Various Sounds of Cursing:
A True Story of Applying to the MFA
Yeah, that seems like the right way to begin this. Application deadlines for Masters in Fine Arts programs across the country are fast approaching (well, not all of them, but I’ll get to that) and so here I am, putting that off for just a little bit longer. Before I started this whole process, I had a lot of questions, and I’m sure there are writers and poets who’ve had the same concerns as me.
Let’s start at the beginning(ish). I graduated from the University of Connecticut in ’16, with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing. Most of my professors had some piece of advice, some of it conflicting, about what I should be doing next, but most of it boiled down to this:
“Take a year off to just work on your craft. Get a small, part-time to support yourself while you’re doing that. Most importantly: READ; WRITE; GET BETTER.”
And, of course, I tried. I didn’t apply immediately, I waited and-hey, started a literary magazine with some friends. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I worked as a barista in my small-town café. But that whole reading, writing, and getting better part? At the end of the year, when I was sending in my applications (finally) to my carefully picked list of universities, I realized that I hadn’t really done much writing. I had started a magazine, sure, read hundreds of submissions from my peers, but when I looked at my portfolio, which contained one short story and a novel excerpt, I realized that in that entire year I hadn’t improved as a writer.
I had been busy, which seemed fair, but I had grown stagnant and afraid of taking chances with my prose. And yet, I sent it out. The rejection letters, which took a while to come, at least grew more polite with each proceeding one. And I was, while disappointed, less and less surprised.
A year out from that, facing the task again, I have a few pieces of advice, words of wit, and other survival tips. Some of these were shared with me, some I’ve learned:
1. Research your programs!
Just go there. Do it now. It’s an incredible resource for poets and writers looking at MFA programs, fellowships, conferences, academic employment, magazines to send your work to, and more. As I said earlier, application deadlines are closing in, and many are due DECEMBER 15. There are plenty still due in January, February, and if it’s a low-residency, there are usually two different application deadlines throughout the year (for each semester).
It’s important not to just send applications to schools you know nothing about. This resource tells you whether the school has full or partial funding, low or full residency, how many years each degree program lasts, and who the core faculty for your chosen genre are. THIS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. The goal of every MFA program is to take their candidates and improve their writing, give them the tools, motivation, and support they need to push past whatever blocks are in their way. So read the work of those whom you want to learn from. If you don’t think their writing style fits with yours, chances are they’ll feel the same way.
On the topic of reading your possible mentors’ work: don’t apply to a school ONLY because you know one writer there. If they are increasingly in the public eye, it may be that they only teach one semester. I heard one story about a writer that I respected greatly and found out that, while he loved teaching undergraduate courses, he had an almost indiscriminate dislike for teaching MFA courses. This is why research is important. Ask people in the field for recommendations, and trust them. We’re all on the same team.
2. WRITE, Damnit!
Just imploring you to write, while important, would be a waste of our time. So I’ll just continue to indulge in narcissism and tell you about my own pitfalls and habits as a writer.
- Write every day. Make yourself feel guilty if you haven’t written anything. Put unrealistic expectations on yourself that you’ll finally finish that novel.
- While you’re working on the above: indulge in madness and inspiration.
- Take a break on the novel – just for a little bit – to write a story.
- Re-write the story.
- Re-write the story.
- Start another story.
- Get so caught up in writing, experimenting, trying new genres, making notes in your phone and notebook that people start to expect it as just a part of you, that crazy person with the notebook, and then finally, wearily, take a look at your unfinished novel.
- Realize that your writing style, your voice, your inspiration and investigation of the world, has shifted.
- The plot it still good, but maybe if…
- Re-write the book. Realize that a novel is a completely different beast than a story.
- Re-learn everything.
Over the past year I’ve finished five stories, two of which have been accepted for publication, and started several more. Over this whole time I’ve seen myself get further and further away from the person who started this longer project. And at the end of all that, I still might get rejected from grad school.
3. Don’t take it personally
Rejection sucks. That’s it. I don’t want to have to say “it’s part of life,” or something, because we’ve all heard it, and it doesn’t take away the sting.
As much as rejection sucks, however, there’s more to the story. Everyone I’ve talked to that’s worked on an MFA Admissions Board, or has talked with their professors about it, has this to say:
Imagine two professors sitting together in a bar. They’ve each read hundreds of short stories or thousands of poems, and they have the reams of paper with them in the bar to prove it. The stack with them today is different from the usual. It’s smaller, but still too large to accept all of. They leaf through each pamphlet, each making a case for a final decision.
“This one shows real promise” – “She has this strange, dreamlike quality” – “I’d love to see what this writer does in ten years” – “But it just fell a little flat” – “I’d love to work with this person, but I don’t know how to help them” – “I just don’t know if we’re the right fit”
The conversation goes on through all the portfolios. Eventually, they send out their acceptances and, perhaps regretfully, their rejections. There are always writers they would have loved to accept.
4. The Nitty Gritty:
- Everyone will tell you this. Look for fully-funded programs, or at the very least, programs that offer ways to pay for your schooling.
The difference between low-res and full-res?
- Full-residency means that you live and (usually) work there along with all of your fellow candidates. You live in a close-knit community and see each other every day. Usually, such programs will include a Teaching Assistantship as part of, or an option for, tuition waiving. Other schools offer full fellowships, editorial positions on magazines, and scholarships. Low-residencies have less to offer on a daily basis, but are still fine centers of education. You work daily online with your assigned (or chosen) instructor, and form a close, one-on-one bond with that person. Over the course of your education at a low-res, you’ll have to travel to the campus for a short period of time and participate in intense reading series, work shops, and more. Low-res programs are better for people who are, for one reason or another, tied to one location and unable to move to a full-res. It’s all about lifestyle, folks.
Take the GRE or not?
- Not all programs require it, and those that don’t, don’t care. It IS helpful, however, if additional funding is available from the university because of your scores.
I’ve been published, will that help?
- That’s awesome, but it doesn’t get you into a program. Your portfolio, which can include your published work, gets you in.
What should I send?
- Your best work. For real, don’t waste time trying to warm them up to your style or sensibility. Hit them hard in the first page, the first sentence/stanza/whatever. Some schools will provide further details about what they prefer for fiction as far as stories or novel excepts, but always go with your best material.
Is the MFA right for me?
- I have no idea. There have been plenty of successful writers who didn’t get their MFA. And there are plenty of writers who say that without their MFA experience, they wouldn’t be where they are today. The most important question is ‘why?’ Why do you want to get into an MFA? If it’s just because it feels like the inevitable next step, then maybe reconsider whether you’re ready. If it’s because you know that you can only improve so much on your own, and you’re at a point in your creative germination that requires a community of people better than you, people you trust to bounce ideas around with, then yeah-the MFA is probably the next place to go.
I have more questions!
- I’m running out of coffee, and I actually have to work on my own applications. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want more advice from a guy who still isn’t in an MFA program, but is currently banging his head into a computer and willing to talk.