If any kid were predestined to eventually become an MFA creative writing enrollee, it would have been me. I know, I know, that’s an oddly specific destiny to have, and that may not even be the way predestination works, but shhh—I’m telling a story here.
I was that kid who was always writing. I entered middle school at the dawn of the digital age—yes, you’ve pinned me down, I’m a child of the ‘90s—and had written my first novel by the time I was twelve. I don’t put quotes around the word novel because it was, indeed, a novel. It had a beginning, a middle, and an ending, 100,000 words, character conflict and resolution (the protagonists were a bully and a geek, heady stuff). I’m not saying it was necessarily the best novel, or that I had completely outgrown my love of potty humor by that time, but, y’know, I was that kid. Sort of a nerd, but kind of a cool nerd? Maybe?
In tenth grade, a family friend told me that the University of Iowa had one of the best MFA fiction programs. My response? “Maybe I’ll go to the second-best program.” I didn’t really know anything about MFA programs, but I’d grown up in Los Angeles, and by that point, I’d been indoctrinated to imagine that any place between the coasts was just cornfields, Christian radio, and desolate Walmart parking lots (with the possible exceptions of Chicago, Denver, and Austin).
In any case, flash forward to this past spring, when I told my fellow Los Angelenos that I was moving to Tuscaloosa to attend the University of Alabama’s MFA program for fiction. I got looks of confusion, of concern, and I think many assumed that I was settling for my ultra backup safety school—why else would I want to go live in Alabama? “You know, they don’t have gay marriage in Alabama,” one of my coworkers said, as if this discredited the validity of the entire state existing (and which, we know, is no longer the case with the recent Supreme Court ruling).
Of course, I had some friends and family who didn’t react in this way, but I was surprised to be confronted by the very prejudices that I myself had subscribed to in high school, by the notion held among many people in Los Angeles that except for big cities like New Orleans and Atlanta, the rest of the South is a festering sore of Tea Party Republicans, Confederate flag-bearing rednecks, and Bible-thumping farmers. Yes, maybe I’m being a tad hyperbolic here, and conversely, I acknowledge there are some very real problems of intolerance and discrimination in the South, but these problems also exist in California. They exist everywhere in the United States.
Okay, let’s put away the politics for now. Here’s the scoop on my experiences with the MFA application process. This requires me to rewind a few years (with cassettes having all but disappeared, is the word “rewind” one day to suffer the same obsolescence as “pager” and “cowabunga”?) Back to rewinding—after high school, I went to Brown for college and studied Literary Arts and Writing for Performance (essentially fiction and playwriting).
From there, my plan was to teach for two years (I already had a job lined up at a progressive, alternative private school in Los Angeles, the sort of place where meetings end with “Namaste” and e-mails go out about teachers burning too much incense) and then to enroll in an MFA program in the fall of 2014. I knew that attending a fully funded program was a priority for me, and with that as a given, I didn’t have any real doubts about wanting to do an MFA.
After all, doing an MFA would give me several years in a structured, supportive writing environment—I’d be surrounded by a cohort of creative, talented people and since my eventual goal is to write as well as to teach creative writing at the college level, the decision to apply to MFA programs was a no-brainer. Plus, given that I’d been basking in the bliss of being single (bliss, is that what I’m telling myself?) for the past few years without any substantial responsibilities tying me to a particular location, I didn’t have to worry about geographic constraints.
My first go-around, I applied to ten programs. I was open to the potential of applying to fiction and playwriting programs, since I write both, but because there are many more funded programs in fiction versus playwriting, I leaned heavily in that direction. With my first round of applications, I mainly just applied to schools at the very top of the Poets and Writers rankings without doing much additional research into other programs. Upon reflection, this may seem, hmm, overly confident, but with strong letters of recommendation, a couple of publications, and what I considered a convincing writing sample/statement of purpose, I didn’t think it naive to imagine I could get into one of those programs (places like Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Irvine, Syracuse, etc.) Instead, I received ten rejections.
I wasn’t terribly disappointed. I wasn’t happy about the rejections, but neither did I feel like my soul had been crushed beneath the behemoth foot of the writing gods, or whatever you want to call people like George Saunders and Ron Carlson. I knew that I was setting my sights high and that statistically speaking, there was a good chance I wouldn’t get in anywhere that first round. My daily life in Los Angeles proceeded as usual—teaching, writing, hanging with friends, going on mediocre OkCupid dates—and I liked it well enough, I liked living in Los Angeles and cycling through that same routine. At the same time, though, I knew that the second time I sent out applications, I wanted to do everything I could to increase the chances of being accepted somewhere. I was ready for the next step.
Second round: I applied to a lot of programs this time, over twenty, again both fiction and playwriting programs. It was stressful and certainly expensive when you add up all the application fees, transcripts, GRE scores, etc., but since I was only applying to programs that had at least the potential for full funding, I considered this a worthwhile investment (although maybe not the happiest credit card bill in January). Furthermore, applying to MFA programs is in part a numbers game, since programs often have 2 to 4% acceptance rates, so the odds are just better the more programs to which you apply.
Similarities to the first round: I applied to most of the same schools again (plus a bunch of new ones), used the same recommenders, the same GRE scores, a very similar personal statement.
Differences: I submitted a different writing sample, choosing several short stories that better demonstrated my aesthetic range, rather than an excerpt from a novel I’d written (no, not the one about the bully and the geek). I also applied to a more diverse selection of schools. Yes, I kept those “top schools” in there, but as I took the time to think about what I was really looking for in an MFA program, I realized that factors like location, funding, professors, extracurriculars, etc. could be far more significant than a program’s ranking.
I was accepted into the University of Alabama, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Montana, and I was waitlisted for Washington University in St. Louis and NYU. The choice, in the end, was relatively easy to make. Neither University of Montana nor NYU planned to offer me any money, so those were automatically eliminated. I didn’t get in off the waitlist for Washington University in St. Louis. So ultimately, I was making a decision between the University of Alabama and the University of Washington in Seattle.
One huge perk of the University of Alabama’s program is that they paid to fly us out to the school for a “Prospective Students Weekend” to learn more about the program. Not only was this an exceedingly generous offer, but it convinced me that Alabama was the right place for me. The MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Alabama defies any stereotypes one may have pertaining to the state at large. The program is one of the most experimental/alternative in the country, so if you write something beyond strict literary realism (science fiction, surrealism, magical realism, cross-genre hybrids, etc.), this is the place to be.
Another unusual facet of the program is that students automatically have the option of staying for a fourth fully-funded year. This wasn’t something I had previously thought about much, but I do think it’s important to consider whether a program is two, three, or four years, and for me, I realized that I didn’t think a two-year program would be long enough. In addition, I was encouraged by the enthusiasm and affability expressed by the students currently in the MFA program at Alabama—while the MFA students here certainly take their writing seriously, they also believe in friendship and dating and all the other elements that lead to a rich, full life (these things may seem like something to take for granted, but some programs subscribe to a much more monastic philosophy of existence). So there you go–that’s how I ended up here, in Tuscaloosa, sitting in the Gorgas Library having just eaten delicious Chinese food leftovers from Mr. Chen’s for lunch.
My next blog post will be about the move from Los Angeles to Tuscaloosa and about my first classes here. In the meantime, here are a few fun facts to keep you occupied:
Currently Cooking: Spaghetti Squash Marinara with Pasta and Fresh Mozzarella
Current Podcast: “The Problem We All Live With–Part Two” on This American Life
Current Music: Andrew Bird’s album Useless Creatures”
Current Reading: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski