I heard from a former writing student the other day. You see, back about 15 years ago, after having my third book published I worked as an instructor in an evening program for aspiring writers. The class was important for a couple of reasons:
1). They paid me to give up two evenings a week to talk writing
2). I would have done it for free.
As a writer there are a couple of basic truths.
I love to read and I love to talk about the writing process.
The class was exciting from day one. I was able to discuss my work with a group of students who were eager to learn. I dished out assignments and I graded them with glee.
Not that all the students were great, mind you, but they were all enthusiastic.
I bring this up because the Facebook craze re-introduced me to a former student. The exchange went something like this:
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a writer in one of your classes. I see that you’ve continued to publish books (Congrats!) but I never did get anything done. Just wanted to say, ‘Hello’, but more in awe of how you’ve gotten it done.”
It was a blast from the past. I remembered the student. She had wanted to write a book and had started the process by proudly developing 6 great characters. She had rushed the process, however, and had killed off all 6 characters by page 44.
“What do I do now?” she had asked.
Through it all, I considered the process.
How had I ‘gotten it done?’
How do any of us get it done?
I considered my answer back to my former student.
“Passion,” I wrote. “I’ve always had the passion of a pit bull. I never really took no for an answer. I continued to read and write and love it all despite the business aspect of it.”
I sent it out.
“I wanted to change the world,” my student wrote back. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
I thought about the fact that one sentence written right can change somebody’s world.
“Keep trying, you were talented,” I said.
“Thank you! Thank you!!! Thank you!!!” she responded.
It can be daunting just thinking of applying to MFA programs. I’m currently in the process and am barely equipped at saying it gets easier. What I do know is it helps to have steps. Small goals that can be checked, crossed, or stabbed out. I give permission to do just that to the steps that follow.
Step 1: Know what you’re getting into. My fiction professor said if you write on your own, without any assignment or encouragement, than you’re ready. You must be able to dedicate the majority of time to writing. If you can’t at this specific point in your life, then it’s time to rethink. It also means going back to school. However loosely or tightly that is defined depends on the program. Nevertheless, if the idea of constructing a thesis, holding meetings with advisors, and hearing critiques from peers makes your skin itch I’d also reconsider. To help weed out some doubts, take a piece of paper, a pencil, and a quiet space. Sit down and write why you’d like to attend an MFA program. Chances are you’ll write out a few reasons you hadn’t thought of before. See if those reasons are worth it.
Step 2: Now that you’re 100 percent committed, make a list of what you want and what you don’t. I made a Must Have column, a Like to Have, and a Don’t Want column. In this list consider location, high vs. low residency, funding, length of program, size, campus, areas of focus, and the community. Decide what you are dead-set on and then stick to those points. One of my main Must Haves was a three-year program. My writing deserves time. If I can have an extra year to give it, I’m going to. Plain and simple. Make your lists. Don’t sacrifice.
Step 3: Research. It’s time to start finding schools. This is a great resource. http://mfaresearchproject.wordpress.com/ I’d steer clear of the surveys and rankings, but you can find every MFA program in the United States, along with a few from other countries. The great feature about this site is it distinguishes the schools from low residency to high residency. The tabs on the side direct you right to the universities’ MFA homepage and the schools are arranged in alphabetical order. I wrote every school down in a notebook, arranging based on location. I came up with a list of around 120 schools.
Step 4: Over a few weeks pick through the list. I would try to get through 10 schools a day. I’d first check out the program details and if I liked what I read, I’d then go to the homepage of the school and see how I felt about the university. I crossed out the ones I didn’t like, circled the ones I did, and made dashes next to the ones I wasn’t sure about. When I made the first round through all 120 schools I made a list of the schools I circled. I then went through the schools in the maybe pile and either cancelled them out or added them to the yes list. At the end I came away with 12 schools.
Note: Picking out schools is like clothes shopping. If you don’t love it, chances are you won’t wear it. This is a two-three year commitment and will influence the most important academic aspect of your life. If you aren’t relatively impressed keep searching.
Step 5: Make a chart. Excel works best. I wrote my 12 schools at the top and made columns for everything I’d need to know when applying: deadline of application, length of writing sample, number of recommendations and transcripts, GRE, amount of application fee, and a miscellaneous column. Some schools ask for a critical essay or have specific questions to answer. I then went to my schools’ webpages and filled in the appropriate information. Being organized in this aspect is important. Most schools won’t take excuses if you miss a deadline.
Step 6: Start thinking about what needs to be completed. If some of your schools need GRE scores, study. Buy a book or go online for test prep. Register for the test. For recommendations, you should ask 2 months in advance. Start working on the essays and your personal statement. Most importantly, work on your writing sample. It is the most important part of your application. If your writing sample doesn’t impress, it doesn’t matter how great your recommendations or GRE scores are. Edit, edit, and edit. Give it to a friend to read. Then edit more.
Step 7: Send out your applications. Take a breath. Eat cake.
Alison Taverna is a student at Chatham University and believes in the power of an English muffin.
She’s one of twenty-first century’s most beloved characters. She’s intelligent, brave, and a character many girls would love to be. However, Hermione Granger, you have terrible style. I get it, you’re too busy studying in the library for your O.W.L.S. or learning complicated spells to save the wizarding world to take the way you look seriously. Or maybe it’s because you’re such a role model and how you’re supposed to tell girls that “Hey! Grades are all that matters and you can get all the guys by putting in absolutely no effort!” (yeah, I’m looking at you, Bella Swan). As great as those ideals are, we all know what it’s like making friends at that age, and don’t pretend like you don’t care about that (we all saw you crying in the bathroom). So here are a couple tips that will help.
Firstly, the uniform – the standard issue, everyone matches everyone, let’s disallow individuality to make everyone appear the same (cause that always works) school uniform. It might seem like there’s no way to get around it, but someone as smart as you shouldn’t be fooled. There are always ways around it. Just ask Blair and Serena (Gossip Girl) how it’s done. They’ve been dancing with dress codes for years. You’re English – you’ve got to let some of that quirky style through. The best way to do that is to accessorize by adding a cute belt or necklace.
Next, the hair. Oh my god, the hair. It’s unfortunate that your muggle mother isn’t around more to teach you to manage that frizz, but this is why you need more friends that are girls. Forget drugstore shampoo. You need quality. Next, get a serum. I love Paul Mitchell’s Smoothing Serum. It’s like magic. While it can be a bit pricey, both of your parents are dentists – you can afford it! You also need to invest in a good straightener and curling iron. The great thing about your hair is that it can go curly, wavy, or straight. Take advantage of it. Finally, don’t neglect the cool setting on your hair dryer at the end. It closes the hair follicle and helps minimize damage while also making it shiny. What a win.
Finally, if none of these tips help, put that brain of yours to use and do what you do best – use a spell!
Elle Evans is a recent arrival to Pittsburgh as of her first spring semester at Pitt in 2012. She works as an intern and member of the Writers News Weekly staff.