February 13th, 2013 / 11:57 am
Craft Notes & Vicarious MFA

Brian Evenson Gives Advice for Future MFA Applicants

Reposted from Facebook:
Advice for Future MFA applicants:
On a more serious note, now that I’ve almost read through this year’s batch, here’s the advice I’d give off the top of my head to future MFA fiction applicants. Most of the applicants were interesting people and trying hard and it’s deeply appreciated, particularly when I’m reading so many applications. I don’t think any of the applications I read this year had a single malicious bone in their body. But here are a few things that I would want to be told if I was thinking about applying. Please feel free to steal, revise, mutilate, or dispute:1. Turn in your very best piece of fiction. This really, really matters to me, more than anything else. If I love a piece of writing, I will fight for it, and am willing to overlook a multitude of other sins.

2. Better to turn in one shorter excellent piece than a good piece and one bad one. Don’t turn in work just to max out the page limit. And if you’re finding yourself trying to cram all sorts of things into the page limit by changing the font and single-spacing, then step back and take a deep breath and think again.

3. Don’t try to pretend you’re something you’re not. Most of you don’t, and those of you who do don’t do it maliciously, but just kind of slowly convince yourself into it as you write and rewrite your application. Look, it’s easy to tell if you’re faking. So don’t fake.

4. Be honest, but “we’re dating and getting serious” honest rather than either “First date honest” or “Now that you’ve proposed, here’s all the stuff you need to know about me (like the fact that I killed my first wife)” honest. You can and should talk about your struggles and successes and trials and etc., but in moderation.

5. In the personal statement, write about yourself in a way that allows us to get a real sense of you and the way you are now, right now, and where you’re going. If you feel you have to go back to childhood to do that, that’s okay, but if I go away with a better sense of how you were when you were in 2nd grade (or whatever) than how you are now, that’s not good.

6. Read interesting things and learn how to talk about them in interesting ways. Read, read, read. And read eccentrically. Take chances. There’s no reason, no matter what your job or your circumstances, that you shouldn’t be reading an interesting book every week or two, and that’ll do a great deal for your development as a writer and as a person. It’s okay to let us know what books led you to writing, but better if we find out what books you continue to go back to and who you’re interested in now.

7. Don’t pretend to have read something that you haven’t read. Don’t google the faculty at a program and then try to include a line in your personal statement that suggests what their book is about. This rarely works, and as a result usually does more harm than good.

8. We’re interested in knowing what makes you unique, but within reason. And even if you have a great set of experiences and are incredibly interesting and we’d love to have an 8-hour long coffee with you to learn about your experiences running Substance D. from the American camp to the Norwegian camp in Antarctica, if your writing sample isn’t good enough you won’t get in. There comes a time when you need to choose to work on the writing instead of getting life experience as a carny.

9. If you already have an advanced degree, you have to explain convincingly why you want to get another, and why we should give this opportunity to you rather than to someone else. If you already have a PhD, we need to be convinced that this is the right thing for you and for us, and that you’re not just collecting degrees. But, honestly, the default acceptances for MFAs is usually (but not always) someone who doesn’t yet have an advanced degree. We’ve taken people with advanced degrees in our program, but it’s very much the exception rather than the rule.

10. If you already have a book out, same thing. Are you serious about improving your writing or do you want to treat this as a sort of an artist colony? If the latter, well, I’d suggest an artist colony: they’ll feed you, and we usually won’t. If I get the impression that you want to get the MFA mainly to have a teaching credential, that can be one or more strikes against you.

11. MFA programs make mistakes. We don’t always see the potential of people, which may be partly our fault and partly your own. Do everything you can when you put together your application to make sure that the fault is on our side rather than yours. But also remember: any really good program ends up with many more people they’d like to admit than they actually can admit. When it comes down to that final cut, it’s very very hard, and we’ll have to let people go who, ideally, we’d love to have come. So, if you don’t get in, don’t take it as a judgement. To our shame, we’ve turned down many great writers before, and probably will again. But fingers crossed that it won’t be you…

Good luck!

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  1. Paula

      Why is it a strike against you if getting the teaching credential is one of your motivations for getting an MFA? That doesn’t make sense. The teaching credential is a very practical and good reason to get an MFA. Most MFAers I know credit the teaching credential as one the top reasons, otherwise how many people would pay lots of money for an MFA if it was nothing more than just 2-3 years of workshop classes and nothing else?

  2. Richard Grayson

      This makes me glad I applied for my MFA program 40 years ago when all you needed was to know how to type and have a bachelor’s degree and a body temperature approaching 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, that it cost $45 a credit.

      As someone who spent years as a law school administrator and became familiar with the admissions process at the law schools where I worked (one of which I attended), I still find it hard to believe that students actually worry about being admitted into MFA programs in creative writing. At the time I went to law school, there were pretty much good jobs for all graduates who passed the bar exam. Now that the Great Recession and the structural changes caused by technology and globalism have destroyed the old paradigm of legal education, applications to law schools have plummeted and we are rethinking the whole far-too-expensive process.

      But there are still better outcomes for graduates of law schools than MFA programs in creative writing. If applications to MFA programs aren’t drastically declining — since basically most of the people who graduate such programs will probably have less secure lives than they would have otherwise — it is a testament either to great marketing on the part of the programs or the delusions of current or recent undergraduates. So I guess there’s a need to give “tips” like these. One would think, however, since you make the process seem fairly selective, that the successful applicants already knew what to do and what not to do.

  3. deadgod

      I wondered the same thing while reading 10.: isn’t there a Catch-22 at work at the gate of the MFA? If you want to teach (as well as to write, which you’re already doing and will continue to do), you might need an MFA to get the job you want, but that interest counts against you in getting into the MFA.

      Evenson’s notes are so encouraging as well as being flintily helpful — I wonder if, when he says “mainly”, he doesn’t mean ‘pretty much only‘–that is, he’s referring to people who aren’t passionate about actually writing (or even about reading!) but think that teaching writing is cool and easy. Those frauds… sure, he’d have to watch out for that.

  4. Sean Daniel Malone

      If you really want to teach just get an MA in literature, or the old style MA in English. The programs are less competitive in some cases, although there may be less GTA’s available. I’ve had colleagues tell me at a couple of the schools I’ve worked at that they look more favorably on MA’s anyway. If you have an MFA some departments/faculty will pigeon hole you as a creative type and may not want you teaching literature classes or freshman writing. The only advantage is that you could get a faculty position teaching creative writing, but those are few and far between and you’d probably have to wait several years. Of the three schools I’ve been an adjunct at recently, I think there were maybe 2-3 people with MFA’s (either adjunct or full time).

  5. Jose Alvarado

      My own application having been in this year’s “batch,” even looking at this before reading it made me nervous. I don’t think I committed any of these errors, but then again, what if by just being the real me I came across as phony? What if in introducing my writing by speaking about Lacan I spoke unconvincingly? According to their website I should have an answer within the next four weeks. Thank God for that, I’m starting to loose sleep.

  6. Nick Mamatas

      The context was for people who have a book published already.

  7. Michael Fischer

      I disagree. My experiences with several schools suggests that the MFA carries more weight than the MA simply because it’s considered terminal (beyond the departmental level). Also, most MFA programs are no longer studio programs and contain plenty of lit experience, comp/rhet training, and TA experience. Your points are more applicable to the MFA applying for tenure track jobs vs. the PhD who will have the advanced lit training + cw. Then again, for the best/better CW jobs, publications will always matter most.

  8. Roxane

      This is absolutely incorrect. I am guessing all universities require a terminal degree for a tenure track position. If you want to adjunct, it is possible to teach with an MA but it is still difficult. There are always exceptions, but given the surfeit of candidates with MFAs and, increasingly, PhDs, there’s not much opportunity for people holding MAs to teach.

  9. Brian Carr

      It might be right in regards to comm. colleges though.

  10. Brian Carr

      Comm. colleges take MA’s, and they probably prefer MA’s (in most cases) to MFA’s.

  11. Brian Carr

      But they’d rather your MA be in Comp./Rhet. than in Lit.

  12. Michael Fischer

      CCs are actually hiring a lot of PhDs these days. I don’t see why anyone would prefer an MA over an MFA when MFAs often teach as much comp as MAs and take the same comp/rhet pedagogy courses. The Iowa MFA model is a thing of the past.

  13. Mike Kleine

      <3 <3 <3 <3 x88

  14. William VanDenBerg

      Ditto, except for the Lacan part. I’m worried my personal statement was too much bio, not enough theory. Hooray for second-guessing! Wait, did I use that hyphen right? Fuck. What the hell is a hyphen anyway?

      At any rate, nice Garak pic.

  15. Jose Alvarado

      Thanks mate! Good luck to you and I hope to see you on the other side.

  16. BeThought

      The teaching market is utter dogshit, and a lot of people who are coming straight out of undergrad have the mistaken idea that it’s a straightforward/good/easy career move to “be a professor.” I agree w/deadgod, Evenson probably means people who think, at some level, that their writing’s already real good, see, and all they need is another piece of paper and then $$$. But I think Evenson does mean “mainly” — I can’t think of a field other than Education that wants grad students whose primary motivation is the “day job.”

  17. deadgod

      Wait… law, medicine and even engineering all use post-Bachelor’s programs for vocational training. (I have a good friend who got an EE MS to get work–although he did enjoy the ‘research’ part of the process.) Is your last sentence missing a negative, or do I misunderstand it?

  18. duly_registered

      This seems to have started in the middle, since the first sentence is a segue. What was the less serious note? Could you re-post that, too?

      I’m serious. I’m not on Facebook and I’m interested in what Evenson writes.

  19. BeThought

      No, I was just wrong, implicitly restricting my statement to research science and the liberal arts. (MBAs are another counterexample.) Your point raises the question: to what extent should MFAs be thought of as professional degrees?

  20. Molly Gaudry

      He sort of live-FB’d a bunch of funny things he encountered while reading through this year’s batch. Maybe about half a dozen of his updates preceding this note feel kind of like knee-jerk responses to various personal statements.

  21. Sean Daniel Malone

      The Community Colleges I’ve worked at were almost solely MAs (at least in my experience). One has a Phd as the head of the department, while the other one has an MA as the head. I think there’s one MFA and he’s primarily the creative writing teacher. We haven’t seen the rush of PhDs and MFAs around here, or maybe they just haven’t hired them. Not sure.

      Obviously if you want a tenure track position at a university you’ll need a PhD, but I was speaking more in the situation of being an adjunct. I’ve been an adjunct for two years and had no difficulty with my MA thus far. Like I said, I don’t work with many MFA’s in the adjunct world but I know many MA’s. The MFA is a better degree because it’s terminal (although I think it’s now more common now than it used to be for people to get PhDs after their MFA), but the perception among many non- creative writing people might be that you are someone who probably has more of a background in creative writing than scholarly writing (regardless of whether that’s true or fair) and whatever implications they put into that.

      Maybe it’s different here in the midwest, I don’t know. But more schools are relying on adjuncts to save money in general so there should be plenty of opportunity for anybody with at least some form of Master’s degree and experience to teach part time.

  22. Sean Daniel Malone

      Agreed. My MA is in general English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, but it rarely comes up. Sometimes I just list it as an MA in English.

  23. duly_registered

      OH, oops. Delete, delete, moderator. Delete my question. Since one can’t see the live-blogging remarks, one could imagine them as more cruel than they probably were.

  24. HolidayInnExpress

      Dude, no one is going to deny an MFA a lowly ajdunct gig because of his CW background. As long as he has experience teaching comp as a TA–and most MFA degree holders have at least one year of classroom experience–he can easily find adjunct work.Heck, when I graduated with my MFA in 2006, I had two years of compe teaching experience and landed a ful-tine lecturer gig at a major research univeristy, making 30K w/ full benefits. Your dept. head is wrong and basing her opinion on the studio MFA model. Most MFA programs today are studio-academic and the students teach composition as TAs and take at least one grad level comp pedagogy course.

  25. Sean Daniel Malone

      Haha alright guys. Flame on. I didn’t say any MFAs were denied positions.

  26. Guest

      Not flaming you. Just telling you that your dept. head doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It’s pretty common, in fact, for older faculty members who a) haven’t been on the job market in ages and b) have been at one particular institution their entire lives to talk out their asses about these matters. I want to make sure people reading this blog don’t get any bad info, that’s all.

  27. Sean Daniel Malone

      I’m not sure that’s a fair or accurate description of this person, but I understand what you’re saying. It just seems silly to call someone’s opinion out as being wrong. It was counter-intuitive to me, yes, that’s why I repeated it here. I think everybody knows in general that an MFA would be preferable to an MA so I don’t know who you’re saving. My point was to offer a rejoinder or an alternative. If you want to get an MA (which in some cases would be less credits, cheaper and a less competitive program) you could do that and possibly have a full time position at a CC or at least adjunct and then decide whether to go on to a PhD. An MFA is not the only option. If all you really want to do is teach (as the blog poster has suggested), going a different route besides an MFA program may be preferable. If teaching is your passion, being at a Community College or a small private university may be a better option than being at a large state university anyway.

  28. HolidayInnExpress

      I called it out because, according to you, that person bases her opinion on an outdated CW model.

      In your last paragraph, you write: “If all you really want to do is teach…going a different route besides an MFA program may be preferable.” Once again, you insinuate that an MFA program can’t prepare people to teach more than CW. Of course one can teach without an MFA, say with an MA in comp, but since this is a board for creative writers, why it would be more “preferable” for creative writers to avoid creative writing? Most people who take an MA in comp don’t stop at the MA. What’s the point in that? Who does that, other than people who decide they can’t hack it in a PhD program? Why would those same people resign themselves to working in higher ed without a terminal degree? They should get a real job, or a shred of ambition, rather than adjunct for the rest of their lives or try to land a tenure-track job with a non-terminal degree. And a teaching position at a “small private university” will most likely require a PhD. I know what I’m talking about.

  29. raynola

      I assume #9 means “a *related* advanced degree” and a Masters in Computer Science 20+ years ago isn’t going to count against you.

  30. Guest

      Oh wait this thread is a million years old. Never mind.

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