When I was researching MFA programs, I admit I pooh-poohed Columbia out of hand. Word was the average grad had $60,000 in debt. I heard a few sordid workshop tales. Even the application fee was expensive. Why would anyone go there? I thought, as I practically applied to state schools that offered TAs.
I don't I regret my TA. If I had a huge student loan, I would be in a state of panic right about now. And I went to a program of which mere mention makes my heart clench in lost love. But I'm forced to admit, as I trek the murky swamps of the post-MFA, I see a goodly amount of Columbia MFA bylines. Especially in nonfiction. More than once I have read where Columbia grads (for instance Meghan Daum in one of my all time essay faves “My Misspent Youth”) debate the cost-effectiveness of the degree. Yet as my rejection-slip-covered soul devours the printed, published page I have to wonder. It can’t hurt to attend a program in a city where the vast majority of publishers, agents, and major magazines live.
It’s too bad Columbia and Montana can’t combine to form the perfect MFA mullet, business in the front – party in the back. Now that I’m facing the business end, I find myself turning to a book by a Columbia grad, Betsy Lerner, a poet MFA turned editor turned agent. I recommend her The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers for anyone in the pre-pre-writing stage, which means you aren’t actually writing, but reading books about writing.
Too busy you say? The book lists are long and the bathtub soaks too short? Okay, here’s the Sparknotes:
1) It’s tough, but hang in there.
2) Don't call the editor at home.
No, wait. I can do better:
1) Write as if your parents were already dead
2) If you are in a program or conference, use the time to learn from writers who are a notch or two above. (Of course the catch here is that you have to be willing to admit that).
3) Write with your ideal reader in mind (i.e. writing for everyone often translates into writing for no one).
4) Write the book you want to read
5) Write for your mentor or fiercest critic