2015, Archives, August 2015, The MFA Years

About those applications

Image: Mark Grapengater

Everyone has a “hardest part.” The research was mine. I started like any millennial would: I googled it: “MFAs,” “Graduate Programs for Writers,” “Creative Nonfiction MA programs.” I looked up my favorite writers to see if they taught anywhere; if they did, I researched that program. I found a few articles that helped me and many were listed on AWP’s website. AWP also has a fantastic search for programs that can be filtered for seemingly any criteria. I spent a lot of time there.

I wanted a program outside of Florida, because even though the swampy peninsula will be in my heart forever, I had to climb out of it into the rest of the contiguous 48. There’s a search on AWP that can filter writing programs by region. My guy and I love the west; he loves the snow, I love the views, we both love the hiking and the novelty of adventure. So I filtered to the regions west of the Mississippi. From there it can filter types of degree, genre, residential or low-res. You’ll have to then research the schools a bit more because their overview is brief, but its really a great jumping off point.

Of course, like most people, I pored over the rankings list in Poets and Writers. I also found Seth Abramson’s list of underrated (but wonderful) MFA programs and I searched each of those individually. I researched faculty and their personal websites. I read some of their books. I cared about their writing (though I feel that that goes without saying), but I also cared about how I thought I would feel working with them. Along the way I started to feel strongly about certain other things I wanted in a program (freedom to study cross-genre, graduate readings, internship possibilities), and I started to formulate a pretty personal list perfectly tailored to me. One thing that was a non-negotiable: the program had to be funded with at least an assistantship. It took me over a year to do my research and I had poked around the Internet a few times before that. I got books from Barnes and Nobles on grad schools. What I’m saying is, I didn’t “just know” where the programs were. I had to search.

The programs I finally shipped my apps to were these:

  • University of North Texas (MA)
  • University of Nebraska – Lincoln (MA)
  • University of Missouri – Columbia (MA)
  • University of California – Davis (MA)
  • University of New Orleans (MFA)
  • Oregon State University (MFA)
  • University of Minnesota – Mankato (MFA)
  • University of Utah (MFA)

I’ve been fielding the question of “Why an MA?” a lot, so I will attempt to explain my thinking. I didn’t happen upon creative writing until my senior year in college. I didn’t really know it was a field, CNF. I didn’t write fiction and though I love poetry, the one class in which I attempted to produce it made me very aware my inability to do so. And because I changed my majors more than a few times (I was a declared art major for the first two years of my undergrad), I felt that I needed a more secure footing in the field of literature. Besides, I wanted a more secure footing. I wanted to study close the amazing writers that had a hand at creating the literature that has shaped every other writer that came after. I wanted to read them, analyze them, know the conversation of which I hoped to become a part. I fell in love with theory during my senior year in college and I wanted more. I fell in love with modernism in college and I wanted more of that, too.

And finally, I knew I wanted to be engulfed in the world of literature and to stay there for my career, but I wasn’t sure the exact trajectory of that career. I knew I wanted to read, I knew I wanted to write and publish, and I knew I wanted to study. But I also want to teach (“at what level?” I don’t know yet) and I’m curious about editing. I forced myself to whittle down the list of programs into the single digits (those application fees) and I finally decided to split my programs down the middle: 4 MAs with creative writing emphases and 4 MFAs where I felt like I could also flourish.

I took the GRE. I studied vocabulary and I made faces at the math questions on the test hoping that it was true that the schools didn’t look at that part. It was hard. I took it once and then crossed it off my list.

The writing samples were, second to my research, the most difficult part of the application. In my years of living alone, I lived without wifi (the shock, I know) so I didn’t really know where the essay contests were, I didn’t look into the lit magazines or journals. I read novels and essay collections that I found at a bookstore in the next town over and old copies of The New Yorker that my boss brought to me when she and her husband had read them through. When I say I wrote essays for myself in journals at the kitchen table, I’m not being romantic or hyperbolic. And because I had become accustomed to my little bubble, I knew that I needed to write for a receptive audience again in order to prepare for my writing samples. So, I found a writing workshop I could attend after work (and after the hour commute it took me to get there).

The (creative) writing samples I went with were those that I wrote in the year before I submitted them. I wanted them to be recent. I wanted them to reflect who I was and I wanted them to show the voice that I had grown into in my years since undergrad. I thought, more than once or twice, “This is so bad. Holy shit this is bad. So, so, so bad.” Writers are self-deprecating, I’ve learned. I ended up tweaking both of my samples until hours before each deadline. Most of my applications I submitted mere hours (okay, minutes) before midnight of the last day possible. It was hard for me to let go.

I wrote a new Statement of Purpose for each program. Which might sound like it takes a lot of time, but it takes way more time than that. I treated it like a transcript for an interview without the questions. I wanted to answer anything that the admissions committee might ask if I were sitting in front of them and then I shortened it and made it flow. Again, time. I was more creative with the SOPs for the MFA programs than the MAs, but I made certain to hit my main points clearly.

And then I waited. We drank beer and I waited.

I found the MFA Draft on Facebook late into the process, but it was an incredible find. I hadn’t really spoken to many people about these schools or applications and suddenly there were so many voices from all over the country, the world. They had stats and opinions and contributions from current students. I didn’t post much in the Draft, but knowing that I wasn’t the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD waiting to hear was nice, because that’s how I felt at the beginning.

In the end, my acceptances were split down the middle: 2 MFAs and 2 MAs.

Two of the four schools didn’t offer funding for the first year, so what began as eight programs came to two. In the end, Missouri had it all for me: funding, faculty, personal communication, location, community, history. The PhD student and the professors there who fielded my embarrassingly exhaustive questions replied quickly with enthusiasm, but also with an honesty that made the school sound even more genuine. The MA students worked alongside the PhD students and I liked that, in case I decided to pursue that route. I wouldn’t teach until my second year in the program and hey, I liked that.  What can I say? Missouri had all of my criteria and I got good vibes.

It was incredibly hard turning down the other program because the faculty seemed great and the writing community felt close. But, I was nervous about the teaching load the first year and I was unsure of the location. Those things are second to faculty and writing community, but it came down to that. So, I was lucky. I had the hard decision of deciding between some really great programs. I was glad when I chose and could finally settle down and google image-search “pretty pictures of Missouri.” I could finally stop checking my email or the Draft. I could start looking for apartments and vegetarian restaurants here in Columbia.

So, yeah, the process is hard. It takes a long time and it makes you a little crazy. But once I found out that everyone feels like that, I felt better. Once I found a place to start my search, I felt better. Once I found the resources that made the waiting a little easier, I felt better. Little by little, I felt better. I was always comforted when I heard that other people had doubts, that other people had a bit of Imposter Syndrome (“I’m not a REAL writer, they’ll see right through me. They’ll kick me out when they realize. I can’t be a real writer. Real writers are something else.”). So just know that your doubts and neuroses are probably universal. It helped me to know that. It made the whole process, for me at least, just a little better.

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