Here are the places to which I’ll be applying for grad school, with my annotations. I’m confident I can get into at least one of them—perhaps several. Because of the subjective nature of MFA admissions, I am applying to thirteen schools in all: more than the ten I originally envisioned, but fewer than the fifteen it once was.
All of these programs rank in the top fifty nationwide (Poets & Writers 2011 MFA Rankings); all are in places where there is a thriving literary community, and all guarantee full funding (except for Montana) and offer teaching assistantships. All are two year programs unless noted otherwise.
Though ranked higher for poetry than for fiction, Amherst has an outstanding three-year program. The Massachusetts Review and University of Massachusetts Press, and the new student-run Route 9 are all affiliated with the program. The Western Massachusetts Writing Program (for the professional development of writing teachers), the National Yiddish Book Center, as well as a unique community outreach program, the Juniper Initiative for Literary Arts and Action make Amherst a huge literary community. Fiction faculty I’d be excited to work with includes Sabina Murray (Slow Burn, The Caprices), and Chris Bachelder (Bear vs. Shark; U.S.!). It’s Amherst: one of the best college towns in the nation. Angie and I would love to live in New England, and for this reason have applied to a number of programs in the region—including this prestigious one. I’d be only a couple hours drive from my brother and his family in the Boston Hub.
U MINNESOTA (MINNEAPOLIS)
One of the few programs that encourages experimentation across genres while remaining rooted in the studio/workshop format, Minnesota appeals to me greatly. It offers plenty of fellowships and paid writing retreats, plus the literary journal Dislocate. Fiction faculty includes M. J. Fitzgerald, David Treuer (whose name I came across first while working at Heyday Books), and Julie Schumacher. Charles Baxter (The Soul Thief, Feast of Love) is visiting—there next year? Who knows?. The three-year program has a deep investment in literary nonfiction as well—a genre I’d be curious to explore if given the chance. Minneapolis is a great city for writers: home to Rain Taxi Review, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Utne Reader, and a bazillion other small presses and publications and bookstores. Angie is from Minnesota, her whole family is there, and she lived in Minneapolis for a few years: we have friends here.
One of the ten best fiction programs in the nation, the UC Irvine MFA program has graduated some of my favorite writers: Michael Chabon, Glen David Gold, Aimee Bender, and more recently, Joshua Ferris (and Bruce McAllister, my writing coach), as well writers on my “meaning to read” shelf: Richard Ford and Alice Sebold. This list alone puts it on my list. But the fact that it offers full funding in expensive SoCal, with a dedication to one-on-one instruction as well as small workshops, vaults it to near the top of my list. Fiction faculty includes Ron Carlson (The Signal, Five Skies, Ron Carlson Writes a Story), Michelle Latiolais (A Proper Knowledge, Even Now), and visiting lecturers. The literary journal is Faultline. Also: I grew up in Mission Viejo, two towns south of Irvine in Orange County, and watched the region grow. I know Irvine well.
U TEXAS AUSTIN
Known as the Michener Center for Writers, the three-year MFA program at U Texas is the best-funded program in the country, thanks to a huge endowment form the late James Michener, who used to tell incoming students “don’t waste your time or my money.” Students are fully funded for all three years, with a stipend of $25,000 over the full year, with no summer courses and additional funding for professional development and travel. The program offers small workshops and courses in fairytales and history writing, both of which interest me, and the English Department’s sub-specialty in screenwriting is another appealing aspect that I would have access to as a student at Michener Center. Fiction faculty includes Laura Furman, Stephen Harrigan, Elizabeth McCracken, James Magnuson, Oscar Casares, and Michael Adams—not to mention the big-name visiting lecturers. Plus, the program is in Austin—year-round sunshine AND a funky college town, with a great music scene and burgeoning foodie culture.
CORNELL UNIVERSITY (ITHACA)
Another top-ranked program in fiction, old and prestigious, and one of the best-funded. That, plus it’s in the college town of Ithaca, in a region Angie and I are very keen to explore. The workshop is small, students are required to take additional graduate courses, and are given a chance to work at Epoch, the campus literary journal. All students are guaranteed a second-year teaching assistantship and second-summer fellowship. Moreover, Cornell prides itself on postgraduate placement: they have a high rate of students finding tenure-track positions after graduation. Even if I’m not sure of my teaching goals, that’s impressive. And the roster of Cornell alumni is staggering—from Thomas Pynchon to Téa Obreht and Phillip Meyer (both named in the New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” list).
BROWN UNIVERSITY (PROVIDENCE)
I’m determined, if nothing else: I tried to get into Brown as an undergrad but failed (I have an uncle and a brother who went there, though—apparently that wasn’t enough to cinch the deal). Brown is unusual in its encouragement of experimentation and cross-genre fertilization—they are the only MFA creative writing program I know of that is actively teaching electronic media—and student theses are allowed to cross boundaries. I admit, this emphasis on experimentalism is a bit intimidating (note my subtle bait-and-switch, from “experimentation” to experimentalism”), as I fancy myself an apprentice craftsman more than daring young innovator. Fiction faculty includes Robert Coover, Brian Evenson (the program’s director and a writer I’m keen to work with), Thalia Field, Renee Gladman, Carole Maso, Meredith Steinbach, and John Wideman. The more I read about Evenson and the rest of the faculty, the more inclined I am to think of this intimidating experimentalism as potentially liberating and a tremendously fun and fecund environment to work in.
U MICHIGAN ANN ARBOR
I first came to Ann Arbor for a conference on student cooperative housing while an undergrad at Cal. I fell in love with the place: like Berkeley in its hip college-town feel, if not in its relative lack of diversity, and I loved the houses and crisp autumn air. OK, community aside, U-Mich has the second highest ranked fiction program in America, just after Iowa. It offers an outstanding funding package, has an outstanding visiting writers series, and offers colloquia on publishing issues. Teaching is required (fine with me!) but the load is light, making for more writing time. Fiction faculty includes Michael Byers (The Coast of Good Intentions, Percival’s Planet), who is also an advocate for Pluto’s planetary status; Peter Ho Davies (The Welsh Girl, Equal Love); and program director Eileen Pollack (The Rabbi in the Attic; Paradise, New York); among others. Graduates place highly in postgraduate fellowships and other Best-Of lists, and recent graduates that have made a splash include Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) and Uwem Akpam (Say You’re One of Them).
A top-ten school in fiction, Syracuse was probably the biggest surprise discovery for me. Not only is George Saunders (Pastoralia; CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) on the faculty (so is poet/memoirist Mary Karr), but its students always place very highly, in terms of getting out there and getting published, or getting post-grad fellowships, or getting teaching jobs. It is a three-year program like Minnesota, Texas, and UMass. It’s a small and old (50 yrs) and tight-knit program, with a great teaching requirement to prepare for post-graduation employment, as well as Salt Hill, a literary journal that offers a great chance to put on my editor hat. The Raymond Carver Reading Series brings in some big name writers for frequent lectures. About Syracuse I know only what I can google, but I know it is near the beautiful Finger Lakes area, and there seems to be something magical about that area that beckons me.
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA (IOWA CITY)
Seems the fabled Iowa Writers Workshop boasts more well-placed and well-published alumni than any other program. Ethan Canin (The Palace Thief; America, America) and Marilynne Robinson (Home; Gilead) teach there. As far as the large size of the program goes: I am a hardened veteran of the University of California system, and of the publishing industry at large. I know my way around. It’s true, to attend the Writers Workshop would mean living in Iowa for two years. And not to sound too cynical, but if all these programs are fantastic, and all offer full funding, then the two biggest remaining criteria are (a) great place to live, and (b) which school gives me a bigger leg up in my career? And of those two, which is the more long-term, durable criterion? See what I’m getting at? And yet, despite the cynicism, there’s a magic to this place, too. I’m drawn here. Angie says yes, she would move here with me if I got in and decided to attend. Besides, it’d only a four hour drive to visit her family in Minnesota.
UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA MISSOULA
This was another surprise when researching programs. Tom Kealey (The Creative Writing MFA Handbook) calls Montana students among the happiest he’s seen. Sure, there may be fewer big-name alumni, and maybe less of a direct line to New York publishing houses, but so what? I’ll make those connections. Though the program website doesn’t seem to explicitly guarantee full funding for all, it’s still easily a top-twenty program with an excellent faculty and visiting writer series, plus the lit journal CutBank. Richard Hugo himself was long associated with the program, as was Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Leslie Fiedler. Current fiction faculty include Kevin Canty (Everything; Winslow in Love), as well as Debra Magpie Earling, Deirdre McNamer, Thomas Russell, and Robert Stubblefield. Notable alumni include Kim Barnes, Andrew Sean Greer. Do I want to live somewhere rural like this (Iowa notwithstanding)? Well if it’s as beautiful as Montana, sure! I just may take up fly-fishing.
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Another serious program for serious fiction writers, with Alice McDermott—a heavy-hitter I’d love to meet and learn from—and Jean McGarry and Brad Leithauser leading the fiction workshops. John Barth is a professor emeritus (I’d probably seek him out at some point). The program requires advanced knowledge of a foreign language (no hay problemo), highly funded and well-regarded, with perhaps a slight bent toward the academic (over studio) format. The visiting writers series is top-notch, and so is their separate readings series and their literary publication, the Hopkins Review. So it’s in Baltimore: my only real knowledge of that city is related to two things: Edgar Allan Poe, who died in a ditch somewhere, and the HBO show The Wire, neither of which puts Baltimore in a very favorable light. That said… I love the blue crab of the Chesapeake, we have a good friend in nearby DC, and Angie’s prospects for finding a good job are great at this phenomenal center of health care.
UNIVERSITY OF OREGON (EUGENE)
Eugene may be laid back, but this is one program that does not fuck around, and it shows in their surge in rankings over the last five decades. Small workshop sizes, with at least half the students’ time dedicated to just writing. From their website: “A distinctive feature of the Oregon MFA program is a guarantee of individualized study with each of the faculty members in fiction or poetry. CRWR 605, Writing and Conference, is an individual tutorial, in which a first-year student works one-on-one with a designated faculty member to address specific issues of craft and literary preparation.” The alumni list at first glance doesn’t have many standout names (Chang-rae Lee is in there), but U of O ranks highly in placement, probably on account of so many graduates scoring prestigious fellowships, including three Stegner Fellows (Stanford) in five years. Highly competitive, and in a great location.
UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING (LARAMIE)
Bernadette Esposito, the aforementioned friend-of-a-friend and Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, lives in Laramie and told me to check this program out, and she was right. Before she suggested it, all I knew about Laramie was the Laramie Project (Matthew Sheppard was famously killed there, victim of a hate crime, and his story became a moving documentary play). But it’s got a lot going for it that speaks to me: a very small program (3 to 4 students each in fiction and poetry admitted every year) with a light teaching load with a recent influx of endowment monies that help to fund all students and bring top caliber visiting writers (such as Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Gourevitch, and Art Spiegelman). Brad Watson is the fiction professor there I’d most like to work with. They encourage cross-genre breeding and interdisciplinary studies, and help to fund all sorts of wacky extracurricular pursuits for their MFA students. And just to cut off the main concern at the pass, check out this assurance from program director Beth Loffreda about the livability of Laramie:
Laramie is a town that surprises many of our applicants, who sometimes worry that they’re moving to a remote place with a conservative culture. But the town is comfortable and intriguing, with vegan restaurants and yoga studios steps away from the local cowboy bars; and our program is committed to creating opportunities and a sense of welcome for students who might otherwise not call Laramie home. The gorgeously austere, light-struck landscape is an extraordinary place in which to write. The nearby mountains and national forests are perfect places for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, camping, and restful solitude.
In addition to all the funding they offer (in such an inexpensive part of the country, no less), “each student in our program is given an annual publication support budget, and has access to several hundred dollars of travel support from the program each year. Second-year students receive a week-long writing retreat at the Shortgrass Steppe station in Northern Colorado, funded by the MFA.” Oh yeah, and they offer travel grants if I need to go do research in, say, Spain (where I’ve traveled three times and spent more time than any other country I’ve visited).