Another MFA Creative Writing question
December 6, 2013 7:18 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to make myself a strong MFA CW candidate?

My apologies for the length of this...

I graduated in 2007 with a B.A. in English with a Creative Writing concentration and like many, had no clue what I wanted to do with my life (aside from writing). My parents told me the logical path was to continue on with my education and become a professor, so the year after I graduated, I applied to some MFA Creative Writing programs and was not accepted at any. I took this to mean this wasn't my path, shrugged it off and went on my (not-so) merry way.

Though it stung at the time, in hindsight, I see I was not a good candidate at all. I enjoyed writing, but was loath to call myself a writer, refused to show anyone anything I wrote, did not actively pursue a writing life, etc. My writing sample was the first chapter of a novel I was working on and had absolutely no context. I had no clear writing goals other than to write. Also, because of issues like depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, my undergrad GPA is rather iffy. (When I'd actually finish a semester, I'd make all As, but I had several semesters where I just dropped out during the middle-end and in most of those classes, got Fs.)

Since then, however, I've started taking my writing much more seriously. I've submitted stories and essays and have a handful of publications in literary journals under my belt. I'm working on my third novel (the first two are junkers and will never see the light of day, but they were good learning experiences). I contribute/freelance at two of my city's local entertainment blogs/newspapers. I've been a featured reader at several local literary events, am an active member in a writing/critiquing group, and this past fall took a fiction class at the university here in town to dip my toe back into the academic waters to see if I would like it after having been gone so long and have enjoyed it immensely.

I'm feeling the pull toward the MFA, but this time, because I actually want to, unlike before when I applied just because my parents said I should.

I've read the articles telling those of us interested in taking this route to stop, don't do it, it will only lead to unemployment and heartache so this is something I'm already mulling over. I've also read that these programs are only for literary rock stars, which I am not, another thing I've been thinking about.

My question is not whether I should or shouldn't try for an MFA; I know this is only something I can decide. Let's assume for this question that I have made the decision and yes, I'm going to try for it, aiming to apply at the end of next year to begin the program (if accepted) in the fall of 2015, giving myself basically a year before my applications are due.

So in this upcoming year, what should I be doing now (in addition to what I'm currently doing, as summarized above) to help my chances at acceptance? How can I make myself a stronger candidate?

posted by dearwassily to Education (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to give you advice which contradicts the commonly-given advice on MFA-applicant oriented message boards and the like: rather than applying very broadly (I've seen recommendations that applicants apply to as many as 15 programs, which, frankly, is an absurd waste of money), apply narrowly, to programs that only give full funding plus a stipend. Select programs primarily based on an aesthetic match between you and the faculty. In my experience--as an MFA graduate myself--this will make the biggest difference between doing good, productive work in a program and being miserable. Be sure that the faculty's taste aligns with yours, that they don't disparage the kind of writing you do in their critical work, that you like their books, and so on. You can get accepted to a program without finding that match (I did), but if you arrive and find the kind of writing you like disparaged, it will be an uphill swim for two to three years. Making sure you are a good fit is paramount, and you should be evaluating each program for its faculty, coursework, and thesis requirements (you really, really want a full book at the end of this) as much as they are evaluating you.

All that being said, because this is not said enough: an MFA doesn't make a writer. Five years out from my MFA program, I am the only writer in my graduating year who has published a book, and it's not in the genre I was trained in graduate school. In fact, I had to teach myself everything I know about querying, revising novels, agents, and publishers. The vast majority of living, working writers of my acquaintance (quite a few) do not have MFAs, while none of my MFA classmates are, today, working writers--though most still write and have some publication credits, most of them make a very meager living adjuncting. Know that the MFA is, practically, a credential that lets you teach (though tenure track jobs are rare for those with only MFAs and without multiple books or a PhD), but not necessarily a job which will give you the practical skill set to make a living writing. "Making a living writing" is something many programs will actively avoid teaching you, in favor of focusing on "craft." But of course, you can both focus on craft in your spare time and make a living writing, too.

If you feel any pull toward commercially-successful types of writing (science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, young adult fiction, writing for children, chick lit), even if you seek to meld that writing with a literary stylistics or a more literary approach, an MFA is rarely productive, except in a few programs which specialize in genre such as the MFA in children's writing at VCFA. Your time and money is better spent learning how to revise and query on your own.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:42 AM on December 6, 2013 [15 favorites]

Creative Writing grad here (I have an actual undergrad degree in "creative writing" and learned over four years to craft Raymond Carveresque short stories that are totally out of fashion now)...

I wonder if your GPA is maybe hindering you? These programs are pretty competitive, as is any program that puts you on the teaching track. For one thing, the programs are competitive, and the people applying for them are very good at being students, and have always been good at being students. That's why they will have higher GPA's (it's not because they are smart).

So you're probably going to want to continue to publish and develop a portfolio. The irony is that by doing so you'll be bootstrapping yourself to becoming a writer the old way... by getting published.

However, it seems to me that the MFA to you is more of a vehicle for acquiring an academic career, and it may be useful to research beforehand what the actual demand is for writing and English teachers out there.

It's always seemed to me that CW programs are a way for established writers to actually earn a regular living as a teacher. That is, the CW instructors and faculty out there come into teaching after experiencing a successful, but not always lucrative career as a writer.

Jack Hodgins, whom I studied under 25 years ago at the University of Victoria, was, in the 70's and 80's one of Canada's most successful writers of literary fiction, but he published most of his most famous work while working as a high school teacher. He actually had an M Ed when he joined the faculty (which made studying with him very rewarding) in his mid-40's.

A friend of mine who I studied with actually dropped out of the CW program and completed an English undergrad degree, became the arts editor of the local alternative weekly, got an English masters degree, and went on to become the managing editor of a glossy magazine.

With this under his belt he returned to become an associate professor in the same writing program where he had started out (UVic has one of the better professional writing programs in Canada).

He probably benefited from personal networks he developed when he was a student here - I've kept in touch with the students and professors I studied with so long ago.

So those professional networks are also going to be key.

In short, I question the need to get an MFA in writing. If you want to be a writer, you don't need an MFA (although you do need peer support and peer review).

And if you want I career, I am not sure if an MFA is the right vehicle.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:30 AM on December 6, 2013

My parents told me the logical path was to continue on with my education and become a professor
My writing sample was the first chapter of a novel I was working on and had absolutely no context. I had no clear writing goals other than to write.

It's not really clear from your post if you still want to be a professor, but if you do want to be a professor, you should know that an MFA in creative writing, while technically a terminal degree, will probably not get you a full-time or tenured teaching position. You may be able to get some work as an adjunct, which means you'll likely teach introductory-level writing courses. There are also full-time adjuncts (meaning, you are guaranteed so many classes each year, and therefore something like a stable income) and a part-time adjuncts. If you're coming fresh out of school, you'll only be eligible for the part-time positions, which are typically lower paying and tied to enrollment numbers – i.e., if the school's enrollment drops, you may lose your job with short notice. Many part-time adjuncts work in multiple schools to piece together enough work to meet their income needs while putting in their time, often for years, for a shot at a full-time position.

I don't say this to dissuade you but just so that you have a realistic picture of what you hope to get out of the program. If you want to be on a path to a full-time teaching position at a college or university, an MFA won't help you much. You would be better off going the MA/PhD route in literature or another related field – but I don't know how much that aligns with your goals.
posted by deathpanels at 8:32 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ask these questions of the faculty at your local institution. USF? Over at FIU, John Dufresne has always been very approachable.
I would cultivate good letters of recommendation, maybe in part, through contacting the above.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:39 AM on December 6, 2013

Good advice above. But, as to your specific question of how to be a better candidate, I think the most important thing is to make sure your writing sample is as polished as you can make it. The typical wisdom for English/writing grad programs is that the writing sample carries tremendous weight in the application. As someone with an MA, MFA, and currently doing a PhD, I can vouch for that. My teachers have all confirmed it. Ostensibly, programs want to know that you can to some degree write and that there's some compatibility between your aesthetic and theirs.

While I agree with the considerations above, don't get discouraged if you've been rejected. Sometimes the deciding factors have nothing to do with your suitability; sometimes it's a matter of timing. I got rejected from my MFA then applied the following year, when I got in. I found out later that they'd said no the first time because they were admitting fewer students that term in my particular genre.
posted by xenization at 9:06 AM on December 6, 2013

Its all in the writing samples.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:17 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fortunately, you're contemplating applying during the Golden Age of MFA Application Advice. Elizabeth McCracken offers some excellent advice on Twitter, much of it summarized here. Brian Evenson's advice. Cathy Day is another good advice-giver who comes to mind. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs website may also be worth your time. Ditto Poets & Writers, though many writers would dissuade applicants from taking their attempts to rank programs too seriously. And all are the tip of the iceberg, really.

Each advice-giver says somewhat different things, but after you read enough of them, it's hard to ignore that there are general tendencies.
posted by gnomeloaf at 11:45 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a recent MFA graduate who, like you, got in nowhere when I applied right after college and then was accepted with funding to several programs when I applied the second time a few years later and while you should of course work on your writing sample and while "it's all in the writing sample" is the stated dogma everywhere regarding this, I think it's bullshit because, in the three years I was at my program, each year there was at least one person accepted whose work would astound you in its total and utter and completely inarguable terribleness and I know people in other programs who would say the same. Each year, there are different faculty members who get to choose who's accepted and one important thing that you learn in an MFA program, perhaps the most/only important thing, is that a group of thoughtful, interesting, creative, and well-educated people can have such radically different reactions to a given manuscript that it can undermine your faith in the basic concept of "reading" (and you, if you are me, have read plenty of literary theory and understand this conceptually, but experiencing it viscerally is a different matter entirely) So edit and polish your sample because it's your work and you care about it, but don't let that make you think that whether you're accepted or rejected by anyone has any bearing whatsoever on the quality of your work.

Anyway, I'm rambling, you wanted practical advice: Polish your sample, sure, be interesting and confident but don't sound too intense or crazy or do weird things in your statements of purpose (project an air of professionalism). I would probably play up your work experience at the newspapers - that's good stuff. Don't worry about the GRE or anything like that, literally nobody cares about that. I think the most important thing you can do in the next year, though, if you can do anything, is get some kind of teaching experience. If it's creative writing experience, that's great (and would be more fun for you) but really, anything is good (I taught ESL, for example, and I think that's something that really put my application over the top). Is there an after school program you can volunteer at in your area? Does your local library host classes for members of the community? Again, they say it's all in the sample, but the way that most of these programs fund their students is by having them teach or TA classes and some people are just never going to be good teachers and some people take a long time to get good at teaching and need lots of help and back-patting from faculty members who have their own shit going on and some people are, the first semester, going to have sex with their students and say wildly inappropriate things and show up drunk to class, so if you can show that you've taught someone something at some point and the police weren't called and nobody died, it will definitely be a mark in your favor.

posted by raisindebt at 5:21 PM on December 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

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