Thursday, October 9, 2008

Post MFA Pep Talks (Pump Your Fists, Say Yeah!)

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


Shane Dayton said...

I think the hardest part for me post-MFA program is that I spend so much time writing for work or freelance writing that getting motivated to sit down and write on my old work can sometimes seem like a real chore. Just staying with it and being my own harshest editor is what I have to work on, but I'm sending out the novel manuscript in November, so something's going right :) Great blog, I favorited it, so I'll be sure to check it in the future, and thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I'm a pre-MFA-er, so maybe I should cover my ears and say la-la-la-la, but it's actually reassuring to hear that MFA or not, you all are just folks and have the same bouts of angst and doubt that I do. Many thanks and good karma wishes for putting this out there! One question: I notice you link to the U of Washington; do you know anything about that program for fiction? I thought I understood that you all went to Montana(swoon---one of my top 5). Best wishes to you in life, love and art.

Trina said...


We have the UW link up because our sometime guest blogger Amy Schrader graduated with an MFA in poetry from there two years ago. I unfortunately don't know anything about their fiction program but I'll see if I can pry some inside info out of her.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Trina; that'd be great to hear any pried information from Amy re: UW. In the process of applying, everything seems so surreal, like I'm not sure REAL people are actually writing these essays or reading these apps or actually going to these schools. It's like it all exists in some Internet reality or I've gone a little crazy, like Russell Crowe in "Beautiful Mind." Thanks for all you do.

Laura said...

Hey Lisa,

Yeah, I remember when the application process felt like that. I didn't know about any of these blogs or anything either. And I had been out of school for fifteen years. But while the grad schools and the English departments make the application process oh,so complicated, it's really very simple. A few writers (who also happen to have these teaching jobs) take home a box of folders. They read the writing samples and sort them out in piles. They might peruse the SOP and the letters of rec just to see if anyone is psycho. After the writers have a pile of yeses (people they would like to work with) they confer with the other writers in the dept (maybe one or two) and make the harder choices. Then the final picks get a phone call. And that's kind of it.

That's why it's important to apply to a few places. While the first weed out is easy, the final cuts are very hard, and very subjective.

CVMoore said...

"It’s too bad Columbia and Montana can’t combine to form the perfect MFA mullet, business in the front – party in the back."

What about an MFA G-string???

My heart clenches in lost love for Montana too, but I am grateful for its total lack of business sense (at least while we were there). I liked the extreme, and I don't think I would feel so strongly about MT if it weren't extreme in that way. As we have seen lately, markets come and go. The superb teaching we were exposed to and the nurturing and noncompetitive circle of writers we are now a part of sustains.

Amy Schrader said...

Hey Lisa...I'm the UW-er in the mix, and Trina asked me to share my thoughts on the program. Unfortunately, I was on the poetry side of things, and I can't really speak too confidently about the fiction side. In general, as far as I could tell, poets and prose-writers alike were very happy in the program. Did you have any specific questions?

Anonymous said...

Hi Amy,
Thanks for the response so quickly! The PostMFA-ers are already proving to be such a generous, thoughtful and kind bunch of human beings. Here are my specific questions:
1) Funding---were you a TA and, if so, how was the work load? Was funding competitive? (I see on the web site the application for TA-ship, but don't see much else specific in the way of funding)
2) Collegial atmosphere---supportive vs. cutthroat/back-stabby
3)Availability of faculty advisors
4)Slant of program---academic/critical vs. studio (I looked at a Fall Quarter syllabus and freaked out; the reading lists seemed geared to PhD's in literary criticism. I think I'm just ignorant!
Thanks for any tidbits that would help me make a decision. Best wishes to you, Amy.

Amy Schrader said...

Hi Lisa,

1) I was actually not a TA, for a couple of different reasons. While in school, I was working 50% time at the UW (an office job that I had before enrolling in the MFA program), so I was fortunate enough to be eligible for the Washington State Employee Tuition Exemption program, whereby I got to take 6 credits per quarter free of charge. I also have no desire to be a teacher, ever, so it really wouldn't have been a logical step for me career-wise. There are some TA-ships at the UW, but my impression at the time was that there weren't quite *enough* of them, but I could be wrong. It's a state school, so money is tighter than at, say, the Michener Writer's Program at UT Austin, where all students are fully funded for 3 years. With no teaching duties, even!

2) Collegial atmosphere: Very supportive and not in the least bit cutthroat or back-stabby. Every poet was really pulling for every other poet, and we all admired each other and wanted to help each other become the best poets we could be. I really liked the wide range of styles that the poets had: narrative, ekphrastic, prose poems, lyric poems, formal verse. All styles were respected and each poem was critiqued with an eye to what the poem was trying to do. There really wasn't too much of that "workshop all the personality out of each poem until they all sound the same" thing going on. Our class wasn't as tight as the class before us or the class after us, but I think that was because several of us were "older" (myself included, ahem) and we had wives and husbands and there were even a few folks with kids, so we all were kind of doing our own thing. But I connected with several people in all of the classes I encountered. Plus, there was a good relationship between fiction folks and poets...none of that weird inter-genre hostility that you get in some programs.

3) Faculty advisors were available to me when I needed them. I would say that the faculty (at least the poetry faculty) at the UW is pretty reserved & self-contained, but they are absolutely willing to be there for the students who make the effort to seek them out.

4) Slant of program: academic/critical vs. studio.
You really have the choice to go either way here. There are lit courses required, and you can take the lit courses with the M.A. and Ph.D. lit students if you are brave and like that kind of abuse. But there is also a series of courses called "Creative Writer as Critical Reader" (Eng 581), which is like lit crit lite. You can take this course every time and still fulfill the lit requirement. These courses focus more on craft than criticism, and these are the ones I took, and loved every one. One focused on forms in poetry, another focused on "the image" in poetry and what that means, there was one on ambiguity in poetry...not all of them are poetry-focused, but those are the ones I took. In addition, you do need to write a critical essay as well as put together a creative manuscript in order to graduate, and that may or may not scare you. It wasn't too bad (20 pages minimum, I think) and there is a lot of leeway in the topics you can write about. I think the administration were particularly easy on the poets, because the general consensus is that poets can't really write sentences, haha!

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have additional questions.

Noname said...

My best friend was a fiction writer who went to Columbia at the same time I went to a different MFA program, where I had the more typical TA/lit classes/in addition to workshops experience. She had a totally amazing experience, already has an agent and is close to getting a book contract etc.

I don't have any debt since I got full funding, but I hated my program; it was so miserable and I wonder all the time if I would've had a better experience going to Columbia (where I did get in).

I'm jealous, I guess, of your nostalgia for your MFA, because I can't wait to get the hell outta here.