fear, personal growth, writing exercises

100 Fears, a writing exercise

After linking Carmen Maria Machado’s guide to MFA applying in my post on deciding which MFA programs to apply to, I binge-read her blog for the next hour or so and came across an interesting post in which she outlines a writing exercise on fear.

Machado had students in her horror/mystery class write a list of at least 100 fears–it could also include revulsions, discomforts, worries, and anxieties. She made her own list, and had this to say about it:

The length of the list is critical because it pushes them beyond the most obvious entries, forcing them to really dig deep. When I was doing this exercise myself, I became stressfully aware of everything that scares me on a day-to-day basis. Terrors that normally just flashed across my brain were caught, noted, and catalogued. It was simultaneously empowering and unnerving, and also helped me sort out a story I was working on.

Last night, I created my own “100 Fears” list. It was an interesting experience. About half-way through I stopped as I became self-conscious about my fears being too weird–most of them fall under the worries and anxiety category. Some are clearly beliefs that depressed or paranoid people hold. I had to remind myself that they are my fears, not my actual beliefs.

I pushed through and kept writing, and by the time I got to 100, I was having fun again instead of feeling bad. Searching for more fears that I carry felt like a treasure hunt, of sorts, and I ended up coming up with 16 extra because I was on a roll.

After completing the list, I reflected on how the exercise could help my writing. I instantly came up with two short story ideas based on fears I’d written. I also realized that writing a similar, but much smaller, fears list for the major characters in my novel could help me better develop them. I’ve written so much about what my characters want and what motivates them, but never the top 5 or 10 things they fear, which I plan on doing tonight.

Without further ado, here are the raw, uncensored, sometimes self-obsessed, neurotic, and paranoid thoughts that came to mind when I brainstormed 100 fears that I hold.

Fear #1: I’ll never finish the novel I’ve been working on for 3.5 years.

Fear #2: I’ll finish the novel and it’ll be good, but no one will publish it.

Fear #3: I’ll finish the novel and someone will publish it, but it’ll be bad and get universally horrible reviews. No one will ever want to publish me again.

Fear #4: Everything I’ve written so far in my life is terrible and everyone but me has realized it.

Fear #5: I’ll never write anything compelling because I don’t have it in me.

Fear #6: I have it in me to write something compelling, but I’ll die before I do it.

Fear #7: I’ll die young.

Fear #8: I’ll die before publishing a book.

Fear #9: I’ll die before falling in love again.

Fear #10: I’ll never truly fall in love again and it’ll be because I’ll continue to only fall for guys who can’t possibly love me back.

Fear #11: I am too judgmental and critical to fall in love again–I will always find something wrong with the guy and that’ll cut me off from the possibility of love.

Fear #12: I’m not too judgmental and critical, I just don’t have access to the high-quality men I could love because those guys think I’m not in their league.

Fear #13: If I never get married, I’ll miss out on the joys of a love and bond deeper than I’ve ever known.

Fear #14: If I do get married, I’ll feel claustrophobic and as if I’ve attached myself to someone who brings me down.

Fear #15: I will never meet a guy I find attractive who is interested in exploring Tantra with me.

Fear #16: None of the guys I find interesting or could love would want or be capable of monogamy with me.

Fear #17: If I fell in love with a loyal guy who wanted monogamy, I’d feel bored and trapped sexually.

Fear #18: The best sex of my life is already behind me.

Fear #19: I’m too old to learn to do the splits or become significantly more flexible.

Fear #20: My face is only going to get uglier and more wrinkled and I’ll like looking in the mirror less and less as time goes on.

Fear #21: My friends are only going to become more boring with time.

Fear #22: I’m going to die in a really dumb way, like by tripping and hitting my head the wrong way on the corner of a coffee table.

Fear #23: My genitals are getting grosser with each passing year, but I don’t notice any difference between I see them every day.

Fear #24: My breath is bad and brushing, flossing, and using mouthwash doesn’t help because the smell comes from the grossness deep inside of me escaping.

Fear #25: Guys who have kissed me and not contacted me again did so because my breath was bad.

Fear #26: Guys who messed around with me and did not contact me again did so because they thought my genitals looked gross, smelled gross, or both.

Fear #27: The best physical shape I’ve ever been in is behind me.

Fear #28: I will never meet a man who tells me the truth instead of what he thinks he has to say in order to get what he wants from me.

Fear #29: I’ll never meet a man who views me as an equal partner and not someone who needs to be managed, lied to, manipulated, or evaded.

Fear #30: Men don’t fully understand that women are humans just as much as men are.

Fear #31: A man who asks for monogamy just wants to control my sexuality–he won’t stay loyal if a tempting opportunity comes along, and if he’s disloyal he won’t tell me.

Fear #32: My brother will die young and I’ll miss him and regret not being nicer to him.

Fear #33: My brother will never find true love either, and it’s somehow my fault. Maybe my personality rubbed off on him.

Fear #34: My mom will die first and my dad won’t know how to live without her. I won’t help take care of him much because I’m selfish and a bad daughter.

Fear #35: If I have a baby, I will kill it accidentally by leaving the wrong toy in its crib or something equally careless and dumb.

Fear #36: If I have a baby, it’ll be born with severe health issues or a developmental disorder. I will want to give it up for adoption instead of caring for it and everyone will think I’m an evil monster.

Fear #37: If I have a baby, it’ll grow up to have psychological problems because I won’t parent in a normal way.

Fear #38: I’m too cowardly to pursue my dreams 100% so I’ll never achieve true success.

Fear #39: I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life.

Fear #40: I’ll die before my parents do and they’ll inherit my debt, which will be a major burden.

Fear #41: Even though I think I’m intelligent, I’m not.

Fear #42: I am intelligent, but in a way that has little practical application and only makes my life more difficult.

Fear #43: My happiest moments are behind me.

Fear #44: No one understands me.

Fear #45: My family and friends pretend I’m normal, but they don’t really believe it.

Fear #46: There is someone out there right now who would like to murder me.

Fear #47: Some day I’ll dive, fall, or get pushed into a pool and either get paralyzed or die from hitting the bottom.

Fear #48: I once saw a TV program about people who purposely make themselves disabled because then they feel like everything they do is heroic. All of the pain and health problems I’ve dealt with have been fake and a mild version of this.

Fear #49: I am becoming dumber.

Fear #50: I’m lying to myself when I think I’m becoming fitter–I’ll only gain fat and lose muscle from here on out.

Fear #51: My waist is the smallest it’ll ever be and it’s not even very small.

Fear #52: I’ll accidentally kill my dog by letting him eat something poisonous.

Fear #53: Dogs don’t love humans. They’re just constantly hoping for food.

Fear #54: There is something that exists after life and it is much worse.

Fear #55: Old married couples don’t love each other any more, they just aren’t independent enough to leave.

Fear #56: A man can’t look at his wife the same way after seeing her give birth–his attraction will transfer to some other woman.

Fear #57: A mentally ill person will attack me some day.

Fear #58: When I tweet at people who have more followers than I do, I look like a wannabe or an ass-kissing idiot.

Fear #59: When I am being most open, honest, and vulnerable, people think I’m being a fraud.

Fear #60: No one can ever really know another person.

Fear #61: People can truly know each other, except for me, because there is something wrong with me that puts insurmountable distance between me and the people I want to be close with.

Fear #62: My butt is too flat and no matter what exercises I do it will not get round.

Fear #63: I’m pathetic for internalizing cultural beauty standards and I should become confident enough not to care, but I won’t.

Fear #64: My friends and I will never have as much fun together as we did in our teens and twenties.

Fear #65: My parents don’t love me as a person, they just act like they do because they believe parents are supposed to love their children.

Fear #66: My parents like my brother more than they like me.

Fear #67: My parents would’ve preferred to have a daughter with a personality opposite of mine.

Fear #68: Every time I think I’m being funny, other people think I’m being either mean or weird.

Fear #69: I’ll get into a car accident and have way more injuries than necessary as a result of tensing up all of my muscles on impact.

Fear #70: I’ll never again find new music I enjoy the way I used to when I was younger.

Fear #71: My love of hip-hop indicates some sort of hidden racism.

Fear #72: My attraction to black men indicates hidden racism.

Fear #73: It doesn’t matter how not-racist or not-sexist a person aims to be, some of the racism and sexism in society will stick no matter what.

Fear #74: I will experiment with mushrooms or LSD again someday and do irreparable damage to my mental health.

Fear #75: I won’t experiment with mushrooms or LSD ever again and will miss out on a major mind-expanding personal growth opportunity, which will make me a more uptight, close-minded person.

Fear #76: No one in my family tree has done anything remarkable.

Fear #77: I’ll never do anything remarkable.

Fear #78: I will get in a bar fight some day on purpose, just for the experience of it, and end up getting killed or paralyzed.

Fear #79: Any time a guy says he likes my writing all it means is that he’d like to have sex with me.

Fear #80: I share too much on the internet and it disgusts and embarrasses people in my life.

Fear #81: My writing makes it clear that I’m a try-hard.

Fear #82: I will live to an old age, but waste all of those years by not doing anything meaningful or substantial.

Fear #83: A better life would involve less time online, but I don’t have the willpower.

Fear #84: My neck is fat.

Fear #85: I have bad skin and will have acne until the day I die.

Fear #86: I’m addicted to the internet and letting real life pass me by as a result.

Fear #87: People I’ve sent letters or emails to will make those communications public and when viewed out of context I will look like an idiot and be humiliated.

Fear #88: My value system reflects that I’ve become less mature over time.

Fear #89: There’s no hope for humanity and the best case scenario is that we die out.

Fear #90: My extended family would be ashamed if they knew the true me.

Fear #91: If I ever publish a successful book, my extended family will be horrified by the contents and gossip about me instead of being proud and happy.

Fear #92: I’m going to waste my sexual prime being celibate because I’m too judgmental of and picky about men.

Fear #93: I’m going to waste my sexual prime being celibate because I’m afraid of intimacy.

Fear #94: Having a boyfriend would ruin my chance at becoming a successful writer.

Fear #95: Most of my fears list items are just anxieties, which shows that my life is easy and my problems aren’t real. If I ever complain about anything I’m being self-centered and insufferable.

Fear #96: My inability to remember book titles and author names means I’ll never be able to have discussions with intelligent people about books, even books I’ve read.

Fear #97: I’m operating at maybe 50% of my potential and living a mediocre life as a result.

Fear #98: I’m a follower trying to be a leader and failing.

Fear #99: I’ll never own a car made in the past five years.

Fear #100: If I post these fears on my blog, people will think they are my actual beliefs and think bad things about me, like I’m really messed up and self-obsessed and should be embarrassed of myself.

Fear #101: I’m so weird that even my fears are abnormal.

Fear #102: That I’ve never been raped is a fluke. My time will come, and the experience will break me.

Fear #103: I’m deathly allergic to bees, but don’t know it yet because I’ve never been stung.

Fear #104: I’ll never be able to shake the resentment I hold toward Christianity and the church, even though I think it’s pointless and a waste of emotional energy.

Fear #105: I make a huge deal out of things most people just take in stride.

Fear #106: My clothes are unflattering and ill-fitting and everyone knows it except for me.

Fear #107: I look like I’m poor.

Fear #108: I’ll have lower back pain for the rest of my life.

Fear #109: Most times I get upset, I’m overreacting.

Fear #110: Most times I get upset I’m not overreacting, I just doubt myself because ex-boyfriends gaslighted me. I’ll never stop doubting whether or not my reactions are valid.

Fear #111: Carmen Machado will read this and think, “Oh God, this was not what I intended with my exercise. Why did she do this? How sad and embarrassing.”

Fear #112: I’ll get pregnant and have a miscarriage or still birth.

Fear #113: I’ll get pregnant and have a miscarriage or still birth and be more upset that my stomach was stretched out for nothing than about losing the baby, proving that I’m vain, selfish, and heartless.

Fear #114: When I move to Florida I’ll have sweaty armpit stains constantly because of the humidity and people will think of me as “that girl who always has armpit stains.”

Fear #115: When I move to Florida every building will have the air conditioning on so high that I’ll constantly feel freezing cold and be unable to concentrate or enjoy myself.

Fear #116: Present moment awareness isn’t the key to transcendence after all–it just makes people more aware of negative and unpleasant things they would’ve been better off ignoring.

And…that is it! My list of fears. Wow, what an experience. I teared up a few times while writing this, I’ll admit. Some of the fears were expected, as they are things that pass through my mind regularly, but most surprised me. It’s yet another reminder that writing is an excellent form of self-discovery.

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food, health, migraine

How I got rid of chronic migraines

I’ll be a graduate student in the fall. It isn’t my first time. I was a Master student (and for a short while, PhD student) once before. The experience lead to serious burnout and chronic migraines that lasted over two years. I had “transformed migraine,” which basically meant some sort of headache at all times, even while sleeping. It was hell. Although I’m super excited to go back to school, I’ve noticed the voice of anxiety cropping up to remind me of these past experiences. “What if it happens again?” it whispers. “What if your body just can’t handle the additional stress?” “What if you ruin your life?”

I’m writing this post partially to help others who are dealing with migraine and looking for an answer–I credit my ability to manage migraine and become “normal” again to months and months of research, much of it shared by fellow migraine sufferers online–but mostly to remind myself that migraine wasn’t just a mystery affliction that came and went without explanation. I identified and altered many factors in my life in order to get better. It took work, but I went from getting migraines 2-5 times per week to getting them 1-2 times per year.

Without further ado, here is how I got rid of chronic migraines:

1. I tracked everything. I read everything.

I saw a few doctors and learned pretty quickly that they weren’t very helpful. Most doctors are in the habit of making diagnoses and writing prescriptions and not doing much beyond that. After reading horror stories about migraine meds initially helping but later making symptoms worse, or migraine meds being addictive, or migraine meds having horrible side effects, I didn’t want a migraine prescription. (That said, I know every situation is different and respect people who do choose to go the prescription route.)

I read everything there was to read. The most helpful book by far was Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz. It became my handbook.

Understanding migraine took a while, but it was necessary to grasping what was going on with my body. I’d previously thought the label “migraine” applied to any really painful headache, but I was wrong. A migraine headache is a very specific type of headache that not everyone gets (Mayo Clinic has a great, easy-to-understand migraine definition). “Migraine” is a neurological disorder that is passed on genetically (thanks, Mom!) and never goes away. Individual migraine headaches are brought on in people who have this disorder, in response to certain environmental triggers. A person’s sensitivity to these triggers varies based on many factors.

I worked both to reduce the migraine triggers I encountered and my sensitivity to those triggers. Because different “Migraineurs” are triggered by different things, it took a lot of investigating to identify what my triggers were and when I was more sensitive to them. A migraine can occur hours or days after the presence of a trigger, which is why tracking was so important.  For a while, I wrote down pretty much everything–what time I fell asleep, what time I woke up, how many hours I slept, how restful my sleep felt, what I ate and drank and at what time, when I exercised and for how long, details on my mood and energy levels, when I began and ended my period, and, of course, when I had headaches and what symptoms were present. I cannot overstate how important this was. I wouldn’t have known what changes to make without it.

2. I quit hormonal birth control.

In Heal Your Headache, David Buchholz names hormonal birth control as one of the major factors that sensitizes women to migraine triggers. I already knew that there was some sort of hormonal connection–my migraines were more intense and frequent around my period–so I believed him.

I’d already suspected birth control was a culprit since I’d been getting headaches and stomachaches more and more frequently after starting BC. Three doctors–a gynecologist, primary care physician, and pharmacist–had assured me, however, that the migraines were completely unrelated since they had gradually worsened over time and not started in full force immediately after I began taking the pill. I think those doctors were wrong, and did not fully understand the nature of migraine.

3. I quit caffeine. 

I resisted this majorly, but tried it because I was willing to try anything. I quit all forms of caffeine–coffee, pop, tea, chocolate, and caffeine-containing OTC migraine meds, like Excedrin. After a couple of weeks of tracking it was clear that this helped big time. A few months ago, I reintroduced caffeine into my diet in the form of one cup of green tea per day. It seems to be going fine. I will probably never drink coffee again.

4. I quit MSG.

Once I got off birth control and caffeine, I started seeing improvement and it became easier to identify which foods were triggering migraines since the headaches were spread farther apart in time. I was a vegetarian then and was shocked to find out that my “healthy” vegetarian food was a trigger. Yep, Boca burgers and Morningstar chik’n nuggets, soy milk, Zone bars, Bolthouse Farms protein drinks–all of the things I had felt good about eating–were triggering pain. I learned that “soy protein isolate” and any sort of “hydrolyzed protein” contain MSG. I started reading labels and found MSG under different names in my whole-wheat bread and vegetarian soup. I quit eating fast food altogether and became a more conscious grocery shopper.

I should note that I had already eliminated artificial sweeteners from my diet after noticing a connection between aspartame and anxiety.

5. I started sleeping 8 hours per night. The same 8 hours.

Well, I should say I started lying in bed for 8 hours per night. In the beginning I had serious insomnia. I followed the insomnia tips you find all over the internet even though I resented them and felt like a kid being told to mind her bedtime. Eventually it worked. I’d get in and out of bed at the same time, even if I didn’t feel tired (at night) or had the option to sleep in (in the morning). I stopped going online the hour or two before bed. I moved electronics out of my room or at least away from my bed. I bought an eye mask and earplugs to preemptively protect myself from potential sleep disturbances. Getting more and better sleep helped.

6. I quit drinking alcohol.

This was a gradual process. Alcohol was a major part of my social life so I resisted giving it up entirely. First I gave up red wine, an obvious migraine trigger. Then whiskey became an obvious trigger so I gave that up, too. Finally I had to admit that even beer was triggering headaches, so I gave it all up. Now, years later, I am able to tolerate clear alcohols like vodka and white wine without problem, but still avoid red wines, most beers, and dark liquors.

7. I quit perfume, scented candles, and air freshener.

I quit wearing perfume. That helped a little, but then I noticed other things had triggering smells, too. I gave up scented deodorant, hair spray, and fabric softener. I gave away my scented candles and begged my roommate to throw out her Glade Plug-in.

Now that I’m better, I’ve been able to reintroduce some scents into my life. I’ll never buy an air freshener and most regular perfumes still make me feel sick, but over the past year I’ve begun wearing the natural perfume brand Pacifica a minimal amount–I particularly like Island Vanilla.

8. I began taking vitamins and supplements.

Some worked, some didn’t. I believe Magnesium worked. After reading The Magnesium Miracle and The Magnesium Solution for Migraine Headaches I was eager to try it. I felt it made a difference and I took it daily for a year or two.

I also believe the Forever Well supplements worked for me. I was on them for two months. Click their link to read about the gut-brain connection. Seeing as how my diet and migraines were closely intertwined, the gut-brain idea makes a lot of sense to me. When I finished those, I started taking probiotics.

Supplements I tried that did not seem to have any effect  included Butterbur and Feverfew.

9. I began eating more often, and cut back on sugar.

I list these two together because I believe they were directly related. I was trapped in a cycle of forgetting to eat and then becoming so faint and weak that I needed an immediate quick fix. I’d eat sugar-laden food to gain energy. My tracking showed that often triggered a migraine.

I began carrying healthier snacks like apples and nuts in my backpack and ate them throughout the day in an effort to avoid that blood sugar crash and subsequent sugar cravings. Although I didn’t feel able to give up added sugar foods completely, I started eating them as desserts rather than meal substitutes.

10. I started doing low-impact exercise.

I already exercised prior to getting the headaches, but had cut back since beginning grad school. When I first tried to restart my previous exercise routine I was in for a big surprise–vigorous exercise now triggered a headache! Instead of aerobics or anything that involved running or bouncing around, I started walking, bicycling, and doing yoga. It helped with headache reduction, but even more than that, helped with reducing the anxiety and depression that tended to accompany the headaches and make me feel trapped and hopeless because of them.

11. I paid attention to my body and acted accordingly.

My way of dealing with the pain had been to ignore my body, and when I first started noticing it again, that involved becoming aware of even more pain. It was difficult, but necessary.

I started meditating at home. I started paying attention to my breathing and to my muscle tension throughout the day, trying to take deeper breaths and to relax my muscles. I noticed that the sun hurt my eyes almost any time I went outside, and it triggered headaches. I bought extra pairs of sunglasses and began carrying some at all times. I realized wearing a headband or my hair pulled back put tension on my head and would turn into a headache with time. I wore my hair down. Essentially, I began noticing low-level discomfort and alleviating it before it passed the point of no return.

12. I starting saying “no.”

First I dropped out of Spanish–an extra class unrelated to my grad program–in hopes of lightening my course load and freeing up time to sleep more. It was too little, too late, however, and I ended up dropping out of grad school altogether. It’d be oversimplifying to say this was entirely due to migraines–I had questioned my path of study since beginning it–but migraines played a major role.

I was an over-achiever plus I wanted to feel normal, so saying “no” to things I normally would’ve said “yes” to felt difficult and selfish at first. I realized that my health had to come first, however, and that anyone expecting me to do something that would compromise my health was the selfish one. I turned down volunteer and professional opportunities, social events, and family get-togethers when I felt they would be too taxing. It helped.

13. I received massage and Reiki treatments.

I didn’t believe Reiki treatments would work because I viewed them as mystical, but I enjoy getting massages so I accepted when someone offered to barter combination Reiki/massage treatments in exchange for grant writing. I had about 5-10 sessions and they worked. At that point I was down to about one migraine a week, and this seemed to be the final thing that ended them.

Conclusion

I don’t know that there is a conclusion, really. While I was successful in ridding myself of chronic migraines, I’m not going to pretend I never faced a health/pain problem again. I’ve also dealt with fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and IBS symptoms on and off. Whenever I let healthy habits drop off in one area, symptoms of some sort pop up. It feels like a never-ending process of finding the optimal lifestyle.

I’m glad I wrote this post, though, because it reminds me that I’m much better off now than I was in 2007, when I had transformed migraine and dropped out of the PhD program. If I feel symptoms creep up once I’m a grad student again, I will spring into action by saying “no” to all but my required responsibilities, once again quitting alcohol and caffeine entirely, and engaging in other self-care efforts.

For people out there who are managing migraine (or fibromyalgia, or IBS, or depression, or anxiety), do major life changes like moving across the country and entering a grad program concern you? When you’re undergoing major life changes, do you hedge against a “relapse” in symptoms by engaging in protective behaviors? If so, which ones?

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mfa, writing

How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

Although I’ve had a consistent curiosity about MFA Creative Writing programs for years, it wasn’t until October of 2013 that I, filled with inspiration and energy from a Lighthouse Writers Workshop course, decided an MFA was something I wanted to undertake  whole-heartedly and as soon as possible. My educational background is not in English or Creative Writing so I felt like an outsider unsure of how (or where) to make my way in. I had many questions, namely, How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

At first I figured I’d apply to 5-10 schools (not for any reason–I just thought this range sounded right) that were higher up on the MFA Creative Writing rankings list I’d found via Google and located in places I figured would be “cool” to live. As I did more research online, I realized that strategy was not the best and would most likely set me up for failure. There are many MFA fiction applicants who do not get into programs until their second, third, or even fourth year applying. I didn’t want to wait like that, so I created a new strategy.

Here are the factors I took into consideration while developing my MFA program application list:

Residency. The first decision I made was to go all in, meaning to a full residency program. There are many reasons to get a Creative Writing MFA, and one of mine is to begin a new career path. While I don’t know exactly what that career path will be, I want the experience of teaching in case I end up going the academic route. Most low residency programs do not involve teaching assistantships. I purchased the Poets & Writers MFA Guide, which indexes 78 full residency MFA programs. I printed out this list, grabbed a highlighter, and began the process of elimination.

(Note: Later, when I read other parts of the P&W guide more closely, I realized there are about 50 more full residency programs than those listed in that index. Because I hadn’t yet realized that, I only considered the 78 schools on the P&W full residency list. The full list of MFA programs can be found in the free P&W MFA database.)

Selectivity. The Poets & Writers MFA Guide contains selectivity rankings within it, with “1” being the most selective. Unlike many applicants, I do not view high selectivity as a particularly desirable trait. I am after a useful experience, not bragging rights about getting into one of the most selective schools. Also, the selectivity rankings do not explain why a school’s selectivity is high, and I do not believe high selectivity necessarily equals a better program. Selectivity could be high simply because it’s a small program and although they get an average number of applicants, they can only afford to accept two of them (or selectivity could be low for the opposite reason, as is true with Columbia). A great program could also rank low in selectivity because it’s in a location that not many people desire to live, so it doesn’t get as many applicants.

Because I wanted to get in somewhere this year and I know lower selectivity means a better chance of me getting in, I eliminated most schools on the list with a selectivity ranking of less than 50. (I did not eliminate those with no data, and I left UNLV in the mix although it ranked 37 because I really liked the sound of their program. Incidentally, I was waitlisted there and rejected from many more selective programs, which caused me to question my strategy a bit.) This helped narrow my list down a lot, cutting it to around 30 schools. After researching online and finding two past MFA applicants’ blog posts (one by Katie McGinnis and one by “That Kind of Girl“) and the Creative Writing MFA handbook blog, I decided to apply to 15 programs instead of 5-10. Later I upped it to 18 by adding 3 schools that do not charge application fees.

At this point I should remind you that I applied in fiction, which is the most selective of the genres due to the sheer number of applicants. It appears that fiction is at least twice as selective as poetry and creative non-fiction at any given school. If I had been applying in another genre, I wouldn’t have allowed selectivity to weigh in so heavily and I also wouldn’t have applied to as many schools.

Funding. Because I still have student loan debt from a previous Master degree, and because I want experience as a teaching assistant, I went through my list of ~30 schools and eliminated most of those that had ranked 70 or lower on funding. I think this brought my list down to around 20 schools. (I let UNO slide in because I thought their program sounded pretty cool and it was close with a rank of 81. I was accepted there but not offered a TAship, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me given the worse funding ranking.)

At this point, I inputted all of my potential schools into a spreadsheet. I made columns for the name of the school, the MFA URL, the length of the program, if they had a lit mag or not, if they required the GRE or not, their due date, their application fee, and more. The spreadsheet was indispensable and I don’t think I could’ve properly managed applying to so many schools without it.

Due date. Because I started late, I couldn’t apply to any schools with a December 15th due date. My GRE scores wouldn’t be available then, plus I needed the extra two weeks to get everything together. I think this eliminated a school or two. If I had to do it again, I’d begin earlier so such a meaningless factor wouldn’t have any effect.

Location (Sorta). Location wasn’t a huge factor, as my list was already pretty whittled down, but it helped me make some final decisions. I dropped one school because it was in a place I know I don’t want to live, and dropped another because of the high cost of living where it is located.

In retrospect, I wish I had allowed location to factor in even more. When I began receiving responses from schools in February, there were four schools that I found myself hoping would reject me. They aren’t bad schools, but they’re all in places that have harsh, snowy winters. If I’d been honest with myself about how much climate matters to me, I could’ve saved myself those application fees, or used them toward schools that might not have been less selective, but were in locations I prefer.

Program Info. My process was a bit different than that of applicants who spend months researching programs. I didn’t make program or faculty information a huge factor. As long as the school had a diverse, published faculty, a lit mag, a variety of interesting-sounding classes, and teaching assistantships, I figured I could learn a whole lot from it.

I didn’t do extensive research partly because I didn’t have the time, and partly because I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. Initially I contacted two schools asking for more info, but when what they responded with was essentially useless, I just stuck with visiting schools’ websites. There was no way I could read the writing of faculty at 15 different schools. Also, I don’t know that my enjoyment of a particular faculty member’s writing in any way predicts how helpful or supporting that faculty member would be to me as a professor.

One factor that did win points with me was the ability for students to take courses in other genres. I’m grateful I’m ending up at a school that offers this, and I look forward to taking both poetry and creative non-fiction workshops in addition to fiction.

You can see the full list of programs to which I applied in my post on how much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs.

What else? 

After I had finalized my list of schools and started the application process I found more information that would’ve been useful earlier on: the Neurotic Writer’s Guide to Apply for an MFA, the MFA Research Project blogTheGradCafe Literature forums, and the Facebook MFA Draft group.

If you are a prospective MFA Creative Writing student, I hope this post helps you. I’m not suggesting my method is the best; I just want to share it. If I did it all over, I would’ve started sooner, made funding my top criteria, and only applied to places in locations with warmer climates. I would not have eliminated the most selective schools and would’ve applied to schools across the spectrum in selectivity. Although my approach was imperfect, it lead to success. I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be attending the University of South Florida in Tampa this fall. I can’t wait.

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What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?

What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?

1) They don’t exist any more.

[Update: To clarify, the overall rankings–the only rankings I’m focusing on in this post–don’t exist anymore. Individual rankings in terms of several criteria are still made available yearly here and here.]

2) When they did exist, they were probably really inaccurate.

Last fall when I first began researching MFA programs, the rankings confused me. As I searched for information in MFA-related blogs, forums, and Facebook groups, I kept finding other potential 2014 applicants discuss where they were applying in terms of “high-ranked” and “mid-ranked” programs.  I then found 2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty on the Poets & Writers website. Since this was in 2013, I assumed those were the most recent MFA rankings available online for free and that there were other, more recent rankings in the print version of Poets & Writers magazine.

Wrong.

It turns out that 2011 was the last year Poets & Writers ranked MFA Creative Writing programs. (To clarify, they were labeled “2012” because they were marketed toward the fall of 2012 applicants, but they came out in 2011 and used data from 2011 and earlier.)

I will repeat the point of this post since clearly there are many applicants out there still holding misconceptions.

“MFA Creative Writing Rankings” do not exist. No one has ranked MFA Creative Writing programs since 2011.

Why don’t the rankings exist any more?

Remember the blogs and Facebook groups I checked out to get MFA information? Lawyer-turned-poet Seth Abramson polled potential applicants like myself in those exact  same groups and their responses determined the rankings. Yes, for real. The rankings were based on a non-scientific blog/Facebook poll of potential applicants who were probably visiting those sites in order to find information themselves. (Read the P&W rankings FAQ for more info on the methodology.)

Because the rankings essentially identified program popularity, not program quality, and because the methodology of the data gathering was clearly not scientific, a whole bunch of creative writing professors and administrators complained in an open letter and there was a lot of bad press. Poets & Writers responded with their own open letter defending the rankings, but then did away with them anyway. They don’t exist any more. (P&W does continue to publish all the other MFA program information as before, minus the rankings.)

In 2011, the New Yorker asked, Should MFA Programs be Ranked? Slate ran an article titled MFA Rankings: Why the Poets & Writers MFA Rankings are a Sham. Best American Poetry was even harsher, with Poets and Writers MFA Rankings: Garbage in, Garbage Out. Best American Poetry ran another post that ended with an appeal to MFA programs to pull advertising from Poets & Writers for as long as P&W kept running the rankings. (Best American Poetry was still so bothered by the rankings that they wrote a satirical article about them for April Fool’s Day this year.)

As I already mentioned, and perhaps most importantly, the New York Observer ran an open letter signed by ~200 creative writing professors and administrators arguing that Poets & Writers cut the rankings. Here’s a quote that sums up their main point pretty well:

To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading.

The signatories represent a wide range of schools. The list isn’t just a collection of academics at “lower-ranked” schools who were angry about their programs’ positions on the list. Many “top-ranked” universities are represented. It appears that almost across the board, people in the creative writing field agreed that the MFA rankings were both factually wrong and harmful.

The logic behind the online poll was that applicants are unbiased (compared to professors or existing students) since they are not yet associated with any MFA program, and that they are knowledgeable since they are researching programs. I understand the thinking, but as an MFA applicant, clearly see the flaw in it. It just doesn’t make sense that the people searching for information online (like me) should become the providers of that information, especially when their opinions are largely shaped by the information that is already available online, i.e., existing rankings.

From what I witnessed, many 2014 applicants who were active online formed their initial opinions of MFA programs and their applications list based on past rankings along with “Honorable Mentions” and “Underrated” lists. You can probably see how circular and hype-centric this could quickly become–new applicants decide to apply to “top-ranked” programs. They’re polled. They report where they’re applying. Those programs remain top-ranked. Sometimes an “underrated” program highlighted in an online list joins them.

If the MFA Creative Writing rankings ceased to exist a couple of years ago, why are you writing about them now?

I’m writing this post in hopes it’ll come up in searches for “MFA creative writing rankings,” and will help prospective MFA students understand the history and bigger picture I wish someone had clearly laid out for me when I began my research. Although there are bits and pieces of information online, I didn’t find a single post outlining everything I’ve put here.

People already in the MFA scene seem well aware of the rankings’ history, but newcomers are clearly not so aware. I saw several 2014 applicants comment online in ways suggesting they were making application decisions based on the 2012 MFA rankings and were not very aware of the surrounding controversy, or of the fact that the rankings had been ended altogether.

I have no issue with Seth Abramson or Poets & Writers, and am genuinely grateful for his research and their publication. I’m glad they decided to end the rankings as I agree with the signatories of the open letter, but I don’t want this blog post to be misconstrued negatively. I purchased The Poets & Writers Guide to MFA Programs pdf, which largely consists of data collected and compiled by Seth Abramson. That guide and P&W’s MFA database formed the basis of how I chose which schools to investigate further as I whittled down my list of where to apply. In a future post, I’ll write in detail about how I chose my list of schools.

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“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?”

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?” is a phrase I’ve searched before, maybe dozens of times over the years, as if Google were a magic eight ball that could instantly dictate my major life choices.

I don’t know whether or not you should get an MFA in Creative Writing, if you are considering it. To MFA or not to MFA is a personal decision entirely dependent on your values, situation, and goals. Last fall I decided to go for it and applied for MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction. I’m sharing how I came to this decision in hopes it’ll help someone who is interested in the MFA, but dealing with uncertainty.

It’ll improve my writing. This is the number one reason I am getting an MFA. For years I doubted the benefit of an MFA because it seemed as if everywhere I turned great writers were spouting off about how creative writing can’t be taught. In the fall of 2013 I took a writing course at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. In the first two weeks I made more progress on my novel than I had in the entire past year. Maybe the classroom/workshop setting doesn’t work for some people, but it is amazingly effective for me.

My MFA desires stood the test of time. In 2005 I entered a Master of Urban Planning and Policy program. Almost immediately I felt frustrated because it left me no free time to read poetry and fiction and write creatively. I began researching MFA programs online, but the idea of dropping out of one  Master program to apply to another felt totally insane. I’d already had people in my life act like I was flaky for pursuing public policy after studying psychology as an undergrad. I bought into the idea that I needed to just stick with something and stop jumping around. When I was still interested in MFA programs in 2013–eight years later–it became obvious that my desire was real and not just a phase or flight of fancy.

I know I’m not trying to avoid “the real world.” There are many twenty-somethings who go to grad school not because they’re really passionate or driven in their field, but because grad school is less awful than having to work a 9 – 5 day job. That might’ve been part of why I went to grad school the first time around. Since then I’ve spent several years in “the real world” and have figured out how to make it work for me (I find doing varied work from home is best). This time I am certain I am going to grad school in order to pursue something I love rather than to avoid something I hate.

I believe it’ll help my career. I write “I believe” because it is definitely a faith. Google the phrase “MFA Creative Writing useless” (minus the quotes) and 723,000 results come up in .35 seconds. Unlike other graduate degrees that prepare students for specific careers, the MFA in Creative Writing does not. Yes, it technically qualifies you to teach at the college level, but I recently read the dismal statistic that <1% of MFA Creative Writing graduates land full-time teaching positions. Maybe I am arrogant and delusional, but I believe that if I really want to be part of that <1%, I eventually will be. (Arrogance and delusion can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy, right?) The way to get a decent teaching gig as an MFA is to publish a book, and I’m already working on that. If I decide I don’t want to be in academia, I’ll still want to do something reading- and writing-related, and having an MFA can only help me be qualified and make the connections to bring that into reality.

The time is right. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I don’t own property. My health is good. There’s nothing tying me down to any specific geographic area. I used to think I never wanted to get married, have kids, or buy a house, but recently I’ve begun to reconsider. I still don’t know for sure, but I might want some of those things five or ten years from now. Sure, you can get an MFA while married or after having kids, but I bet it’s much more difficult. I want to pursue an MFA now, while I can devote all of my time and energy to it without having outside responsibilities.

It is in line with my values. Getting an MFA in Creative Writing is not a wise financial decision. Because the degree does not guarantee any sort of career, it can’t be viewed as an investment that will pay off monetarily. Even if you get a “fully funded” offer, you’ll probably have to use some outside funds to get by. Your tuition is waived, but there are still fees, books, and living expenses. The living stipend is generally <$15,000. I had to think long and hard about this reality before making my decision. I realized I value taking risks and pursuing my dreams more than I value being financially secure.

I’d like to point out that I have not yet started an MFA program. It’ll be interesting to come back to this post in three or four years and see if my decision was on point.

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