Johns Hopkins is a great MFA program

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Now that I’m done with the program, I feel like I can finally cut loose and speak my mind: I really liked Johns Hopkins’ MFA program. I’ve never been to a different one, so I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s a pretty good MFA program. The funding is top-notch. While I was there, I got $22,000 a year and my health insurance and tuition were covered. If I’d stayed for a third year, I’d have gotten $30,000.

And the workload is extremely light. I taught one class a semester during my first two years and if I’d stayed for a third, I’d have taught 2/2 (but not had to take any classes). You teach fiction and poetry (not freshman comp). It’s 3 hours of class time and maybe 5-10 hours of out-of-class prep time per week.

I also took two 3-hour graduate seminars each semester: one writing workshop and one readings course. The workshop required me to read and comment upon 2-3 stories per week and turn in three stories per semester to be workshopped. The readings course involved about 150-200 pages of reading per week (I think the heaviest week was when we had to read Mrs. Dalloway).

That added up to a total of about 20 hours of actual commitments, in return for a sum of money that was more than enough to live on in Baltimore.

(Actually, it’s even better now, because they’ve raised grad student stipends to $30,000 per year, and now students don’t need to teach in their first semester).

The best thing about Hopkins is that it’s a very collegial environment. We had a certain amount of drama, but there was astonishingly little competitiveness within the group. I think that’s entirely because the instructors do not play favorites or dole out rewards. There is no sense that the best story in workshop is going to get passed on to The New Yorker or that the best-liked student in the class is going to get some special fellowship. There isn’t even very much of a sense that instructors make strong distinctions between us in terms of talent (i.e. dividing us, in any way, between those who are better and those who are worse). I am sure they do, but they don’t allow their feelings to leak over and poison the social environment.

The downside of this is that no favoritism means there are no favorites. Being a favorite is an immensely gratifying experience (for the favorite) and can result in a all kinds of concrete rewards. Many young wunderkinds started off as the favorite of some instructor or other. That sort of favoritism is one of the main things that can launch a shooting-star career.

But I think it’s a good trade-off.

Many of my readers will be primarily concerned with how receptive the workshop was towards non-realist work. The answer is that it was very receptive. I thought that the feedback I got was good, and that my stories were treated like everyone else’s (even when they were really, really weird / unsuccessful…like the story that was entirely Google search terms). I still have no idea why they accepted me. To my knowledge, they haven’t really accepted anyone else who writes my kind of stuff. Though I suppose my classmate Michael might come close…

Anyway, I am glad they did. It was a good experience all around, and it profoundly changed my writing. I do not think that I would’ve given myself permission to write a book like Enter Title Here if the MFA hadn’t steeped me in realism. Whether that was good or bad, well…who knows? It’s entirely possible that if I’d stayed in Oakland, I’d have written and sold a sweet novel with spaceships! And aliens! And lasers!

Sometimes I think about what might’ve been if I’d gone to North Carolina State University: a school that has an excellent sci-fi writer, John Kessel, on the faculty.

I think that my writing would’ve turned out very different.

We want to say that these choices don’t influence us, and that our emotional and intellectual development is a self-guided thing. But I don’t know how true that is. Like all writers, I’m constantly seeking to find the right balance between imitation and innovation. But the things we see as ‘innovative’ and the things we see as ‘imitative’ are a function of the company that we keep. And once I started to keep different company…well, I don’t know.

The problem with admitting that our development as writers is out of our control is that then we feel an impulse to try, in some fashion, to make the right choices. The ones that will guide it in the right direction. But we can’t do that. Because while I think that (for me) it’s undeniable that my environment has an effect on my writing…I think it’s possible for me to predict what that effect will be.

Any attempt to guide one’s own intellectual development can, I think, only be made on the level of principles and probabilities. I’m struggling to articulate exactly what I mean here. But I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve developed a principle: My writing will has a greater chance of permutating if I enter a new literary community.

And on the basis of that principle, I could make probabilistic decisions. I could say, “I need a change, so I am going to change communities. Or…I want to keep exploring this vein of work, so I am going to become more deeply involved in this community.”

However, I think that even that would probably give a false sense of control.

The truth about human beings is that it is impossible to point to any particular act of any particular human being and say, “This is why they chose this, rather than doing the other thing that they could’ve done.”

And anyone who tries to say otherwise is just telling you a story.