Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Eudora Welty Symposium at 30

The big day has finally arrived. The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium will begin its 30th iteration with the kickoff in Poindexter Hall tonight at 7:30pm. Steve Yarbrough wil read from his fabulous novel The Unmade World as we explore the place of Southern writing in the world through our theme “As if the Ear of the World Listened,” a line from Delta Wedding.

weltyposter2018aIt’s always great to bring a dozen writers to campus, spend time with them, our students, and our community. My nerves usually start to settle down once everyone is in town and I pick them up from the hotel in a W van. This year, we’ll be without one writer: Silas House is down in his back and in some serious pain, so we’re talking about rescheduling for a later date. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 11 years of directing the symposium, it’s that you have to go with the flow. You can redirect it somewhat and try to keep everyone happy and moving in roughly the same direction (good food and great writing helps), but there are some things you just can’t do anything about, and you just have to let the momentum of the weekend develop as it will.

It helps that there are so many gracious writers out there, who will come and give us their all. Every year we think ‘this was the best group ever,’ and by and large that is pretty true. All years have been great, and ‘best’ is a relative term of course, but the group of writers usually gels. I expect no less in 2018, given that many of our writers are returning to the symposium and we have some wonderful new folks as well. In a few days, the blur that is the Welty Symposium will be over, and we will all be better for it, with new friends, new ideas, and more than likely with a bag full of new books.

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.

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!

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!

Heading to #AWP18

This week, I’ll be going to Tampa for the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. As always, it will be a very busy few days—inspiring and exhausting.

This year, it will be a little different, since I’ll get to hang out with some of my students who are taking a Short Residency class centered around the conference. They will attend panels, help at our book fair table (T1411 if you want to find us!), and explore the book fair in their free time. They’re required to go to some professional panels on writing or the business of writing, as well as some panels that feature readings. They’ve already learned a lot just from scouring the schedule to see what they most want to attend.

I’ll go to the directors panels, both the general one and one for the Southeast region, and I’ll try to catch the Low-Residency Caucus panel, too, so I can hear about the latest developments that affect our program. But much of my time will be spent in the book fair, where in addition to our program and our literary magazines Ponder Review and Poetry South, I’ll also be giving out copies of A Writer’s Craftmy multi-genre intro to creative writing textbook.

And to top it all off, as if seeing old friends, working with students, and connecting with other writers and directors isn’t enough, this year I’ll be moderating and participating in a panel to celebrate the 30th Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, which will be held Oct. 18-20, 2018!

It should be a lot of fun! See you in Tampa, if you’re going to #AWP18!

Writer’s Resolution: Start or Update Your CV

This post is primarily for my MFA students, though it is a good new year’s resolution for any writer: start or update your CV. Curriculum Vitae is a fancy term for resumé, though the difference is that the focus of your CV is broader, and you will use it for applying for academic jobs, grants, awards, residencies, etc. A CV allows you to give a fuller representation of your life’s work, not just your employment and job skills.

As with a resumé, format it as a series of lists with headings. Start with your basic contact info: name, address, phone number, email. Follow this with Education, listing your college and grad school degrees and including any thesis or dissertation titles and directors. Include a degree program you a currently enrolled in before you get your degree, and list your expected graduation date.

For all your lists, start with the most recent accomplishments first, then you can add to the top of each list as you update it with new entries.

Next list your relevant Employment. You don’t have to list every job, though it’s good to list your recent jobs going back to college. What you want to avoid is he appearance of a long gap without employment or education, so if you worked at a temp agency to support yourself in grad school, you could leave that out and rely on your education listing as the most important activity in those years. On the other hand, if you waited tables for a couple of years after college while you wrote your first novel, you may want to include that job to account for those years.

After those two mandatory sections, you have some choice about the order of sections and what you want to label them. Writers will always list their Publications, though many of us break this into subcategories by genre: scholarly articles, poetry, fiction, etc. It is also common to have separate categories for Books and Anthologies. Readings or Presentations are good categories to include, as are Writers’ Residencies, Workshops or other professional activities you have attended or led. A section on Grants and Awards is also good to include, once you have one or more.

There is a good article on writing an Artist’s CV on The Practical Art World and another on CVs in general at The Interview Guys. These sites give examples that will give you ideas on how to format, and you’ll see that the typical CV is for academic jobs, so it highlights scholarly publications and achievements, while the artist’s CV highlights creative achievements. A writer’s CV is often a combination of these two approaches and can be rearranged and revised for the situation you want to use it in. You might highlight scholarship when applying to academic jobs and publications when applying for a grant, for example.

Once you have your CV started, add new accomplishments as you learn about them. List work accepted for publication as “forthcoming” and update with the full publication information once the it appears. Starting a CV may be the hardest part, so do it now when there isn’t a rush and when your lists aren’t too long. Then add to it periodically and take advantage of the new year to review it and make sure you haven’t missed anything from the past year (or more).