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writing

When Tony Pierce tells you to blog, you do it.

florida foliageIf you don’t know who Tony Pierce is, click this link, look around, and come back. I’ll wait.

The other day Tony, or as I like to call him, “The Blogfather,” pointed out that entering an MFA program has slowed down my blogging. Where do I start?

Tony, you remember my old blog posts from 10 years ago? Five years ago? You were there, you read them. You know I used to (figuratively) cut myself open, reveal everything. It was cathartic. It was terrifying. It probably helped some readers, and it definitely helped me. Writing as therapy.

It was also the reason I deleted my old blogs–I didn’t want to be indefinitely raw and exposed like that. I didn’t like finding out friends, family, and acquaintances read about the most personal parts of my life and gossipped. I didn’t like suspecting that guys who were super into me then suddenly not might’ve changed their minds after realizing how much I put online.

To me, personal blogging has always been similar to when a close friend pulls you aside and says, “C’mon, it’s me. Tell me what’s really going on.” When I open up a draft post on my personal blog, I want to let it all out. So yeah Tony, school has kept me busy, but it hasn’t slowed down my blogging. The reason I haven’t blogged is because I know what I’d want to tell you if I started writing.

mushrooms

I’d want to tell you that, while I don’t regret moving from Illinois to Florida or entering an MFA program, it has been very difficult. First, one of my parents needed treatment for a brain tumor and I felt awful being away during that. So awful. Then my grandfather got sick. I missed my opportunity to see him before he died because I was here, in Florida, writing and studying. I don’t know that it was worth it. Right now, my other parent is dealing with a rare and dangerous blood and spine infection. It is improving, but again it’s hard for me to be across the country, unable to help.

Sometimes being in Florida to study and practice writing feels really dumb and selfish of me, and if I were going to give it to you straight, I’d end up telling you that.

I’d also want to tell you that eight people I know in Illinois (not including my grandfather) have died of various causes since I left and that it weighs on me. The deaths are unconnected, but it feels so strange–why so many, in such a short amount of time? Is that just part of getting older–each month someone else you knew dies? These are eight people I wasn’t terribly close with–old friends I lost touch with after moving, acquaintances I used to see around at shows, former classmates, close friends’ family members I’d met a few times.

bougainvilleaI’d want to tell you I feel sad about these deaths and think of them often. I’d want to tell you I also feel guilty about feeling sad, as if I didn’t know the deceased well enough to deserve to grieve. I’d want to tell you I feel shitty for blogging about them right now, that I don’t want to make other people’s tragedies about me.

I’d want to tell you that I’m dealing with health issues. That the symptoms feel like a moving target. That I’m doing my best to stay calm and optimistic while I try to yet again figure out what the fuck my body is doing. I’d want to tell you that I’m suffering and afraid. I’d want to tell you that I feel very alone in my pain and fear.

I’d want to tell you that I found out I can’t take out any more student loans because I already have a masters degree–it turns out the federal government will only help pay for the first one. I’d want to tell you that this means I have no clue how I’m going to get through the next two years. Despite being thirty-four years old, I do not have significant savings. I’d want to explain that a “funded” graduate program isn’t really, not unless you can live off of about $1,000/month. My expenses exceed that and I do not yet know what is going to make up the difference.

palm trees

I’d want to tell you that I’m becoming disillusioned with academia. That while I’m grateful for all I’m learning, I’m realizing the system is deeply unfair. I’d want to tell you about the day I saw a flyer at Aldi and realized that grocery store assistant managers make more money than many full-time college instructors.

I’d want to tell you that promoting beer pays me twice as much as teaching undergraduate writing courses pays me. I’d want to point out that college sports coaches are the highest paid public officials in many states. I’d want to write potentially melodramatic things such as, “What is wrong with America?”

I’d want to assure you that, despite all of my woes and worries, life isn’t all bad. I’d want to show you photos of Florida foliage and tell you even a short walk resets my mood, leaves me marvelling at nature.

I’d want to tell you that I love instagram, and even though that sounds cheesy or basic or whatever, it has become a bright part of my day. I’d want to tell you that I’ve decided to, for real this time, buy a nice DSLR camera whenever I can afford it. That even though I can’t afford it now, my iphone is a substitute and I enjoy taking photos and thinking about photos I will take in the future.

I’d want to tell you that I go to the gym every day now and it’s become a surprising source of strength and calm for me. I’d want to admit that for the first thirty minutes or so after walking in the door I feel anxious, want to leave, and think some variation of “I don’t belong here and everyone can tell.”

pink puff ball flower

I’d want to tell you that I notice those thoughts and feelings, keep exercising anyway, and feel amazing by the time I’m done. I’d want to try and make that into some sort of metaphor for life. I’d want to express hope that if I just keep on moving through difficult times and do not waver in my commitments that I will ultimately be rewarded with feelings of security and peace.

I’d want to tell you that I’ve made two really great friends down here, and that we’ve started a lit mag and a live lit event. I’d want to tell you that I have crazy, incredible daydreams in which I can eschew an academic career by growing one or both of these two things into a business.

I’d want to tell you that I’m still working on my novel, and that it’s horrible, but that’s okay. I’m plugging away and still telling myself I’ll finish it this summer. I’d want to tell you that I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed of it. I’d want to tell you that writing it might be the most challenging and exciting thing I’ve done in my life.

I’d want to tell you that I have over fifteen finished pieces of shorter writing and that I am submitting like crazy. I’d want to tell you that even though I’ve only received rejections so far, I don’t plan on stopping. After years of not believing in my writing ability, I finally have faith in myself.

brussels griffon

I’d want to tell you that my dog is awesome and that I’m not embarrassed to say he’s my best friend.

I’d want to tell you that music is a beautiful panacea. I might try to get you to listen to Surf, if you haven’t already. I’d want to remind you that the right Apocalypse Hoboken song can help when dealing with unpleasant emotions.

I’d want to talk about TV and say I get it now, I’m sorry I was an “I-don’t-watch-TV” type of snob a few years ago. That Bojack Horseman and Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is The New Black make my life feel richer.

I’d want to tell you that while things don’t always feel okay, I know that they will be, or that they already are, even when they aren’t. I’d want you to know that I’d know I was mostly writing that for myself.

Categories
writing

Workaholics: More than weed and dick jokes

workaholicsBanner

Workaholics is a Comedy Central sitcom beginning its fifth season this month that features three mid-twenties, pothead dudes who work for a telemarketing company and share a house in Rancho Cucamonga, California. On paper, the premise falls somewhere between The Office and a Judd Apatow bromance movie. On screen, the sitcom stands out from all other recent comedies I’ve seen.

Workaholics is funny, unique, multi-layered, and smart, but the reviews of it I’ve seen have largely missed the point. The words “frat humor” get thrown around a lot. Even favorable critics have mistakenly assumed dumb characters indicate a show without depth and an immature audience indicates purely juvenile comedy. They haven’t bothered digging below the show’s bong- and boner-laden surface because they’ve wrongly assumed there isn’t anything to find. That’s why I’m writing my first TV show review–to work through why this show is more than just another sitcom. I hope to answer this question: What does Workaholics have that makes it so special?

Workaholics is disgusting. While I don’t think grossness is the most salient characteristic of the show, it is the factor most commonly written about so I will address it first.  In nearly every episode, some form of urine, feces, vomit, snot, or blood is splashed on a character or finds its way into someone’s mouth. The episodes that do not involve bodily fluids are sure to have a slightly uncomfortable-to-watch injury or masturbation scene. I’m not grossed out very easily, but I still recognize that this show is grosser than most other shows on television.

workaholics mouth to neck

Workaholics is gross for grossness’s sake and, at times, delightfully, unpredictably, creatively sickening. Lazy critics might write off the repulsive physical humor as a cheap laugh, but clearly it takes ingenuity to think of something as disgusting as rats being splattered around a house and yard with baseball bats. I could write an entire post on the grossest scenes of Workaholics (actually, would anyone like that? maybe a top ten thing?), but I’ll leave it at this: when I saw Blake give CPR to an elderly man’s tracheostomy hole and pull away with mucus in his mouth in S3E17 I squirmed in my seat. It was the first time since childhood something on tv made me gag. That is a whole new level of grossness light years beyond farts and boogers, and it’s worthy of admiration.

Now that grossness is out of the way, let’s dig into Workaholics’ overabundance of references. These are part of the wink at the camera that lets the audience know Workaholics isn’t simply an immature sitcom geared toward high school and college students who geek out over weed and dick jokes. The references give the show dimension and layers of humor. I know I don’t catch all of them; I don’t play video games, read comic books, understand role playing games, or watch many action movies. Still, I was a teenager in the 90s and am a big fan of both comedy and hip-hop and that is enough to feel like I’m firmly inside of the inside jokes.

adam jncos workaholics

The constant 90s references are hilarious evidence that the writers are writing what they think is funny, not simply catering to their audience. Twenty-one-year-olds might laugh at Adam in JNCOs, a Blink 182 tshirt, and a visor when the guys pretend to be high school students (S2E1) because it looks goofy, but they’re not laughing for the same reason I, someone born in 1981, am laughing. I can still remember when all of my crushes wore JNCOs, and when I sat at home having serious discussions with my friends about whether or not we should start dressing like skaters (while Blink 182 likely played in the background).

A favorite 90s reference of mine is in S3E15 when the guys sing Stay by Lisa Loeb to a web cam girl (who, not accidentally, I’m sure, is wearing Lisa Loeb-style glasses). Later in the episode Loeb herself makes a cameo and says “Stay” as part of her lines. The show’s younger fans won’t place Loeb’s line or her face. She is clearly there as a treat for those of us in the same age group as the show’s creators, all born between 1981 and 1984.  The same goes for the myriad other 90s references, such as those to BJ Armstrong, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, and Seven Mary Three.

These 90s references are more than just fun nods to a shared past culture, however. They support a larger underlying theme I’ll discuss later, that of an extended adolescence.  In American society, one’s 20s has, for many people, become a decade of confusing limbo between the teenage and adult years. The 90s references evoke emotions by reminding us viewers of our own teenage years. This allows us to feel more accepting of the guys’ narcissism and lack of empathy, as well as to share in their nostalgia for perhaps silly, yet simpler and more comfortable times of carefree youth prior to adult responsibility.

Workaholics’ comedy and hip-hop references are as plentiful and on-point as the 90s references. The guest actors alone show this is a true comedy fan’s sitcom and the creators are writing (and casting) to the back of the room. Alex Borstein, Chris D’Elia, Tom Green, Tim Heidecker, Leslie Jones, Bruce McCulloch, Chris Parnell, Jordan Peele, and many more comedy favorites have graced the show as guest actors. Sometimes I wonder if the writers are just trying to meet as many of their comedy heroes as possible, which is exactly what I would do if I were in their positions.

In addition to blatant comedy references such as those to John Candy, Tina Fey, and The Office, there are the more subtle gifts that make watching the show feel like a treasure hunt. I nearly missed stand-up Kyle Kinane (S2E8), and had to replay that glimpse of a generic-looking bearded extra in overalls in order to confirm it was him. I also had to replay Ders’s line “You are a medium talent at best” (S4E13) to make sure I heard it correctly, a line that would only be appreciated by comedy fans up on their history of the genre.

The hip-hop references operate similarly (and overlap with the 90s references quite a bit), with overt mentions of Andre 3000, Chamillionaire (my personal favorite), Chief Keef, Jay-Z, Nate Dogg, “Robert Kelly,” Rockafella records, Snoop Dogg, the St. Lunatics, Usher, and more. (Seriously, try and find me another show that references Chamillionaire.) Again, the sweetest references are subtle, special treats, like when Blake thanks Based God (S3E18), or when Anders says in conversation “Ain’t a damn thing changed” (S4E6). The copious use of references itself, especially the practice of using exact lines from other media, could be viewed as a meta-reference to hip-hop, a genre that regularly takes full beats and lines of lyrics then repurposes them to new meaning.

Digging deeper beyond the layers of gross-out humor and cultural references shows that Workaholics interrogates two major shifts happening in our society–the movement toward one’s 20s being an extended adolescence rather than the onset of adulthood and the changing definition of masculinity. These themes are where the real depth and pull of the series lie, and why knock-off shows featuring nerds and/or bros nerding and/or broing out cannot experience the same level of success. Part of the reason the show speaks to viewers, whether or not we consciously realize it, is because it identifies these insecurity-causing cultural shifts and allows us to laugh at our own uncertainties about our place within society in light of them.

Workaholics isn’t a show about slackers, as many tv critics claim. It is largely about one’s 20s (and early 30s, for some), the recently-created and yet-to-be-named cultural space that now exists between adolescence and adulthood. Adam, Blake, and Ders live independently and hold down full-time jobs as adults do, but play videogames and smoke pot constantly like teens. They strive to get promotions and want to be respected at the office, but view their job as boring and devoid of meaning, and continually engage in fireable shenanigans. They are out of college and in “the real world,” yet still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Most of the time, they postpone the question by smoking a bowl or going on an adventure.

The guys’ in-between state is perhaps most clearly reflected in their relationship to women. They often mistake sexual attraction for true feelings, and don’t understand how to properly act on either. Their regular mentions of love and marriage show a desire for intimacy and maturity that their fear of and inaptitude with women keep them from. This is most obviously displayed in S3E15 when the guys decide they need to stop watching porn and instead pursue real women, then chase a camgirl. Even when they become consciously aware of their problem, they lack either opportunity or skill to overcome it.

Career success and romantic intimacy elude the dudes both abstractly and concretely. They want more than their current lives offer and often verbalize desires that represent a longing for maturity, depth, and purpose, but are seemingly helpless when it comes to identifying or obtaining those things. In the meantime, partying and friendship is what imbues their lives with meaning, and they oscillate between pursuing these with reckless abandon and facing (or, often, avoiding) the consequences.

In addition to facing the existential trials and tribulations of being a 20-something in America, the Workaholics characters are also dealing with the more specific issue of being male in America. Cliché as it sounds, they are no longer boys, but not yet men, and well aware of that. The guys are hyper-obsessed with masculinity and want nothing more than to be real men, as can be seen in their constant dick discourse (dick-course?). They praise the size of dad dicks and regularly brag about or insult their own and each other’s penis sizes, obvious measures of manliness. Women and sex are viewed not just as outlets for pleasure, but as sources of identity, self-worth, social status, and affirmation that the dudes possess the masculinity they seek.

Unfortunately, the guys are searching for an elusive masculinity that is impossible to pin down because right now the definition of “man” is rapidly changing in American culture. Whenever the dudes come close to identifying or achieving manliness, what they think they’ve found is quickly turned on its head. The strong men of The Lord’s Force (S3E7) are the manliest guys Adam, Blake, and Ders have ever met, but they turn out to be gay, which is confusing because not wanting to bang chicks isn’t manly at all. Blake blows his chance with Jillian by mentioning that he can’t wait to tell the guys they hooked up, before they hook up–his eagerness to display his manliness makes him lose his chance to obtain it (S3E18). Ders gets to bang Alice, the female boss who emasculates them day in and day out, but still has his manhood undercut when she insinuates his dick is too small and he finishes too soon to please her (S4E2).

A few months ago, the New York Times published a relevant article called The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. The author, A.O. Scott writes, “TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.” Scott focuses on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, citing the demise of their protagonists as a reflection of the upcoming end of patriarchal society. If Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano symbolize the end of manhood as we know it, Adam, Blake, and Ders symbolize the incoming generation of men looking at the mess they left and asking, “What next?” The existing structures are breaking down, but new ones haven’t been built. In the same article, Scott asks, “Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable…Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?” Clearly, the Workaholics guys have, at least temporarily, chosen to dance.

Although Workaholics is gaining in popularity and has made its creators celebrities, from what I’ve seen, it is still being slept on by a lot of people who would enjoy it if they gave it a deeper look. Hopefully with season five, that changes. Because Workaholics is hilarious, rife with cultural references and cool cameos, and providing a poignant commentary on today’s society and the 20-something’s changing place within it, I believe it will be considered a comedy classic one day. If you are a Workaholics fan and you’ve read this far, I encourage you to comment with which scene you think is the grossest, which reference the coolest, or whatever else is on your mind right now. As the dudes say, that would be totally tight butthole.

Categories
writing

Merry Alone Christmas from Florida.

downtown tampa

Joe texts from Illinois asking if people actually decorate palm trees for the holidays. He must’ve received my Christmas card, which has a drawing of lights- and ornament-decorated palms on its front. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to disappoint him either, so I respond saying that people probably really want to decorate palms, but the leaves are just too high off the ground.

After hitting send, I think about it some more. Is the feature that makes palm trees beautiful the same thing that makes them poor Christmas trees? Their leaves are long and hang down. Decorations would probably slide right off.

I leave my apartment on foot and walk down the sidewalk, noticing for the first time that there is a small lemon tree and a small orange tree next door in a patch of grass outside of the property owner’s fence. I don’t pick any right now because they look a little brown and I’m not hungry anyway, but I make a mental note to keep an eye on the trees and pick from them with abandon in the future.

After I turn onto a busy street and walk a few blocks, a car slows down and whips into the adjacent bank parking lot. The driver’s side window rolls down and a man inside motions for me to walk over. I say, Nope, and pick up my pace, which irritates me, because I was just about to take off my sweatshirt on account of the walking has made me hot. Now I have to walk farther, in discomfort, because I know if I take my sweatshirt off right now this idiotic man will view it as the beginning of his own personal strip show.

After walking two blocks, I look back–the man’s car is out of view. I take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist. It’s my favorite and most comfortable sweatshirt. It says THE GREAT GATSBY on it. I like wearing it because it boosts my spirits. First, it’s a light blue that I find pleasant. Second, the inside is so soft I periodically become aware of it touching my arms and that feels nice. Third, if my mood sours while I’m wearing this sweatshirt, I can look down at it and switch my focus to how I, regular aspiring Fitzgerald, am writing a novel with a narrator who is not also the protagonist.

Anyway. As soon as I take the sweatshirt off, a cool breeze highlights the places I have been sweating–my lower back, my armpits, and between my boobs. I see the shady bus stop two blocks away and know that once I sit on the bench for a minute or so I will become cold and want to put the sweatshirt back on even though just now it had become almost unbearable.

Being human is frustratingly high-maintenance.

I’m taking the bus not because I need it to get somewhere, but because I want to write a story that takes place in Tampa. I hope a bus ride on Christmas will inspire me. I’ve taken transit for legitimate reasons (cost, convenience, necessity) in other cities hundreds or maybe even thousands of times, but today I am solely a voyeur. In my four months as a Floridian, I’ve gathered almost no sense of place; most of my time here has been sheltered, split between my apartment and campus.

I feel a little sleazy knowing my primary purpose behind riding the bus is watching the other riders, people who most likely have no other transportation option. I push off the idea that I’m a creep embarking on some sort of at-home poverty tourism outing and continue with my plan of, well, planned spontaneity.  Excitement fills me as I think about what I’m about to do: get on the bus, take it wherever, and see what happens. The world is open.

As I sit on the bus stop bench, a minivan stops at the traffic light in front of me. The driver of the minivan vigorously brushes his teeth. The passenger–who I presume to be his wife–looks out the window with no identifiable expression on her face. Behind her sits a child, repeatedly kicking the back of her seat. I wonder where her husband is going to spit out the toothpaste and feel as if I’m witnessing a brief glimpse into the terror-filled prison a domestic partnership with the wrong person can become.

tampa bus happy holidays

The bus arrives. I pay my $2 and sit down in the first available seat. There’s only one other person on the bus. The bus doesn’t stop nearly as often as the buses in Chicago or even Denver stop, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same.

There isn’t anything unique or interesting on the bus to observe, so I focus on what’s outside: Gentlemen’s club, TERMINEX, graveyard–I laugh, as this small stretch seems like a perfect representation of Florida in one fell swoop. I’ve heard rumors that Tampa is the “strip club capital of America.” I’ve also heard there are cockroaches everywhere because of the climate, although I haven’t seen one in my apartment yet (cross fingers, knock on wood, etc.). The graveyard seems fitting because, well, let’s be real: much of the rest of the country views Florida as a good place to come die.

The bus collects more people as we go. At one stop, the driver gets off and switches with another driver. This new driver seems angry. At the same stop, a man in a wheelchair waits to get on the bus. He’s wearing a Santa hat and holding a poinsettia in his lap. The bus driver huffs and puffs as he puts up seats to make room for the wheelchair. At the last second, the chair guy says, Nevermind, I want to go home instead, and wheels away. I wonder if he decided to go home because he felt like he was burdening the driver. I wonder who he was going to give the poinsettia to, and if he’ll be able to give the gift on another day instead. I wonder if anyone is at his home, or if he’s going to sit there alone, in a Santa hat.

A couple of stops later, another guy in a wheelchair is waiting to get on the bus. This one gets all the way on and doesn’t seem to notice the driver’s huffs as he straps the wheels down with multiple red, seatbelt-like straps. This guy is wearing a shirt that says “RIP” and has a photo of someone’s face on it. He’s black. I’ve only ever seen black people wear those types of shirts; I wonder why white people don’t generally get them made. I like them. I make a note to tell my friends that having everyone wear an “RIP Jessica Thompson” shirt with my face on it after I die will be my last wish.

A few stops later, the man in the wheelchair says he’d like to get off the bus. When the driver stands, he tells a passenger standing in the aisle to move. This begins an argument that continues for several minutes after the man in the wheelchair is off and we are moving again. It goes something like this:

Passenger: You didn’t need to tell me to move, because I already would have moved.

Driver: But you didn’t, so I had to tell you.

Passenger: Once you moved the wheelchair, I would’ve moved. 

Driver: I was going to move the wheelchair in five seconds, therefore I had to tell you.

Passenger: You’re just one of those people who likes bossing people around.

Driver: No, I’m just trying to look out for the guy in the chair, okay?

Passenger: Oh, I know more about the needs of people with disabilities than you will EVER know!

Driver: Maybe you do. Not the point. The point is you needed to move. Merry Christmas, sir.

Passenger: Merry Christmas!

Then their Merry Christmas!es continue, at first sarcastically, then angrily, until they say it at least four times each. The driver blasts a Spanish language radio station for about thirty seconds, then the bus returns to silence. The passenger looks at me with a “Can you believe this?” expression, as if I’m going to provide some sort of support. I respond by looking around and giving him a “Who, me?” facial expression.

I realize the angry passenger and I are the only two white people on the bus. Is that why he’s assuming I’ll take his side? I look down at my notebook, trying to avoid his persistent gaze. I hear the guy two seats behind me mutter something about rude people taking the bus today and needing to sit down (the white passenger is still standing). I wonder if I should mutter something similar to make it explicit that I don’t feel any camaraderie with this man. I decide I’m overthinking it and stay silent.

Only one other remarkable thing occurs on the ride: A family with several children gets on the bus. I continue to look out of my window. About a block after we pull away from the curb, I catch a flash of a woman in a parking lot who has lifted her shirt up to expose her stomach and bra and is shaking her body in an exaggeratedly sexual way. There are two men nearby. One is walking briskly away from her. The other is walking away from her, but more slowly, and he keeps looking back.

I whip my head around to see if anyone behind me caught a glimpse of this weird scene. I see a child of about ten whip his head around in the same way. I blurt out, Did you see that? He nods rapidly and widens his eyes. His mom asks him, in Spanish, what I said to him. He doesn’t respond. She asks again. I can’t understand his response because it’s also in Spanish and said very quickly, but I see him mime lifting his shirt and dancing. She looks at me, as if to question whether or not he’s telling the truth. I nod my head.

Once the bus reaches downtown Tampa, I depart, figuring that area will be the most walkable and most likely to have something interesting going on. I walk aimlessly. A drugged out-looking guy approaches me and I instantly slip into city mode, saying, Nope, and shaking my head before he can verbalize his request. He looks surprised.

I feel kind of bad, considering it is Christmas and all. I think about how I’m planning to teach a community creative writing workshop in a few months, perhaps at a homeless shelter or with recovering addicts. I wonder what I’ll say if he shows up to one of my workshops and calls me out for being a hypocrite who is nice in class, but rude on the street. After mentally debating various explanations, I settle on the shortest: Different context.

I keep walking. I figure I’ll find a dingy open restaurant or bar, hole up there and write for a couple of hours, then hop on a bus back home. As I look for a spot, a scene plays out in my mind.

FADE IN.

INT. BAR – DAY

JESSICA, a young and attractive writer, sits down on a wobbly barstool in an empty bar and studies the pathetic strand of half-burnt out Christmas lights stabbed into the wood paneled wall with thumbtacks.

JESSICA

Barkeep, I’ll take a whiskey, neat.

A forty-something BARTENDER turns from a radio playing SILENT NIGHT to display his ruggedly sharp jawline and head full of shiny, silver hair.

BARTENDER

Sure thing, miss. Single or double?

JESSICA

 Sir, it’s Christmas. I’m alone and I didn’t drive here. Better make it a double. No, two doubles.

BARTENDER

Brand?

JESSICA

Well.

BARTENDER

On Christmas?

JESSICA

You gonna pay the difference?

BARTENDER

Hell, miss. I’m working for a reason.

JESSICA

That’s what I thought. So again, well.

JESSICA opens a green, leatherbound notebook and writes furiously. BARTENDER walks off and comes back with four double whiskies, neat.

BARTENDER

Lady, I have a heart. I can’t serve you well on Christmas. A woman of your caliber shouldn’t be drinking that stuff anyway. Here’s our top shelf, no extra charge. Hell, no charge at all. Happy Holiday.

JESSICA

Wow, thanks. And four of them? I guess you could tell I needed these. So generous.

BARTENDER

Not so fast, kid–two of them are for me. As you say, it’s Christmas, I’m alone, and, well, unlike you I am driving, but that’ll have to stay between the two of us.

BARTENDER and JESSICA laugh and clink their shot glasses together before throwing back both double whiskeys. JINGLE BELL ROCK plays from the radio.

BARTENDER

You know, I’ve always liked this song. You feel like dancing?

JESSICA

Sure, but don’t get too attached. You won’t see me after tonight.

BARTENDER

No problem, miss. One night is all I need.

BARTENDER walks around the bar and grabs JESSICA’s hand. She stands and they dance and laugh.

FADE OUT.

But, all the bars and restaurants I pass are closed. I decide to head toward the water, but have to consult a map every few blocks. The grid is on a diagonal and I can’t just take one street the whole way from my current location. I feel like a tool not knowing my way around downtown and am thankful no one is around to see me.

I notice “Marion Street Transit Parkway” is designated as a bus-only street on the map. I immediately think of 16th Street Mall–a touristy but fun, shop-lined bus and pedestrian walkway in Denver. When I first reach Transit Parkway, the bricked street fuels my excitement. I turn down it and walk a few blocks before realizing it is the go-to sleeping place for homeless people. After a man begins following me, I pick up the pace and take a different route.

A few blocks later, I see a hot-looking guy walking the opposite direction and cross the street earlier than planned in order to walk past him. He looks about twenty-five and has shoulder-length brown hair. That and his faded skinny jeans make me feel surprised that he isn’t carrying a guitar. He walks with a limp that’s more cowboy swagger than gansta lean. As I walk toward him, a scene pops into my mind.

FADE IN.

INT. SUBURBAN HOME – NIGHT.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.

ROCKER GUY

How did we meet? It’s the craziest thing–we were both alone on Christmas, walking around Tampa on account of us both having silly romantic notions about such a thing, and we literally bumped into each other on the street.

JESSICA

Very literally. I had bruises! He never looks where he’s going.

ROCKER GUY

I was composing a song in my head. And I’m glad! We fell in love on the spot.

JESSICA

Speak for yourself!

ROCKER GUY

Well, one of us fell in love on the spot, but within a year I convinced her. And here we are, married, three years later. It’s a dream come true.

JESSICA

It’s all been a dream. I never even thought I wanted kids, and now look at me!

JESSICA stands and points to her protruding belly. Several NEIGHBORS reach out and touch it.

JESSICA

I guess once my book sales skyrocketed and I realized I would never, ever have to hold a full-time job again, ever, for the rest of my whole entire life, the thought of raising a child became more appealing.

ROCKER GUY

And if her book sales ever fall, God forbid, my music sales will be more than enough to sustain our family. I know it’s gauche to talk about money at a party, but you won’t believe this–we brought in the same exact amount last year. Like, to the dollar. Our accountant was shocked. He thought we were playing a prank on him!

FADE OUT.

Right before the rocker guy and I pass each other, he turns his head to look at me directly, exposing the side of his face I hadn’t yet seen. His right eye is swollen, black, and only partially open. Before I have time to fully register the black eye, a waft of booze smell hits my nose. Before I have time to fully register that, he asks if I will give him some money.

A sexually attractive homeless person is so far outside any sort of mental schema I hold that I stand there for a few seconds staring before saying, Oh, no, sorry, I, uh…no. Nope. Sorry. He puts his head down and walks on.

I keep standing, trying to think of any possible way he’s not homeless. Maybe he just got in a fight with his idiot brother at the family Christmas gathering and needs cash to take a cab home. But no, the booze smell was too strong and jumbled to have come from a single day of drinking. I look back at him. What I initially viewed as rocker hair suddenly appears to be neglected hair that is extremely stringy and greasy. I remember Lindsay on Arrested Development pursuing a homeless man and laugh. I came dangerously close to doing the same.

That the possibility of a homeless person being attractive or dateable is a joke sticks with me uncomfortably as I walk. I again think about my community creative writing workshop plans. Although I don’t yet know what “community” I’ll be working with, I don’t want to go into it with any trace of hypocrisy or condescension. I wonder if my assumption that all homeless people are undateable indicates good sense or dehumanizing prejudice. I revise my daydream.

FADE IN.

INT. SUBURBAN HOME – NIGHT.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.

ROCKER GUY

It’s a crazy story. You sure you want to tell it, honey?

JESSICA

Of course, it’s amazing. We met on Christmas. I was alone and walking around downtown Tampa, just being a silly writer looking for inspiration, I guess, and he was–believe it or not–homeless and looking for a handout.

NEIGHBORS murmur among themselves loudly.

ROCKER GUY

I’m really lucky she took a chance on me. Ninety-nine percent of women wouldn’t do that. No way.

JESSICA

It was stupid, I know, but he was so handsome.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY squeeze hands and look into each others’ eyes.

JESSICA

He was so dedicated to playing guitar that he had just sort of forgot about rent. That is, until he was evicted the week before Christmas.

ROCKER GUY

I played on the street for money and slept in the park, hoping to save up enough to record a demo.

JESSICA

Then, on Christmas Day, someone jumped him and stole his money and guitar.

ROCKER GUY

I was walking around downtown because I felt like if I sat still I would kill myself. I wanted to jump into the Bay. My guitar was all I had left.

JESSICA

Honey, don’t say that!

ROCKER GUY

It’s true. But don’t worry, I’d never do that now. Now that I have you, and a baby on the way, I feel so rich.

ROCKER GUY rubs JESSICA’s large belly.

JESSICA

You are rich. That’s the ironic part. I hit on a homeless man, and now I’m married to a multi-millionaire!

NEIGHBORS laugh.

NEIGHBOR ONE

Do you ever get competitive with each other? With you both being so successful in your respective creative careers?

JESSICA

Actually, believe it or not, last year we brought in the same exact amount of money. To the penny.

ROCKER GUY

Except I think she probably spent a little more of it.

ROCKER GUY winks at NEIGHBORS.

JESSICA

Only because he’s counting our mortgage as one of my personal luxury expenses. Excuse me for thinking room and board is a necessity!

JESSICA playfully pushes ROCKER GUY. They and NEIGHBORS laugh.

FADE OUT.

Accidentally, I arrive at Tampa theatre. The nature of the block changes quickly. No more homeless people, many middle-class. The people in line look like my parents and my aunts and uncles. I ask what movie they’re waiting for (The Imitation Game). I contemplate joining them, but feel it would be a cop-out. I’m rambling about downtown Tampa alone for real world adventure, not to sit in a controlled environment and stare at a screen. I continue on.

After I cross a street, a passing car slows and the window rolls down. I avoid looking, assuming it’s a catcaller. A female voice yells, I love your shirt! I’m startled and look up. She yells it again and this time gives me two thumbs up. I smile and nod and yell back, Thanks! The man sitting in her car’s passenger seat looks embarrassed. I want to yell, Hey, she’s cool! She should be embarrassed of you!, but I of course don’t.

After the complimenting woman drives away, I try to think of some other response I could’ve given that would’ve led to us becoming friends. Maybe, Let’s be friends! Or, Hey, you seem cool! Perhaps, Pull over! And once she pulled over, Wanna hang out sometime? I like to read and write. I feel sad that all of those things would probably be regarded as weird. I try to envision a society in which cool women regularly talk to me on the street in an attempt to gain my friendship, rather than annoying dudes wanting either sex or money. It looks like a utopia.

Suddenly I’m in Waterfront Park and it is bumping. People are eating picnics on the lawn, playing soccer and football, skateboarding, chasing their kids around. I walk around exploring and come upon a small dome-shaped area with seats painted all white. There are two men in there, both writing. They both perk up when I walk in. They’re both relatively attractive. They are sitting on opposite sides of the mini-arena, and I do not get the sense that they are together. If it were only one guy, I would sit down and begin writing myself, and perhaps we’d start a conversation. With both, it’s just too much. I continue on.

There’s a tent with a crowd around its entrance, so I walk toward it. Ice skating rink. After checking my pride, I get in line behind a bunch of preteens. Ten minutes later, I pay $10 to enter and rent skates, put the skates on while warily leaving my shoes on the floor (pushed up against some kid’s shoes so as to trick any potential thieves into thinking they are mom shoes that shouldn’t be stolen), and hit the ice.

Once I’m about halfway around the rink, I feel like my ankles are going to break. After a full lap, I am tempted to get off the ice, but force myself to skate around once more. By the end of that lap, I feel like shit emotionally. Am I so old that I can’t even ice skate? Is it true that I can barely do two laps in the smallest rink I’ve ever seen? Have I entirely let myself go? Am I decrepid and useless? Have I lost touch with all youth and vigor?

Of course, I am momentarily forgetting that I did yoga just this morning, walked a few miles yesterday, and played tennis for nearly three hours the day before that. The mind isn’t logical during flashes of despair. I trot off the ice and sit on a bench, ready to leave about fifteen minutes into the ninety I’d paid for. I begin untying one skate, prepared to go home defeated, but long-forgotten knowledge buried deep in a recess of my mind bubbles up: Wobbly ankles mean the skates aren’t tight enough.

I unlace and relace my skates; this time as tight as I possibly can. The laces make my hands smell really bad. I get back out there and it is much easier. For some reason, skating alone to pop star renditions of traditional Christmas songs amidst families, couples, and preteens makes me feel emotional. Not sad, but as if the moment is meaningful. When a small girl falls, I help her up and have to stop myself from saying something ridiculous like, This is what life is all about!

ice skating rinkThe powers that be kick us off and a mini zamboni comes onto the ice. It’s essentially a golf cart dragging a combination sprinkler/scraper. When it finishes, they let a teenage girl onto the ice alone for a few minutes. She is an aspiring figure skater, and she’s good. She does jumps and spins and people clap. I try to take a photo, but my camera isn’t fast enough. Although I am 33 years old, do not aspire to figure skate, and have never aspired to figure skate in my entire life, I feel a brief but powerful flash of envy.

I guess I just wish I could do something cool.

The more laps I skate, the more I try to spot someone else who might be in my position: totally alone. All of the alone-looking women I try to feel a sense of kindredness with turn out to be with a man or child (or both) whom she cannot keep up with on the ice (and who has not bothered waiting for her).

I see a couple in their 60s skating and holding hands. Tears spring to my eyes. They are whispering to each other, smiling, and holding each other up on the ice. Their love is beautiful. I want that kind of love.

A few laps later, I see the woman skating alone. I instantly think of the last time I went ice skating, about five years ago. My boyfriend at the time acted like he wanted to go, but once there it became clear he was doing it begrudgingly. My feelings were hurt when I realized he was humoring me rather than having fun. He wanted to go home not long after we arrived.

When I skate past the woman wobbling all alone on the ice I want to whisper, Don’t let him bring you down.

After a few more laps, I see the 60s-something husband back out on the ice, holding his wife’s hand, whispering into her ear, helping her on the curves because he is the steadier skater. I realize he was probably sitting out because he’s kind of old and his back hurt or something, not because he’s ungrateful or disengaged. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Either way, he’s not a jerk; I was simply projecting my memories onto their totally unrelated relationship. I feel happy for them again, but have had enough skating.

decorated palms

I exit the skating rink to find lit up, decorated palm trees. I take a photo and text it to Joe. That looks fake, he replies. I took the photo myself, I text back. Oh, he responds.

tampa muralBecause the sun is dangerously low in the sky, I head toward the bus stop. I avoid Transit Parkway. Once on the bus, I notice I am filled with good cheer and pleased with how I spent my Christmas Day. I scroll through my texts and message some variation of Merry Christmas to some people I care about who haven’t yet texted it to me.

Once home, I turn on Workaholics. My brother introduced me to the show two years ago and I’ve been rewatching it after recently getting Amazon Prime. Workaholics is a comedy about three, mid-twenty-something dudes who are roommates and coworkers and it’s my favorite show right now.

The other night, my favorite Workaholics character, Anders, made an appearance in my dream. It wasn’t a sex dream, or anything crazy. He wasn’t even a celebrity or tv character in it. He was just a friend like all of the other dream people, and the dream itself was so boring and routine that I don’t remember the details.

Today, I didn’t come up with any strong ideas for fiction placed in Tampa. But I think as long as I keep going downtown, as long as I check out the other neighborhoods, as long as I walk the streets and ride the buses and take the Amtrak and finally get my ass to St. Petersburg and eventually Miami and wherever else, Florida will quietly seep into my writing the way Anders seeped into my dream. It won’t be forced. There won’t be any fanfare. Florida will be just be there unquestioned, as expected and regular and unremarkable as everything else.

Categories
education writing

MFA Update

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:

  • taking three courses: Craft of Fiction, Intro to Grad Studies, and Practice in Teaching Composition
  • teaching one course: First Year Composition
  • consulting in the Writing Studio ten hours per week

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.

Categories
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 led 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.

Categories
writing

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.

Categories
writing

“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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How much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs

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:

MFA Creative Writing Application Costs

MFA Creative Writing application costs

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.