Why I sometimes feel bad about praising my students

praiseIn general, I am a fairly encouraging teacher. I say the kinds of things that I would’ve liked to hear, when I was starting out as a writer. Stuff like, “You’re not bad at this; you should pursue it further.” When students write a story that is halfway decent, I often encourage them to submit it to literary journals, because I think it’s important to learn how to submit.

But I’ve lately become a little bit uncomfortable with this stance. Somehow it just…it doesn’t feel right. Am I really benefitting either my students or the world by encouraging them? I mean, I am not one of those super pessimistic writers. I absolutely believe it is possible to work hard and achieve at least moderate success as a writer.

It’s just…there’s nothing good about being a writer. The world doesn’t really need another one. And even the best writers have a social impact that is fairly moderate. Writers also don’t make that much money and many of them seem to be fairly unhappy.

Which is fine. If that’s what someone wants to do, then I think they should do it and they shouldn’t feel bad about doing it. But it doesn’t feel like something that people should be encouraged to do. For the first time, I understand all those crusty old Harlan Ellison writers who say things like, “If you can imagine doing anything else, then you should do it.”

I always thought that statement was a bit over-dramatic and self-glorifying. Writing isn’t digging ditches. It’s not hard. It doesn’t use you up. It doesn’t kill you by inches. It’s really not a big deal. I don’t think that people should avoid a writing career because of the heartbreak and sorrow and tragedy of the artist’s life.

And I don’t think that writing necessarily needs to be your overriding passion in life. That’s just more of the same self-glorification. I think good stories can be produced by people who write just as a hobby or by people who see writing in an instrumental way: as a path to fame or fortune or whatever. If you want to write stories, for any reason, then I think you should.

But I also feel like it’s not right to try to instill that desire into people. I don’t think that wanting to write stories is something that should be praised or rewarded. It’s just another silly human tic, like doodling in a notebook while you take a call.

So yes, I do feel bad, sometimes, about being so encouraging.

Luckily, I’ve noticed that praise is deadly to a nascent writer. Praise often makes a writer stop producing, while criticism often spurs further efforts. I’m not sure why this is. I think it might be because praise makes writers think that success is right around the corner, when the truth is that it’s usually still many years away. There’s also a certain extent to which people really don’t want to do things that come too easily to them. They figure, “Oh, I’m already good at this…so I might as well do something that’s really hard.”

So, in the end, my praise is probably no big deal.praise

The cost of a useless degree



I think one of the most popular games that twentysomethings play is talking about what city you want to move to. There are many shade of this game, depending on how impractical you’re deciding to be on any given day. If you’re being very impractical, then the cities will be European. If you’re being only somewhat impractical, then the city will be a super-hip one in the U.S. where no one has any jobs, like Portland or New Orleans. If you’re being only moderately impractical, then it’ll be New York. The game is funnest when you approach it with your eyes slightly unfocused, saying to yourself yes, yes, I could do this, I could move in three months, while simultaneously knowing that this is, like, definitely not going to happen.

My favorite answer is Los Angeles. There is no heavily-inhabited place on Earth where the weather is as good as it is in LA. Also, everyone is beautiful. And, since I have no desire to be in the film industry, I feel like I’d avoid associated angst.

However, I know that I am definitely not going to be living in LA anytime soon. It’s just a daydream.

Now, I can hear some of you saying, “Oh god, Rahul…you gotta, like, take life by the reins and just go where you wanna go and do what you wanna do.”

And, like, sure…but I’m pretty sure that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I’d be playing the “What city should I move to” game. So often, life is portrayed as a choice between being a dull and lifeless cubicle drone and being a jet-set world traveler who has adventures on six continents. But that’s never really the option. The choice is between some perfectly good thing that we have in hand and some fantastically amazing thing that we’ve conjured up out of thin air.

I am exactly where I wanted to be. The day-to-day experience of this program is about as good as I could have hoped for (though, as always, I am waiting for the bottom to fall out). The people are wonderful. Baltimore is extremely livable. The workload is light. I am productive. All of this is very true.

But I still dream about packing up and leaving.

An MFA program is more like a vacation than a step in the career ladder. It doesn’t take you anywhere. I mean, I guess it theoretically qualifies me to teach college, but, while I think I would enjoy doing that, I’m not sure that’s going to happen for me (and it doesn’t happen for the vast majority of MFA students). So when you’re here, you’re acutely conscious of how you don’t really need to be here.

I mean, you know how some twentysomethings join the Peace Corps or teach English in Taiwan or just screw around in France for a few years (or, if they hate themselves, sign up for Teach for America). Well, for me, this is that. It’s a discontinuity. It already sort of feels like that thing that I did.

And because it’s not really useful vis a vis my future, these also feel exactly like the years when I could be doing any of those other off-the-beaten-track sort of things.

Of course, I don’t want to be fatalistic. I’ll do plenty of interesting things in my life. I’m pretty sure that life doesn’t end at age 30 (which I will turn six months after I leave this program). But still, each day, there are a million things that you choose not to do. And the joy that you get from the things that you do is only a fraction of the joy that you can imagine you’d have gotten from one of the things that you didn’t do.

There is a larger point to be made here about the writing life. Since writing something that you prosecute mostly in your spare time, you’ll find, if you continue as a writer, that the vast majority of your leisure time is given over to writing and reading. That’s the time that you could be spending searching for love or going to parties or, I dunno, biking? Brewing your own beer? Working 100 hours a week at a high-powered investment-banking job? Practically speaking though, most writing time is reclaimed from the television and video games, so it’s not actually as time-consuming as one would think it would be.

Oh well, I wrote a blog post today, so I consider it pretty-well-seized.

Being willing to learn whatever the instructor is able to teach

My class had its first workshop last Friday. My students performed admirably. Their stories were interesting and their comments were perceptive. And, in the process of conducting the workshop, I learned something about what it means to teach writing.

In some ways, it’s a little odd that I’m allowed to teach people how to write. I’m not bad at most aspects of writing, and I’m very good at some aspects of it, but there are plenty of areas where I don’t really know how to fix someone’s issues. Like, if someone’s sentence-level writing is awkward or their characterization is thin or their descriptions are redundant, I can (sometimes) note the problems, but I’m not very sure how to fix them.

This is a picture of a blackboard that I inserted in order to spice up the post, because I do that now.

But, as I was teaching, I realized that there are plenty of areas where I can immediately diagnose a problem and can offer solutions. For instance, I’m fairly good at structural issues: seeing how the parts of a story fit together and figuring out how to move the plot along. I also understand when a story is hampered by exposition and when it should be written in scene. And I’m down like the devil on cliché story elements, characters, etc. Not only can I diagnose these issues, but I also have some sense of how to fix them.

In some ways, I think the way that I’m focused on these things could be frustrating for students. Because even as I make these suggestions, it’s obvious that they’re not universally true. I mean, it’s obvious that many clichéd stories work very well (every character and story element in Jhumpa Lahiri’s work seems, to me, to be quite clichéd). And there are many less-plotted (Joyce) and/or primarily-narrative (Borges) stories that work well, too.

The common rejoinder to students who want to do these things is, “Oh, well, if you’re as good as Lahiri or Borges or Joyce, then you can do that stuff, but until then, you need to learn how to do it the ordinary way.”

I don’t agree with that. I’m not sure that there’s a hierarchy of writing, and that you need to tick off all the lower boxes in order to get to the more advanced stuff. Actually, I’d say that the way writing works is that you do what you want to do, and you do it very badly for a very long time, and then you finally start doing it right.

But refusing to make that excuse leaves an instructor in a hard place, because it strips you of the authority to make the suggestions that you know how to make. I tell my students to search harder and look for more original premises and write in scene, because I know that if they do those things, they’ll write better stories. And I’m right, they will write better stories…but they won’t necessarily write the stories that they want to write.

Having this experience gives me a lot more empathy for everyone who’s ever critiqued my own work. Even in the cases when they were flat-out wrong (in terms of offering suggestions that would not have furthered my vision for my story), they were trying to offer me to the wisdom that they knew how to offer. In many cases, I’d probably have become a better writer if I’d been capable of integrating their perspective on things.

My teaching experience has made me realize that while the instructor has a duty to try to understand and assist a student’s intentions, a student should also do their best to learn whatever the instructor is capable of teaching. For my intro to fiction students, that’s not important, obviously. They’re just beginning their education. But I think it’s very important for someone at my level to be able to just relax and really try to understand the instructor feedback that he receives.

Actually, it’s a bit annoying that I didn’t get my act together and post this yesterday, because now this looks like a response to my own workshop experience yesterday evening. That is certainly not what it was intended to be! However, I will say that being workshopped was very interesting and helpful and not at all painful. I think I’m going to learn a lot this year. Workshop has taught me a lot about all the kinds of different things that it’s possible to learn. I don’t come from a workshop-heavy background, so perhaps everything I’m getting is just a workshop truism, but I think my classmates and our workshop leader bring some very interesting perspectives, and I am looking forward to learning what they have to teach me.


P.S. I think I’ve made progress on my horrible sleep problems! For the first time in five days, I think I’m going to eschew the Nap Option.

An illustration of my super sophisticated time management techniques

Until now, my time management technique has been all about wresting time away from the forces of entropy. I had plenty of time in my day, I just wasted it watching TV, playing computer games, and browsing the internet, instead of reading, writing, socializing, and working. As such, any time that I spent doing anything (rather than nothing) was time that I was using well. And, since I worked from home, I had infinite flexibility to set my own hours and schedule.

Given this set of conditions, my approach was to have outcome-based goals. By the end of the week, I wanted to have written 5,000 words and read 2 books and written 3 blog posts and etc. etc. Within the week, my time could be divided any way that I wanted. I didn’t care what I did on each day and in each hour.

Over time, my goals became more numerous and specific and I started having daily goals (like walking 10,000 steps per day, for instance). But I still had so much time that I didn’t quite need to think about what happened when and how much time I should devote to it.

Those days are gone!

Now, I have approximately 4-6 hours of school-related stuff to do every single weekday. That means I have to be places at specific times. If I still hewed to my old ways of doing things, I’d inevitably begin to drop balls. Thus, I’ve begun to plan out exactly what I am going to do each day.

In fact, I’ve found that on each day I have enough time to do almost everything that I want to do. For instance, today I:

  • Woke up at 7:20 AM
  • Browsed facebook / rejected stories until 8:05 AM
  • Revised the novel (it is going so well! The first chapter is loads better now!) until 10:45 AM
  • Investigated a mysterious leak in my ceiling until 11 AM (the upstairs neighbor’s toilet flooded).
  • Showered and primped until 11:30 AM
  • Went and checked out some library holds until 12 PM
  • Got food and went to the Brody Learning Commons until 12:30 PM
  • Met with two students until about 1:30 PM
  • Did some reading (finished Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street!) until 3 PM
  • Had our fiction-writing workshop until 6 PM
  • Went to the bar with the fiction folks until 8:15 PM
  • Walked until 8:45 PM
  • Mailed out a hilarious cat video to the fiction folks until 9 PM
  • Wrote this blog post until 9:20 PM (and counting!!!)

Anyway, after this is posted, I need to prepare my lesson plan and handouts for tomorrow’s class! Surely, now, that is a perfect day, que no? I mean, I’ve written, read, taken class, written a blog, prepared for class, and socialized.

But sadly, no. I’d meant to go to Target today and buy a coffee machine. I’d also meant to clean my shower and pay my quarterly taxes. I also haven’t done my reading for my Spanish class.

Tomorrow, I might do these things, but they likely mean I’ll fail to do something else. Yesterday, I had intended to write a blog post, but ran out of time.

I know, right? I think this is just the way my life is gonna be for the remainder of the semester. It’s alright. There’s still plenty of flex time in my schedule. For instance, yesterday I fucked off after an hour and a half of writing and took a nap instead (it was excellent!)

Yes, my life is very very very very very very hard.

Notes from the First Week of an MFA Program

  • Taught my first class yesterday. I obviously can’t talk much about the students since the little blighters will probably find this blog, but they seem pretty cool. Hopefully, it will be a good class. Most of the other Writing Sems TAs ask their students to call them by their first name, but I went mad with power and told them to call me Professor Kanakia. And now they do it! It feels so wrong and so good.
  • My writing mojo is starting to come back, I think. We had our first fiction workshop yesterday (with Alice McDermott!) and she instructed us to write a 3-10 page story and hand it in by Sunday (just as an exercise to get the ball rolling and to put us on equal footing). I was very worried about it, but I think I managed to stumble upon something interesting during yesterday’s writing session. We’ll see.
  • I love my apartment. It is a museum of wonders! I have three rooms. My bedroom, which really just contains a bed and some suitcases. And then my kitchen / living room. And, finally, a tiny study. The study has just a desk, a chair, and a computer. No windows! It’s like Las Vegas in there. For instance, it’s about 8:30 AM right now, but in my mind it’s the middle of the night.
  • I have finally gone full yuppie and erected a standing desk. It’s on my kitchen countertop. And it is amazing. It is so wonderful to be able to browse the internet whilst: a) standing within an arms-length of food; and b) feeling very virtuous about all the passive exercise I’m getting from standing up.
There she is, standing right in the corner of my kitchen!
  • Ugh, I am taking a Spanish class: Elementary Spanish I. Johns Hopkins’ writing program has a language requirement: you either need to test at a third year proficiency in a language or you need to take two semesters of language study. Oh my god, I hate language requirements. All through high school, foreign languages were the bane of my existence (this is the third time I’ve taken Intro to Spanish). During freshman year of college, I took the first two quarters of Intro to Arabic and then was like, “This is in every way horrible. Somehow, I will figure out how to get out of this sometime during the next three years”. But no, three years later, I was stuck there, taking the third quarter of Arabic. And it was so much worse trying to take it after having forgotten what I’d learned during the first two quarters. This time, I had some vague intention to try to pass out of the language requirement, but that ambition was doomed from the start. Once I failed the placement test, I just did the adult thing and settled myself down to take two semesters of this schiz. Oh well. The instructor seems nice and I think I’m responsible enough now to just do the reading and homework and participate in class and generally settle back and get through it. But still…I am not looking forward to sixty more hours of this (oh yeah, and everyone else in my class is a Hopkins undergrad…)
  • On a sidenote, I understand that language study is a wonderful thing and I well believe that the study of languages is very enriching for most people…it’s just…I’m badat it. Language study is never going to enrich me, because I just don’t ever end up making the slightest bit of progress in whatever language I am studying. My experience in language classes makes my heart go out to all the techies struggling through fuzzy classes (and vice versa).
  • So far, the workload doesn’t seem too bad. The X-factor is how long it takes me to prepare for class, of course. But there does seem to at least theoretically be enough time in the day to do a lot of writing and reading done (I have about 9 hours of class and 3 hours of teaching every week).
  • In terms of reading, I’m continuing with the light, trashy reading. Right now I’m reading Anna And The French Kiss, which is a romance-flavored contemporary YA novel about a girl who’s attending an international boarding school in Paris. It’s not bad, but it feels like it needs more punch, somehow. I don’t normally read much YA (it feels very undignified for a man of my age and stature), but I figure that since I’ve written a YA novel and have published YA stories and am considering writing another YA novel, I probably ought to read a bit of it.
Doesn’t it stand so nicely? It’s an old laptop that’s been desktopified through the addition of an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. The standing desk platform is the Kangaroo, manufactured by http://www.ergodesktop.com

The Application Process

Umm, this is going to be a short post. The only thing that matters is the stories. Each school has a page limit (and in literary fiction the standard font is Times New Roman, not Courier). Most people submit two short stories or a novel fragment. I thought it was a good idea to apply with one mainstream story and one genre-influenced story (to show that I have range), but people have definitely gotten accepted with two genre-influenced stories. If you submit a part of a novel, it just makes good sense to submit the beginning. Can anyone really enjoy reading a middle excerpt from a novel?

The first time I applied, I jealously guarded my application stories. I revised them in secret and let no one see them. The second time, I ran both all my potential application stories through a workshop. I think that was definitely a good idea. I came close to submitting some fairly unsuitable stories (ones with guns and murder!) instead of the much more suitable ones that I ended up with. I think that before you spend however many thousand dollars on applications (and it is a really expensive process), you should probably get someone (preferably some kind of creative writing professional) to look over your stories. The way that your stories are read by a creative writing instructor will probably be much the same as the way they’ll be read by an admissions committee (which is, after all, composed entirely of creative writing professors).

Okay, so, let me dispose of the other elements of the application process as well as I can.

Formatting Your Writing Sample  – Most schools provide no formatting guidelines, other than that it should be double-spaced. But it seemed like the consensus amongst applicants was that they wanted 1 inch margins and twelve point Times New Roman. Since genre writers usually submit in Courier, it’s worth noting that TNR fits more words on a page. Since the length restriction on writing samples is usually in terms of pages, rather than words, you should remember that a story is going to take up fewer pages once you format it in TNR.

Number Of Schools – Each school has an application fee of $40-$100. And then there is an additional fee of $23 to send them your GRE scores. This means that this is not a cheap process. Nonetheless, you should apply to as many schools as you can. I applied to a lot of schools, and I only got two funded admissions. There is a lot of subjectivity in the admissions process. It is possible to get in somewhere that is really selective and be rejected by a bunch of places that are less selective. However, for the genre-influenced writer, I will add that I applied to a bunch of schools that did not have a reputation for accepting genre-influenced writers, and I was rejected by all of them. In the end, perhaps it would have been a better decision for me to have not applied to the schools that weren’t on the list in my preceding post. However, it’s hard to tell. I was also rejected by a bunch of schools that have taken genre-influenced writers in the past. In the end, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for a genre-influenced writer to take the list from my preceding post as a starting point, and subtract from it any schools that really don’t appeal to you and then add any schools that, for whatever reason (location, faculty, etc.) are really appealing. It is not uncommon for MFA applicants to apply to 15-20 schools, and, honestly, that’s what I would recommend (if you can afford it). However, if money is tight, I would recommend that a genre-influenced applicant should absolutely apply to at least Kansas and NCSU, since these seem like the most genre-friendly schools (that are also well-funded).

GREs – You have to take the GRE general test (but not any subject tests). Not all programs require them, but most do. In general, your GRE programs don’t matter to even the slightest degree. Some schools have a minimum GRE requirement, but most don’t. If you get a GRE score of below 600 (Verbal) or 1200 (combined), you might want to recheck the schools you’re applying to and see whether they have minimum requirements (these requirements are usually imposed by the graduate school administrators of schools that have an inferiority complex and want to bump up their average GRE score so they’ll look good in the rankings).

GPA – Also doesn’t matter at all. Similar to the GRE, the graduate school administrators at some school have imposed a minimum undergrad GPA requirement of 3.0. But if you didn’t have an undergrad GPA of 3.0 then what can you do? Just apply anyway. If they want you enough, they can probably find a way to admit you. Furthermore, most schools don’t have this requirement.

Undergraduate Major – I wouldn’t think this would matter, but, actually, a bunch of schools (Arizona State and Houston, amongst others) seemed to prefer that you have an undergraduate English major, and most MFAs that I’ve met seemed to have been English or Creative Writing majors as undergrads. However, most programs don’t seem to care at all. Furthermore, Houston–despite their stated preference for English majors–waitlisted me, so I assume that there’s similar flexibility at other schools.

Personal Statement For most graduate school apps, your personal statement is really important, since it’s your only chance to demonstrate some kind of individuality. For MFA applications, I think it is less important, since your writing sample presumably ought to be enough to separate you from the other candidates. I think the main imperative for the personal statement is to avoid coming off as crazy or arrogant. For some people (especially me!), this is really hard. There’s something about personal statements that just unlocks all my craziness. I recommend that you get someone to reread your personal statement and cross out all the weirdness. When the admissions committees read your writing sample, all they want to know is that you’re not going to be a pain: after all, they have to live with you for 2-3 years.

Oh, at some point in your writing sample you’re probably going to want to namedrop a bunch of writers who you’d call your influences. You should probably remember your audience, and choose people that the admissions folk are likely to have heard of. You know, literary types. For instance, I chose two series of writers. The social realist types: Tolstoy, Zola, Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and V.S. Naipaul. And the speculative fiction writers: Borges, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, and Kelly Link. These are all pretty safe literary picks (well, except for Sinclair Lewis; despite his Nobel Prize, he’s fallen into bad odor). I doubt you’d get much traction if you cited David Weber, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, and Ted Chiang. One of the professors at Hopkins mentioned that he does pay attention to what authors people cite, so take that as you will…

Recommendation Letters – I don’t think these matter very much, but they are by far the most annoying part of this process. If you can, you should get them from creative writing teachers or editors who can talk about your writing. Otherwise, get them from other professors or from employers (ask them to write about your general agreeability, good disposition, willingness to learn, etc.) You should definitely get the letters filed in Interfolio, which is an online credential file service that will collect your letters and mail them to schools for you (since they never let you see the letter, it remains confidential). A membership costs about $20-$30, and it costs an addition $6-8 per school, but it is absolutely worth it. If you force your professor to mail individual letters to 15-20 schools, then you are a sadist. Furthermore, professors can often be quite tardy. It’s hard enough getting one letter on time. If they have to submit 15 or 20 letters, then you’re guaranteed to miss deadlines.

Using Interfolio does create its own complications. It has a difficult time interfacing with the electronic application systems at most schools. Some online recommendation systems require the professor to input all this additional data (like whether you were in the top fifth percentile out of all the students they’ve had, or stuff like that). Since Interfolio doesn’t have this data (it just has the prof’s letter), they’ll often refuse to submit letters to systems that have something like that.  If a school offers you an address to which to mail individual letters then it is worth doing that, rather than asking Interfolio to upload the letters into their system. However, if you can’t figure out a good alternative like that, then you should email the administrator at the department to which you’re employing. She (it is invariably a woman) will usually be super helpful and will help you figure everything out. The only places where I had real problems submitting my letters were with NYU (which absolutely does not accept Interfolio letters, apparently), and Florida State (which is completely inflexible about not accepting paper letters). I solved these problems by not applying to NYU and by calling and begging Interfolio to force the recommendations into Florida State’s system (which they eventually did).

Transcripts – Stanford is really good about mailing transcripts out for you. However some schools are not, so you should take that into account. Also, the schools will require transcripts from every post-secondary institution you’ve attended, so if you ever took community college classes or have other graduate degrees or something, then that can be a real pain.

Next: I have nothing more to say about MFA applications. Good luck with your applications, whoever you are. Please let me know if you have any further questions, or if any of this proved to be helpful.

Which Schools Should You Apply To?

For most applicants, the biggest factors when considering schools are: availability of funding, location, faculty, teaching load, and selectivity. For the first four factors, the best place to research a school is at mfaresearchproject.blogspot.com. For genre-influenced writers, there’s also the issue of a school’s purported friendliness to genre-influenced work. The best place to research that factor is right here in this blog post.

Genre-Friendliness – For me, this (and funding) were the major criteria. There is not much data on this. That’s because almost no program is willing to describe itself as ‘genre-friendly’. Even at North Carolina State (where a real SF writer, John Kessel, is one of the creative writing profs), they emphasized that they were training students to write stories of high literary quality, not formulaic genre pap. I’m pretty sure that schools are just deathly afraid of getting an influx of stories about: teens in high school who are choosing between vampire boyfriends and werewolf boyfriends; space ships that shoot lasers at each other in space; men that ride horses and hit each other with swords; zombies; etc., etc., etc. No full-residency program really wants to see core genre material. If you aspire to write standard science fiction or fantasy or horror novels, I think you’re unlikely to get into any MFA program.

However, even sophisticated genre-influenced work is a pretty hard sell at most schools. There’s nothing wrong with that. Professors have a right to accept only the students that they want to work with, but it is something that genre-influenced writers need to realize and to think about when they’re applying to schools. Luckily, you guys are not going to have to think about it nearly as hard as I had to. I scoured the internet, chasing down discussion forum posts and blog posts and author bios and faculty bios and a hundred and a half little hints and wisps of genre-friendliness. And now, I am going to present to you my grand list of schools that might possibly be willing to accept a student who writes stories that are influenced by science fiction or fantasy. An asterisk means that the school is fairly well funded. Where possible, I’ve provided the reason why I think the school is ‘genre-friendly’ (and in some cases that reason is pretty thin indeed). But in other cases you’ll have to accept that I don’t have any explanation, the school has merely, somehow, acquired the reputation of being open to different things. I’ve ranked these schools in alphabetical order. Also, I’d like to issue a disclaimer right here. Even though these schools may be open minded, they will probably still reject you. Many of them rejected me. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that other schools–ones that are not on this list–would be open to a genre-influenced writer. In creating this list, I am relied on rumor, anecdote, and other incredibly scanty data (like a school that’s only graduated one genre writer, ever. Who knows what the story behind that one writer was. Maybe he/she was a genius. Maybe he/she applied with realist stories [like Joe Haldeman did in order to get into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop])

  • Arizona State*
  • Brown* – Brian Evenson and Robert Coover are professors here. Stacey Richter is a graduate.
  • Columbia – Karen Russell went there.
  • Cornell* – Junot Diaz and Tea Obreht are graduates.
  • Iowa* – Nebula winner Rachel Swirsky is a graduate. Last year, they accepted SF writer E.J. Fisher. Has also graduated Kevin Brockmeier and a few other writers who’ve written non-realist works.
  • Johns Hopkins* – Prof. Brad Leithauser has written a few SFnal novels. Cat Rambo is a graduate of this program.
  • Kansas* – Wasn’t previously a genre-friendly program, but since Kij Johnson has just become a professor here, I’m gonna guess that it’s gonna start becoming a destination for aspiring genre writers.
  • Louisiana State* – Hey, they waitlisted me. That’s gotta indicate a certain receptivity, right?
  • Mills – Naamen Tilahun–an up and coming SF writer–is finishing an MFA here. Rachel Swirsky was somehow associated with this program.
  • National University – The director of this program personally emailed me, after reading this blog entry, to tell me that his program is genre-friendly.
  • North Carolina State* – Nebula-winner John Kessel is a professor there.
  • Notre Dame – One of their professors has written some SFnal novels. Also, they waitlisted me two years ago when I applied with two SF stories.
  • Oregon State* – Their application FAQ contains the question “Do you accept students who write fantasy, science fiction, etc” and in response they write, “The MFA program welcomes experimentation with literary forms new and old. While we do not wish to restrict our students from pursuing the writing that most excites them, the workshop emphasizes literary fiction, and encourages students to complicate generic conventions and subvert clichés, rather than recreating and reinforcing them.” To me, anything that isn’t a ‘no’ is a ‘yes’.**
  • San Diego State University
  • Southern Illinois University at Carbondale* – The buzz on the MFA applicant Facebook forum was that they didn’t mind non-realist stories.
  • Syracuse* – George Saunders is a professor here. Also, they waitlisted me two years ago when I applied with two SF stories.
  • Temple – Nebula-winner Samuel Delany is a professor here.
  • Texas State at San Marcos – Megan McCarron–an up and coming SF writer–currently attends this school.
  • UC Irvine* – Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, and Alice Sebold are graduates. Also, I think Prof. Ron Carlson writes some non-realist stories.
  • UC San Diego* – I figured that since Clarion was headquartered there, they had to be at least a little bit friendly to genre work.
  • UMass Amherst – Jedediah Berry attended. Prof. Sabina Murray has a novel that seems based on detective novels. Samuel Delany used to be a professor here.
  • UNC-Greensboro – Kelly Link went there.
  • University of Alabama* – Prof. Michael Martone has written formally experimental and non-realist stories.
  • University of Houston* – One of their professors, Chitra Devakuruni Banerjee, writes magical realist stories. Also, I applied with a fantasy story and they waitlisted me.
  • University of Michigan in Ann Arbor* – Elizabeth Kostova is a graduate.
  • Washington University in St. Louis* – Alice Sola Kim–an up and coming SF writer–attended this school.

The following schools were identified from the comments section of this blog post by Jeff Vandermeer.

  • NEOMFA – Chris Barzak is a professor here
  • Denver – Laird Hunt and Selah Saterstrom are open to non-realist work.
  • Cincinnatti – Christian Moody teaches here. He’s written non-realist stories.
  • Boulder – Stephen Graham Jones is a professor here.
  • Cal-Arts – Steve Erickson (no, not the one Malazon one) teaches here. He’s written non-realist novels.
  • UC Riverside

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what I have to say about the other considerations.

Availability of Funding – Some schools (Columbia, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, etc., etc.) offer very few funded slots. Whether you think it’s worthwhile to pay out of pocket for an MFA degree is up to you. Personally, while I might see the reasoning behind taking out loans to cover living expenses that are not met by a stipend, I think that it doesn’t make financial sense to take out loans to cover tuition. Ideally, what you want is a funded slot: some kind of teaching assistantship that comes with a tuition waiver, a stipend,  and health insurance. Most schools will offer at least one assistantship and many schools offer assistantships to all of their students. If you like a school (due to its location or faculty or whatever), it’s definitely worthwhile to apply there even if they don’t fund very many of their students. There’s always a chance that you will be one of the folks who gets funded.

Location ­- This is kind of self-evident. If you want to study in San Francisco or New York (or, really, any of America’s tier one cities) and get a teaching assistantship, then you’re kind of out of luck. Most of the best-funded schools are in the middle of nowhere. For months, I tortured myself with thoughts of what my life would be like as a gay men in West Lafayette, Indiana (Purdue University) or Tuscaloosa, Alabama (the University of Alabama). I have no objections to the South or the Midwest…it’s just the smallness that gets me. In a town of 50,000 people, there probably aren’t more than 1000 gay men, which seems like a scary, incestuously small number. Also, I didn’t want to go somewhere which had snow. Man, snow sucks. However, I applied to tons of places that were in small and/or snowy towns. In the end, one of the criteria has to be less important the others, and, for me, it was location.***

Faculty ­- If you really love a writer, you should definitely apply to the school where he or she is teaching. This is why I applied to North Carolina State (John Kessel), Temple (Samuel Delany), and Syracuse (George Saunders). Be warned, though. Since alot of poorly-funded schools are in major cities, a lot of well-known writers teach at poorly-funded schools. For instance, the faculty lists of CUNY-Hunter and Columbia are totally unreal. I kind of understand why people are willing to go into tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars into debt in order to study at those places.

Teaching Load – I’m just going to come out and say what I’ve been thinking for awhile. If you’re teaching two classes a semester and only getting a $12,000 stipend, then that’s not a job…that’s indentured servitude. Two classes a semester is not a half-time appointment; it’s full-time. Each class is going to take at least five hours a week to teach and an additional 10-15 per week of preparation and grading. I applied to a few schools with 2/2 teaching loads, but I mostly applied to schools with 1/1 (or, even more deliciously, 0/1) teaching loads.

Selectivity – Before applying, I scoured, the MFA selectivity data, cross-referencing it with the funding data, to find the mythical school that was well-funded and had an acceptance rate of above 5%. I found two: University of Miami and University of South Carolina. This year, I think the acceptance rate at both places dropped down to near 5% (other people were doing their own scouring!) It is insanely difficult to get into a decent MFA program. The hardest programs (Brown, Cornell, UT-Austin, Syracuse) have acceptance rates that are around 1.5%. The thirty-eight top schools all have acceptance rates of less than 5%. (Johns Hopkins’ acceptance rate is around 2.5%). Basically, apply to as many schools as you can. Don’t discount the difference between a 1% acceptance rate and a 5% acceptance rate, though. The latter is five times easier to get into than the former. Finally, as the economy improves (turning the job market into an attractive alternative to grad school) and we head into the downslope of the Echo Boom****, it is getting easier to get into grad school with each passing year. Selectivity at MFA programs seems to have peaked during the ’09-’10 application cycle (the first time I applied).

*Well-funded school

**In contrast, Vanderbilt’s FAQ contains the question ” Do you consider applications in genre-fiction (speculative, science fiction, fantasy, mystery writing, children’s literature, and the like)?”. and their response is “No, we do not.” Ouch. I definitely did not apply to Vanderbilt

***On a side note, I am really happy to be heading to Baltimore–a fairly large city where it rarely snows.

****The Baby Boom was a period of greatly increased fertility during the fifties. When Boomers grew up and had children, they created a shallower, but still pronounced, Echo Boom: a clustering of births during the late 80s and early 90s that is the result of all the Boomers deciding to have kids around the same time. The Echo Boom resulted in a disproportionately large number of applications to undergrad institutions around 2008, and, presumably, a disproportionately large number of grad school apps right around now.

Next: The Application Process

Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs

Alot of the recent debate on MFA programs has centered on whether or not they actually help you become a better writer. And that’s all well and good. But it kind of ignores the fact that on a purely financial level, a well-funded MFA program offers a pretty great place to lay up and write for two or three years. For a literary writer, seeking an MFA almost seems like a no-brainer: universities are willing to pay you to learn how to write better. But for a genre writer, the calculation is slightly more complicated.

I first realized that I wanted to get an MFA after reading an excerpt of the Writer’s Daily Planner, put out by Small Beer Press*. The planner contained the deadlines for numerous contests, fellowships, and grants. Thousands and thousands of dollars, just lying around for writers to take. Now, I realized that all this stuff was really, really hard to get, but so what? Becoming a successful writer is also really, really hard. If I was somehow able to put myself in the running for this alternate income stream, then I’d be able to buy two tickets to the making-a-living-as-a-writer lottery instead of just one.

And I realized that the unofficial baseline requirement for most of these grants and fellowships and awards was a Master of the Fine Arts degree. Now, of course no one would ever say that an MFA is required to get all that other stuff. But an MFA definitely acts a sifter to separate you, as an applicant, from random people who can’t string words together.

In addition, the MFA can be a lucrative opportunity in itself. Many MFA programs are able to provide all or most of their student with teaching opportunities that come with tuition waivers, stipends, and health insurance.  These teaching opportunities vary in terms of workload, but they are usually considered half-time appointments (20 hours a week). In America, the half-time job that comes with health insurance is an extremely rare animal, and definitely qualifies as something of a find for any writer.

So from a purely financial standpoint (especially in an era when unemployment and underemployment amongst recent college grads is so bad), I totally understand the financial calculus that makes MFAs extremely attractive to aspiring writers (including the 2009 version of myself).

The instruction that you’ll receive in an MFA program is also very important. I fear that I am making myself out to seem quite mercenary in this blog post by waiting until now to mention it. However, I think that the instruction is largely a mysterious animal. All MFA programs basically offer the same method of instruction: each semester you take a workshop in which you submit work that is critiqued by your classmates and the workshops’ instructor (who is usually an advanced writer whose successes have led to a professorship at your school).

It’s a little difficult to tell whether the instruction at a school is going to suit you. Good writers are not necessarily good teachers. You might like a writer’s work, but they might have nothing interesting to say about your work. You might dislike a writer’s work, but they might have alot to teach you. Until you’re sitting in the workshop, how can you know? Anyway, this is mostly something that the aspiring writer doesn’t need to think about. When professors are reading applications, they only accept students whose work they like and think they can improve. But the instruction only sweetens the pot on what is already a really good offer.

However, I think that for genre-influenced writer, there are some fairly major considerations that can outweigh all of these options. In almost every MFA program, most of the students and professors are writing literary fiction. And even in the most open-minded programs, the majority of the students will be writing realist stories. To the extent that they are familiar with non-realist literature, it will probably be with its literary exemplars–Wells, Verne, Borges, Calvino, Kafka, Pynchon, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Aimee Bender, etc, etc, etc–rather than with the writers that the genre-influenced writer is likely to think of as being the true lions of non-realist writing. Your professors’ critiques of your genre-influenced stories will be based on the standards of what makes a good literary story (which is sometimes different from what makes a good science fiction or fantasy story) and you’ll be expected to critique your classmates’ work on the basis of those same standards.

I don’t mean to say that you can’t submit genre-influenced stories in your MFA workshops. In fact, you should definitely never attend an MFA program where you can’t do that. If you’re a genre-influenced writer, it seems pretty imperative that you apply using stories which are more or less similar to the ones you plan on turning into the program’s workshop. I don’t think I can give you any advice that is more important than that. If you write some realist stories just to get into a program and then you get in and you find that they don’t like your SF work….then you kind of deserve what you get. One reason that I’m fairly comfortable with attending Johns Hopkins is because I applied with a science fiction story. I wrote about my speculative tendencies in my cover letter and, before accepting my offer, I asked professors, students, and alumni whether my science-fictional work would be accepted there.

But it’s entirely possible that they might accept you, but you will find yourself unable to accept them. I know some very good SF writers who don’t seem to enjoy mainstream literature. If you’re a writer who’s not familiar with literary fiction and has no interest in literary fiction (and, more specifically, in realist stories), then (I imagine) most MFA programs would be pretty hard places for you to live. Despite the financial rewards, I doubt it would be pleasant to be at war with your environment, and I think (for most of you) it would not be very good for your writing.

The only way to see if this is true for you is to just be honest with yourself. Do you read realist stories and novels? Do you enjoy them? Do you sometimes write them? For me, the answer to all of these questions was ‘yes’. This meant that, for me, the decision to apply was as much of a no-brainer as it is for most aspiring writers of literary fiction.

NEXT: Which schools should you apply to?

*Operated by Kelly Link, MFA UNC-Greensboro.

I’ve just accepted an offer of admission to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University (in other words, I’m getting an MFA!)

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