes, it is also an art degree, so you don’t have to go all corporate on us, but we do like to be treated with respect. If the director of a program uses their full name, don’t address them with a nickname unless you know them personally and know they don’t mind. Using a salutation, like Dear X or Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X is wise, even in an email. Treat the initial email like a business letter and subsequent emails like professional emails. You might drop the salutation in your follow-up replies, but generally follow the other person’s lead. Remember, there is a difference between emailing with your friends and emailing for work or school. Keep the tone of your email professional as well. Every piece of writing you send a program makes an impression. Make it a good one!
  • Don’t ask the program to tell you whether you have talent or not. If you apply to the program and they accept you, then you can assume they think you have potential. If you apply and they don’t accept you, then you can assume you weren’t the best fit for that program (or just weren’t lucky), but it doesn’t mean anything about your level of talent.
  • Don’t expect a decision overnight. MFA programs follow their own schedules, and admissions committees and program directors lead busy lives when they aren’t reading your writing sample. Some programs may wait until after their deadline to begin reviewing applications. Some work with a committee. It can take weeks or even months for a program to make a decision (see the program’s website for information on their process). Patience is a virtue, though it can feel like torture. To relieve the stress and maybe gain some insight in to your program’s decision-making schedule, consider joining the MFA Draft group on Facebook, where people post their experiences and whether they have been accepted, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you’re unsure how to apply or whether your application was received, a polite query is perfectly fine. If you have a problem submitting your application or paying your fee, someone will be able to help. But no one will likely help you if you don’t ask them first. Peppering the program with questions is probably not a good strategy, but neither is maintaining complete silence during the application process. You don’t have to ask questions if you don’t have anything to ask about, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated either. We are humans. We understand, and we’d rather fix something if it isn’t working right than let people become frustrated.

I’m sure there is more advice I could give, but for now, this is a pretty good list of things to avoid and a few things to do when you you are applying for MFA programs in creative writing.

What’s fun in Peru?

Okay, the answer to that question is probably just about everything. Peru is a fabulous country with excellent food. I don’t think we had a bad meal — and we’re vegetarians. Peru’s cuisine is fairly meat-heavy, but there were a lot of vegetarian choices at regular restaurants and even vegan or vegetarian places in most places. (We were careful to eat in restaurants where we knew the hygiene would be good, which was most restaurants, but not much street food. And we were careful about the water we drank.) There are lots of things to do, from the musical fountain park in Lima, to museums, to natural beauty. We barely touched the surface, but we felt like we saw a lot.

Naturally, one of the high points was Machu Picchu. For me it was great to see the place I’ve often taught about when I cover Pablo Neruda’s poem. We went with a guide in the morning, and he gave us a lot of cultural background about the history of the city and of the Incas. Since we were traveling with a group of students from our university, our guide was affiliated with International Studies Abroad, who organized the trip. We were with him for a couple of days and had a great relationship. He even led some of us on a hike up to Machu Picchu from the valley in the morning, and in the afternoon, we were free to hike around on our own, so Aidan and I went to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.

Nonetheless, as impressive as Machu Picchu is, it still feels a bit touristy. There were a lot of other tourists around, in other words, and it’s the main site most people going to Peru see. I wouldn’t miss it, but if you can, you should go further afield.

DSCN8955We toured the Sacred Valley on the way to and from Machu Picchu, which was also great. And we got to stay a Sunday in Cuzco, where we witnessed the local festival. There were many groups marching either in military uniforms, school uniforms, or traditional costumes. There were marching bands and traditional musicians. And the festival seemed to go on most of the morning and well into the afternoon, even in the rain. We also went to the local market and a couple of museums, and though there were tourists, we felt the locals outnumbered us by a lot, instead of the other way around.

After Cuzco, our group took a charter bus down to Puno province, where we had three nights in two home stays in local villages. There we were treated to fabulous local cooking, hikes with the president of the village to see vistas of Lake Titicaca, traditional fishing (both setting out the nets in the evening and hauling them in in the morning). And we got to experience cold nights and an incredible view of winter the night sky, and sleeping in an unheated farmhouse with enough alpaca blankets to keep us warm. Oh yes, and no hot water for most of our stay, but a cold shower was okay for Aidan and I (and some of our group did take advantage of one shower with a solar water heater).

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We visited floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca, and a couple of our students took part in a traditional ‘wedding’ (they played bride and groom, and I got to be father of the bride at one point).

Back in Lima, our family said goodbye to the students and stayed on for another week to explore on our own. We experienced more museums, long walks in the city, and even braving the private bus system. (It helped that Aidan is confident enough in his Spanish that he could help figure out some of the routes.) We even got to watch Peru in their first World Cup Soccer match since 1982, and we got to watch the celebrations (despite the fact that they lost that match).

If you’re headed to Peru (or anywhere), I highly recommend getting away from the main tourist areas if you can. We loved going to the neighborhood bakery (and finding a Belgian fry stand with vegetarian burger wraps) as much as we loved any of the sites. Wandering the streets was as much fun as any of the museums we went to (though I would highly recommend the art museum and the Larco Museum in Lima). And even the day we wanted to go to an archeological site in the city but found out it was closed turned out great: we visited a large public olive grove, got lunch (and watched some World Cup), and walked around Miraflores. Sightseeing can be great, and it’s good to have an agenda, but it’s also great to let go of the plan now and then, wander through a market or just walk around the neighborhoods.

What have I been up to?

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I sometimes go awhile without posting. There are periods when I get busy and don’t have time to write (here). So what is it that’s kept me away from blogging this spring and summer? Some pretty cool stuff, actually…

  1. This spring I applied for and was promoted to chair of my department. That won’t officially take effect until August 1, but planning and preparation took a good chunk of my time once the application process was over.
  2. Along those lines, I was chair of a search committee for a tenure-track position in creative writing in our low-res MFA program (and undergrad program). That process took all spring semester, and since we were given the go-ahead to hire a second tenure-track faculty member from the same search, even extended beyond the semester.
  3. Speaking of the MFA program, this spring I was director of 3 theses, 2 of which were defended in June. (1 will continue writing this fall.) This was in addition to my usual class load and an extra short-residency class at AWP.
  4. Besides directing 3 theses, I also served on 3 more thesis committees. That meant I had students who defended their theses in June, so one thing I’ve been doing was reading those amazing book manuscripts. We’re proud of our new MFAs!
  5. Outside of work, this spring was college audition and visit time for our son, so we had extra travel days to take him to prospective schools. We’re extremely happy with his final choice, and the visits to schools he didn’t decide to attend were all part of the decision process.
  6. Besides choosing a college, of course our son also had to work hard to finish his high school career, prepare a senior recital, and play in All-State orchestra and the North Mississippi Youth Symphony. And as proud parents, we wanted to be there for it all, only I had to miss All-State because…
  7. We discovered that our foster puppy had actually not been spayed, when she went into heat. That meant figuring out how to care for her and being at home a little more for a few weeks (no kennel stays for her!), then eventually taking her in to be spayed and staying with her as she recovered. Not labor intensive, but also a little out of the ordinary. Everything went well, and we even found her a permanent home!
  8. As summer approached and once our son had graduated (and family visited for the celebration), I welcomed 15 MFA students to campus for their Full Residency, an intense 9 days of workshops, readings, seminars, and thesis defenses.
  9. Once the residency was over, I joined my wife and son in Lima, Peru, where Kim was helping to lead a study-abroad trip. I got to join them as they journeyed to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, and we stayed behind in Lima for a week on our own. All-in-all, a magical experience.
  10. After a few days back in the US, we traveled again to Iowa to see my mother, my niece, and her family (including her 2-month-old). That was a relaxing time, filled with family, good food, celebrations (it was July 4, after all), and World Cup soccer viewing.

Now that we are back and it is summer, I’m hoping to find a little more time and a few things to write about to revive this blog. Though serving as chair will mean I’ll likely stay very busy in the fall, I hope it will also give me plenty of ideas to write about. And I’m hoping to find a few spare moments here and there to work on the blog. Let’s see how I do with that! Certainly, I can make some time this summer, and maybe come back wtih more details on a few of the things mentioned above.

A Writer’s Craft makes Poets & Writers

Untitled-2.inddOkay, I’ll admit it. Sometimes I search on my name or the title of one of my books. It’s not just vanity. Some days it can be useful to see what’s online about me or my work, and today was one of those days. Since I’d given away some exam copies of A Writer’s Craft at the AWP conference in Tampa, I thought I’d see if anyone had posted about it without my knowing. Instead, I found that Poets & Writers had included it in their list of Best Books for Writers, along with a short review that begins: “Either as an introduction or as a refresher, A Writer’s Craft serves as a straightforward guide to the broad world of creative writing.”

Here’s how Poets & Writers describes the list: “From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.” I feel humbled and honored to have been added to such a prestigious list, and I’m very grateful for their positive review!

Twitter for Mac, a 2-App Approach

I’ve been a fan of the Twitter app for Mac since I started using Twitter several years ago, so I was sad to see it discontinued. What I liked about it was that it was very streamlined, yet gave me the information I wanted. I’ve gotten used to seeing my notifications for all my Twitter accounts, and knowing what had been liked or retweeted. I was also used to managing these accounts in a single small window, which worked well on my laptop with minimal screen real estate. I also liked that the app was free. So as you might guess, I haven’t found a good alternative yet.

Tweetdeck is the most logical replacement, since it is also free. But my first reaction to it was negative — the number of columns quickly got overwhelming, and I didn’t see a good way to manage my multiple accounts (which seems odd, since that’s supposed to be its strong suit). I’m logged in with my main account, and all my other accounts get associated with that, so I can tweet easily from any account. But if I want to see all of their home streams, for instance, then I have to create several columns, and those aren’t easy to tell apart unless I look at the top of the column — on the icon bar to the left, I just see a number of identical icons for the type of stream I’m viewing.

So, I tried Twitterific, which was reviewed highly in the TidBits newsletter. I like the look of Twitterific, and it does many of the things the Twitter app did. I can switch between accounts more easily than I can in Tweetdeck, for instance. And for each account, I can quickly view the Home feed, Mentions, Messages, Likes, Lists, and Searches. This is all great, but I have a few quibbles — the Likes stream shows me the tweets I’ve liked, for instance, but there isn’t a quick way to see which of my tweets have been liked or retweeted (unless my account was quoted or replied to in the tweet, when it would show up in Mentions). Twitterific also doesn’t allow me to see what I’ve recently tweeted.

So I decided to go back to Tweetdeck to deal with these issues. In Tweetdeck, I set up a column for each of my accounts that has Notifications (likes by others, retweets, and new followers). I also set up a column for each of my accounts that has the User stream. This way, I can view all of this information in one place by opening Tweetdeck, but by removing all the other columns, it isn’t so overwhelming.

I’ll use Twitterific for reading my Twitter Feeds, checking my mentions, managing my lists, checking messages, and seeing what I’ve liked. But I’ll switch to Tweetdeck to see what Notifications I’ve received and what I’ve tweeted (and whether those tweets have been liked, etc.). This 2-app solution ought to do almost everything I’m used to doing.

So far, I haven’t checked out the third recommended app in the Tidbits article, Tweetbot. Maybe it would do everything, but from what I could gather from the article, it would probably leave some things out as well. So for now, I’ll try these two and then decide if I want to check out Tweetbot, too.

Of course, Twitterific costs $7.99 (discounted right now form $19.99) and Tweetbot costs $4.99 (down from $10 it seems), so replacing the Twitter app isn’t free unless you can get everything you need from Tweetdeck. If I had a huge monitor or fewer accounts to follow, then Twitterific might be enough for me, but as it is, it will take more than one app to replace my old Twitter app on a Mac.

A Fitting Finale to #AWP18

What a great experience this AWP was! And what a fine ending. This evening, I went to an inspiring poetry reading, presented by the Academy of American Poets, featuring Layli Long Soldier, Khaled Matawa, and Mark Doty. In contrast to last night, there was no tension in the room and the poems were allowed to be political. Long Soldier read her response to the apology to native peoples signed into law under Barack Obama, after a preface where she recounted how it had been written and signed, but not read aloud and without any native leaders present. Matawa read a new series of poems about the migration crisis from the Middle East and Africa, and Doty read poems about his neighborhood  in New York with many references to the political situation in the U.S. The poems were not strident, yet they beautifully expressed the complexity of our time.

The most fitting ending, though, was that as I was coming out of the reading, I happened to check my email and saw that Tar River Poetry had sent the page proofs for a poem that will appear in this spring’s issue.

So the conference began with a poem accepted and published at The Ekphrastic Review and ended with news of another publication. I know “Birdsongs” had been accepted, but hadn’t been notified yet which issue it would appear in, so this was excellent news.

Between these two bookends, AWP was another great experience. This year, we had several students from our low-res MFA program in attendance, including one alumna, Tammie Rice, who helped organize our book table and got us some great swag (thank you again Tammie!). I got to talk to a ton of people, including several contributors to Ponder Review and Poetry South, as well as several teachers interested in A Writer’s Craft and someone at New Pages who might blog about it. I handed out lots of flyers and even a few exam copies I had on hand. I also got to reconnect with writer friends and make new friends at the book fair, and we had a great time at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium panel, celebrating our 30th year. As always, it was incredibly busy, exhausting, and rewarding!

See you next year in Portland, where hopefully more great things will happen, though I doubt I’ll be able to match the experience of publishing a poem on the first and last day of the conference again!