2016, April 2016, Archives, The MFA Years

So Your BFF/Child/Spouse Is Applying for an MFA

Image: Simon Law

The application process is so angsty. You assemble this huge, painstaking packet, send it out, notice all your typos, agonize, send out a better version to the next school, wait a few months, notice other people getting into your top schools and posting to the internet about it, recognize a name from your last online writing workshop, ask yourself how the hell a hack like that landed at the MFA of your dreams, hate them, hate yourself, get your waitlist letter, get your rejection letter, get your acceptance letter, eat too many Girl Scout cookies, develop elaborate conspiracy theories, negotiate your funding, track waitlist movement, say yes to one school, turn down the others, ask yourself if you’ve made the right decision, cry, order too much Chinese food, and start looking at U-Haul rentals.

It’s hard to come out of this sane.

And then there’s friends and family. I was recently chatting with a group of applicants online, and people were both grateful for family support . . . and frustrated their families didn’t understand. Sure, friends and family love you and are trying to help, but how helpful is it, really, to have someone try and convince you to judge all potential MFA programs on the strength of the university’s football team? (Hint: This is not helpful.)

What follows is a crash course for the loved ones of MFA applicants, background information with an eye towards helping you respond to the stressed-out MFA applicant in your life with tenderness and understanding, compassion and realism.

Let’s begin.

MFAs are for literary fiction. “Literary” in this case is not a value judgment; think of it instead as a genre. The hallmarks of this genre are a focus on language, a tendency to challenge the reader, explorations of moral ambiguity, complex characters who are neither “good guys” nor “bad guys,” and an emphasis on unpredictability and freshness of plot. Sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, horror, romance, and young adult are not usually considered literary fiction (although there are a few MFAs that also teach them), in part because all of these other genres are kind of predictable.

Which isn’t a dig! It’s just that these other genres rely on certain tropes and schema, and part of the pleasure of reading these other genres is watching those tropes and schema be played out and played with. When I read a murder mystery, for example, part of the pleasure is in the twist, the sudden shift in perspective that makes it clear to me whodunit. The existence of the twist is predictable, but I love it. A literary fiction workshop might not have any patience for that sort of move.

Few MFAs make a living from writing alone. What all those genres I just listed have in common is that they make a lot of money! Unfortunately, literary fiction makes less money. There are precious few literary authors whose novels support them; nearly all take teaching posts of some kind in order to live. So your MFA applicant friend is almost certainly never going to make the big bucks, is probably not aiming to make the big bucks.

The MFA is helpful. You might be confused as to why your friend or family member can’t just go somewhere and write for a couple years. You might say something like “JK Rowling doesn’t have an MFA! Shakespeare never got an MFA!” because you forgot that JK Rowling doesn’t write literary fiction and/or that MFAs did not exist when Shakespeare was alive.

We live in a society that devalues writing, so it might be helpful in this moment to imagine you’re speaking to someone in another academic field.

Ask yourself, if this person told you they were interested in becoming a mathematician, would you tell them to just go somewhere and do math on their own for a couple years? No! You’d encourage them to pursue math-related academics, maybe even earn a PhD. This is because you recognize that people can improve at math quickly when an expert is giving them pointers in a structured environment, when they have gathered with other math students to bounce ideas off each other. This is because you recognize that mathematicians find it easier to research, to access expensive academic journals or attend academic conferences, when they have an institution backing them. This is because you’re aware that mathematicians need credentials if they hope to someday get hired to research or teach.

Turns out, all of the above applies to artists, including writers. It helps to network with the people who might someday publish or hire you, and that happens in grad school. It helps to learn from a person who has already achieved some measure of success with writing, so that person can teach you not just how novels are typically structured but how to interact with agents and editors and department chairs. It helps to have access to research grants in case you want to travel for a story. It helps to have access to a respected journal’s submissions system (and most publishers of literary journals are MFA programs these days) so you can get an idea of what other writers are trying to publish and why it usually fails. It helps to gain teaching experience, to have a professor who can write you a recommendation letter to residencies and conferences and jobs. It helps to get paid to work part-time or not at all, with the understanding that you’re incubating a creative work.

Many MFAs are fully funded, by the way. This means that every student in the program has all tuition and fees paid, plus a living stipend, usually in exchange for teaching or some other form of assistantship. Maybe you didn’t go to grad school, or you went to the expensive kind of a grad school in order to become a medical professional, lawyer, or teacher. But across most academic disciplines, terminal degrees are not something you pay for. And the MFA is considered a terminal degree in writing. This is why there are several dozen MFA programs in the US that will pay all students to attend, and many more that will pay some students to attend. Mind, there are hundreds of MFAs these days, so there are still many more unfunded than funded spots. Still. Nobody has to go into debt for a writing degree.

If a friend or family member tells you they want an MFA, this isn’t a whole lot less reasonable than them telling you they want a PhD in math, in the sense that they can live off a crappy grad student stipend for a few years before discovering there are no jobs left in academia, haha. At this point the mathematician has a decided advantage, because there are still decent jobs in industry for people who can crunch numbers, but you know, it’s not as if the MFA grad is totally helpless. They’ll wind up somewhere that values their unique skills, or if they don’t, well, it might not be the MFA’s fault.

MFA quality doesn’t always correlate with undergrad quality. Columbia is an exclusive Ivy League, and many of us would kill to go there for undergrad, but their MFA program is not exclusive or well-funded. The vast majority of the people who attend, so far as I can tell, never publish much of anything. Iowa is the most famous MFA, but not the best undergrad in the world by a long shot. The worth of individual graduate school departments just has so little to do with the worth of the undergrad experience at the same institution.

Having been published is no guarantee. So this might be a separate post, but anybody can get published. There are hundreds of litmags out there spewing forth all sorts of garbage, and in that setting, “I’m published” means precisely jack. In fact, it might hurt your MFA applicant friend to try bragging to the admissions committee about having work out in a place that has no vouching process, and is known to inflict bad writing on its pitifully small audience. Sorry.

Worse, there are real-life authors applying for these things, people who have books out or under contract, a ton of prizewinning poets. Folks whose stories have appeared in some of the best venues. Your writer friend or family member probably shouldn’t consider previous publication a huge deal unless they’ve just won a Pushcart, or a Big Five publishing house is set to publish their novel.

Even worse! It still might not matter. I’ve seen both poets and fiction writers with published books get turned down absolutely everywhere they applied.

Odds are high they can get in. As I mentioned above, there are hundreds of MFA programs accepting vast numbers of applicants each year. Pretty much anybody can get into one of them. Can your loved one attend an MFA? Sure. So can your mailman, the guy who just rung out your groceries, the woman sitting next to you on the train, the nurse who just drew your blood for your annual physical, the other parents from your kids’ daycare, etc.

Odds are low they can get into a program worth attending. So a program worth attending will not plunge a student into debt, meaning it is fully funded. There are also some good options for people who can’t move, cheap local schools like Brooklyn College and Hunter, or low-res programs with scholarships and some measure of exclusivity, like Warren Wilson. What all the really excellent full-res programs have in common is that their admissions rates hover between one and five percent, just a little bit lower in fiction, a little bit higher in poetry, and noticeably higher in creative nonfiction, for which there are far fewer applicants.

One to five percent is not a lot of percents. It’s lower than the odds of getting into a top-tier law or medical school, to give you some idea.

The odds are low because most people are awful writers. Even the people you care about. Let that sink in for a moment.

. . .

And we’re back. Remember that thing I said about how the admissions rates are comparable to top medical and law schools? Well, there’s an important difference between those and the MFA. At top medical and law schools, most applicants have some idea of what the work will entail, impressive resumes full of seriously cool accomplishments, an incredible work ethic, rigorous training, and so on. Top-tier law and medical schools are picking out a small percentage from a vast pool of candidates who are, mostly, pretty good.

This is simply not so with the MFA. MFA applicants, by and large, can’t write. They rarely have any relevant experience, such as an internship at a decent literary magazine. Most have average to poor work ethic, and their training has been anything but rigorous. It’s safe to say the majority have never really sat down and asked themselves, “Is this piece working as is, or should I change it?” When asked by profs and mentors to revise a story that’s not working, they will make minor, surface-level fixes that don’t actually help. Or they’ll just stomp off in a huff, furious with whoever told them their first efforts weren’t perfect.

The average MFA applicant is not good, I mean really not good. I’ve had occasion to ask people who’ve read applications at five schools, four of those fully funded and the last a partially funded full-res, and the consensus is that about half of MFA applicants are just obviously unprepared for graduate school of any kind. Their recommendation letters are lukewarm at best, written by friends rather than employers or mentors. Or their transcripts are desperately spotty. Or their statements of intent indicate they’re both delusional about the purpose of graduate study and hard to get along with. Or they write core speculative fiction, not literary fiction. Or they sent a collection of flash fiction or a novel excerpt when the program specifically mentioned on its website that short stories were best. Or they’re severely lacking in the technical fluency that it takes to write coherent prose in any variety of American English. Or their writing tries too hard to be clever. Or their stories are actually just a series of potshots at teachers or parents or ex-lovers by whom they feel wronged. Or nothing actually happens in the entire twenty-five page manuscript.

The list goes on.

It is possible for the people you care about to be bad at things. I wrote before that we live in a society that devalues writing, but the more accurate statement is that we live in a society that simultaneously devalues and elevates all arts, writing included. The devaluation means that people are encouraged from a young age to take science, math, and technology fields very seriously, writing and other arts less so. We certainly don’t spend fifth grade working as hard on our fiction as we do on our algebra.

The devaluation also means that many people are never ever encouraged, from kindergarten through undergrad, to read current works of great literary fiction and poetry by great contemporary authors. At most, schools will require everybody to slog through several “classics,” which underprepared students may find incomprehensible and unrelatable. And that’s it. It’s no surprise that people with so little exposure to the work of MFA writers do such poor impressions of MFA writing.

There’s also a problem of writing being a squishy non-STEM field, the quality of which educators might feel is impossible to judge or quantify. Writing cannot, the old saw goes, be rigorous, because there’s no such thing as right or wrong writing, or at least no way to judge it. I’d argue that such an attitude not only degrades those writers who are in fact doing things right and rigorously, but acts as a backhanded insult to the art itself, a way of implying that what we do is just plain easier than math or science, which is simply not the case. It’s easier to be a beginning writing student than a beginning math or science student, extremely difficult to be a true expert in any of these fields.

On the other hand, there is the elevation of writing, the chief problem of which is that so many of us equate a person’s prose with that person’s very soul. If the soul is somehow good enough, then a totally untutored writer will just spill out their beautiful essence on paper (or into a computer screen), and that’ll be it. Genius. If the soul is lacking, then they might need help.

But of course, such an attitude discourages folks from admitting they have ever made an error in the work, discourages them from extensive revisions even when those are needed, since extensive revisions amount to an admission that one’s soul didn’t shine through perfectly on the first try. Such an attitude discourages seeking out mentors or instruction, because a true genius would have no use for either. Encourages ostentatious displays of “depth” or “cleverness,” because these are thought to demonstrate the depth and cleverness of writer souls. Discourages all the things that might make some of the more woefully underprepared applicants competitive.

And worse, this attitude discourages rigor in instruction and realistic assessments of the self, let alone realistic assessments from friends and family. After all, teachers can’t say anything to the effect of “This sucks” if it’s the soul they’re talking about. Friends and family think the writer is a good person. If the writing is that good person’s soul, then they cannot imagine the writing is bad.

At the same time, the idea of being a famous writer is so romantic. After all, to be a famous writer is to have a famously good soul. It’s the sort of fantasy that appeals to people who aren’t getting much out of their day-to-day lives for some reason, and here we are.

If you get anything out of this blog, understand that your lover or spouse or parent or child might just suck at writing, even if they don’t suck in any other way. You are encouraged to keep loving them, but you don’t have to assure them they’re a shoo-in for a slot at Iowa. (Assume the person you’re trying to encourage has an excellent ear for false praise, because most of us do.)

The process is not that subjective or random. If your loved one fails to garner admission to any livable MFAs, don’t pretend this is a matter of sheer bad luck. That’s just never the case. There are maybe some arbitrary decisions happening in terms of who is admitted and who only makes it to the waitlist, and some unlucky people who get more waitlists than admissions when the decision could have gone either way. But if someone applies to a dozen schools and gets into none, not even making the waitlist, then that is a sign. By pretending otherwise, you discourage them from learning a valuable lesson.

And yet, some people fall through the cracks. There are applicants who do not have time for sexy writing-adjacent professional experience, for good grades in undergrad or submitting their work for publication, because they’re fucking busy. This is the reality of being a non-traditional student, a parent, a person of color or a member of the working class—you can’t do as much to appeal to graduate schools when you’re worried about some real-life shit. You’re more likely to be overlooked or seen as “pushy” or “hostile” by the professors who should be writing your rec letters. You may not have any idea how to write a statement of purpose that doesn’t make you come across as “difficult,” and you may not have any access to a person who is willing to tell you. None of these things matter as much as the sample, but they all matter to someone, to one degree or another.

There are applicants who come across as difficult, and I believe I was one, mostly because they’ve had difficult lives. People who give off a few unhelpful signals in their application packets, but are, in the end, being unfairly judged.

Thing is, there’s maybe one of these strong writers getting turned down from top schools for every fifty who just can’t write. Think hard before you assure anybody X school was just stupid for not accepting them.

Writing improves. If your loved one doesn’t get into an MFA on the first try, encourage them to regroup and try again. Really. I was the only fiction writer in my cohort who had never applied to MFAs before. There are plenty of students at my fully funded program and others who applied twice, or even three times.

If they get turned down, the logical response is not to pretend the whole thing never happened. They need to up their game for next time. Writing is not the soul, remember? The same person’s writing can make incredible leaps via sustained practice, such that they go from a slew of rejections to an admission to Michigan. This happens.

There’s plenty else a person can do with their life. Are you aware there’s a shortage of welders, that a person who goes out for welding is going to be making twice as much money as me in ten years? Just putting that out there.

If we abolish the myth that writing is the soul, that frees up a lot of space for people to go out and do whatever, confident in the fact that they’re good enough, lovable, worthy, and cool. Plumbers have great souls (shout out to James, who stayed in my basement until midnight last winter when the heater suddenly gave out). It is just not tragic when a person decides writing’s not their thing, that they’d rather repair cars. It is absolutely okay to pursue any calling that puts food on the table. Not all of us can or should be artists. Every accountant I have met was a nice, smart person who deserved happiness.

I guess what I’m saying is, if your loved one is an awful writer getting nothing but rejection from MFAs over multiple years, then the correct response is to bake them a cake, get them drunk, remind them they’re everything to you . . . and talk to them about becoming a CPA.

Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.