2017, Archives, October 2017, The MFA Years

Let’s Find You Some Help

Hello applicants! Long time no talk.

Well, actually, I’ve spoken to a couple applicants lately, mostly people with questions about their statements of purpose or doing the MFA with a kid (feel free to email me about either of these things, for real).

But you know what I wish more people would email me about? The actual writing. Just putting it out there that you should show your actual writing to as many people as possible, getting all the advice you can wrangle out of them, before you spend hundreds of dollars applying for grad school. Maybe you already knew this, in which case you can skip a couple paragraphs to the part of this article where I list specific venues for you to get critiques from other people.

If you didn’t already know this though, maybe stop and consider for a moment a few of the harshest realities of The Writing Life:

1. You’re not a prodigy. You may genuinely believe you’re a prodigy, but so does this guy. So does everybody, at one point or another. It’s almost never true.

(Note: Please don’t write me any hate mail about how I’m wrong and you’re special. The only person who’s allowed to tell me that is my poet friend who got into Syracuse with a sample he didn’t show a single other human being, and the reason he’s special is he wouldn’t waste his time shouting about it to strangers on the internet. You aren’t him, so go find a workshop.)

2. It’s very likely you’ll bust ass in all directions forever to compensate for not being a prodigy. Become okay with this.

3. Other people are getting help with their MFA samples from paid professionals or the undergrad writing professors who have already taken a shine to them, thereby getting a leg up on the poor suckers who imagine it is somehow purer to work in isolation. Don’t be one of the suckers.

Yes, I know these were very harsh realities. Again, it would be great if you didn’t write me any hate mail, because sometimes my fingers get tired from hitting the delete button.

Anyway, you may have very real obstacles in the way of getting yourself some help, and this is okay. It happens. Work with what you’ve got. I filled out all my apps while employed and raising a small kid, and sometimes I totally hit that Submit button in class (I’m very sorry about this, Professor Davis). Being a busy mom working on grad apps really sucked, is what I’m trying to tell you, and I might have done better if I’d gotten enough sleep at any point in the proceeding three years, but that’s life. I still got in a few amazing places, and you can as well. Maybe you’ve been out of school for a while, but there are workshops outside of school. Maybe you’re way too broke to afford any of the places I’m about to list, but hey! Some have scholarships! Maybe you have no free time for the actual writing. I didn’t either. Your choices are to either sleep less, or admit that you need another year and plan accordingly. (Taking an extra year doesn’t make you a failure, by the way. It makes you wise.)

So without further ado, let’s talk about places where a person can workshop. You can workshop via conferences, at in-person classes, or online. What all of these opportunities have in common is that you’ll tend to get better advice if your instructor is qualified, and if your classmates aren’t random people off the street. Go for a workshop with someone whose work is well published and well received. Try for workshops that make you submit a manuscript, rather than workshops that take anybody with money. Try some of these:

In-person and online weekly workshops

The Loft

Grub Street

Writers & Books


Sackett Street 

Brooklyn Poets 


One Story

Writers’ Extension

Local universities, which may offer the chance to take individual workshops to people who aren’t current students.

Conferences and Weeklong Workshops


Tin House

Tent (Jew-ish, but admissions are open to the goys)

VONA (POC only)

One Story

Writing by Writers


Bread Loaf


There are good reasons to do this. Maybe you’ve got time constraints that make it hard for you to participate in an actual workshop in which you are expected to also read and critique other people’s work. But be savvy and realistic. Know the rules, and manage your expectations. I know plenty of people who paid someone to help with their apps, with mixed results.

This sort of help is, for starters, much more expensive, and sort of a gamble–whoever you pay may just happen to not get your thing, whereas a workshop with several people is more likely to contain at least one person who is on your wavelength. A human who is getting paid to help you will feel awkward about telling you when your work is just not up to snuff, but a group of humans in a workshop will include those who have nothing to lose by being brutally honest with you. A person directly in your pay, operating as some sort of tutor, can’t write you a letter of recommendation, but a person running your workshop can.

There’s also the fact that a lot of people offering this service are not necessarily expert enough to reliably help you. Blame the oversaturated market for grad-level creative writing degrees if you want. There are a lot of former students out there who will absolutely never be professors, but they still have to eat; you can’t really blame them for trying to pick up whatever sort of freelance work people are willing to pay them for.

Still, you should know this: simply getting an MFA, even if it’s from a top program, doesn’t really qualify someone to take your money, and does not guarantee that said someone can get you into a comparable program. Or even if your helper has excellent publications but went to a very low-tier MFA, that’s often a red flag. If you’re going to spring for this sort of help, go to a person who not only went to the sort of MFA you want to attend, but teaches writing for a living, has worked an MFA’s admissions process in some capacity, and/or has a book deal with a Big Five publisher (or an associated imprint).

Someone with, say, my level of expertise should not be charging you. Don’t offer me money, for real. I don’t have a book and I didn’t go to Iowa, okay? In a world where Myla Goldberg offers her one-on-one services, I shouldn’t be an option. (Bee Season is everything contemporary Jewish writing should be and Myla if you’re reading this I admire you so much.)

Anyway, if you can’t afford Myla, just take one of the classes above, because that will be more productive than hiring the wrong guy. And hey, if you’re reading this and think I’ve left a cool opportunity off the lists above, feel free to mention them in the comments.