Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Applications and Intimacy Issues

For those applying to MFA programs, Poets & Writers has put together past articles on the subject and bundled them in tidy PDF for $5. This saves you having to purchase entire past issues for that one MFA article you wanted. And yes here’s the plug: I’m in there for my article on life as an MFA TA.

My vote for most helpful article is not mine (because you’ll figure out everything you need to know about being an MFA TA as you do it) but Steve Almond’s Confessions of an MFA Applicant Reader. I read this article when I was applying. It talked me out of the tree and helped me focus on the important stuff, like remember we are all human beings. During the application process, in all the lists and transcript requests and spreadsheets and the GREs you’d think our ultimate goal in life is Vice President of Linux Operations. We forget that a person will read our story.

Consider this reader. Visualize. She sits at a desk or a kitchen table, or more probably at home, on a sofa. To her right is a box of envelopes. She worries that her own work is suffering. She is slightly depressed at this daunting task and knows that she should be grateful for her tenure track job but right now, she’d rather be watching the latest Joss Whedon release. It’s exhausting to read stacks of apprentice level work.

This writer, after refilling the wine glass (Malbec), flips past the paperwork, straight to the writing sample. The writer sighs, hoping but not expecting. If she’s hell yes on first read it goes in that pile. No goes in that pile. Some go in the maybe pile. At the end of this first sorting, then she re-evaluates. In this second wave she reads letters of rec and the statement, not expecting inspiration so much as scanning for red flags.

When we write letters and polish our stories and mail out to schools and agents and editors, we need to remember to connect, and not get all frazzled in these feelings of “out there.” I believe this intimacy is difficult for us as writers, because intimacy is awkward and terrifying. It’s one thing to say Syracuse didn’t like your story, and much worse to think George Saunders didn’t.

Ouch. Hurts. It hurts. That's why I didn't apply to Syracuse.

Think of the MFA application process as the first test, because if you can’t ward off the doublespeak now, you will drown in school. Academentia has this way of pulling you away from the reason you wanted to get an MFA in the first place. The meetings. The Rhet/Comp Portfolios. The 50 emails on campus parking updates. The time suck has the potential for infinity, but unlike a job, you have the option of saying no. The MFA years may or may not yield publishable work, but you have the opportunity to make writing a habit, something that has to get done or the day feels wrong.

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