Mistakes We Knew We Were Making

Life Outside the Poets and Writers ‘Top 50 MFA Programs’

By Sandra Beasley on 11.16.09

Last month, I was counseling a woman on applying to MFA programs. Was her work competitive? Was she willing to move? Halfway through her answers, she assured me, “I bought the handbook, of course.”

Handbook? There’s a handbook? Little did I know that The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Students is already in its second edition.

Now the latest issue of Poets & Writers ranks “The Top 50 MFA Programs,” based on poet Seth Abramson’s blog-based surveys and research. No matter how you feel about these rankings (some question their validity, most notably the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), their influence will spread like kudzu. Everyone loves a list.

Except those that didn’t make the list. Combing through Abramson’s article, I discovered my graduate alma mater has been banished to the online hinterlands of “the additional eighty-eight full-residency MFA programs.” On the P&W Web site, American University is tied with Bowling Green State University and the University of California, Davis, for the #53 spot. Which could also be called the #51 spot, but who’s counting?

Returning to the print magazine for comfort, I instead found “Get the Most Out of Your MFA Experience: Tips for Success,” which indexes helpful hints and red flags for your graduate years. Proper strategy extends far beyond picking a program. As I read onward, my suspicions congealing into unease, my unease cresting into nausea, a nausea that threatened to flood my being, I realized I’d have to come here, and confess before you—you, dear reader—all of you, the holy spirit, and William Warder Norton himself:

I did it wrong.

How could I not have noticed driving against traffic on the one-way street of po-biz? Why did fellow poets not honk and wave their arms at me? Friend, when you took a sip from my flask at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, why did you not warn Ah, this tastes like single-malt fraudulence?

Clearly I did not make the best use of my MFA years. It’s too late now; I’m doomed to copyediting cat food advertisements. But before succumbing, let me share my mistakes—as clarified by the lessons of those far wiser—in hopes you find a more perfect path to becoming an MFA-accredited writer.

Lesson #1Don’t settle for anything less than full funding.

Make them pay for your classes, your apartment, and the many orders of kung pao chicken you spill on your Collected Auden while sprawled out on dingy carpet. Full funding (tuition waiver, plus stipend for living expenses) is a make-or-break factor for many, and in Abramson’s schematic financial aid is listed following only quality of experience by genre.

Did I choose a fully funded program? Nope. I chose one that required cobbling together a full-time job, fellowship pay for editing our literary journal, and over $20,000 of loans.

The problem was one of vision. Looking at those fully funded programs—which almost always entail pedagogical training, apprenticeship through Writing Center tutoring, and significant teaching loads for all fellowship students—what I saw was not free ride. What I saw was no time for a job beyond campus. No chance to see what else, other than teaching, could be paired with writing as a meaningful vocation.

So I went to American University by night, and to a 9-to-5 nonprofit office job by day. Sure, I got exposure to publishing, that “other” flipside industry of writing, which scares the heck out of so many MFA graduates. Sure, I could pay for my own kung pao (though maybe not the brown rice—that cost a buck extra).

But I broke a cardinal rule of the poetry world: how dare you place value on something you can’t get for free?

Lesson #2Spend as much time as possible writing.

Be selfish. Date long-distance, short-term, or not at all. Write three hours a day, six days a week. No e-mail, no Facebook, and no phone calls.

Thank goodness those instructions don’t include “No reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” since that’s how I spent most of my precious could-be-writing hours from the years 2002 through 2004. That’s what happens when your living room is your bedroom, and your futon faces your television. Other foolish mortal habits included drinking with bartenders, meandering calls to a best friend who lived two hours away, open mic nights at Staccato, visiting my family, getting lost in DC’s museums, and sharing Old Bay French fries at Babe’s Billiards every Wednesday after workshop.

If I had followed the proper model, I’d have developed the discipline for a lifetime of writing. As it is, I have developed the discipline for a lifetime of Buffy, bartenders, Old Bay, and billiards, with a little writing on the side.

Without all that untidy clutter of significant others, insignificant others, and/or one-hour battles between good and evil, I’m curious—what is it these people are writing about?

Lesson #3Focus on your thesis.

Squeeze that coal until it makes a diamond. Give your advisor as many drafts as possible. Pore over each line of feedback with your highlighter. Because this is your First Book—

(Unless you’re like me, and your first book ditches all but eight thesis poems.)

This is the debut of Your Voice upon a waiting readership’s ears—

(Unless Your Voice is still changing, all those perfectly executed tricks in iamb and rhyme no more than the gloriously artificial falsetto notes of a eleven-year-old choirboy.)

You’ll circulate this manuscript for years, keeping the faith no matter how many reading fees, how many title changes, how many other poems wait to be written by you, until the day it is accepted for publication—

(Unless, like weak-willed me, you decide to become a writer. Not a castrato.)

Lesson #4Use rankings to help with critical life decisions.

This is the closest I got to doing things right. I tracked down the U.S. News & World Report that surveyed creative writing programs. When I got into American University’s MFA program and found it listed, I could trust my decision. Thank you, USNWR editors.

That is a lie. Here’s what’s funny: as I was typing it out, I thought, What was AU’s rank, exactly? #18? Maybe #16?

I just dug it up again. #50. Rockin’ #50 out of 50.

What actually happened was that in the spring of 2002, fresh from reading applications, a well-known poet and American University professor walked into a gathering of University of Virginia MFA students plus a few undergrad hangers-on, of which I was one. Without pause or general introduction, he looked straight at me and said, “You know, that knife-throwing poem of yours was really something.”

If a poet asks you to study with him, you go. When you visit campus and the first professor you meet says, “Oh! I was just reading your poems,” you go. No matter the funding. No matter the rank. You just go.

Because when you feel utterly without talent, ready to quit—and you will, trust me, more than once—you will never forget the first time you hollered words into the great void of self-addressed stamped envelopes, and someone spoke up. Someone answered, “Yes, I hear you. I’d like to hear more.”

Lesson #5This is a critical life decision. Critical! Life! Decision!

The decisions you make regarding your MFA—how, where, and with whom you spend your time—are of (apparent) earth-shattering impact on your (potential) future as a (theoretical) writer. Don’t panic. (Much.) You just need to be the kind of person who approaches this with discipline, reason, and openness to the guidance available.

Understand, I am not that kind of person.

Given to the language of intoxication, as so many writers are, I think of the writer as a wine bottle. The label is your career—magazine credits, books, prizes—the place where you brag and brand. The liquid is your sloshy, messy, creative self.

An MFA program is just the funnel. It’s a transport of bulk resources, pre-vintage, readying you for future pours. For some the funnel is an expensive tool, monogrammed, sides pitched for maximum efficiency. For some the funnel has as many kinks in its tubing as a beer bong. Either way, the funnel is just a preparatory stage; if it makes it on the label at all, it is in the fine print of “Distributed by…”

Your degree does not describe who you are as a writer. If it does, that’s not a good thing. So why all this hoopla and indexing? Why do people keep gilding the funnel?

I know, I know. I am mixing metaphors. I told you—they’re on to me, my heresy, my rankled and unrankable self. I’m running out of time.

Be careful. Don’t make my mistakes. Don’t follow your heart, or your whim, or the siren call of your hometown, or the promise of a mentorship. Not if it means the bottom bracket. Don’t go where you have the hard work of making your own community, shaping it twig-on-twig into a nest that sustains you. Don’t steal writing time by the minute when it could be vacuum-sealed by the hour. Don’t blow off your draft at 2 a.m. because you’re busy singing Pogues lyrics in a bar long past closed.

Don’t, whatever you do, run the risk of failure. This is why we have rankings and how-tos, right? To buffer. To plan.

Otherwise, just imagine what could happen.

You could end up…here.

Editor’s Note: Sandra’s prize-winning second collection of poems, I Was the Jukebox, will be published by W. W. Norton in April 2010. Read her blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

topics: Columnists

5 Comments

Greg said on 11.17.09 at 9:24am:

Lesson # 6: For godsake do NOT try to substitute years of real life experience, working in the world, careful observations of people and phenomena in your daily travels, etc., for the benefits of cloistered academic life with a small demographically similar group of people….

Thanks for the bracing words, Sandra! My remarks above are NOT to be taken a denigrating your decision to get an MFA in the manner you did. Clearly you followed your heart and gut instincts as I did and your many successes demonstrate the wisdom of your choices!

Todd Heldt said on 11.18.09 at 9:49am:

Yes. Exactly.

Frode Winslow said on 11.19.09 at 2:03pm:

I mean, the debt sure works out fine and seems worth it when you end up with a collection published by Norton, and a 5k grant from such and such an arts commission, and essays in major publications… Don’t get me wrong, you deserve congratulations, and you only get to the point you’re at by busting your behind, but it’s just not realistic to think that most people are going to end up in your situation, even with more talent and just as much hard work. They’re not. Life’s not that fair.

What really bothers me about this post is the total disdain it shows for young writers, especially the ones in the MFA programs. The kung pao jokes, the holier-than-thou you-should-pay-for-it-yourself Reagonomics tone, I’m thinking, is this the Haliburton blog or something? You’re talking about research institutions that have billions in their endowments (Columbia, Notre Dame, Michigan…). Why should poor kids pay rich universities for a degree that won’t help them earn money?

I for one slogged my way through a save-the-world nonprofit job at less than 20k/yr for four years after college (helping post-traumatic vets, for what it’s worth). Then I went and got an MFA. The CW Handbook advice—don’t settle for tens of thousands in debt—was great advice. My MFA program paid me 18k/yr and didn’t require me to teach. What did I do when with all that time? I honed my craft and raised my daughters. I’d call that worthwhile experience.

So can I just say thanks to the writers of the CW MFA Handbook, and to Seth Abramson and Poets & Writers for the courage to get some data out there? This isn’t going to hurt anything except a few writers’ egos and a few already-rich institutions’ pocketbooks.

steve said on 11.24.09 at 9:42pm:

Wow. This is the advice the good folks at Norton are passing off these days? I can’t hardly imagine a more patronizing voice than Ms. Beasley’s. Going into debt for an MFA is one of the most foolhardy decisions anyone can possibly make. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Abramson’s rankings, etc, but his advice to look for programs with good funding is sound advice. Please post more articles that aren’t so self serving and self-congratulatory for the authors! I’ve enjoyed the others, but this one really left a bad taste in my mouth.

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