Anica Lewis (anicalewis) wrote,
Anica Lewis

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Getting Schooled

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!
Tags: mfa, school

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