Posts Tagged ‘Poets & Writers’

How to Prepare to Apply for an MFA Program, Part 2

So you’ve been writing, revising, reading magazines and books (as I suggested in Part 1 of this series), and you feel like you’re ready to start the application process. How can you navigate the difficult journey to an MFA? Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you choose a program and figure out how to write the best application possible.

First, how do you know when you’re really ready to apply? Sometimes you just have to take that plunge, but it can help to do some relection before you start the process. My low-residency MFA progam has a Guide for Applicants that can help you make that decision and help you navigate the process, and we hope it’s helpful for any program, not just ours. I’ve also written extensively on this blog about the application process. See the category MFA Application for posts like 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA that can help you prepare.

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs also has a series of articles about the MFA application process that can be very helpful in thinking about the process and deciding whether you’re ready to take the plunge. Poets & Writers also publishes an annual MFA issue in Sept./Oct. that can be very informative with articles about the MFA experience and advice on choosing a program.

Another free resource that I highly recommend is Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course at Literistic, “MFA Applications 101.” This series of ten emails will walk you through the application process and provide many links to more resources than I can cover here. If you’re starting the application process or even just thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to sign up. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to do to write your letter and hone your writing sample.

Other great resources include the MFA Years blog and the MFA Draft Facebook group: a new group is started each year, so search for the group if my link doesn’t take you to the right one. You must request membership and show that you’re an applicant, not a program director like me.

Finding a program is a little more complicated. Of course, you want to apply to the best programs you can where you’ll be competitive, but you also want to bear in mind the cost, location, and the culture of the schools you’re looking at. The best places to start your search are the guides at AWP, Poets & Writers, New Pages, and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find out everything you need to know to get started from these sites, and they all list slightly different information, so checking more than one is worth the time. They also link to program websites, which makes it easier to dig down to find out more about the programs you’re most interested in.

The common advice you hear about writing programs is to choose based on the writers who teach in the program. There’s a certain amount of wisdom in that — it they write like you write, then you might have a better experience working with them. That’s if those writers are truly active in their programs and if they are good teachers as well as good writers. But many of the best teaching writers out there are not the most famous writers you’ve heard of. Yes, the reputation of your thesis director could make a difference, but the vast majority of writers will make their way based on their own merits, not on who they worked with in grad school.

Better advice that you hear is to contact students in the program to find out what it’s like. Ask about hidden fees and about the culture of the program. What’s it like to live in the town for a full residency program or how a low-residency program works: do you work with a mentor or take online classes? How do you exchange files? etc.

Another piece of advice for choosing programs that I don’t hear a lot about, but have been thinking about recently, is to read the program’s literary magazine. From the magazine, you’ll learn a lot about the esthetic of the graduate student editors. Sure, the contributors for the magazine won’t be from the program (or if they are, that would be a huge red flag), but students in the program have chosen every piece published, so you learn what kind of writing interests them.

There is no magic bullet for choosing the right program. That’s why you’ll want to apply to more than one program, and you shouldn’t stop researching once you’ve sent in your application. Keep exploring the choices you’ve made, try to make connections or visit campus, write the programs to ask questions or get in touch with current students, so that when you are faced with a decision, you’ll have a better sense of what you want to do.

How to Prepare to Apply to an MFA Program, Part 1

Okay, so you want to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing, but you don’t know whether you’re good enough or where to start. You want to brush up on your writing and you want to put together the best application you possibly can. But how? In this post, I’ll try to give you some advice and point you to some resources to help you develop your writing. Then we’ll look at resources to help with the application process.

First, write. If you are going to be in an MFA program, you will write like you’ve never written before, so why wait until after you’ve been accepted? Start by writing every day or every time you possibly can. Write new material, try new genres, test your boundaries.

Next, rewrite. Don’t be satisfied with that most recent good draft. If your best writing was done in college, you would probably write it better now. Nearly any piece of writing can be improved or polished. Go back and re-read your older work, esp. if you don’t have ideas for new work. Try to find new layers. Do more than just correct errors (though fix anything and everything you can so you have absolutely clean copy). Sometimes this revision leads you to your next good idea. Going to a workshop or being involved in a writer’s group can be helpful, so you get feedback from others. If you don’t have someone nearby who can help, try going to a workshop or conference.

Finally, read. As I’ve said before, every MFA applicant should read widely in literary magazines. You need to know what’s being written today by the writers you admire (or the ones you’ll only admire once you’ve read them). You need to see what other MFA applicants are reading and what their professors are reading and writing. If you know what programs you want to apply to, read their literary journals to see the editorial choices of their current and former students. Our low-residency MFA program publishes two journals Ponder Review and Poetry South.

Go to bookstores and libraries to find the books that are being written that you’d like to emulate. What genre or sub-genre do you think you want to write? What authors are being published in those areas? Buy some books and read them! Or check them out from the library. Find out who those authors’ agents are. Start learning about the publishing industry.

You will have a better writing sample and letter if you’ve prepared yourself for your MFA than if you rely solely on your own talent.

That’s enough for today! I’ll continue soon with some resources that can help you with the application process.

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 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!

How To Find the best MFA program in Creative Writing (for you)

Summer is a time when many prospective MFA students begin searching for programs. Or maybe you’ve already begun that search, but it is now intensified as the application season approaches. Those who want to apply for an MFA need to have a good idea of their top choices soon, so they can work on crafting their writing samples and honing their statements. Application deadlines range from December to March, with most falling in January or February, so it’s not too early to start hunting for the perfect programs.

One of the best resources for this search is still <a href=”https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Writing-Mfa-Handbook-Prospective/dp/082642886X&#8221; rel=”nofollow”>The Creative Writing MFA Handbook</a> by Tom Kealey. I recommend it to my undergraduates (and often let them borrow a copy) not only because it has a good list of programs (though that list is getting a little dated), but also because it gives good advice on choosing a program. The best advice Kealey gives is that you should find the best program for you, which is not necessarily going to be the top-ranked program. He goes into much more detail about the kinds of choices that exist. Things to consider are the culture of the program, the kind of writing that the professors do or that recent graduates have done, as well as cost, location, and program structure. Finding the right programs for you to apply to is complicated. In his guide, he doesn’t give a ranking of programs because everyone’s rankings ought to be different. He does give valuable information about the programs he lists, though more programs have sprung up since the book was published, and programs change over time.

For up to date information, consult guides like those found at AWP, Poets & Writers, Publisher’s Weekly, and New Pages. Each of these sources provides some different information, so it’s a good idea to consult more than one and compare what you find.

In all of these listings, you can search by state, by genre, by type of degree, etc. This can help you narrow your search. It won’t take long to realize that there are a plethora of programs to choose from and that there is incredible diversity in their offerings. This is why some serious research at this stage can be beneficial.

Of course, there are rankings of MFA programs from sources like The Atlantic or Poets & Writers. What I tell my students about these rankings is that they’re most valuable for finding out where everyone else is probably going to apply. I don’t discourage students from applying to the top-ranked schools, but I do warn them to be aware of their chances. Most of these programs have very limited enrollments. They receive many, many more highly qualified applications than they will ever be able accept. We’ve had someone get in a very competitive program, so you shouldn’t ever sell yourself short, but you also shouldn’t limit yourself to applying only to the top-ranked schools. There are many other high quality programs out there that may be a better fit and where you may have better odds. I recommend applying to a range of schools. Don’t apply anywhere that you wouldn’t want to go, but don’t be so influenced by the rankings that you overlook schools that would be a great fit for you. Consider all of your options, and you should find a program that is the best for you.

Resources like The MFA Years blog or The MFA Draft group on Facebook (the link is to 2018, but a new group is started every year) can also help you research your decision and deal with the process of applying to programs. Also, be sure to read AWP’s Advice Articles about the application process.

In the end, taking the time and effort now to research the programs that are best for you will give you a much better chance of success. Not only will you find the programs that are the best fit, but you will likely also learn a lot about who you are as a writer and what your goals are. This will lead to a clearer, stronger application, and I would hope to a more rewarding experience in the program where you eventually choose to enroll.

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.