15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things)

Here are 15 things you should probably do before applying to a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing like ours:

  • Read at least a dozen different literary magazines (find some at your library or local bookstore)
  • Read multiple issues of at least two literary magazines
  • Submit to your favorite literary magazines multiple times
  • Get rejected by magazines multiple times
  • Maybe even be published once or twice if you’re lucky (not required)
  • Revise your best story, group of poems, essay, or play at least four more times
  • Read annual ‘best of’ anthologies in the genre or genres you want to write
  • Read at least a dozen recent books in the genre you want to write
  • Subscribe to Poets & Writers or Writer’s Digest
  • Take a creative writing class or weekend/summer workshop
  • Find a good, local bookstore and attend several readings
  • Join or form your own writing group
  • Get a job, so you can learn to balance work and writing
  • Consider going into a career that will actually earn you money, then realize that you have to write (don’t give up your career unless you can’t stand it, then find another day job you can stand), so you realize that now is the right time for you to take that next, daring, crazy step.
  • Research at least 20 different writing programs and apply to at least 6

You might not have to do all those things to get to the last step. And once you get there, you should probably consider doing some of the things you skipped, plus these added bonus things:

  • Add up the cost of tuition for 2-4 years of your MFA
  • Add to that the cost of lost income if you don’t keep your job
  • Add to that the cost of interest on student loans if you need them
  • Consider whether this financial investment will still seem worth it even if there are no immediate financial rewards from earning your degree
  • Consider how having a Master’s degree in Creative Writing might affect your career, but don’t assume you will have a high paying job as a college professor

My point is not to frighten you away from pursuing an MFA, but rather to encourage you to take a long, sober look at the financial costs and professional benefits of attaining the degree. Be prepared, both professionally and financially, before you start. An MFA won’t make you a writer — it should make you a better writer.

There are other ways to be a writer, though an MFA program may be your best and quickest route to becoming the writer you want to be. You should go into it with a financial plan to avoid excessive debt, and you should go into it with clear goals for how the degree can improve your professional life as well as your writing life. Then make sure your program will help you attain those goals.

You should also go into an MFA program with a sense of the literary marketplace and the market for the kind of writing you want to do. And you should go into it after exploring that marketplace and determining that an MFA really is the best route for you and  that the programs you’re applying to will take you on that route. Often an MFA is the best choice, but not always, and you will be much happier and more successful if you make an informed decision so you really know what you’re getting into and what you want to get out of your MFA.

If you’re considering a traditional residential MFA program, then you should probably do all of these things, too, except you may not need to already have a day job, and your financial decision might depend on whether you are accepted into a program that fully funds you. Typically you work, teaching undergraduate classes to earn that full funding. You will give up any job you have now, move to the university that houses your program, and become a full-time graduate student/instructor.

Low-residency programs tend to be for students who already have career and/or family and aren’t able to uproot their lives and move to a new city for their program, so they should have a job where they are or have savings or other means to support themselves during their degree. Scholarships may be available (and there are national scholarship programs) but teaching options tend to be more limited because you are not on campus.

See our program’s Guide for Applicants for some advice on funding an MFA and for links to resources.

More Thoughts on MFA Applications

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a series of posts about MFA applications, beginning with “What to Say in your Statement of Purpose.” At the time, The W was just launching its low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and I wanted to be transparent about the application process by telling prospective students what I would be looking for. Now that we’re starting our second year of the program, and I’ve been through 3 application cycles (we have considered a few applicants for the spring semester), it seemed like a good time to revisit those posts, which still get quite a few hits, and to add some thoughts based on recent experience.

Looking back over what I said about the writing sample and letter of intent, everything still seems pretty true: I’m looking for your best work that is publishable and looks like it will fit in with our program. In your letter, I still want to know about who you are (as a writer), where you’ve been, and where you’re headed (what your goals are for your writing). So if I were to add anything, it would be that the letter and the writing sample really do go together.

Our successful applicants, the ones who have been admitted into the program, have had clear goals and a history that shows they have a good chance of achieving those goals. Their writing sample is a good fit for the goals they have in mind. Even if it’s not a direct fit, if their past writing and their future goals don’t line up exactly, the letter of intent explains how their past has led them to these new goals. It draws the connection between the writing sample and the MFA program experience they want.

Their goals are not just “to be a published writer,” which pretty much goes without saying for anyone applying to an MFA program, but instead are more specific: what kind of writer, what kind of publishing, what do they want to do to earn a living while working to become a published writer, and how will an MFA program help them along this path.

Most of the writers we’ve turned down haven’t convinced me that their writing and/or their understanding of the career of a writer is fully developed yet. When I turn people down, it isn’t because they’re bad writers, in other words. It is because I feel they aren’t ready to make the investment in an MFA, which will cost a fair amount in terms of time and money, so I try to offer advice on how to develop as a writer before applying to programs again.

As I look to the future, I think my responses to applicants may change, though. So far, the number of qualified applicants has pretty much kept pace with our goals for the program and exceeded our expectations, but not by so much that we had to turn people away. That may change. As more people learn about our program, we are more likely to consider ‘fit’ an important criterion. There will come a time, I have little doubt, when we have to tell qualified writers that we believe our program is not the best fit for them. As the competition grows, quality will by necessity no longer be the only deciding factor. When looking at several dozen qualified applicants and deciding whom and how many we can support, the needs of the program will be more and more important.

In other words, giving a clear sense of the genres you want to work in will be helpful (though I can’t predict which genres will be overrepresented in the future). Giving us a sense of the kind of writing you want to do within those genres will also be imperative. Not knowing the answers to these questions might rule someone out, even if the writing sample seems competent enough. Still, I don’t know that we will always choose the ‘top’ writers from the applicant pool. We will begin to look at other intangibles, such as background, style, and personality, to find a mix that will make a positive experience for all of our students. A good writer who has a clear sense of where she’s going and who adds diversity (of style, of background, of age, etc.) may be chosen over a writer with a slightly better writing sample who doesn’t surprise or add much to our program. Someone who is brilliant but too different from what we are set up to handle might also be turned away because we don’t feel we can support him or her.

So when you’re working on your writing sample and letter of intent, what can you do? Turn in your best work, and be as specific and as thoughtful about your writing and your goals as you can. Be honest, be yourself, and know that if our program turns you down this time, you will find the right place for you another time — and it may even be our program when you are ready for us or we are ready for you.

 

Dispatches from #MSBookFest

MS Book FestThis was my second Mississippi Book Festival (also the second) and my first time as a participant. Last year at the first annual festival, I volunteered in the morning and then went to panels in the afternoon. This year, I read in the morning (11:15) and went to panels in the afternoon. Both experiences were great, and I’m planning to go again next year one way or another!
If you’ve never been, then it may be hard to imagine thousands of people milling around outdoors on the Capitol lawn in Jackson, Mississippi on a hot August day. But that’s what happens. Fortunately, there are tents for the vendors and much of the action happens in the shade. Readings are held indoors — either in the Capitol itself or at Galloway Methodist Church, right across the street. Capitol tours are also available. And there are plenty of things to do indoors or out all day long.

For participants, the festival started with a reception on Friday night. This was supposed to be at Eudora Welty’s Home in the garden, but this year the threat of rain drove us indoors to the Old Capitol Museum, which was also very pleasant. Participants also had a breakfast on Saturday morning to start off our day at the Dept. of Archives and History, and we had an Author Lounge room in the Capitol where we could cool off, get registered, and hang out between sessions.

For me, these were some of the best moments of the Festival. I got a chance talk with (and meet) some of the authors who will be returning to Mississippi for the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium in October, such as Brad Watson, Paulette Boudreaux, Becky Hagenston, James Kimberly, and Patricia Boyett. lemuriabooks

I also got to chat with old friends, see former students and a few of our MFA students or other current W students who live in Jackson or came down for the day, stroll through the aisles of Lemuria Books and Turnrow Books and talk to them about possibly doing a reading soon, wander by the small press and self-published author tables in Author Alley and meet folks, including Faith Garbin who is a friend of a friend that has a great-looking book of poems out called How We Bury Our Dead, see the good folks at the University Press of Mississippi, and talk to the Mississippi Library Commission, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, and other exhibitors.

Of course, the highlight was to give a reading with 4 other poets and poet/moderator Derrick Harriell to a packed room. It was a fantastic crowd, and I enjoyed listening to everyone else on the panel that included James Kimbrell, whose work I’ve followed for a long time, and poets I’m only just getting to know like Caroline Randall Williams and R. Flowers Rivera. Though perhaps the most surprising ‘new’ voice on the panel was Bee Donley, who is still writing poems and publishing her third book from the nursing home. Her vitality and humor, along with her precise language and imagery, were a revelation. The panel had a wide range of poems and poets that represented Mississippi well. The only issue we had was that we ran a little long and didn’t have time for Q&A. Maybe next year there need to be 2 poetry panels…

After the reading, we headed to the book signing tent on the Capitol lawn, where I got to meet authors from different panels sitting to either side of me. I signed quite a few books and had a chance to talk to people one-on-one, making this large festival still seem like a very personal space. Even after the signing, when I had the chance to go to some of the other panels or walk the Capitol halls, it was nice when people came up to me to say they enjoyed my reading or to ask about my book. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

Even though a rain shower did come through as my time in the signing tent was ending, it didn’t seem to bother anyone for long. Plastic tarps went over the books in the tents, umbrellas went up, and people found someplace dry to hang out. The rain didn’t last too long, and it cooled us off. Soon everything was back to normal, and the festival continued as planned. I was able to relax and enjoy the afternoon panels, and then head to Hal and Mal’s for a little dinner and the afterparty with Thacker Mountain Radio.

Isle of Caprice

2-24-700x460This morning, I ran across an interesting article about the Isle of Caprice, which included this postcard and 5 historic pictures from the island, which was cut in half by a hurricane and eventually washed away entirely. I was glad to hear confirmation of the story I first heard from Christopher Mauer, when he came to The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium to talk about Walter Inglis Anderson. That story led to the poem, “Isle of Caprice,” which started my on my journey into the life and art of Walter Anderson. Though I knew of Anderson’s art when I heard the story, the image of the artist drinking fresh water from a pipe rising out of the waves of the gulf inspired me to explore his artistic vision further and led to my book, Barrier Island Suite.

Here are a couple of interesting facts, I learned from the article today:

The original name of the island was Dog Keys. Walter Anderson speaks of Dog Keys Pass in his logs (I titled another poem after it), and I’d never been able to identify which island or keys it referred to. Now I know that he was referring to the place where Isle of Caprice was located.

The article also confirms that name of the island during its heyday as a resort as Isle of Caprice — some have questioned whether it was Isle of Capris or some other spelling. I’m glad to know that detail is historically accurate!

The article also confirms what I’d always suspected, that the island was just outside of federal jurisdiction, so it was legal during prohibition to sell alcohol there. Unfortunately, the resort only existed for about 3 years before the Great Depression hit and tourism was dramatically reduced.

For more details and especially to see photographs of the island that once thrived off the coast of Mississippi, go to Only In Your State

Tumblr Change

I’m somewhat disappointed to notice this month that Tumblr  has changed. I’ve used it first as an experiment in microblogging and then because it had a feature that was very useful — posting by email. That feature just disappeared, and I’ve confirmed through their support that it has been discontinued. (If you care about that, write support and let them know; they said they’re collecting feedback.)

Post by email was an attractive feature because I often receive announcements that I want to pass along. In my case, I primarily want to give them to the students in our MFA program in creative writing, but emailing all of the students each time is a pain. I might be able to set up an email nickname with all their addresses, but maintaining this list would become a burden. I could set up a mailing list. But then I worry that students won’t check their email or will ignore these messages that come in with all their other ones.

So instead, I set up an announcement discussion in our Program Lounge in Canvas (this is like a course, but everyone is in it as long as they are in the program). I could copy and paste into that, but an easier solution was to have the Tumblr blog, which I could post to by email. The discussion in Canvas could then read the blog’s RSS feed, so all my announcements would go into this course. Or students can just follow the Tumblr, if they prefer.

Now that I can’t email posts to Tumblr, I’m looking for another solution. One workaround, of course, is just to copy and paste into the blog, but this involves a few more steps than I’d like and isn’t much more efficient than just copying and pasting directly into Canvas.

Another workaround is to read the email messages on my iPad. There I can “select all” and then share to the Tumblr app. I tried this, and it might be a good solution as long as I remember to do email on my iOS device (I assume Android would be similar). It involves a couple more steps than emailing the post to my blog, but maybe a few less than copy and paste, since I can keep the app logged into Tumblr. I will probably gravitate to either copy and paste on my computer or sharing through the app on the iPad or a combination. And if none of those work, I may go back to the old-fashioned email list.

Plagiarism in Creative Writing

The recent plagiarism controversy sparked by Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention on August 18, 2016 has me thinking. Besides the obvious political ramifications of being found to have used ideas and language from Michelle Obama, which has to be embarrassing on multiple levels, the controversy has raised issues of plagiarism definitions and importance.

Apologists have claimed that the speech used common words, that only a small part of the speech was copied (2 paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s speech). They have said she didn’t intend to plagiarize, so it isn’t plagiarism. These are all familiar ‘defenses’ to anyone, like myself, who has taught composition or any class that involves writing. And they are no defense at all.

The passages in question clearly follow the language of the original speech closely with only minor changes being introduced. It’s a classic case, and in a classroom, as Professor Laura Struve has pointed out, depending on the school’s and the instructor’s policies, it would receive a 0, at least until the problem was corrected (if that option is available). In composition and other academic writing situations, we have established strategies to deal with plagiarism detection, avoidance, and punishment, as Struve eloquently points out.

In the world of political speeches, things may be a little murkier, but the fall-out from Ms. Trump’s speech is an excellent reminder that a 0 on an assignment is a relatively minor punishment when compared to embarrassment on a national stage.

The world of Creative Writing, though, is a combination of the academic world and the political world. In a creative writing class we are held to the same standards as other academic writing, yet the conventions for attributing a source are nowhere near as established. No one expects a parenthetical citation or bibliography or list of works cited in a short story, play, or poem, though it could be done and wouldn’t be at all surprising in a creative nonfiction essay.

Creative writers are more likely to live in the real world, where expectations and conventions of attribution are more fluid, yet the consequences of an accusation of plagiarism can be devastating. Still, writers often allude to or even borrow from other writers’ work. The idea of sampling in music has crossed over to creative writing in recent years, and there is a long history of adaptation, parody, and creative reuse. Conventions about authorship have also changed dramatically in different periods. All of this leads to a more confusing landscape, and yet some basic principals and strategies can be observed.

The first is that creative reuse of material needs to be creative. Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new” is a good place to start. For example, a found poem takes existing language and re-envisions it with line breaks that cause the reader to find new connections or pay attention to a different aspect of the original text. If your use of material does not change the way we see that material in some way (perhaps through recontextualizing, parodying, or satirizing the original), then it will likely be seen as too derivative at best and plagiarized at worst. If you use the words or ideas of someone else without having a good reason to use them, it would be better not to do it!

Writers do rely on the concept of fair use, making an allusion to another work by quoting or paraphrasing a short passage. When the allusion enriches the work at hand, this makes sense. Writers then face the question of whether and how to indicate what they have done. If the allusion is brief and to a well-known text, often no attribution is necessary. It will be recognized by most readers. Even obscure references are sometimes made without acknowledgement, leaving the reader to figure out the allusion or to rely on footnotes provided by editors.

Famous writers from the past seem to have done this often, judging by the notes found in anthologies and critical editions. Contemporary readers should remember, though, that expectations have changed over time and that what we now see as an obscure reference may have been better known at the time it was written. We shouldn’t take the need for footnotes in historical texts as license to be obscure or derivative now.

Some writers have indicated they were quoting, simply by using quotation marks, even if they didn’t name the source. Other writers have found ways to acknowledge their source more directly. Often the choice depends on the amount of text that is quoted or adapted, how well-known the original text is, and how important it is to the author that the source be revealed. For instance, Marianne Moore often quoted from obscure scientific journal articles in her poems without naming the source; the quotation marks were enough to indicate language coming from outside the text.

If we’re talking about a word or phrase that alludes to another text, no reference may be needed, but if we’re talking about extended references to the same source material, acknowledgment is probably wise. Here are a few strategies a writer might consider.

  • Name the author or title of the source within your text, title, or subtitle. Finding an unobtrusive way to mention your source is often the best strategy, if it can be done.
  • Include an epigram: a brief statement, usually in italics, under the title. This may be as short as a word or phrase, such as “after so-and-so” or as long as a quotation from the original source. The epigram can provide enough space to explain the context of the original material, even the date or journal of a published source. Or it might hint at the original without explicitly giving all the details.
  • Add a footnote: though less common, this strategy has been employed by some writers to document their borrowing. Footnotes have also been used as another layer of the creative text, and may be as literary as the main text of the piece.
  • Write annotations: though these usually follow the text, rather than appearing on the same page as a reference, annotations can be used to explain what has been used and how, pointing the reader to the original source texts if they are interested in pursuing the topic further
  • Write an acknowledgement: in a book, the acknowledgments page is often used to discuss the inspiration for a work and how that source text has been used.
  • Include an Author’s Note at the beginning or end of the text to explain what your source is and how you have used it.
  • Mention your source in your contributor’s note: with magazine publication, the writer’s choices are more limited. An epigram may seem too artificial for a given reference, yet you might tip your hat to the source in your note.

What strategy you use (and I’d be interested in hearing others) will depend on the situation. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer the way there is for academic essays. Yet usually there is a simple solution that involves one of these methods or a combination. If your intention is good and you make an honest attempt to acknowledge your source material, there shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re sloppy or only go half-way to pay your debt to your sources, it could be embarrassing.

In a class, I always tell my students to talk to me about what they’re doing to work with a text. In that situation, there should never be a question of plagiarism. In an academic context, plagiarism is about academic dishonesty. If you tell me what you’re doing and we agree on strategies to deal with it, then there shouldn’t be a question of your honesty in the class. I may tell you that I think you need to do more to make the source material your own, but if we’ve agreed on a plan for acknowledging your source, then you’re being honest and aboveboard. If, on the other hand, I discover you’ve used material inappropriately and we haven’t discussed it, then there could be trouble. When a work is published, especially if it is a full-length work, then legal questions of copyright and permissions also come into play. Quoting from song lyrics can get very expensive, for instance, since the music industry is extremely vigilant about copyright.

Of course, the grossest cases of plagiarism usually involve someone stealing someone else’s full text and passing it off as their own. There’s absolutely no excuse for that, and the ramifications, both in the academy and the real world are and ought to be severe. For every other form of honest and creative use of a source, there ought to be creative ways to pay homage to the writer who came before.

Writers can learn from the strategies other writers have used. Creative writing students can rely on their professors, and publishers ultimately rely on their legal staff to make sure they have all of their bases covered.

 

 

Follow-Up to “Adapting Traditional Form”

When Christie Collins asked me to write a micro essay on craft of 500 words for her blog feature “Craft of Literary,” I decided to write about my process of adapting the Japanese form renga for my book Barrier Island Suite. In order to stay within the word limit, I kept my focus on that form, but now I thought I’d add a little on my own blog about how the form and the book developed.

The variations of the renga stanza (that I discuss in the original article) became the dominant form for the first 20 poems I wrote for Barrier Island Suite. However, whenever I tried to explain that the form was based on either renga or on tanka stanzas, people would invariably take issue. Tanka magazines, for instance, didn’t want the poems because to them, a tanka, like a haiku should be a single stanza. There didn’t seem to be a place for longer tanka-influenced poems. In the end, I stopped explaining the stanza (until now) and simply let it be. Yet I had considerable success placing the poems in mainstream literary magazines when I didn’t mention the source of the form.

On the other hand, working in this form led me to try my hand at haiku, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally written some that really fit the form and have been published in Valley Voices as “Tombigbee River.” There are times when adherence to existing forms ought to be valued, in other words, just as there are times when the form may be adapted, even bent out of shape until it is nearly unrecognizable to all but the poet.

Later, when I returned to Barrier Island Suite with the idea of including more of Walter Anderson’s life on shore, I realized I wanted a different form for this part of his life. The book’s title suggests a musical suite, so I also realized I wanted each section to have its own tempo the way the pieces in a suite wold. So upon returning to the project as I expanded it from a 20-poem cycle to book-length manuscript, I also returned to free verse.

Nonetheless, I knew I wanted there to be some sense of form, so I worked with different, yet regular stanza lengths: couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintets, or sestets, depending on the poem. Only in the final section did I take on longer stanzas with a more flowing form in “The Great Spirit Road,” modeled after the meandering Mississippi river, and “The Little Room,” modeled after the “Great Hymn to Aten,” since Psalm 104 (which is based on the “Hymn”) is a likely source for the murals in Anderson’s cottage.

In the end, then, the sections of the book alternate between the renga-inspired original stanza forms and more traditional Western stanzas and free verse. For me, the alternating form fits well with the different modes of life that Anderson describes in his logs.

I started the original essay thinking about form in free verse, the subject of a graduate class I was teaching in Forms of Poetry, and that is where I will end. Whether using an adapted traditional form from another culture, working with traditional European stanza forms, or writing free verse, the form of the poem and the content are always in a dynamic relationship. Form isn’t left to chance, in other words, as most of the poets we read in the class argued one way or another.

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