For the next two months we’ll be asking some of our first year contributors to talk about the post application period and how they dealt with it last year.
What did you do to get through the post application period?
In the period that I was applying to MFA programs, a couple of beta readers were reading an early draft of my novel. It just so happened that I finished my applications around the same time that they finished reading and gave me feedback, so I threw myself into rewriting the novel. It was the perfect distraction because while I didn’t feel up for generating new work at the time, I felt like rewriting was something I could actually do. So I spent most of December and January wrestling with edits. And then, having decided that MFA application anxiety was, y’know, not quite crippling enough, I decided to query agents as well. Querying agents was a whole different level of anxiety and I definitely don’t recommend this. On hindsight, my social media / email addiction really started around this period of time, when I was constantly checking draft for MFA news, stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing my email. So I wouldn’t say to do what I did, but maybe some version of this. E.g. if you don’t feel up to writing new work, find some existing piece of writing that you can throw yourself into and wrestle with. Or if you have another project (new filing system, redecorating your room, exercising, adopting a cat), that can be helpful to take your mind off the wait.
What’s the best piece of advice you received about applying?
Aim high, aim for your dream schools — even if you don’t get in, you can always apply again next year. Don’t rule out schools because you think you won’t get in. It’s so hard to know where we ‘stand’ as writers, if that even makes sense as a concept. I’d been writing about 3 years when I applied to MFAs and was convinced I would get rejected everywhere; after all, my journal acceptance rate was dismal (around 0.5%, maybe less) at the time. Surely MFA programs would be more difficult to get into than the lit journals that they house (I now know this is not true for a variety of reasons, one of them being I am still getting rejected by lit journals housed in programs that accepted me). I ended up getting into several programs which I hadn’t expected at all, but if I hadn’t, I would’ve applied again next year, and the next. So I guess the same advice applies to MFA applications as to writing in general: persist.
Biggest high? Biggest low?
I’ll start with biggest low, because that came first. Syracuse was the first of my choices to start notifying. It was also my top choice and dream school, so when the acceptance notifications started to come out on Draft and I hadn’t heard anything, I was crushed. Then I got a rejection email (which as some of you know is a form letter that starts with “Dear Applicant”, lol), followed by computer-generated rejections from Cornell and UVA. Then followed several days of silence while other people celebrated acceptances on Draft and I was convinced my fears of not being accepted anywhere were true. I’d been preparing myself for it but still, to be faced with the possibility that I wouldn’t be going to an MFA program that year was a stab in the heart.
The biggest high came after that stretch of silence, when I got a phone call from a New York number at work one day. It was Deborah Landau, offering me a place at NYU and their Writers in Public Schools fellowship, which would cover tuition and offer a $27k annual stipend. I went into a meeting room to cry after that phone call (no one at work knew I was applying to grad school). But it wasn’t over — that same day, I was waitlisted by Michigan and accepted by Indiana. After the rejections of the past week and becoming convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere, it was a high like no other. I ended up getting other acceptances, acceptances from schools I would never, ever have imagined getting into and that stunned me and also made me cry (I did a lot of crying in February / March 2017), but that first acceptance was golden.
What would you do differently if you could apply all over again?
I would try to be kinder to myself. Often I felt like it was life or death when I was applying, while on hindsight, the MFA application process and the MFA itself are just steps in what is (hopefully) a long journey as a writer. I would try to remember that regardless of the application outcome, I had managed to write fiction on my own for years. Even if I didn’t get into an MFA, I would just keep chipping away. I would still be a writer, and no rejection could take that from me.
In the second year of my M.A. program, I’ve had the opportunity to teach my own introductory fiction course to undergraduate students. Creative Writing courses tend to draw a diverse group of students, especially because my intro course fulfills a general education requirement. I have students from all different disciplines, not just English— biology, engineering, poli-sci, agriculture, you name it. My students also range from freshman to so-called “super seniors.” Moreover, the UC Davis student population is racially diverse (only 26% of the freshman class of 2016 was white), and my classroom reflects the wider demographics of the school. With that in mind, I’ve needed to craft a syllabus that will both fit my students’ needs and fulfill my learning objectives. To do this, I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on readings by writers of color and women on my syllabus.
In my course, my students read Junot Diaz’s story “How to Date A Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” to discuss 2nd person point of view. They read Yiyun Li’s portrait of a retired art teacher in “A Man Like Him” to discuss character-based stories. James Baldwin’s story “The Man Child” teaches them about masterful beginnings and endings. They enter the science fiction universe of Charles Yu in “Standard Loneliness Package” to understand how stories can make metaphor reality. They explore the rich language of Angela Carter’s feminist fairy tale “The Bloody Chamber.” This is just a sampling of the stories I teach, but what ties them together is my overarching goal of representing the experiences of many different types of people, instead of just a few.
This isn’t to say that I’ve banned white male writers from my course, or purged them entirely from the syllabus. I pick the readings for each week based on a craft element that we’re going to discuss: for example, setting, character, or point of view. For some of these craft elements, I have a favorite story by Raymond Carver or George Saunders that I use. But I’ve realized that if I just rely on my “go to” short story classics, the ones I was taught in undergrad, I would end up with a syllabus with a lot of white writers and not much else.
We have to be able to acknowledge that yes, white male writers were formative to the genre of the short story without presenting their work as the only models for storytelling. My solution is to make their voices present in my syllabus, but in the minority, while bringing people of color and women writers to the forefront. By doing this, I believe that my students gain more from the class than they would if I were not specifically picking diverse readings. Here’s a list of some of the reasons why I think it’s important to expose my students to a diverse pool of authors.
Representation matters. This phrase has almost become a truism because it’s repeated so often, but it bears repeating. Representation matters. Many of the “classic” short stories are written by white middle class heterosexual people about problems that white middle class heterosexual people face. Students who do not share that background may feel alienated if these are the only stories we have them read. If, however, students can see themselves in the stories, through stories with writers and characters that share their background and understand their experiences, they will connect to the stories. They will also be able to see themselves as writers if they have role models who are like them.
I know this certainly happened for me. In my first writing workshop in college, my professor Fae Ng, who was a badass writing role model herself, introduced me to the work of Sigrid Nunez, a mixed-race writer whose stories feature mixed race characters struggling with identity issues. As a mixed-race woman myself, (I identify as “hapa,” since my mom is Chinese-Hawaiian and my dad is white), I connected with Nunez’s writing and I realized that I could explore my own experiences with ethnic and racial identity in my work.
Reading diverse works helps students expand their worldview and practice empathy. Even if you don’t share anything in common with a POC or woman writer, reading stories that center their experiences will help you learn about what it is like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. I know I have learned a lot about my own culture and other cultures through reading literature. I love reading stories about people who lead entirely different lives than me and who have different experiences because it helps me understand other people’s motivations and struggles. Especially in the current political climate, it’s important to try to understand other people’s point of view, especially the perspectives of marginalized folks including immigrants, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.
Science has actually proven that reading literature increases empathy, but I wonder if those studies take in account whether it increases empathy for the typical subjects of “literary fiction,” aka white middle class heterosexual people, or if the benefits of increasing empathy extend to all people. I have a suspicion that it’s the former, not the latter, in which case, we need to make sure that marginalized people are included in the literature we have students read, so that our students’ empathy is directed at many different types of people.
Students can use literature as a way to understand systems of oppression that don’t directly affect them. In addition to being able to see through the point of view of someone different from themselves, students who read stories by writers of color and women will be able see what the experience of discrimination and marginalization is like. A lot of these writers not only show characters experiencing oppression in its multitude of forms, including racism, sexism, etc., but they also use their platform to unveil the sources of such oppression: institutionalized racism, bigoted attitudes that hide behind talk of “fairness” and “merit,” implicit bias, etc.
Most of the stories on these topics are not didactic. They don’t lay out the issues and tell readers the way to fix them. Instead they give complex portrayals of flawed characters and ask readers to dig deeper to draw their own conclusions. One of my favorite stories to teach,“Paranoia” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, has a white narrator who cannot see his own biases or understand that his paranoia of being mugged in an urban neighborhood is unfounded. At the same time he dismisses his undocumented friend’s paranoia of being deported, which is actually justified by the narrative. This story, while not actually told from a POC’s perspective, still unlocks a new understanding of bias in my students, who can clearly see the narrator, while well-intentioned, is bigoted without realizing it.
Stories by and about people of color and marginalized folks cause us to question our own “default” settings when reading fiction. Because of the way we privilege white writers in most of our schooling and in our literary canon, my students walk into my classroom with the assumption that unless the text says otherwise, the story is told from a white person’s point of view. They also often assume that the writer’s gender will be the same as the narrator’s. Whenever we read a story that breaks these rules, my students start to realize they have underlying assumptions about texts because of how society has taught them to read literature.
For example, when we read “The Man Child” by James Baldwin, I ask my students how many of them noticed that the characters were white. Most of them shrug; they take it for granted that the story was about white characters. I point out that James Baldwin is a prominent African-American writer who almost exclusively writes about black characters. “The Man Child” is the only Baldwin story I know of that is solely about white characters. When my students find this out, it makes them examine his choice of race for his characters more closely. Is there a political message in the story?
Of course there’s a political message. First of all, James Baldwin always has a political take in mind, but also, as my students discover during my class, all writing is political. Not writing about politics or race is a political stance of its own. I hope by the end of my class, my students understand the political power that literature holds. Short stories might not be the deciding factor that sways an election, but words are still powerful nonetheless.
Teaching carries its own political implications, too. Whether or not you specifically center race, class, and gender in your syllabus is in itself a political statement. I choose to focus my syllabus on diverse writers. My syllabus is not perfect, nor is my class, but keeping my goal of having a diverse syllabus in mind motivates me to continue reading a wide range of writers so I can include even more voices in my course.
I hope that by introducing my students to diverse writers at the beginning of their writing careers, it will have lasting impact on their reading and writing habits. Call me naïve or idealistic, but I do believe that literature can make a difference to my students and to the world.
Time for some Real Talk. If you happen to be coming from my How To Apply To A Writing MFA Program article, this is the part where I say a bunch of things that a lot of other people cannot get away with saying. When it comes to applying to a writing master’s program, it is not the same for us.
I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations, minimum. I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride. Another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class, tried to suggest readings that might illuminate the madness, her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness. As always race was the student of color’s problem, not the white class’s.
Here’s a testament of my own — simply over watching a movie, not even in class. If you’ve seen Bend It Like Beckham, you might recall that Punjabi Sikh girl Jesminder (“Jess”) sneaks out of England, where her parents live, to play soccer with her team in Germany. I was one of three Indians who spent ten minutes trying to convince one white girl that Jess would never have put a toe on that soccer field. Why? Because her parents would have personally flown to Germany, retrieved their daughter, and ended her soccer career themselves.
If three Indians can’t change one white girl’s perception of what an Indian would or would not do, under what circumstances does anyone believe the “token” POC in an MFA workshop stands a chance against eleven white people?
Now, some of you are reading this articlebecause you already know this. Why else would anybody type “writing mfa for POCs” into a Google search, the way I did out of desperation a year and a half ago? Something is off and you already know it and you don’t know how to navigate it, so you try to look at what your predecessors have done.
Except when I did that, I found almost nothing. No advice. Validation, yes; recommendations, no. The situations described in Mura and Diaz’s articles would have caused me to clamp up, and I’m one of the most outspoken people I’ve ever met. If I can be shut down this easily, what would this do to others? Testaments like these made me realize that some MFA programs would have killed my writing.
Writing is hard enough. That’s why I’m in a master’s program. I came here to learn how to tell my stories, not to convince people that the stories are valid, or that my depiction of my culture is accurate. It makes me wonder if I am left to learn how to write minority characters only from minorities.
So for all you POCs (and minorities in general), here are some tips for the the extra work you will need to do to ensure yourself a welcoming environment. It is your responsibility to ensure that environment, for the world sure as hell doesn’t do it.
Change your search process
I was forced to ditch my prestige-based search process.
The good news is, filtering programs becomes insanely easy when all you do is go to the faculty page, and see how many currently-teaching POC faculty exist in a certain program. A mention to one Asian faculty member two years ago or an African American guest speaker this year doesn’t count, because they can’t help you write your POC character in your day-to-day learning experience — and I already spent a second semester trying to figure this out.
The bad news is, filtering programs becomes insanely easy when all you do is check the faculty diversity ratio, and that’s pretty messed up. Being a software engineer is a pretty nice gig, and I am currently on a team that I love-love-love, so I would only consider pausing my career for the most prestigious MFA programs. Thus, I researched top tier colleges and low-residency options. In the end, there weren’t many colleges I applied to, because there weren’t many colleges left. A disheartening number of the top tier colleges I wanted to apply to fell out in Step 1. I’ll leave it to you to find out which ones.
Research the Faculty
It disappoints me to have to say this, but the student body is difficult to ensure in diversity. This means the impact of minorities in a college will have to trickle down from the faculty. Given what you want to write, are there faculty members who can provide you a sounding board, a model, and when nobody believes you in your workshop, an “I second that” to back up your opinion? You’re already going to be working extra hard to write what you write; you don’t need to make it harder for yourself.
On the bright side, a diverse faculty attracts diverse students. Yaaaaaay!
Interview Faculty and Students
I explicitly asked to interview students in my demographic: minority, female, young.
I explicitly asked to Skype with the faculty who were minorities.
Don’t be shy; you have neither the money nor the time to leave yourself uninformed. Ask your interviewees what the program is like for minorities. Was there a pregnant pause? The silence says everything.
(One of my candidate programs fell out in this step.)
Play That Color Card
Let me be the first to say how much I hate, hate, hate this phrase so much. It reduces everything we are doing to a matter of using minority status to gain an “advantage” in something. We’re not trying to gain anything: we are trying to climb out of a hole toeven out with the majority.
Furthermore, there isn’t enough minority representation in Western literature to begin with, and there are too many other issues we (each type of minority) are facing on a daily basis. My policy when it comes to minority status and womanhood is the same: considering all the disadvantages I have to deal with, if I am given any ”advantage”, I will not apologize for taking it.
And I aim to take every opportunity I am given to pave the way, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. I empower you to do the same.
Code by day, prose by night, Snigdha Roy tackles issues of feminism, gender roles, and minority / race in any medium, be it rap, essay, personal narrative, poetry, or fantasy and science fiction. She won first place at Carnegie Mellon’s Adamson’s Awards for her essay, Arranged Marriage: A Borderland’s Perspective, as well as an Honorable Mention for her humorous travel article Dhaka in Transit. She is currently (lonely) married to her master’s program (the beloved Goddard College MFA), and is in the midst of two series on Medium: How to Get Into a Writing MFA Program and The Craft of Race: On Writing Minority Characters.
If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to The MFA Years, visit our submissions page.
If you follow this blog frequently, you probably fall into one of three categories:
Applying for an MFA this year and anxiously waiting for the results of all your application labor.
Highly or hardly considering an MFA and wanted to find out if current or past candidates got the most out their experience.
Currently in an MFA and looking to help out who are navigating the treacherous waters of MFA applications or are considering one.
Regardless of where you are, I highly recommend thinking about a workshop, conference, and/or retreat this summer if you aren’t already.
Some of these places have their applications due this month or the next (VONA, Kundiman) or in March (Clarion West, Sewanee). Like the MFA program, a workshop or conference experience can vary. When I first started to get serious about writing and wanted to know more about craft, writing lifestyles, and the business, I went to my first local writer’s conference at the time, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. I got a feel for others in the community, learned a few things, and got a sense of where my current style matched with others. Two years after that I went to the (now closed) Rutgers-Camden Writers Conference, and then the next year (when I started applying to MFA programs) I applied and was accepted into the 2017 Clarion West Writers’ workshop.
Pause for a Clarion West plug: The Clarion West Writers workshop was the strongest and most helpful workshop that I have done so far to measure if I wanted to really be a writer or not. Our class was diverse, well-rounded, and every single one of them is a caring and intelligent individual. There were so many stories that I read over that six-week intensive that fucking inspired me.
I owe everything to that workshop and the generosity of the SF/F community, the CW staff, my classmates (Team Eclipse), and those who back CW writers year after year. Thank you all, and I am eternally grateful. For more information on the Clarion West experience, please check out my classmate Robert Minto’s blog post.
What should I look for in a workshop as a first timer?
You will get something out of every intensive writing retreat or conference you go to if you put the work in. Even if the workshop is bad (i.e filled with only people from a higher income bracket, lack of diversity in class or instruction, or if you just had an oddball experience) you’ll know a little bit about yourself as a writer, how you interact with others in your field, and at the very least know what areas you need to improve on like craft or professionalism.
When I started going to conferences, I knew that I did not want to go hard on ‘networking’ or get too friendly with other writers. I wanted to be a forward observer: establish an OP, gather information, and turn it into intelligence. I wanted to stay close enough that I could listen and learn from others in the field without feeling pressurized to contribute extensively.
A local conference or book festival can be good if you want to dabble and see if this is right for you. For one, you will not be traveling too far and wasting too much time or gas. If the place is a sketch or you get anxious, backing out won’t be a big deal. Frankly, some of these conferences can set you back a few hundred or so dollars if you are applying close to the date of the event, but others offer discounts or scholarships for early applications or are free and open to the public.
If this is your first time going to one of these things, I recommend looking now or (if you are reading this in May or so) look at what is either the cheapest or near free and what is closest to you.
I have either been to a local workshop or something similar once, and I am thinking about one of the big workshops that are fucking expensive. Oh, and I’m only going to go if I get a grant or a scholarship with it. What should I be looking for?
Footnote: You should listen to pretty much whatever advice Cady gives you.
Looks dope. As a fiction writer, what do I generally need to apply?
It would be good to have the following handy as most applications are the same with a few differences:
A personal statement (less than 1000 words or so. Around the 500 mark is solid) that states what you write, why you need this workshop to help you, what you hope to learn from it (including any writers that you admire who are going to be there), and a brief bio of your background and publishing history (if you got one. If not, no big).
A short story of fewer than 5,000 words (or one that you can cut down to 3 or 4,000), or two smaller stories that total up to 4 to 5,000 words. Some places like Kundiman, are only asking for 5 pages (12 pt, double space) with a 1,250 max. I recommend having a handful of short stories at the ready because it will demonstrate to the gatekeepers that you can, at the least, set up a story and finish it.
Around $100 saved up, depending on how many workshops you want and can apply to. If you are applying to about one or two, I’d venture about $50 or less squared away is good enough.
That’s it! Of course, read through every single place you apply, proof-read your essay or sample so that it’s tailored to them, and much like the MFA application process, they each have their unique stipulation. However, the three criteria above will make things smoother for you in the process. I think applying at the same time as your MFA application season puts you at an advantage because you’ll have an easier time adjusting your already made statement of purpose essay to whatever conference or workshop you’re applying to.
Some offer generous backing, some offer half, and some don’t offer shit.
Keep in mind that most of the scholarship applications are early, some even weeks before the final due date for general admission. If you’re past that deadline, there are still some options available to you for alternative funding through a quick google search on Grants for Writers and the like. I haven’t done this method (yet) so I can’t vouch for any sites or programs that work the best outside of University grant funding.
Like an MFA, please do not go broke over a workshop. If you didn’t get funding this round or going to the workshop is just not financially in the cards for you, do not worry. You have options. Which leads me to the next question.
I’m unsure about summer workshops/conferences/fairs for XYZ reason or I didn’t get into a workshop
Also, like the MFA, you don’t necessarily need one of these summer workshop things to become a writer.
There are resources out there where you can learn craft, listen to author interviews, or study for little to no cost online. In your area, you’ll probably find a local writing group. If your local writing group is not what you’re looking for, there are places online that you can go to.
What the workshop or places like the MFA does is expedite where you may end up in your writing career and, maybe, find one or several writers who you may end up working within some capacity for the rest of your writing career. I’ve met writers from cons that I still occasionally email today or cheer on when I hear their novel gets picked up by Scholastic or gets pubbed in a magazine, regardless if it’s The Ma and Pa Review or Granta. I strongly believe that the writers I met at Clarion West will continue to be my friends throughout the rest of my writing life and we’ll continue pushing each other as well as being honest with one another’s work.
When I first putting myself out there and applying to these things, I was looking to just gather info, but as the years went by I knew that having a small tribe of writers you click with and understand is worth its weight in gold—it’s as important as picking out the hours of your day to sit down and finish your writing projects.
Here are a few online writing communities that you can join today:
Of course, there are hundreds more that I’ve left out, but many of the above sites I’ve used at one time or another and learned a thing or two.
If you want to add anything to the list (a helpful site, a great writing podcast, etc) that you can vouch for and really got a lot out of, feel free to leave a note into the comments and I’ll add it to the list.
Mark Galarrita is an MFA fiction candidate and McNair Graduate Fellow at the University of Alabama. He attended the 2017 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, the 2016 Rutgers’ Summer Writers’ Conference, and graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a BA in political science. His work has appeared in Bull Magazine and the Kelsey Review. His fiction was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and a Pushcart Prize. He has written for the “The Aethera Campaign Setting: a Pathfinder Compatible RPG” and narrative scripts for Global Gamer Jam events. Follow him on Twitter @MarkGalarrita or on his website.
This week I start my second semester in the M.F.A. program at The University of New Orleans. My first semester was all about achieving a healthy school/work/life balance while adjusting to my new routine. Aside from a handful of all-nighters, I felt like I achieved balance for the first time in my academic career. Going into the program, I knew that I would be working two part-time jobs— a GA position and a waitress gig on the weekends. I also prioritized going to the gym three times a week, getting an ample amount of sleep, and I didn’t want my social life or relationships suffer while in school. Lofty goals for my first semester, right? But I did it. I did it!
Instead of beating myself up about not writing as much as I could have, or not taking care of myself enough (like skimping on the gym some weeks), I recognized that the goal was consistency, not perfection. I don’t work well in burnout mode. In undergrad I didn’t have a good outlet for my stress and I took on more than I could handle. I constantly told myself, “Well if Jane Doe can handle this so can I.” But our bodies and brains don’t work that way, or at least mine does not. Comparing myself to others and what they can juggle got me nowhere. So for grad school I told myself it’s okay not to spread myself too thin, say no to things, and prioritize my mental and physical health so I could enjoy my M.F.A. experience. I mean really, what’s the point of doing the damn thing if you can’t enjoy it?
I made a point to go to the gym three times a week. I started running in May before I entered the program because it’s a healthy stress reliever and a good challenge. I made big strides in my physical fitness this past summer and I wanted to keep the momentum going. Some weeks I only made it to the gym twice or had to cut a workout short to squeeze everything in but hey, at least I went. I also recognized my need for downtime. In order to stay productive I really need a break. I typically gave myself either one full day or two half days where I didn’t do a lick of writing or homework.
My program has built in social and literary events. There is a longstanding tradition of going to a bar near campus after fiction workshop on Monday nights. It’s a fun way to connect with classmates and faculty after class. There is also Gold Room, a monthly literary reading series, where students read their work, as well as a slew of guest speakers throughout the semester and someone is always sending invites to a house party or an out-of-program literary reading or event they are a part of. I definitely value making connections with classmates but did I go to the bar after every workshop? No. Did I skip some of the literary readings to catch up on writing? Yes. Learn that you do not have to go to everything, learn how to say no when you need to carve out time for yourself and/or your writing.
This semester I am juggling even more: an internship, two workshops, those two part-time jobs and Mardi Gras is in a few weeks. I started a few drafts over the winter break so I feel like I’m in a good place. I wish I had one fully fleshed out draft instead but hey, I also got some much needed rest, read three books, got my workouts in, worked a little bit more than usual and spent a lot more time with my dogs on the couch. I’d say that’s a perfect balance.
The waiting period between now and April is pretty much the worst. I know this well. The last two years I applied, I was waitlisted at a few of my dream schools. In the ’16 cycle, I received a nice email from Syracuse saying I was on the waitlist for fiction. After a slew of rejections (I think the final count was six rejections out of eight that year), the Syracuse waitlist was like ice on a bruised ego. Of course, as you can guess, I stayed on the waitlist until I was eventually bumped off.
In the ’17 cycle, the results were slightly better. The rejection count went down from six to five (progress!), and instead of one waitlist, I had two: UVA and Johns Hopkins. On April 11th, UVA sent me a very transparent email, saying there was one unsecured spot but it was unlikely I’d get it. And in a world of waitlist uncertainty, I was just as grateful for the honesty as I was disappointed. Then two days later, the unexpected happened: I received a call from Johns Hopkins, letting me know a spot had opened up for me. And I was in! At long last, the wait was over!
This is not to say I’ve mastered the art of waiting. I’m an anxious person, an over-thinker. Last year, between the months of January and April, I was the least productive I’d ever been. I spent most of my free time on gradcafe or past Draft pages, trying to find trends and formulas that would predict my fate. I kept checking my applications online for status changes. I even turned on all notifications for Draft and spent hours hunched over my phone, lurking on Facebook. Very unhealthy behavior; I don’t recommend it. Now, I’m glad to be done with the MFA waiting game, but I’ve found (to my chagrin) that the wait is never truly over. On my Submittable docket, there are a number of summer workshops, residencies, and mentorship program applications still in review, so for the sake of my sanity, I’ve gotten a little better at waiting. Here are a few things I’ve been doing in the meantime:
Trying to learn another language
A goal of mine has always been to get better at speaking Vietnamese and Spanish. I’ve recently discovered the magic of Duolingo, which is a free app you can download on your phone. My program also has a soft language requirement; either I can try to pass a language test or I can take two language courses. I’m heavily considering starting an Italian lesson on Duolingo to prep for taking a few Italian classes.
This is kind of a cliché piece of advice as far as listicles go, but if it ain’t broken. One thing I wish I did last spring was a short marathon, obstacle course, or challenging hike. I feel like my stress/anxiety levels would’ve been much lower if I had something physical to work towards. Maybe I would’ve even had fewer night terrors; I can’t tell you how many MFA-related nightmares I had in those months.
Taking mini trips
A trip doesn’t need to be super far away or expensive. For example, you can find an Airbnb somewhere kind of remote and split it with a few friends for a weekend. If you have writer friends, you can make it into an informal writing retreat. Or you can take a few days off to visit someone. Recently, I went to New York to stay with a cousin, and bus tickets going from Baltimore to New York were only $15. A change of scenery can do wonders. Trust me on this.
Applying for summer residencies and workshops
Ah, yes, one can never truly escape applications. There are all kinds of workshops and residencies out there. Some workshops are online (UCLA Extension, Winter Tangerine), and others are in-person (Tin House, Juniper). A few workshops and residencies explicitly allot space for writers of color and underrepresented voices, like VONA, Kundiman, and SPACE at Ryder Farm. Warning: many summer workshops and residencies are unfunded (meaning you’ll have to pay tuition or some kind of deposit/fee), but I think it’s worth it, if you can swing it. Taking a summer workshop can prep you for what to expect in graduate workshops if (fingers tightly crossed) you get in. Even if this application cycle doesn’t work out, you can use summer workshops/residencies to write a better sample. Of course, do some research beforehand; if a workshop has less than stellar reviews, definitely take them into account.
It goes without saying that these aren’t the only ways to distract yourself from the terrible wait. Find whatever works for you and your current personal/financial/physical circumstance. If unplugging, knitting, or cooking help you, go for it. The bottom line is this: self-care is a very good thing from now until April.
For now, good luck on waiting. I know it sucks worse than hitting your shin on a million coffee tables, but I know you can get through it. Because what else are you going to do?
The following article was something I had to rewrite approximately one million times, which is to say that I don’t mean to make people feel awful about where they choose to publish. It’s more a matter of making sure that everybody feels okay about where they are publishing. I have certainly published in places, and been delighted to publish in places, that I am aware are considered mid-tier by many other writers and those writers’ agents. But I wanted to publish in those places. I made a conscious decision, and did not suffer from any delusions about making other literary magazines impressed with me. I wasn’t really thinking in terms of a career enhancer. With that in mind, please keep reading in the knowledge that I like you and think you are good enough, but want you, as well, to make conscious decisions.
Once, a very long time ago, I sat in a room at a local writing nonprofit and had an instructor explain to me that one ought to work one’s way up, starting at mid-tier publications where it was more likely one’s work would get accepted, and sort of climbing higher. I have no idea why she said this. It’s both a common attitude and a really horrible idea.
First of all, nobody wants to publish the work that you secretly wish you could publish elsewhere. No mid-tier or fledgling mag is dying for stories by writers who think they’re too good for this shit. Second, the mid-tier publications my instructor told us about were actually not what most people would consider mid-tier. To my mind, places that accept five percent or fewer of submissions can often be considered mid-tier, or are definitely mid-tier if they’ve won Pushcarts and been featured in Best American. Top tier, according to people I know, is pretty much The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Tin House, Paris Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Narrative, One Story, Missouri Review, Virginia Quarterly, Gettysburg, Ploughshares, and maybe a couple others I’ve forgotten here. The sort of magazines you’re much more likely to be accepted to if you have an agent or are a lucky genius. I’d consider my publications in Glimmer Train (posted above because I am so honored and proud) and New Letters top tier, though even that I’ve heard the snootiest of New York lit world types call those places place mid-tier. These things are, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder.
Maybe you don’t give a sloppy fuck if you’re in Harper’s or a magazine I’ve never heard of, one that currently accepts about half of submissions but is scrappy and striving and has good politics and you like them, and maybe they’re run by your friends. That’s a valid choice. Maybe you swing between publishing in Poetry and Anonymous Bacon Literary Magazine as part of a conscious effort to prove these petty distinctions don’t matter–in which case I think you are very brave and I want to be your bff.
The important thing is to be publishing your work in specific venues on purpose, with full knowledge of what will get you to the place where you want to be. If I want to get into Harper’s, I’m not going to brag about Anonymous Bacon in my cover letter. I’m not going to submit to Anonymous Bacon in hopes of “working my way up” to Harper’s. Working my way up is not, in fact, how it works. What I’ll do if I want Harper’s is submit there until I get in. I’ll probably need an agent to make that happen, so I might write a couple chapters of a novel, solicit until I get that agent, and then ask that agent to make the subs for me.
It’s absolutely not a fair system. There are people who don’t even want to write novels and keep getting told by well-meaning agents that short story collections won’t sell, and so they have to submit work by themselves with no agent. There are people who–for reasons having to do with class and race and disability and geographic location and misogyny and queerphobia and isolation from the fancier writing communities and simple luck–do not have access to the cultural knowledge, the secret handshake, whatever it is that makes some instinctively know the rules and write what are considered good cover letters.
But know this: If I brag about my Anonymous Bacon publication in a cover letter for a Harper’s submission, this will make Harper’s editors think less of me, because, well, according to the sort of people who edit Harper’s, this shows I have no standards and am too clueless about how the literary world works to know when to shut up. Even and especially if I brag about how Anonymous Bacon nominated me for a Pushcart. Doesn’t she know, think such editors, that Anonymous Bacon doesn’t matter and Pushcart nominations from such magazines are a dime a dozen?
If your heart’s desire is to get into Harper’s or The New Yorker or what have you, then you could, of course, just not brag about Anonymous Bacon in the cover letter and assume nobody will Google you. But then you ought to ask yourself: What’s the point? What is even the point? Why did I waste a perfectly good story on Anonymous Bacon when my true goal is not that? And am I being fair to Anonymous Bacon?
Of course, there is the lack of confidence some people feel. They assume they can’t pull off any Paris Review-level acceptances, even if this is all they ever wanted, and so they limit themselves to submitting to places they’re not even wild about. I get why this might happen, especially for members of marginalized populations who’ve spent their whole lives being told not to expect too much. And yet. Why take yourself out of the running for the thing you really want? Literally what logic is there to not ever asking anybody for the thing that is your career goal? You are fab; show the world how fab you are. What do you possibly think you could lose here? Someone might tell you no? People are going to tell you no anyways.
In conclusion, good luck, and I’m rooting for you. Keep in mind that I’m really, really not telling you what choices to make or disparaging your dearest accomplishments. Rather, I’m trying to pull back the curtain a little when it comes to how some of you reading this might go about enacting the choices you’ve already made.
I’ve been hesitating with this post for a while because I don’t think I still quite know how to appropriately articulate what I’ve been feeling, but here it goes. Maybe it’s because these are the narratives I’ve been taught as a woman of color, even in my own household — stay quiet and be grateful. But I am grateful, and we’ve been shushed for too long.
These are my very brief two cents.
Having grown up in Miami — a minority-majority, strange placewhere Spanglish reigns as the official/unofficial language of the city — my experiences in predominantly white circles had been limited. Business signs are in Spanish. I speak to my parents in Spanish. For seven words, you toss in three in Spanish. It’s arguably fair to call Miami the capital of Latin America. But despite having grown up wishing Celia Cruz was my celebrity grandma, I’d spent most of my life reading predominantly white literature. I learned, early on, that names like my own were nowhere to be found in books. Much less my everyday language, and all the people I’d grown up with. But unable to write fiction, or so I thought, I had no one to write about but myself and my wacky little life, and just when I thought I was alone (and a grand innovator), I discovered Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Cisneros and they rocked my world. This, all the more, prompted me to stop naming my characters ‘Katie’ for the sake of making them more like everything I’d ever read, and opted to keep them unabridged, nice and Miami, like ‘Carmelita’ instead.
Living in Chicago now, despite the large Mexican-American community (which I would thank God for everyday if I only believed), really feels like “America.” And possibly being in an MFA program, even more so. (I’m very upset a local bar that does karaoke on Sundays has Selena songs on their list, but none of them are in Spanish. It’s a very sick joke.) I thought I’d understood that I was a woman of color, but I think that it’s been here, in Chicago and in an MFA program, that I’ve felt even more so what it means to be a person of color. And I’ve also learned that the term itself, POC, is still something foreign to many.
Foreign. That is how I’ve felt on occasion in the MFA. Foreign in my own country. Foreign in my speech. I had to go through my place of birth, country of citizenship, and childhood education to explain to a faculty member that no, I did not have difficulty writing in English simply because I was Mexican. It’s fair to say 2017 is a year that undoubtedly left many of us angry. (To blame: deplorable, Cheeto gremlin who will not be named). But I was surprised to find that there were moments in my every day, in this institution that I supposed to be so progressive and liberal, and in our workshops that left me and a few others feeling the very same kind of angry.
I found my work was sometimes received with silence during critique — and my work only. No one had anything to say. Not even the classic art-school, go-to moniker: “interesting.” Another time I presented a humorous piece that was critical of neoliberal strategies in Latin America (AKA very serious subject matter), and was referred to Youtube Poop by a classmate. And so I found myself reevaluating my work, my ideas, and my life, and asking myself: “Damn, is my work really that bad?”
But I also wondered if it was the Spanish in the work? The references that no one else, in this classroom, knew or could relate to? Maybe in this instance, it really was that bad.
And so, for some parts of my first semester I felt confused. Upset. Beyond the obvious reasons of what it means to be in this highly competitive institution, I felt unsure about the work I was making. Feedback during critiques was reticent; never spoke to the content of my work. Was this to be the general response? What about my work posited it as a somewhat foreign oddity? Why was it that what was seen as a point of interest was the “exoticness” of a piece of writing?
At the beginning of the semester, new to the program + city and unsure about what I was experiencing/feeling (I wondered if it was all in my head or if my work was really that bad), I thought perhaps I was alone in this. As the weeks went on, it became clear I was most definitely not.
I started learning of other people in my graduate program that had felt similarly at times, and as the weeks went on we also seemed to be coming together (or I closer to them). There was a feeling of being unable to get through; having to over explain, justify oneself, code-switching for the sake of being perhaps “understood.”
Towards the latter part of the semester, I attended a weekend-long writing and performance art workshop, where QTPOC folk and allies were welcomed (I am paraphrasing the workshop description here). I had no idea how incredibly rejuvenating it was going to be to have a weekend, just a mere weekend, dedicated to work by queer and artists of color, whose narratives are often left out in the grand scheme of the MFA (and it’s sad these things have to be relegated to a function like a two-day workshop). The workshop gave me life: a space to not feel like a foreign specimen presenting, where my work wouldn’t be ‘exoticized’ or dramatized to be tokenized. And I think its safe to say that MFA programs need more of this. More writers of color. More programming by people of color for writers of color.
This second cent got me through the first cent. It was the community I found, the workshop, a class on code-switching in poetry and all the wonderful material I came across thanks to it, that all made me realize that I do not have to feel foreign. My work can speak to people, be it with un poquito de español or not. And if those two words add another layer of meaning to you, then my work is for you.
This is a fun game. Right now it may not feel like a fun game, but I’m calling it that, as six months from now, I’ll be able to look back at this post, at this moment when I have no idea what’s going to happen in my future, and I’ll be able to say “Ah-ha! I have an answer!” Even if that answer is only temporary. Even if that answer isn’t ideal. Even if that answer is unemployment and staying at my dad’s house (fingers crossed for a different result).
Such is the nature of the MFA in Creative Writing–it doesn’t offer the relatively clear path of pre-professional graduate programs like law school or medical school, and that can be both freeing and somewhat overwhelming. My hope, though, is that the abundance of choice means something will pan out after I finish my last semester this spring.
Here are my constraints: I want to live in Los Angeles (where I’m originally from) and I want whatever I’m doing to somehow involve writing, teaching, or arts/education administration.
So far, I’ve applied to two PhD programs–a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California and a PhD in Literature with a focus on Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies at the University of California at Riverside. I like the idea of doing a PhD, of continuing to learn in an academic setting and of surrounding myself with interesting peers. It would give me more time to focus on writing and make me more competitive for a tenure-track professor position. If my main priority were to enroll in a PhD program, there are a number of other places to which I would have applied, but since for the time being, I really want to be back in Los Angeles, I found the two programs that were appealing in the LA area. If I get into either of these programs and the funding is reasonable (I know it would be for USC, less information available on Riverside), then I’ll go. Given how competitive it is to get into either program, though, I’m of course planning for the potential that I won’t be accepted. Another downside to the PhD is that the funding, while better than for most MFA programs, would still be difficult to live on, even if supplemented with a part-time job. That having been said, I imagine that I could make it work.
Within the world of academia, I’m also looking at positions at community colleges. I’m applying for several administrative positions at Pasadena City College and West LA College, and two full-time English instructor positions just opened up at Pasadena City College. The plus side of these jobs is that they pay well–in the high five figures or low six figures–but, unsurprisingly, they too are extremely competitive. I would be absolutely thrilled if given an offer, and as they say, you can’t get a job that you don’t apply to (well, I suppose maybe one could with the right connections, but that aside). At the moment, I’m not applying for any adjunct positions; however, I would consider doing so to supplement another full-time or mostly full-time position.
All of the above are definite reaches. By March, I should have a better idea if any of these options are going to work out, and if not, my next step is networking, which can be tedious and feel a bit uncomfortable but seems to be a useful if not necessary skill to have as a writer. I have a long list (okay, no tangible list, but mental list) of folks to reach out to–former professors, writer contacts, friends of friends, etc. I’m not planning to ask for any favors, per se, but it never hurts to let people know that you’re looking for work and what kinds of jobs interest you (all of this phrased in a very polite and considerate manner). That way, if someone knows of something or hears of something that may be a good fit, they’ll have you in mind. For me, these sorts of jobs would probably be something in the realm of ghostwriting, content writing, a position in a TV writers’ room above that of a production assistant, script coverage, nonprofit management, etc. Who knows? It may not amount to anything–again, this is the sort of thing that should be approached without expectations–but the truth is, most people have benefitted at some point in their careers from a personal connection. Last year, I spoke with one of my literature professors at Alabama who had completed his PhD in Comparative Literature at UCLA. He said that only about half of his graduating class had gone into academia. I asked him how the other had found their current jobs. His response–friends, personal contacts, and word of mouth.
The next/concurrent step is to look at job listings. I’m interested in teaching high school English/creative writing/humanities, and websites like www.careers.nais.org and www.carneysandoe.com are relatively good options for this. Idealist.org has listings for nonprofit jobs, and otherwise I’ll do some research into the best general job search websites. In addition, I’m part of several groups on Facebook and LinkedIn that have sometimes have job postings.
There you have it. My plan to try to be gainfully employed after the MFA. Whatever I do for an income, however, I definitely want to continue writing my own work. Right now I’m juggling quite a few projects–a near-complete first draft of a short story collection, a not-close-to-complete first draft of a novel, a revision of a pilot and treatment for an hour-long dramedy–and in the non-employment edition of my life after the MFA, I’m finding writers groups in LA, doing comedy, playing soccer, cooking, hanging out with my dog, and maybe even getting back into dating?
My plan probably isn’t the same as your plan (in fact, if your plan is the exact same, that’s kind of creepy–stop stealing my life!) Some folks will go back to a job they were doing before the MFA. Some folks will want a day job completely unrelated to writing so that it won’t take up their creative energy. Some folks will thrive through freelancing. Others want to live abroad. Some folks may realize during the MFA that they never want to write or publish again afterward and will become highly paid computer programmers living in Silicon Valley. Some will join the circus (true story). The world is your oyster, as they say. (Or feel free to pick another cliché if you’re kosher, vegetarian, allergic to seafood, or just hate oysters!)
Currently Cooking: Curried red lentil soup and honey-mustard tofu with quinoa
Currently Watching: Search Party (I know I’m late to the party, pun intended, but now that it’s winter break I finally have a bit of time to binge watch!)
Currently Listening: The More Perfect podcast (great for politics nerds)
Currently Reading: Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian (recommend!)