Another chicken in the volcano

Huntington Beach sunset

As of Wednesday, I’ve completed all my applications for graduate school. My stepdad likens the process to throwing a chicken in the volcano—in the analogy, I think I’m a villager, and the adcoms are the Tiki gods. Or maybe they’re the chieftains who are meant to intercede on my behalf, and the volcano is the god. Either way, I used the analogy in my statement of purpose. Looking out my office window at that great stratovolcano Mount Rainier, I think it’s an apt metaphor.

Who the hell knows if I’ll get in this year. It’s a total crap shoot. I applied last year and didn’t succeed; it only made me double down. I improved my writing, and tried again.

If I fail a second time, I’m sure I’ll be disappointed. I was crushed last year. But my skin’s thickened a bit—does so every year. Take a core sample of me and you’ll find concentric rings of tough fiber, from the coarse outer bark  past the pliant phloem, down to the soft and sappy pith at my core. (Am I pithy? I’m well protected.)

I would love the chance to spend two or three years in an intense academic environment, with a community of writers that is intellectually serious and artistically playful. I’d love the opportunity for professional-grade feedback and mentorship, and the space to work on my novel (yes, there’s one in the works). I’d love to teach as well, if given the chance. I think I’d be good at it.

But lo, it is not the MFA that makes me a writer.

That would be writing. Sitting my flabby white ass down in a chair and writing, regularly and frequently, with passion, skill, and intent. And so I have, and so I will.

Still, I crave the guidance and structure. And maybe you do too: if you are reading this, there’s a chance you came upon this blog as a fellow MFA applicant. If so, maybe this is your first time applying. Maybe you are reading this in some future July, pondering whether or not to apply to MFA programs. So I say unto you: go for it. But learn from my mistakes, if they can be called mistakes.

It’ll be another month or two before I get any rejections (or acceptances, Volcano-willing), so rather than issue an exhortation of what to do and what not to do in your MFA application, I’ll instead just describe what I did and what I did differently this year. Take it with a giant salt lick, for now: this advice is not proven to work. It’s simply my learning curve, based on experience and informed by some wise advisers. Like I said: who the hell knows if this formula works—ask me again in a couple months.

WHAT I DID DIFFERENTLY WHEN REAPPLYING TO MFA PROGRAMS

  1. I spent far more time worrying about my writing sample, and far less time worrying about everything else: GRE scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, even my various statements of purpose and personal statements. Don’t get me wrong: each of these warrants diligence. But I followed some advice that seemed good, and really focused on perfecting my portfolio. I picked my very best work, stories that made me proud. I made sure more people read them. I made sure that more professional writers or editors or current MFA students read them—not just peers (though their input was invaluable as well). I was ruthless in revision. My stories ceased to be my babies to protect, and became my children to discipline and raise correctly. And ultimately, I recognized the difference between a story that is publication-ready and a story that is worthy of submission for grad school: my writing sample needn’t be perfect. At a certain point I stopped fucking with the ending of my main piece and let it be, knowing it was imperfect but also knowing too that the story as a whole reflects my skill and attention to craft.
  2. I applied to far more schools, with a broader range of acceptance rates, with more attention to personal fit. I started researching programs earlier in the year, and spent more time on it. Though Seth Abramson’s MFA rankings (found annually in Poets & Writers Magazine) are very useful and an excellent starting point for formulating a list of programs to apply to, they were not the end of my search: only the beginning. Mindful of conventional wisdom that warns against going into debt for an arts degree, I nevertheless sought out programs that spoke to me artistically, but which do not necessarily guarantee full funding for all admitted students. Many of these programs do offer a variety of funding options, from fellowships to teaching assistantships: they simply don’t guarantee them for all admits. Which means you’ll have to compete for them. Which means you’ll have to wait and see. Also, in recognizing fit, I learned a few things since last year:
  • An instructor’s writing style and his or her teaching style have little to do with one another, despite some websites’ admonitions to read up on their faculty pubs. The best I could hope for here was finding a writer who inspired me, in whom I found a “kindred spirit.” Sure, I want a teacher who shares a reciprocal admiration: but that had little to do with how much of their work I read. It never hurt me to read faculty publications — lord knows, I’ve learned a lot of craft this way — it’s just that reading the works of all potential faculty is time-consuming and expensive. So instead…
  • I read program websites and faculty member bios thoroughly. Most make their email addresses public: I was more shameless this year in contacting professors for whom I had questions. Direct contact is a great way to suss out mentor fit: I can measure how quickly they respond, how thoroughly or precisely, how friendly or encouraging was their tone.
  • I also contacted current MFA students (in my genre, mostly) wherever their email was volunteered on a program’s website. I asked them about the culture of the program, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what was their biggest surprise. Those are good questions, I figure.
  • I paid attention to what I was saying in my Statement of Purpose, and measured it against each program: was the program emphasizing mentorship and personal involvement of the instructors, or were they more laissez-faire in their pedagogy, giving me a fellowship to go write for a couple years without obligation, without course requirements? For me, structure and close mentorship are important. In addition to workshop, I want to take literature courses, attend lectures, and involve myself in discussions of craft. I’m frankly not good enough to be totally on my own just yet. That’s why a program like Cornell’s, though wonderful and prestigious, was off the list this year—I got the sense that its students are far more independent as writers. That’s also why programs like Bowling Green State, U of Illinois, and U of Michigan appeal to me so much. Hell, that’s why all the schools to which I’ve applied appeal to me.
  • Every program had to pass the “if and only if” test: If program X is the ONLY one to accept me, would I be happy to go? The answer has to be a resounding “Yes!” in order for me to bother applying.
  • Instead of applying to thirteen schools in Poets & Writers Top Fifty (hell, last year they were almost all top-twenty!), I applied to eighteen programs with a range of acceptance rates. I am aware that even the programs with the “lowest” selectivity still have acceptance rates around thirteen percent!! Not only are these NOT safety schools, but the admission process is inherently subjective. I mean yes, “good is good,” as Salman Rushdie says in his intro to Best American Short Stories 2008, and you can definitely spot “good” versus “bad” writing at a glance, but when ad-coms are winnowing applicants from a field of dozens, if not hundreds, of “good” writers, then the decision would seem to become more nuanced. I’ve seen it said by several ad-com members that there’s a surprising consensus when it comes down to it, and I believe that. But I also understand that when you’re trying to make that first cut, there are only one or two readers you need to impress: good is good, but how can that not be somewhat subjective? So, I put my money where my mouth is: if the MFA is that important to me, and moreover, if I expect to be paid for the privilege (or at least given some kind of funding or TA), then it seems worth the thousand-plus bucks it costs to apply to eighteen schools. I’m lucky: with a little careful money management, I can afford it. I know some are not so lucky: to those I’d express my truest empathy and commiseration, and my hope that they might be able to save up for it, or at least get lucky with a smaller list of schools.

That’s basically it: two things I did differently. Or rather, two categories of things, with aforementioned subcategories. There are also some things I did the same:

  1. I attended writing classes, workshops, and retreats throughout the year (in my case, the nonprofit Richard Hugo House in Seattle, where I gladly plunked down some coin for the chance to engage with a writing community, get and provide feedback, and generally improve myself.
  2. I read a lot. I’m a slow reader, but I’ve gotten a bit better—mostly as a result of watching less TV. I’ve read a mix of things—mostly fiction, some nonfiction, some magazines (I love my New Yorker subscription) and literary journals (Glimmer Train, Electric Literature, and PANK, to name a few), short story anthologies (Best American Short Stories, O’Henry Prizes, etc), collections (Dybek, Millhauser, Chekhov, McSweeney’s, Wolff, Percy, Houston, Tower, Raymond, Russell), and novels that I read purely for enjoyment (Cloud Atlas, The Sisters Brothers, The Lonely Polygamist, The Road, Gentlemen of the Road, The Savage Detectives, The Tiger’s Wife, Swamplandia!, Contents May Have Shifted, etc), and books on craft (Ron Carlson, Stephen King, Ursula LeGuin, Alice LaPlante, etc). Plus various and sundry stories and novel excerpts sent to me by friends and peers for revision, which always teach me something about something.
  3. I stayed organized: a huge Excel spreadsheet for whittling my application list down (initially) and for tracking app requirements (ultimately).
  4. Letters of Recommendation were still a headache, but I was diligent about pursuing them and reminding them, even as I was continually floored by my recommenders’ kindness and generosity.
  5. I continued to have a fairly strict “No Bullshit” policy in my statement of purpose, though I relaxed it a bit this year to allow for some more artiness to shine through. I aimed for a balance of wide-eyed and clear-eyed.
  6. Perhaps against my better judgment, I remained involved in online communities of fellow MFA applicants (particularly on Facebook), especially since my nearest literary community is in Seattle—I have to commute 45 minutes any time I want to interact with other writers. These are both a boon and a curse: I gleaned a lot of helpful information and willing readers, as well as made a few friends; but a lot of fucking time can be wasted here. I’ve periodically left the Facebook group to focus on the dumb, solitary business of being a writer.
  7. I continued in my spare time (gasp!) to write and revise, and submit stories for publication. No luck yet, but I keep throwing chickens in the volcano…

That’s all I can think of for now—it’s enough, nu?

I don’t expect or particularly want a flood of comments telling me how much I deserve to get in to a MFA program. “Deserve” has nothing to do with it: lots of people deserve it. Lots of people work for it. I worked for it. But ultimately, it is what it is. As much as I’d love to go to grad school and get a MFA, it’s not what makes me a writer. ‘Cuz I’m already doing that.

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