Thursday, February 23, 2006

From My Bookshelf

The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Students
by Tom Kealey
Continuum Press, 2005

There's no doubt that Tom Kealey knows a lot about MFA programs (and the development of a literary writing career more generally). He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His story collection, Coyotes, won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award (awarded to a resident of northern California or Nevada for an unpublished work-in-progress), and his stories have appeared in GlimmerTrain and other impressive venues. Currently he teaches fiction writing at Stanford University and tutors at 826 Valencia. His lively "MFA Weblog"(linked to your right) seems to attract plenty of visitors, many of them leaving comments and submitting questions that Kealey generously takes quite a bit of time to answer.

In other words, Kealey is a competent and active guide to the world of creative writing programs. In fact, he adopts a "guide" persona early in his new book:

I want you to think of me as the bus driver. You're on a bus tour in a new city: the city of graduate creative writing programs. I've lived here for a number of years, and I know my way around. I'm offering you an introduction to the city, and I hope a clear, useful, and entertaining introduction at that. I'll show you the highlights of this new city, I'll tell you which streets to avoid, I'll offer tips on how to best spend your time, and I'll even stop the bus a few times and take a closer look at particular neighborhoods. I've also brought along some other residents of the city, and they'll offer you some insights and recommendations as we move along.

The book, he says, offers a starting point, equipping readers "with the tools necessary to make the most of your experience." And to that end, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook is quite solid.

You'll find a lot of information within it. You'll learn to define terms (the M.A./M.F.A./Ph.D. delineation, for example). You'll discover all the elements of an application. You'll receive a lot of useful advice on how to handle the teaching assignments that quite possibly will be part of your daily life in a residential writing program. You'll hear from voices other than Kealey's, including Adam Johnson's excellent Afterword essay. And you'll also hear hints about what to look for on program web sites (here I agree completely with Kealey—program directors would be well-advised to heed his observations on the elements of a good program Web site [pp. 53-56]).

Since I read his MFA Weblog regularly I can surmise that there's a real hunger for the advice Kealey provides in his book. But I don't necessarily agree with all of it (though I'm far from sure the book is going to cause the uproar in the creative writing community Kealey seems to think it will). I have two main concerns (and some minor quibbles) that I'll turn to now.

Possibly the point that troubles me most is Kealey's repeated suggestion that as you select a program you rely on comments from current students. And to be fair, Kealey supports this suggestion with echoes from his interviewees, so there seems to be at least some agreement about it.

But if the opinions of total strangers, to whom you've generally been directed by savvy program directors who are not exactly likely to give you the names, phone numbers, or e-mail addresses of students who aren't enthusiastic about their programs (and remember, these are people you don't know who, similarly, don't know anything about you, your academic and professional and personal background, your expectations for your writing and your classes and your teachers, your ways of working, your ability to write critically as well as creatively, your workshop experiences, your subject and style interests, etc., and whose own histories and expectations in all these arenas may differ completely from yours)—if the opinions of these individuals must matter so very much, there is one way to make the process at least a little more likely to pay off. Follow the questions Kealey's interviewees have suggested asking those strangers. You'll find them on pp. 85-86. (And also see my previous blog post on this subject.)

Now for the second issue. Anyone interested specifically in low-residency programs (and, again, judging merely from Kealey's own blog a lot of people sure do seem to be interested in them) is likely to be at least a little disappointed here. (At one point, the Q&A format of the book leads to this "exchange" between the potential reader and the author: Q: "It seems like a lot of these answers have to do with residency programs, as opposed to low-residency programs." A: "I think so too." Then Kealey recommends that you consult an interview with one student from one program (albeit a very good program with which, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I am currently affiliated) to remedy the situation. But I still think the book—and the reader—would be better served by presenting multiple viewpoints/experiences. In fact the book does scatter a few other snippets, including comments from another low-res alum and a low-res program director, elsewhere. You'll just have to find them on your own.

Beyond the relative paucity of information for low-res applicants, there's the matter of the actual advice. In the chapter on program criteria, which Kealey deems "the most important one on the book," the author himself notes that the information may be less relevant for potential low-res students. Moreover, sometimes the information that is provided for such students is at least a little questionable.

According to Kealey, for instance, for low-res applicants/students "location is not a priority since your location is where you're currently living." That's a little too dismissive for my taste. First, the location of your low-res program can have significant financial implications; considering how often finances, financing, and all things financial crop up elsewhere in the book, it's a little surprising that Kealey hasn't taken into account the financial complexities of low-res programming beyond high tuitions and scarcity of scholarship monies.

Here's the reality: Many programs require four on-campus residencies and a final graduating residency. That may mean five transcontinental (or even international) airline tickets, not to mention hotel bills (if campus housing isn't available and if you're not one of the "local" students that low-res programs seem to attract. In a way, some low-res programs share something with the residential ones: they're especially attractive, especially if they're just getting off the ground and haven't yet acquired a reputation/widespread name recognition, to "in-staters" and "locals." This was definitely the case in my program, where I was a member of the inaugural class. And by the way, a couple of low-res programs currently offer lower in-state tuition for in-staters, too).

But back to the costs associated with a low-res program location. Don't forget about taxi/rental car/other ground transportation. Not every low-res program is based in a city with a useful public transportation system (mine wasn't, though the city where I live does feature one, and I'm not a happy driver/rental car customer, either). So clearly, location can matter.

Enough on that. Kealey also tells prospective low-res students that "your experience will be primarily with faculty, not with other students. Definitely narrow your choices, and then definitely read the work of the faculty on your list." Elsewhere he defines a low-residency program as "basically a long-distance one-on-one workshop."

Here he neglects an important point: not every low-res program operates under the "mentor" model, with individual students matched with individual mentors, working as pairs throughout the semester and workshopping in groups only at the residencies. Some programs (mine was one) do teach through online workshops. And not every online workshop works the same way. Ours was essentially a series of e-mail exchanges. Other programs (to my knowledge, the University of New Orleans and University of British Columbia programs are two examples) rely on more sophisticated technology (Blackboard, etc.) to enhance the learning experience.

However it's done, a low-res workshop requires (or should require) you to focus on other students' work, and requires (or should require) other students to focus on yours. So those students do matter. A lot.

Although the mentor/student pairing has its advantages, working full-time with classmates can be a real plus. For one thing, the more you engage in critiquing other people's work the sharper your own writing and editing skills are likely to become. Working with other students is also beneficial in a low-res program in a case (and yes, it can happen, public paeans to fabulous faculty aside) where you realize a semester spent with your assigned instructor as an individual mentor would have been an absolute nightmare. It can even "bond" you with other students, to some extent.

But if you have little control over your instructor assignment (not every program lets you "choose" your instructor/mentor) you have absolutely no control over the other students in your workshop. And the truth is that not everyone is suited to (let alone experienced in) workshopping, especially online. You may or may not really even want to read their "creative" work (let alone their critiques of yours). As one low-res alum (who shall remain nameless) remarked to me recently, a single program can contain a surprising range of talent ("or lack thereof"). But since to a significant degree you're paying thousands of dollars each semester for the experience of working with these fellow writers-in-training, their abilities really do matter.

Again, not every low-res program runs workshops the same way. Some do, indeed, replicate the larger (10-12 student) model. This was the impression I gleaned about the New Orleans program when faculty described it at a conference session last year. Others (again, like the one I attended) may boast of a low student-faculty ratio (say, 4:1, at the most). But when you're working in a group of 10-12 you are less likely to be frustrated by the 1 or 2 "bad apples" in your group. 1 or 2 bad apples in a group of 3 or 4 is another matter, especially if the instructor isn't particularly engaged or willing to take the situation on.

Less obviously, however, is something I had not considered before I started an MFA program. It can be wonderfully enlightening and interesting (and therefore also helpful for your writing) to attend a program in another part of the country. Just be sure plenty of others are doing the same thing. As you may know from other life experiences, it's not necessarily fun to be in a "minority" anywhere. It isn't fun to sense that you're marginalized in a low-res MFA program, either. And though it may be politically incorrect to say this, diversity is not limited to gender or skin color. "Location" matters here, too, as do educational background, religion, and more. (For his part, Kealey promotes something he calls "life diversity. People from many parts of the country and the world who have had different experiences to share within the workshop." To that I'd add that the faculty should reflect a similar range.)

OK. So much for my major concerns. Here are a couple of other things to keep in mind:

1) As happens with virtually any printed directory these days, whatever an author presents as "complete" is bound to be incomplete before too long. For example, many writers may be drawn to Kealey's book for its considerable "List of Writing Programs," (including a sub-section focusing on Low-Residency Programs). But already three more programs should be added to that low-res program list. If you're an avid reader of this blog you've probably read about them recently, programs based at Sewanee, Pine Manor College, and Southern New Hampshire University. They'll be included in next month's primer update, too.

2) Be prepared to stick with the "cutesy" Q&A format, with the author creating repartee that gets a little old after awhile. (Example: Q: "How many programs will we be applying to?" A: "Why beat around the bush here? You'll apply to eight to twelve programs. Why? Because I said so. And because…." Another example: "Can you list the remaining criteria in bullet-point form?" A: "My thoughts exactly. Let's keep this bus moving."

But these reservations aside, it's easy to see why this book may become an important resource for prospective MFAers. Writers seeking top-notch advice on how to study, apply to, and choose residential MFA programs, especially, will learn a lot from it. Kealey is to be congratulated.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Glad to have found your blog - have enjoyed wandering through the cyber halls -