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Getting Schooled

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Aug. 3rd, 2008 | 05:05 pm
mood: contemplativecontemplative

As I've vowed to make this journal a record of not only my actual writing processes but my attempts to publish or otherwise further my writing career, it's now time for me to talk about graduate school.

Because I want to be a professor of creative writing, I need to aim at a terminal degree. Technically, there is a Doctor of Philosophy degree available in the subject at some schools, but the Master of Fine Arts degree is widely accepted as the terminal degree in the field. Thus, I went into research mode to find MFA programs with an emphasis on teaching assistantships, without which I would have a terrible time getting a professorship. (Unless, of course, I manage to publish a bestseller before then . . .)

I got a book called The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students by Tom Kealey. I found the writing a little rough at times, but the book has been excellent for practical concerns: it has step-by-step descriptions of the application process, suggestions for a chart to keep track of what schools ask for what materials, and - most helpful of all - a comprehensive list of MFA programs (and MA and PhD programs) in writing in the USA. (Also a much shorter list of programs abroad.) I should say "comprehensive," as this website, suggested by a creative writing professor, seems to have some that his book lacks.

I made my long list first. I went through the book's list, examining each school's website to see whether it seemed like a place I would possibly, possibly go. (Read: Would I attend this school if it was the only one to which I was accepted?) Mostly, schools only got ruled out if they had no TAships at all. I ended up with a list of sixty; for each, I had written any important or interesting facts ("TAships very competitive" or "completely funds all students") and the e-mail address of the program's contact person.

Next, I drafted a polite e-mail asking whether my preference for writing mostly - though not exclusively - YA fantasy might mesh well with the program. I sent this to each contact person separately, both to avoid a long list of additional receivers and so that I could mention specific details in some of the e-mails ("I notice that at least one alum of the program, [alum's name], writes for young adults").

This helped me narrow the list considerably, but was also somewhat unnerving. While many programs have replied, rather doubtfully, that anyone can be accepted if s/he has a fabulous writing sample, I've had a number of outright "no" responses. I find it rather funny that no one wants to touch not just genre writing but popular fiction. Some of this is academic elitism - and, in some cases, with good reason. I've read bestsellers with terrible writing. Many schools indicated in their replies that they felt ill equipped to work with genre or popular fiction, though. That, I think, is another key. A popular fiction author is either unsuccessful, in which case s/he may not be qualified to teach writing at the college level (or simply may not be an attractive candidate for the competitive job), or successful, in which case s/he may see no reason to take a teaching job. Professor Robbins is an exception to the latter rule, of course. At any rate, this means that the professors of creative writing at almost all schools write one of two perfectly admirable, but usually less lucrative, types of work:

1. Literary Fiction

2. Poetry

Some few of them also write nonfiction. Visiting seventy or eighty MFA program websites showed me this time and again - virtually no other types of writing appeared, ever. This, and some of my e-mail's cagey responses that toss the word around, makes me wonder: What exactly do they mean by "literary?"

It is a slippery term. I'm familiar with informal definitions ranging from "well-written fiction" to "fiction that doesn't sell." The responses I got suggested "fiction that's about more than that story." (This is indicating, I assume, universal themes. You know, like the ones in Harry Potter? Oh wait . . .) Some also echoed the "well-written fiction" idea, indicating that any genre could be "literary," while others drew a line between them "the focus of our program is on literary fiction, not genre fiction." One suggested that writing could "transcend its genre and could be called literature -- the way Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlings mysteries transcend the mystery or detective novel genre." (The same professor added "If your aim is to become an instructor of creative writing at the college level, you'll almost certainly want to do some literary writing in addition to your work in young adult fantasy.")

This makes me wonder whether my desire to become a professor will mean writing outside my real area of interest for two or three years. *Wince* I hope not. I'm young to pigeonhole myself, I know, and I do enjoy forays outside of YA fantasy, but I certainly can't see myself writing long works set in the here-and-now without fantasy elements. This is a dilemna. Every school indicates that the most important part of the program's application is a writing sample, usually two to three short stories or the first few chapters of a novel. All of my novels are YA fantasy; very few of my short stories - and none of the ones I see as mostly likely to get me admitted - are. So, I can either bet it all on the quality of writing in my novels, or I can totally misrepresent the way I most commonly write with my short stories. If I do the latter, what happens if I'm accepted? If I start writing YA fantasy there, will they think I pulled a bait-and-switch? Will I have to be a closet genre writer while going to workshops with short stories where people angst and live gritty lives of hopelessness and elegant metaphor? (Though, to be honest, I don't think my literary fiction would be safe from comic relief and happy endings.)

I do not yet have my final list of probably about ten schools to which I will actually apply, but should narrow it down soon. My GRE is scheduled for August 19, and I've been reviewing for that. None of the programs require subject GREs, but several require the general test. Others note that, while optional, any supplied GRE scores may be used to help determine admission/financial aid/TAships. Generally speaking, I test well, and the sample questions on the GRE website make it seem about as difficult as the SATs. At this point, I'm actually pretty happy about taking the test - it's one part of the applications package that's straightforward and doesn't require me to question my choices all that much.

I will keep this journal updated on my progress!
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Comments {5}

The happy phantom

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from: miss_maxine
date: Aug. 4th, 2008 03:42 am (UTC)
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Hmm. Would it help to email someone like Dr. Rochelle? He's certainly ardent about writing fantasy (or sometimes sci-fi), but he got his MFA somehow, and he's quite popular as a creative writing professor.

You shouldn't misrepresent yourself with the writing, sample, though, I can tell you that. A program that wouldn't let you in on the basis of your YA fantasy writing is not the program for you.

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"Also, I can kill you with my brain."

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from: toastedcheese
date: Aug. 4th, 2008 03:44 am (UTC)
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Hmm. Trying to figure out what really sets apart literary fiction, besides the mechanics of good writing.

I am tempted to say it is the characters, but that may be an oversimplification. Contemporary literary writers like their characters to be "real," flawed, complex, and unreliable. They are the centerpiece of the story, and they feel like people you could meet on the street. Or at least the author's perception of people you could meet on the street.Sometimes they can be quite annoying in their faux-mundaneness, and sometimes they are heartbreaking. Occasionally they are even LIKABLE.

I'm sure there are in fact contemporary novels with flat characters, but in this case the writer is trying to make a metaphorical point about the nature of human beings. In which case you are in the world of satire, which being unrealistic is only a hop, skip, and a jump from fantasy in the first place.

Although I may be behind the times, and maybe postmodernism has transcended realism and wants to make statements about Culture In General or something. I'm not exactly sure.

I think you can write literary fantasy (I sometimes am under the delusion that *I* write literary fantasy), but you will have to be very character-centric, and you will have to justify every fantasy element. There are actually plenty of literary novels that are secretly fantasy novels (Beloved, Midnight's Children, both very very acclaimed), but their fantasy elements are blatantly metaphors for Something Important and are thus okay.

I think your biggest problem, honestly, is that humor is a hard sell for a literary audience. Unless it's dark humor. People like to laugh, but unless it's pointed laughter, they suspect that they're having fun and thus not learning anything important.

As far as the concept of "transcending genre" goes, I have mixed feelings about it. It's true that many of the best genre works are self-conscious about their genre and play around with it. Nevertheless, they could not be what they are without genre. This annoyed me about a recent review I read of Battlestar Galactica - it assured non-SF fans that the show "just happens" to be SF and is really about character drama. BSG does not "just happen" to be science fiction. The characters would not be who they are if they were not the last remaining members of a post-apocalyptic space age society in a war against robots. BSG doesn't transcend its genre; it stretches its genre to its fullest potential.

Sorry, side rant. I just think stories are stories. Really, whenever we write realistic stories, we create a world as imaginary and artificial as any genre world. Both exist only in our heads, and may or may not hold any relation to reality.

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"Also, I can kill you with my brain."

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from: toastedcheese
date: Aug. 4th, 2008 03:45 am (UTC)
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Eep, that was long....

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"Also, I can kill you with my brain."

(no subject)

from: toastedcheese
date: Aug. 4th, 2008 03:48 am (UTC)
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Finally, if they really don't believe that YA fantasy can tell important stories, hit them over the head with a big hardcover copy of Fire and Hemlock! That was such a good coming-of-age story.

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If you don't know, I'm not telling!

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from: wmbluequeen
date: Aug. 4th, 2008 01:44 pm (UTC)
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Don't conform. Don't change your style of writing to what they want it to be. Write what you want, even if it makes it harder to find and get into a program you like. Then, use your experiences there to become a new kind of creative writing teacher, even if it's harder to find work. Change the system to be more accepting and helpful to people like yourself who write outside of what conventional writing programs tell them they should. Don't let *them* change *you*; *you* should be the one to change *them*. Yes, it is harder and might take you longer, but if you really want to do something meaningful with your life instead of just fading into the background, THAT is what you should do.


Also, a note on the GREs. They are a LOT harder than the SATs. At least, they were when I took them. They were working on changing the verbal section, and I'm sure they've finished it by now. The new way of doing it seemed a lot easier than the old way. But still. It was harder than I was expecting it to be, and I was expecting it to be like the SATs, too. So study more than you think you need to.

You are working a lot harder than I did when it comes to this whole grad school thing. Then again, I was limited a bit by location. But anyway, I hope you have better luck with it.

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