I am totally shocked that this is actually going to happen. I am actually going to get paid to spend two years of my life in Baltimore, taking workshop classes with acclaimed writers and earning my keep by teaching one creative writing class a semester (Introduction to Fiction and Poetry!) to undergraduates. So many things about this scenario are so utterly insane that it’s hard to know where to begin.
I actually got into the program almost a month ago, and I have known for two months that I was definitely going to be spent the next two years doing the above somewhere. Given that, my enthusiasm and surprise might come off as being a little false. But it’s still only very slowly sinking in that this is actually going to happen.
There is a reason, my loyal blog readers, that this is the first you’re hearing about any sort of MFA applications. Two years ago, I applied to eleven programs, told everyone about my applications, and was rejected everywhere. It was really embarrassing. Even though I knew how insanely difficult it was to get into programs–I hadn’t applied to any place with an acceptance rate that was higher than 3%–I was still absolutely sure that I was going to get in somewhere.
This year, my state of mind was the opposite. Since I knew that I only wanted to go to a program that would giving me teaching assistantship that included a stipend and a tuition waiver, I continued to apply to many of the most selective schools (which also tend to be the best funded schools). This time, I was well aware of the odds, and they drove me to despair. I vowed that I would tell very few people about my applications, and that I would definitely not post about them online.
I began my application process way back in June, when I started Nick Mamatas’ class. On day one, he asked me why I was there, and I told him that I wanted to write a bunch of MFA application stories (actually, until he asked, I hadn’t known that I was going to reapply this year…I’d thought that I was going to wait until next year). During his class, I wrote a new story every week, trying to find exactly the right story. I knew that I needed to apply with stories that reflected the work I was going to do once I got to the workshop. It would be complete madness to apply with realist stories and then start submitting science fiction stories to my professors. I wanted a program that was going to be okay with the genre-influenced work that I want to do. But I still needed to find precisely the right kind of sci-fi story–a story of high literary quality that would be readily comprehensible to an audience that was not very familiar with written sci-fi.
During this time, I wrote many stories that were good, but which did not quite measure up. For instance, I never even considered submitting my recent Clarkesworld story to MFA programs: it seemed too violent, too dependent on a science-fictional conceit, and too cute (it’s a talking animal story, after all). Finally, during the last week of the class, I wrote a story (which is still unpublished) that I thought was perfect.
During the class, I also wrote a realist story that I like quite alot; a story about the various strata within the Indian-American community (I call it my sad-immigrant story) and the conflicts that arise between them. I partially wrote it in order to address many of my issues with Diasporic fiction (particularly the way that it seems to privilege upper-middle-class alienation and ignore working-class Indian immigrants). But I also wrote the story because I wanted to prove to admissions committees that I was both: a) interested in realist narratives; and b) pretty good at writing them. It’s kind of like how everyone feels way better about appreciating Picasso’s childish-looking paintings once they realize that he was actually capable of drawing a pretty damn good representational painting if he felt like it.
So anyway, I sent these two stories to about half my schools (the ones that had a length limit of longer than 35 pages). And I sent the sad-immigrant story and my recent IGMS sale “The Snake King Sells Out” (which is an allegorical tale that pretty much any kind of reader is capable of appreciating) to the schools with lower maximum pagecounts.
I stayed sane by not thinking about my applications and by making contingency plans. I knew I was going to get rejected, so I started plotting how I’d spend another year in Oakland. By the time I got a call from Prof. Wilton Barnhardt from North Carolina State, I was already kind of glad that I wasn’t going to get an MFA. Anyways, then I had a month to mentally move myself to Raleigh, NC, before I got a call from Prof. Brad Leithauser at Johns Hopkins, and my world exploded once again.
I ended up being accepted to writing programs at Johns Hopkins, North Carolina State University, Temple, and Columbia. I was also waitlisted at the University of Houston (whose director implied that there was a pretty good chance I’d eventually be admitted) and at Louisiana State University.
JHU and NC State were the only schools that offered me teaching assistantships, so I visited both schools about two or three weeks ago. And I really loved them both! One of the saddest parts about this process is that I had to turn down North Carolina State, where I had really intense and energizing conversations with John Kessel, Wilton Barnhardt, Kij Johnson, and a bunch of their current students. It seems like an amazing program and I highly recommend it. When I ended my visit, I was dead certain that if I attended NC State, I’d have a great time there. In the end, however, I decided that Johns Hopkins was a better fit for me.
It was a pretty emotionally intense journey. I think I’ve alluded to my anxiety and sleeplessness a few times over the past few months, right? Well, this is what I was alluding to. I got rejected by alot of schools. So many that I would embarrassed to give you a number. Suffice it to say that I am fully aware of exactly how difficult it is to get into an MFA program.
I do feel oddly deprived, though. I began preparing my application during mid-June, so I’ve been thinking about this for about nine months. Now that the process is over, I feel like I’ve acquired tons of knowledge that I will never get to use again. As part of the coming-down process, I’m planning a series of posts that will discuss the MFA application process and give advice to other genre-influenced* writers who are planning to apply to programs. I don’t expect these posts to be useful to too many of you, but if they prove worthwhile to even one other writer who’s randomly googling “science fiction mfa” or “genre-friendly mfa”, then I’ll be satisfied.
*Throughout this series of posts, I’ll use the term ‘genre-influenced’ to refer to writers who’ve read extensively within the speculative genres. Some would prefer to use the term ‘non-realist,’ but I think that this ignores the extent to which it is possible for many writers of ‘non-realist’ fictions to write without knowledge of genre traditions. I think that a fantasy writer who has read extensively within the fantasy genre is in a different position from a writer who writes fantasies that are primarily inspired by Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Marquez, etc. I don’t think that the latter is necessarily worse-off (or better-off) than the former, but I do think that the two writers are in a very different place, both psychologically and culturally.
Next: Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs