My flash fiction piece “Crickets” was published by Crack the Spine Journal back in October. Click here to read it!
I wrote this when I was still a grad student as a part of a workshop exercise.
My flash fiction piece “Crickets” was published by Crack the Spine Journal back in October. Click here to read it!
I wrote this when I was still a grad student as a part of a workshop exercise.
I hope you’re all doing well. I’ve wanted to blog so many times recently, but I always have so much to say and don’t know where to start and want to make sure that first I organize it well and present a very nice, pretty, clear blog post–FUCK THAT. Have you heard of “analysis paralysis?” As an anxiety-prone person, I find myself getting stuck in it often. It’s a state where I think and think about something, but never take action because conditions aren’t exactly right, or I haven’t figured out the perfect thing to do. No more!
I just tweeted this, mostly as a reminder to myself:
Imperfect action is better than inaction.
— Jay Vera Summer⛵️ (@jayverasummer) November 20, 2016
Yep, that’s my motto these days, or at least it needs to be. I finally sent out my novel–the book I first started nearly six years ago–to an agent. Was it ready? I don’t know. I definitely could’ve made it even better with more time, but I felt like I’d sat on it for so long and run through it so many times, I had to just push it out there.
In a couple of weeks, I will send a very early, very messy draft of my new novel to my thesis director. It feels painful to share work that I know isn’t anywhere near my absolute best, but I’m learning to move my focus from product to process. Also, there’s no such thing as “absolute best.” I learn and grow every day, which means I could go back and revise my old work and find something to improve every day. Every single day! Nothing is ever finished.
The idea of nothing ever being finished is freeing when I embrace it. It’s frustrating first, however. Humans–me especially–want organization, want labels, want boxes, want nice clean lines and edges. We want to know where one thing ends and another begins. We want to know what something is, and how to analyze it, what to name it. Finished or unfinished? Good or bad? To let go of these concepts requires an embracing of imperfection, aka reality. There is no such thing as “perfection,” I’ve been trying to remind myself. Perfect is a concept people are drawn to because imperfection means uncertainty, and uncertainty is scary.
At the bottom of all my anxiety and analysis paralysis, I recognize I majorly need to embrace uncertainty and relinquish attempts to control outcomes.
I am trying to practice embracing uncertainty in all areas of my life. (A major area of uncertainty for me [and many rn] has to do with American society at large, but I’m going to save that topic for another post. In the meantime, check out who I’ve been retweeting and donate to the ACLU.)
This is my final year of the USF MFA program. Eek! I don’t plan on staying in Tampa after I graduate. Double eek!
That means: I don’t know where I’m going to live a year from now. I don’t know where I’m going to work. I don’t know how I will support myself financially. I don’t know how I will spend my time, or who I’ll hang out with. Everything feels uncertain.
As of now, I see myself moving to one of three places next year: Chicago, Southern California, or elsewhere in Florida (while I’d rather leave Tampa, I would stay in St. Pete or Miami, or if I magically got a free or cheap place to live, in a small beach town).
What I will do for work feels very up in the air. I know what I do not want to do: work a 9-5 office job or teach as an adjunct. I would love to work for a university in a full-time benefited position teaching creative writing, but I know those positions are very difficult to get when you haven’t yet published a book and aren’t willing to move just anywhere.
I’d also be interested in working in magazine, web, or book publishing, but a lot of those jobs are in NYC and I don’t want to move there. Also, I do not want to take a position that would require me to work over 40 hours/week as I need time for my own creative projects.
In the spring, as my graduation date looms closer and I (hopefully) have a clearer idea of what I want to do/where I want to go next, I will write a clearer, more concise, better organized post outlining what I’m looking for and seeing if there are any readers out there who can help me.
I think part of the reason I get into analysis paralysis with blogging (and, tbh, the reason my blog isn’t as “good” these days) is because I’m too focused on professionalism. Whenever I sit down to write a post, I ask myself things like, “Would this potentially keep me from getting hired by a university?” and “Could this turn an agent off from wanting to represent me?”
Ironic as it sounds considering I am currently on the job market, I am realizing it is short-sighted and misguided for me to allow professionalism concerns to influence the content I post on my blog. Focusing on professionalism is a fear-based approach. It is a trying-to-control-the-outcome-based approach. I must remember, if an employer doesn’t want me after reading blog posts in which I am being myself and speaking my mind, then that probably wouldn’t be a good place of employment for me.
I am more concerned about being a writer and artist (paid or unpaid) than with being an employee in any certain industry.
I first began blogging in 2004, and my relationship with blogging has been bittersweet and back-and-forth ever since. I’ve gone though the cycle of posting and then regretting what I post over and over. I’ve deleted many blogs over the years out of fear. Fear that potential boyfriends wouldn’t want to date me after reading my blog, fear that my family would disown me, fear that potential employers wouldn’t hire me, fear that I wouldn’t get elected to public office (yes, I once ran for a local position), etc.
That’s got to end. I’m 35. No more running around scared, looking to others for advice and then taking it even when it doesn’t jive with what I’m doing. No more allowing “rules” or traditions or others’ expectations to trump my own instinct. No more deleting blog posts (or podcasts) out of embarrassment or fear or shame. Yes, some people will look at what I write, create, say, and do, and think it’s stupid or bad or wrong or embarrassing. And I’ll probably care and feel hurt because I’m sensitive, but that isn’t reason to change course or do anything differently. Clearly I’m meant to be one of those rare ones who paves her own way. I need to just accept that and buckle down with it rather than continue taking one step forward and two steps back every year or two.
I recently read (and highly recommend) The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by musician Amanda Palmer. She is so cool and amazing I don’t even know where to begin. Basically, she built her audience from the bottom-up. She embraced a diy approach from day one and didn’t turn back, and it’s paid off wildly. She grew her “tribe” (to quote Seth Godin) authentically and organically. She doesn’t just have fans, she has a community. She maintains real relationships with many of her fans and has allowed them to help her greatly over the years. She is redefining what it means to be an artist in a capitalist society.
Reading The Art of Asking gave me hope, but also forced me to face some regret. I’ve begun to build a community many times, and each time I’ve destroyed it out of fear. I remember when my first blog, titled “elgin roots,” began consistently receiving over 100 visitors per day way back in 2005. I was overjoyed and then scared shitless. I used swear words (gasp!) and wrote about things that I feared could get me fired from my academic job as a research assistant, or could make my conservative Christian family gossip about me and act cold to me at Christmas. I eventually deleted the blog.
I followed this same pattern of creating and then deleting blogs in the years to follow, usually feeling the old anxiety rise up in me any time I shared anything that led to me feeling particularly vulnerable, or after reaching the 100+ visitors/day mark. I did the same thing with my podcast when it began to gain in popularity and receive ~100 downloads per episode. (I don’t know why, but apparently 100 is a scary number for me.)
Each time I deleted something I had created I, illogically, told myself it was because I wanted to pursue a creative career legitimately. I didn’t want to be a silly confessional blogger who wrote about her feelings online, I wanted to be an author who published books. I didn’t want to be a crazy podcaster who recorded herself talking to herself in the car, I wanted to be a real radio personality on a show that was funded and professionally edited.
Sadly, it’s as if once I began gaining in popularity and receiving some criticism, I chose to agree with my critics instead of staying strong and listening to myself and my few fans. I said you’re right, what I’m doing is stupid, and small, and not “real,” and shouldn’t count because I just made it myself. I said yep, this is a dumb thing that I should get rid of because it embarrasses me, and I should pursue creativity through more legitimate means.
Even though deep down I have always believed in and admired the diy ethic, I felt too insecure to fully embrace it myself. I wanted that external stamp of approval coming from some sanctioned organization. It’s not that I was ashamed of swearing or posing nude or speaking my mind, but that I wanted to do those things through established channels so I could prove what I did was art. So I could prove what I created had value. So I could prove I was not just some pathetic girl trying to get attention on the internet, as my critics seemed to think.
(What I’m about to type could be controversial and further reflection on it will be reserved for a different post, buuut I sometimes wonder if this line of thinking, this desire for external validation, is what motivated me to pursue an MFA… While I’m grateful for all the MFA has afforded me and do not regret it, I do wonder if my decision to pursue an MFA was a fear-based, outcome-focused, top-down sort of decision.)
I’m not going to dwell on it, but I do regret this on-again-off-again courage/fear habit I engaged in for about eight years. I partially regret it for practical reasons–how many fans and followers would I have now if I hadn’t intentionally disappeared every time I began to develop a following online? How would my life and creative career be different if I had instead been like Amanda Palmer and embraced my small community of fans, if I’d been grateful for their support, if I had allowed people to help me instead of thinking I’d be better off ignoring them and trying to get “real” fans by going through more traditional channels?
My other source of regret is knowing that I not only hurt myself professionally by acting from fear and deleting shit, but I also let other people down. I remember deleting a shared poetry blog that I started and friends contributed to–they’d had fun with it and were upset. For many of them, I’d deleted the only copies of the poems they’d written. I remember when artist Derek Erdman contacted me to ask where my interview of him went, and I had to admit I’d deleted the whole blog in a fit of shame. I remember when I had to tell bloggers Tony Pierce and Raymi the Minx, multiple comedian friends of mine, and my cohost Erin that I’d deleted my podcast. I remember when I had to tell a professional photographer I’d deleted one of my blog posts that he’d been using for two years to acquaint new models with his approach to artistic nudes.
I’ve had a community–of artists, bloggers, writers, photographers, comedians–all the people I think are awesome, and I stupidly shut that shit down because I didn’t view it as valid. Because it wasn’t my “real job.” Because I didn’t have a big company paying me to do it. I shut it down because people did criticize me and gossip about me and I stupidly let their opinions count. Family did act weird–some deleted me on Facebook–and I cared. Too much. I caught wind of little things said here and there and allowed the resulting fear to drive my decisions.
I gave my fear more power than I gave my creative spark.
Today I am writing this post to promise myself and whatever audience I have left that I’m not going to do that any more.
I think a major part of this process has really just been getting to know myself better and being honest about who I am and what I want. No, writing blog posts where you use swear words and spill out all your emotions isn’t a good idea if you want to work a 9-5 office job in corporate America, but if you want to be a writer who gets paid for using swear words and spilling out all of her emotions, it is a pretty good fucking idea.
Posting artistic nudes online isn’t a good idea if you’re trying to attract a man who would feel threatened or jealous by your nudity, who would view you as a “slut” because of it and write you off as someone who is not wife material. Posting artistic nudes online is a good idea if you’re seeking a man who isn’t threatened by female nudity, who doesn’t believe in the concept of “sluts,” who enjoys art, and who would be more impressed by your risk taking involved in the photos than turned off by his potential jealousy.
I recognize now that I had it right all along. Those creative impulses that led to me writing blog posts and recording podcasts and modeling for all sorts of photos where right, and good, and real. Those fearful impulses that led me to feel ashamed and try to erase whatever I’d made public were wrong, and bad, and came from the voices of others, not from my own voice.
As I finish up my final year of school and face the uncertainty of “what’s next?,” I am keeping the ideas of love over fear, process over outcome, bottom up over top down at the forefront of my mind.
I will watch myself, observe how I feel. I will choose to follow those creative impulses, even when I’m afraid. I will stand by them. I won’t apologize for them, or delete them later, or talk bad about them, even if I outgrow them with time. I will honor them and delight in them and follow them and see where they lead me. I will have faith that the people who judge me or think what I do is stupid are the people I don’t want anything to do with anyway. I will trust that following my creative impulses without hesitation will lead to the best possible future for me.
It’s not easy, especially for an anxious person. It requires allowing uncertainty. It requires allowing things to remain ill-defined. It requires tolerating a little messiness here and there. The creative process is not clean or well-organized. Life is not clean or well-organized. Not everything needs to be perfectly branded or curated or designed. Not everything needs to be done with a clear goal or target identified in advance. Process over product/outcome. Bottom up over top down. Love over fear.
Click this: I Took Down A Fraudulent Breast Cancer Charity
Hi blog readers,
I apologize for neglecting you. I’ve been working on a lot of things, however, so it’s been for good reason. One of them, I can now tell you about! I had an article published on marieclaire.com last week: I Took Down A Fraudulent Breast Cancer Charity.
Please, please, please read the article and share on Facebook, twitter, wherever. This is definitely the biggest publication I’ve had to date. People seem interested in the essay, so I’d like to get it in front of as many eyes as possible.
The whole process of getting this article published was a good learning experience for me. With creative writing, you usually submit your writing to lit mags. With more journalistic writing like this, you have to pitch it rather than submit it. Pitching is less formal and involves emailing editors rather than using a submission manager such as submittable. With submitting, your cover letter is usually more of a formality and the editor is probably going to read at least the beginning of your submission no matter what the cover letter says. With pitching, your email is of utmost importance, and how the editor decides if she wants to read more.
This was one of my first times pitching and I was pretty nervous about it. I first pitched The Atlantic, but did not hear back from anyone. Then, one of my friends recommended I pitch marieclaire.com after seeing an editor post a call for pitches in The Binders Facebook group (a private, women-only Facebook group in which people post about writing and publishing opportunities–I am a part of this group, but rarely check it because I only have a Facebook account for work purposes).
Koa Beck, senior features editor for marieclaire.com, responded to my pitch quickly, saying she was interested in publishing my story. This was back in July. Every step of the way was exciting for me, as I didn’t know what to expect. (I fear I might’ve annoyed her with my regular, eager emails–oops.)
I had to fill out a W9 and a contract in order to get paid. Koa and I went back and forth a little with small edits using track changes in Word. I also sent her photos and screen capped emails related to the story. Then a fact checker got involved, and I had several lengthy phone conversations with him. He picked my brain, asking how I knew things I had mentioned in the essay, and also questioning my memory on several points (Are you sure it was rainy that day? Do you think the rental vehicle was an SUV, or a sedan?) I gave him contact info for various people who had been involved in the whole Boobies Rock! incident, and he contacted them, then contacted me again to contrast my version of the story with theirs. Next, a legal team got involved, and there were a few more questions for me. Lastly, Koa sent me a preview link to the article to look over. It went live a few hours later.
The whole process was really fun and exciting for me, and I plan to do more pitching and get more mainstream/non-literary publications soon. I have a strong interest in personal essays, and am just beginning to realize that the 10+ years of blogging I’ve done were essentially personal essay writing practice.
This experience also made me (re)realize that a major benefit of entering an MFA program is the community that comes along with it. I had not planned on writing a personal essay about Boobies Rock! until I mentioned what happened to my classmate/writer friend Annalise Mabe and she urged me to write down everything I had told her. She is the same person who later read the essay and urged me to send it to marieclaire.com, so really I owe this publication to her in many ways.
I am officially halfway done with my MFA creative writing program. It’s been a wild ride! I’m giving an update because I’ve blogged about MFA programs so much before (whether or not to get an MFA, how much it cost to apply, what’s up with MFA creative writing rankings, where to apply, update after first semester). I’m not sure where to start, however. Most people who want to read about MFAs are those considering pursuing one, and I have no clue whether or not pursuing an MFA is a good thing for any specific person. It’s such an individualized decision, I can’t say “do it” or “don’t do it.” I can, however, ruminate on the positives and negatives of my experience.
I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and I’ll be credentialed to teach college when I graduate. This is the biggest difference between doing what I’m doing within an MFA program and doing something similar with writing on my own. I am teaching and I love it. Before coming to USF, I didn’t really know if I had an interest in pursuing an academic career. I am still not 100% set on it, but I’m open to it and think it’d be fun, challenging, and a good fit for me.
I’ve found an amazing community. This will probably be the biggest benefit of the MFA program. Before coming here, I was attending a weekly workshop and I had friends and family who would read and critique my writing so I wasn’t community-less, but my network was nothing like what I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated by and interested in writing as I am. My hope is that we stay in touch and act as readers for each other for years after graduation.
Just being in this environment is enriching and encouraging–the people I’m surrounded by regularly introduce me to new things and challenge me as a writer. My professors have given me lit mag and author recommendations based on my writing style and I finally feel like I’m finding my niche in the writing world, largely because of their help. Also, there’s no way I would’ve started weirderary and First Draft if I hadn’t met TJ and Colleen.
I’ve learned a lot. I had almost no formal creative writing instruction prior to this aside from an entry-level undergrad class I took over a decade ago so I wasn’t sure what to expect from an MFA program. I’ve learned so much about writing craft and technique, and about pedagogy and teaching practice. I’ve also learned very practical things, such as how to create a good CV and what to put in a teaching philosophy statement.
I got to move to Florida. I grew up in Illinois and adore it (particularly Chicagoland), but for most of my adult life I secretly felt shitty about myself because I knew that I’d wanted to move away and had never done it. Finally, at age thirty-two, I followed my desire/faced my fears and moved to Denver. I think that played a big role in me gaining the confidence to apply to MFA programs all over the country. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Florida forever, but I like it a lot and regularly feel grateful to be here.
I trust that I am “all in” as a writer. I know getting an MFA is not necessary and I admire workaday writers who are able to view writing as their true love and passion even though it is not related to their day job. For me, however, having an unrelated (or, I guess, only somewhat related) day job led to me feeling all sorts of insecurities about myself as a writer. I worried that even if I wrote on a daily basis, writing would remain nothing more than a hobby in my life if I didn’t pursue it as my primary career. Quitting my job, moving across the country, and focusing on an MFA program full-time proved to me that I am “all in,” and it gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I no longer question my commitment to writing or worry that it’ll get sidelined in my life or become something I never pursued as fully as I wanted to.
My writing practice has suffered. My novel progress has stalled. I had a completed draft (actually a third or fourth draft) of a novel manuscript before coming here. The single most difficult part of being in an MFA program is knowing that I probably would’ve had that manuscript all polished up and sent to agents by now if I hadn’t come here. At times, I’ve resented class assignments, knowing my time spent doing homework could’ve been spent revising my novel. I’ve had to remind myself that I am becoming a better writer during my time here and, although my novel is taking longer to complete, it should be of a higher quality when I’m actually finished with it.
I realize that this difficulty is partially due to how I work–it’s not that I never have a spare minute to write; it’s that I prefer longer blocks of time. When I worked 9-5, I could work on my novel for 3-4 hours on weeknights, and upwards of 10 hours on weekend days if I wanted. Now, if I have only one hour free, I tend to use it on other things because it doesn’t feel like a long enough stretch of time to be able to dig into my novel and do substantial revising. I’m trying to work on this, though, and get used to revising in 30- and 60-minute bursts.
It’s really hard to be this busy. Moving forward, my workload should be a little lighter, but the last two semesters felt overwhelming. There was never a day where I didn’t have a long to do list (and never a day where I actually completed the list). I essentially spent two semesters feeling behind, stressed, and unprepared. I consistently completed work at the last minute and almost always felt as if there was too little time. I forced myself to continue to maintain a social life and do fun things alone such as watch movies. I realize this time could’ve been spent on school and maybe that would’ve helped me be less overwhelmed, but I refuse to live a life that has absolutely no leisure time.
I’m going to write a separate blog post about health in the near future, but I deal with fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues. One of my fears was that coming to grad school would trigger an illness flare-up. It did! I spent months running ragged, feeling awful, and on the brink of burnout and health disaster, which again is unique to me and I’m sure colors my view of the “negatives” of being in an MFA program.
It’s really hard to be this poor. I was/am also barely making it financially. This is difficult when being so strapped for time. I know I can do more outside work to help my financial situation, but that takes away from my writing and school work and adds to my busy-ness and stress. It also hurts my self-esteem and has caused me to question my decision to come here a few times. Many of my friends are in the getting-married-and-having-babies stage of life. I can’t afford to buy them nice gifts and that feels awful. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I couldn’t afford the flight, and was also unable to visit a close friend who suffered an injury because I couldn’t afford the flight. I knew going into an MFA program would involve financial sacrifice, but I guess I didn’t know the feeling of sacrifice would be so pronounced. It’s been a big challenge to focus on the positives when these types of things run through my mind on a daily basis.
I should note that this is also somewhat unique to my situation. I’ve never been great at managing money, and I entered into this MFA program even though I had a fair amount of debt and no savings. Because I already have a graduate degree, I am unable to take out student loans. I am not willing to make certain sacrifices I made last time I was in grad school, such as living with multiple roommates and going without a car. If I could do it over, I would’ve prepared savings in advance and paid much more attention to the financial side of programs when selecting which schools to apply to.
Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m doing this too late in life. I’m thirty-four years old. I already had a completed novel manuscript before coming here. I have a lot of “real world” work experience. While I’m not the oldest person in my program, I am often the oldest one who hangs out socially and most of my friends here are five to ten years younger than I am. Although I don’t place a lot of importance on age, I sometimes feel a little too old to be a poor grad student. I have to actively fight off that voice in society/my head that says I should be making more money by this age and that I should be heading up my own projects, not taking classes, at this age. The experience has been humbling and forced me to check my ego and cast aside society’s conventions about what someone “should” be doing in their 30s.
I’ve really had to embrace the “better late than never” adage. Sure, I wish that when I was twenty-five years old, worried I was in the wrong grad program, researching MFA creative writing programs online, that I had had the confidence and motivation to move past idle internet searches. I wish I had reached out to people in MFA programs and learned more and made the switch then, ten years ago, when I first wanted to do it. I wish that I had left Illinois then, when I wanted to do it. But I didn’t. That’s just not how my life happened. I guess it’s taken me longer than some to find my career path, to become aware of my desires and goals, and to muster up the courage to go for it. Instead of focusing on regret over not having done this sooner, I’m learning to focus on feeling grateful that I’m doing it now.
My biggest takeaway from reflecting on my MFA experience is that when you’re really living and you’re pursuing the things you want to pursue, life is going to be huge and hard and amazing no matter what. I think getting an MFA is like doing any other big, major life thing. Beforehand, it sounds great and you know you want it, but once you’re there, it’s hard and takes a lot of work and isn’t always fun, just like any challenging job, or marriage or parenthood, I’m sure. Still, I’m glad I’m doing it.
My biggest goals for the second half of my MFA are to enjoy it and feel grateful for it every day. In the first half of my MFA, I allowed my stress to take over more times than I’d like to admit and I often found myself wishing for time to pass, aka for the semester to end. I don’t want to live or think that way. Time is so limited; I never want to wish for it to pass more quickly. That’s insanity. That’s avoiding the present moment and literally wishing to be closer to death. My other major goal is to finish revising my novel, to stop wishing for the expanses of time I had when I worked 9-5, and to learn to jump in and take advantage of the small pockets that pop up at different times on different days.
I know some other MFA students and some MFA hopefuls follow my blog–if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I will answer them.
Hi, friends! A few days ago, a lovely (I’m assuming) man emailed me saying he’s found my MFA blog posts useful. Then, yesterday, Tony Pierce–the Blogfather himself–contacted me to say hi. Coincidence? No way. Direct message from [insert your fav deity] encouraging me to blog again.
It’s been a while, but I will not apologize. I’m busy. I’m in the thick of it. Half-way through the semester. It’s going good. It’s going well. It’s going great. I LIKE IT. The above emojis adequately represent how I feel on a consistent basis.
When I originally searched for MFA program information online, I found many blog posts about the application process, but not many posts from students currently in programs. I understand why–I’m busy, and writing about school just isn’t on my mind. Still, I want to hit you with an update.
What I’m doing, as a first-year MFA creative writing fiction student:
The amount of happiness I feel about all of this astounds me. I thought the giddiness of being here would wear off after the first week or so, but I literally walk around unable to hide a shit-eating grin the majority of the time I’m on campus. Craft of Fiction is my favorite class, which makes sense since I’m here to study fiction, but I also like the other two classes. That turned out to be a surprise, honestly. I thought they’d be boring requirements I’d want to rush through, but I’m learning a lot in each.
The in-class lectures from Intro to Grad Studies combined with our textbook readings have helped me gain awareness of why I am here, what I want to get from the experience, and where I hope to go next. The graduate program I was in years ago did not have a class like that. I wish it had; I probably would’ve realized the program wasn’t a good use of my time and the associated opportunity cost when it hit me that I lacked a clear plan.
The Practice in Teaching Composition course is for Graduate Assistants teaching Freshman Composition. In class, we discuss exercises and assignments the week before we carry them out in our own classes. We also read and discuss various pedagogies (teaching methods/theories). Although I am not able to implement it this semester, I am particularly interested in the community engaged pedagogy and hope to use it in my teaching beginning January. Community engaged pedagogy is essentially the method of teaching students through experiences with a community partner, which should also benefit the partner. I see community engagement as the link connecting my previous educational experiences with my current one.
Overall, my entire MFA experience is fantastic thus far. My classmates are all friendly and kind and already true friends. My professors are helpful and kind and interesting. The Writing Studio is fun and I’m grateful I received that opportunity. I hope to keep my Writing Studio appointment all three years. Florida’s nice. There are lizards everywhere. I do many of my readings while lying next to the pool.
Being in grad school isn’t easy, but I’m not drowning in readings, which is something I worried about after hearing MFA horror stories. My workload is manageable. I only exercise about once a week (compared to every other day before moving here) so that’s something I need to work on, but aside from that, I am not neglecting other aspects of my life outside of school. I sleep eight hours per night. I maintain a social life. I’m still revising my novel (albeit, more slowly). Still, it is graduate school. I don’t think an MFA is a good choice for someone with romantic notions of sitting around writing all day instead of working a day job. It’s a good choice for someone who likes school.
Since I am only half of a semester in, I don’t know that there is too much else for me to write about the MFA program at this time. If there is anything you think I should blog about–MFA-related or not MFA-related–let me know in the comments.
P.S. If MFA information is what you’re looking for, know that one of my classmates, Carmella, blogs regularly about her experiences as an MFA student at The Restless Writer. Also, MFA students who I (virtually) met through the Facebook MFA Draft group last year blog about their school-related experiences at The MFA Years blog.
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.
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 blog, TheGradCafe 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.
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.
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.
“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.
I recently applied to MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction for the fall of 2014. Before entering the application process, I really had no clue how much it would cost. Whoops. I’m writing this post in hopes that it’ll help prospective MFA students. I applied to seventeen schools, three of which had no application fee. Today I did the math and found out it cost me
$1,416.60 $1,550 or more. (Probably more.)
Check it out:
Okay! Let’s dig in.
Application fees: The mean application fee (not including the three schools with no fee) was $46.07. If you’re low on cash and want to apply to schools with no fee, know that there are four main high-residency, mostly funded options: McNeese, University of Arkansas, University of Mississippi Oxford, and Vanderbilt.
GRE testing: The GRE cost $185 to take and GRE score reports are $25 a pop. I spent $385 on testing and score reports. I didn’t buy any study materials. Ten of the schools I applied to required GRE scores and seven did not. ETS allows you to send four score reports for free immediately after taking the test. I accidentally sent two of my four “free” reports to schools that don’t require the GRE, which cost me $50. Bummer.
Transcripts: I am very lucky on the transcript front–my undergraduate school will send out transcripts for free as long as they are requested via postal mail. That saved me anywhere from $80 – $275 compared to others. My graduate school’s transcripts were $5 each if requested by postal mail and $10 if requested online so requesting them in advance via postal mail saved me about $50. I also had to request super expensive $12 transcripts from University of Florida, a school whose campus I’ve never set foot on, because they co-sponsored a study abroad I once did. A few schools claimed not to receive transcripts so I had to order some extras. All in all, I estimate I spent $319 on transcripts.
Postage: I think four schools required me to mail my application in a big packet instead of submitting it online. (I didn’t keep records or my USPS receipts, unfortunately.) I also paid postage in the form of addressing and stamping envelopes that I sent to my letter writers to use for the schools that accepted letters of recommendation via postal mail. I’m pretty sure I’m way underestimating this one at $67.60. More realistically I spent $100+ on mailing items when you factor in envelopes, paper, ink, and what not.
Why did I apply to so many schools? When I did research I found that it is not uncommon for fiction applicants–qualified applicants, even–who apply to fewer than ten schools to be rejected from all of them. This is because funded MFA Creative Writing programs are more selective than Ivy League med and law schools–lots of people want help writing the next great American novel, apparently. Yes, a good writing sample matters, but it’s also a numbers game. I applied to as many schools as I could afford to reduce the chance I’d have to wait a year and go through the process again. It cost me ~$1,500, but it worked!
Stay tuned for more posts on various aspects of the MFA application process.
UPDATE: I almost forgot–I paid Rachel Weaver of Sandstone Editing (highly recommended) to provide feedback on one of the pieces I included in my portfolio. It cost $113.75. Also, I had to pay about $10 for parking when I took the GRE. This makes the total ~$1,600.