Saturday, October 31, 2009

Seth Abramson's Open Letter to AWP

I find this to be an extremely well-reasoned response to the recent controversy surrounding the rankings published in Poets & Writer's Magazine. In particular, he does a good job taking AWP to task for not being upfront with their lack of viable information, despite their insistence that they do possess some of this data. (Since my last post on this subject I found out that I am indeed a member of AWP. Yet as far as I can tell, the data on program acceptance rates and funding Matt Burriesci talked about in his letter on the AWP website is nowhere to be found) As always, read and discuss!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Having a Hard TIme Growing Up Response

By Casey Tolfree

Thanks for all the comments guys. I felt that it would be a good idea to post my answers here to make sure everyone sees them and because it might be helpful to someone else.

First off, I wanted to define what I mean when I say I write commercial fiction - which to me means that it's not literary. I generally write what would be considered the contemporary romance genre and a dabble a bit into Chick Lit. I throw out pop culture references with ease.

This is why I call my work commercial. I write about relationships and broken hearts, falling in and out of love, etc, etc. I write about finding yourself as you are doing all these things.

Anyway, APT 509 in a nutshell. It's a novella - about 97 pages and I workshop it in 25-30 pages segments.

APT 509 is about a 24-year old woman, Riley Anderson. She is a music critic for a low-budget, low circulation weekly magazine. She writes weekly reviews for it. She lives and works in NYC.
(This is the part my classmates and teacher found unrealistic that she would have this job).

She is 24 but she still watches cheesy teen soaps and SoapNet. She listens to punk rock/pop music and finds herself in a love triangle. (This is where my classmates and teacher are uncertain if she is really 24 and not 20ish. This is what I meant by they think she is silly. I don't know that silly is the right word though. They think she doesn't act her age but I'm not sure how a 24-year old is supposed to act. I find characters in adult fiction so "adult-like" and Riley is meant to be a real person with her one likes and dislikes regardless of her age. She has some of the same pop culture likes I do. She uses them as vernacular. I'm not sure how this defines her age though. I think at 24 most people are still just trying to figure it out.)

The general plot of the story is that after attending college in LA and staying there for a year, Riley moves home to New York for a reason the reader isn't sure of - though it is revealed later to be family related. She has two friends from high school who live in the area still (one lives down stairs from her) but they aren't getting along very well and Riley feels alone. She runs into an ex and they spark of a friendship just as she finally starts to date another guy. A love triangle of sorts ensues.

Riley's life is nothing like mine. Yes, we are both writers but for the most part she is very different from me, she has different problems. She reacts in different ways.

As for YA fiction - someone mentioned Prep which I read and loved. Prep is actually a general fiction novel with a YA crossover. It's similar to the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty in that crossover genre. I think APT 509 would be in a similar genre to the Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart.

I hope this answers all the questions in the comments.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Having a Hard TIme Growing Up

By Casey Tolfree

I know I've been absent but I've been working a lot and had a lot of homework, excuses, excuses. I had my second fiction workshop today and I'm discouraged. Not because my classmates didn't like my piece but because I feel like they are clinging for dear life onto what our teacher thinks. I also feel like my piece isn't receiving the criticism it should be getting.

First off, my teacher sort of pigeon-holed my piece as YA - and I've written YA before, I'm good at it but APT 509 isn't YA fiction. I read YA and no offense but I've never seen a YA piece about a twenty-four year old - ever. My narrator Riley is 24. She's falling in love, learning the ropes, writing a whole lot ... the things I am doing and then people tell me she's unrealistic and I think wait a second - do I exist because I'm doing these things. I'm 23.

The view of adulthood my classmates are holding onto is so rigid. Riley has a job, pays her bills, supports herself, makes her own decision - I think that qualifies her as an adult whether she watches teen soaps or speaks commonly. Being an adult doesn't qualify you as smart. I mean Riley is smart but like me she talks like a normal person and then I am told she doesn't sound like a 24-year old. I don't understand. What is a 24-year old supposed to be like. Am I going to "grow up" in March when I turn 24? Are my teen soap opera collections going to get sold on eBay? Unlikely, so why can't my character be these things?

I wanted criticism on the plot moves and a few people gave me vague answers but generally I got stuff that really isn't relevant to my revisions. APT 509 is in it's 5th revision - it's not a first draft. Riley is not going to change. She's a person, she has flaws, she makes mistakes and I like her how she is. To me (and my friends) she is real. To my classmates she seems silly.

If I get an opportunity this semester to workshop a third time, I'm not going to finish workshopping APT 509. I almost feel like it's futile. I'm going to introduce my novel - though God knows they are going to call that YA too, when it's nowhere close to YA.

In other news, I just finished my first graduate school essay (not very exciting) and started my full-length play for class (very exciting). Both are coming a long nicely.

Victor LaValle is coming to Adelphi in the Spring. I'm taking his workshop. I'm excited he sounds like an interesting writer.

I'm enjoying my program but I feel like it's not okay to write fun, commercial work and that's what I do. I like happy endings and I want them. Why is that so wrong?

Visiting Writers

by Jonterri Gadson

In the last week or so a lot of the poets in the MFA program have been stressing about putting together 10-18 page manuscripts to submit for our visiting writer, Tony Hoagland. As an applicant, I never fully understood how visiting writers worked when they came to programs. Here, at UVA, we had to submit packets of our writing this week so that Hoagland can review them before he comes to the university the first week of December. We each signed up to meet with him for an hour during the few days that he will be here. So in this time he is going to discuss his thoughts on our work. He will also give a public reading on campus while he's here. I'm pretty excited to have his eyes on my work.

On the fiction side, they've got Claire Messud coming. Same deal: submit their work, individual conferences, and then a reading. She'll be here mid-November. I'm definitely going to check out the reading.

So, what's the deal? Do you guys have visiting writers? Who are they? How does your program handle them?

How does your sense of your medium shape your writing?

Just a general question for all of you poets and fiction writers out there (and I am especially interested in fiction writers also working with text in a kind of sculptural way):

How does your sense of your medium shape your writing?

I was in a workshop where we were throwing around our ideas about how each unique sense of what poetry is supposed to do shapes our writing. To badly paraphrase: One person mentioned the use of language as a way to surprise itself. Another mentioned being acutely interested in the gaps both between the stanzas and between the words (and beyond that, between the poet and the reader). For my part, I've been trying to work out some ideas about context--how a poem creates its own universe, but is also informed by the larger universe, and how to exploit that balance. I found the discussion pretty generative, though, and liked everyone's ideas--especially because people had so much conviction behind those ideas.

Just wondering if y'all have specific conceptions of what poetry is/does that informs your writing, and how...


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Navigating The MFA Rankings Throwdown

by Tory Adkisson

Here is AWP's response to Seth Abramson's article on MFA rankings that appeared in the last issue of Poets and Writers. I am not completely sold on Matt Burriesci's response, particularly his assertion that "statistically significant information culled from a major, comprehensive survey of these programs––including admissions statistics, program size, tuition information, and many other important facts and figures" are made readily available by AWP. He notes that such information, if it does exist, is available to AWP's members. Currently, I am not a member of AWP, and my sense is that most of us on this blog, and indeed most current and especially prospective MFA students are not members of the Association of Writing Programs. It seems to me that this type of information, if it is being contested, should be made available to the general public, especially given that (until recently) all of Abramson's data on MFA programs was on his blog, and had been for a few years.

That issue aside, I do think Mr. Burriesci is on to something when he mentions the "other stakeholders" left out of Seth's survey, people who are important in the development and maintenance of any MFA program. I don't mean to downplay your role (yes yours!) as applicants, but certainly applicants have their own particular biases. I realize that by publicly disagreeing with Seth Abramson I risk a rhetorical onslaught of epic proportions, but I do think that the inclusion of other groups related to MFA programs, as well as the addition of other important factors (salient data on alumni publication records would be at the top of my list) in the survey would have made it much more persuasive. The methodology does not bother me so much, it's more of an issue of variables than anything else.

I do think that AWP's database of MFA programs is woefully lacking in some vital data that would be useful to applicants, data that Burriesci insists exists somewhere. Information on program size, stipend amounts, acceptance rates, and other figures are of vital importance to anyone considering writing as more than just a hobby. I agree with Burriesci that selecting a writing program is a "complex and serious business," but it's not one that any amount of hard and fast data can elucidate or simplify. The responsibility rests on the applicant's willingness to do the research and consider what they want out of a certain model (full vs low-res), location, aesthetic, legacy, and whatever else you like. I disagree with both camps (AWP vs Abramson) for different reasons: AWP is clearly not doing enough to present alternative data to counteract Abramson's work--if they had the data and made it accessible, Abramson's work would be (potentially) rendered moot. As for Abramson, the holy father of MFA program data, his biases are clear and, as discussed in a post (which I don't wholly agree with) from the Best American Poetry blog, Abramson's poll "reflects only the responses of self-selected readers of his blog" that is, people who agree with him. This point may not be wholly true, but given that the poll was conducted on the MFA blog, the biases seem likely, despite Seth's assertion (in the comments) that the blog is an unbiased he has no ideological control over. He is the most prominent poster on the blog (or was until he started his own MFA blog) and has even advertised his own debut poetry collection on it.

That's really all I have to say about this for now. I am interested to hear what other people think about this whole MFA ranking hoopla given the new parties that have entered into the fray. Please discuss!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Questions and Answers

Current and future applicants, we at the MFA Chronicles know you've got a lot of questions. We all did a year ago when we were in your shoes. Thus have I decided to post this thread as a place for you to ask those questions you dare not utter anywhere else. Have a specific question about one of our schools? Want to know how we came up with our lists of where to apply? Want to know how we kept from losing our minds during the maddening masochism that is the MFA application process?

Please feel free to post any and all of those questions here and we, being your (yes your) chroniclers, will do our best to give you the information you need to keep you from massacring those closest to you. Good luck applicants!

Friday, October 23, 2009

P&W Ranks High Residency Programs

by Christopher Cocca

Poets & Writers magazine has published their MFA rankings. Check out the context here.

Spring Courses

by Christopher Cocca

Next week, we'll be getting a list of classes and seminars for the spring semester. It's hard to believe the fall is half over. What are some metrics you've used for picking what to study and with whom? I based my fall selections on the teachers that seemed likely to lead the kind of class that would help me in the areas I felt I most needed, and, of course, the curriculum. I ended up with two outstanding teachers and two exceptional groups of classmates and classes.

What are your methods for class selection?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How was the economy impacted your program?

by Whitney Gray

It's no secret that the economy has effected colleges and universities. For awhile, I was able to ignore it because it didn't directly effect me. It wasn't until I was accepted to the schools that I realized how serious the financial crisis was. Thankfully, I was able to pick up some federal funding that doesn't have to be paid back (whew!), but I've noticed other things happening with my program.

Our budget for readings has been cut dramatically, and at one point, I was preparing myself for a year without readings. Thanks to some generous donations (mostly provided by staff members!), we have been able to hold several readings, including one by Tracy Kidder. While we haven't been able to have extravagant receptions, we at UNCG have made due with homemade chocolate covered strawberries and the occasional pot-luck supper.

On the business-end of things, UNCG's program has been dealing with the loss of two poets. One moved on, and the other is taking leave for this semester. This has left our only poet to carry the weight of workshop, teaching undergraduate courses and holding tutorials with the second year students. As of now, we are searching for a replacement, which is quite obviously a delight and a relief.

Things seem to be on the upswing. If UNCG can continue to support the MFA program, our budget for recruiting may once again flourish. I'm hoping for the sake of new applicants that the financial troubles schools face don't result in hiking up application fees. (I think I read somewhere that Columbia's fee is $100+?!) I do want to say that I don't feel like I've been missing out on anything so far. I was worried that lack of teachers and lack of money would result in a dull semester, but it has been anything but.

So, what about you? Have your programs been faced with tough decisions or sacrifices because of loss of funding? Are you turning to fund-raising to help support the "extra-curricular" activities of your programs?

Quality of work

Right now the prevailing wisdom for getting an MFA is "time to write." When most people talk about time to write, they don't just mean that if you write a million poems a few of them will stick. The idea, generally, is that if you keep working and experimenting, while spurred on by your talented workshop buddies, you will better learn the craft of writing. This is what I think people mean when they say time to write--that it is actually time to improve as a writer, and that the production of work in a workshop environment will facilitate that. Which leads me to my point: I just got hammered in workshop.

I write too many poems. Not that that's a bad thing, I like writing lots of poems. I like writing down everything interesting I hear at a lecture or see on an advertisement. I enjoy having a large amount of mediocre work that I can toy with for craft purposes, and in which to find the occasional good poem. (Which is really a way of rationalizing the fact that I just can't not write.)

Sometimes it's easy to lose track of the difference between a good poem and a good poem I want people to read. So when I turn a poem in for workshop that I think is doing some interesting things with surprise and tone, and it gets hammered for not doing anything else, what do I do? I go write some more poems.

It seems like a vicious cycle, doesn't it?

There's a delicate balance between writing, writing, writing and identifying when that writing is finally paying off in that one bad-ass poem that finally just happened.

As brutal as it can't be, sometimes it's nice to know that other people will hold my poetry accountable, too.

My First Reading

by Jonterri Gadson
So I found my new drug...reading! I loved it. It went over very well. At UVA, one fiction writer and one poet read each week in our MFA reading series. We get up to 30 minutes to present our work. I did mine as an intro to me and took them from how I started writing poetry seriously (on internet poetry forums), through my writing sample, and on to what I'm working on now.
I tried a call and response with a poem for the first time (When I say "binge" say "love." When I say "purge" say "pain"). The crowd was down for it so that felt great. I'm very thankful. If you happen to be in central Virginia on a Tuesday night, you should stop by the UVA MFA reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Victor LaValle Fiction Forum

by Christopher Cocca

Victor LaValle was at The New School last night. He read from The Big Machine and answered questions about his work, influences, and life. This was one of the best sessions I've been to so far. LaValle was engaging, funny, candid, insightful, and incredibly open in the kind of way I find extremely helpful for an audience of writers and thinkers, not in a self-important or creepy way. This was a fun reading and forum that made you think. These aims, speaking with insight about serious things and doing it with humor, are at the heart of LaValle's goals for The Big Machine. I ordered a copy, along with his short story collection (Slapboxing With Jesus) today.

Victor LaValle teaches in the Columbia MFA program.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


by Christopher Cocca

I’m workshopping the first parts of Milton County Power & Light this week.

Did you know that there’s a Willa Cather Memorial Prairie in Nebraska? I didn’t know they named prairies after anyone.

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” – Willa Cather, My Antonia

Is your work tied to place? Mine is. Mountains, rust-belt ruins, green and yellow fields in alternating bands, small cities, little towns, Cold War suburbs. A valley. Some rivers. A beach and a sound.

One of my earliest literary memories is of my grandmother reading the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder to me when I was as young as 3. I remember one scene specifically about a lost doll partially frozen to the ground in a fallow cornfield puddle. I hadn’t connected these early experiences to my own vocation before, but this image, 27 years later, is vivid, and our own setting, the bi-level in Whitehall near the old cement plant.

What are your places?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I've been lacking...

By Casey Tolfree

So I know I've been lacking on the posting about my program but I guess that's because I've been spending so much of my time reading. The writing is coming. I'm workshopping a complete piece in need of revising so I'm writing there but I am finding that more and more I turn back to my novel. Even if I only have 10 minutes. I'm forcing myself to find time to write: if I finish the chapter than I can write. It's like a prize.

This past week was difficult. My fiction workshop gave me critiques and advice that I needed the other week. My newest revision of APT 509 is awesomeness. This week I had my first playwriting workshop. It was different for starters.

In fiction when our piece is being workshopped - we don't talk. We sit and listen and take notes. We apply what is said as we chose. In playwriting I was expected to talk, I was expected to answer question that I honestly didn't have answers too. It was a harsh workshop. I felt badly afterwards. I'm not a playwright and this assignment in particular was based on a hero's journey. I had a hard time writing it to begin with. It was a hard week.

I've since talked to my professor though and he was encouraging, explaining to me what was meant by comments he said and how I could work on my piece. It made a lot more sense when not in the spotlight of 15 people.

Another disheartening comment was made on Thursday but this time by a classmate. We were talking about "Something that Needs Nothing" by Miranda July. We were talking about just how Pip and the protagonist feel about the real world and working. One of my classmates actually said something that was really discouraging. About how certain jobs are undistinguished - ie food service, retail, etc. Wow. Hello, I'm a Starbucks barista. I don't think that working at Starbucks is undistinguished. If we weren't there how would you get a latte? How would we buy groceries without people working at supermarkets?
Bottom line is that in an economy like ours today, people who were top executives are now getting laid off and coming to work for retail stores to make money to support themselves and families. They are doing what they need to do to keep food on the table. I am doing what I need to do to pay my bills. I just hate when people say things like that as if it's so easy to just find something in our field or in the "real" work force. It's not easy. If it was easy I wouldn't be working part-time at newspaper covering high school sports.

Sigh, people worry me.

When And Where Do You Write?

by Jennifer Brown

I get up around 5a.m. and write.  Or try to write.  Sometimes I just sit there and look at a work in progress and hate it.  Sometimes something really takes off and the morning flies by.  Regular mornings are spent at my desk—the one in the picture.  Special writing mornings are spent on the deck of my boyfriend’s cabin in the Shenandoah Valley (the other pic).  I am hoping that I can get to where I’m able to write anywhere and everywhere at anytime of day or night, but I’m not there yet. 

How about you? Where and when do you write?  Do you have an office?  A kitchen table? A corner of the library?  A coffeeshop table?  Does it matter to you—or can you write anywhere and everywhere?  Can you post a pic of your special place?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Embracing the Suck

by Jonterri Gadson

I assure you this is not a whining post. I read a great article last night that really speaks to my feeling about some of my most recent work. The article is by Nancy Rawlinson and it's called "Writing Advice: How to Embrace the Suck". Here's the part that really got to me:

So what I’m saying here is: a succession of sucky writing days can be a signal that you are not acknowledging some truth about your work. If you stop banging your head against the keyboard for a minute and instead think about what that truth might be, you’ll probably be able to get yourself going again.

I totally get this. I've been feeling like my daily writing has been sentimental crap that I can't really use. The piece I had workshopped this week was noted as being borderline sentimental. I'm cool with acknowledging the suck but I'm not sure how to make the leap from this acknowledgement to knowing what to do to fix it. Maybe I should ask Nancy? lol

So what I'm doing is showing up at the page every day anyway. I'm trying to use more concrete details to convey my message. I'm hoping to get away from personal narrative/confessional stuff for awhile because that just brings out the sentimental in me. I'm also studying the mess out of people who do what I'm trying to do well (Sharon Olds & Jericho Brown for example).

Hmmmm...maybe if I journal more, like a diary type thing, I can have a place to get out the sentimental stuff so it won't feel the need to come out in my poems. Gonna try that. I'll let you all know how it goes. See, maybe embracing the suck really does work.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It's mid-term at UNCG, can you believe it?

by Whitney Gray

If I were to shoot a TV pilot for the comedy of my life, it would go something like this. "Man!" exclaims the cheerful, female narrator, "grad school sure is easy!" We would see a young, beautiful, impossibly brilliant woman sitting on the couch, flipping through her planner, doodling pictures in all the blank dates. (I believe Rachael McAdams would be a suitable actress to play me.) Then, we would hear a booming voice interrupt her doodling and humming by saying, "Not so fast, missy!" Cue the goofy sitcom music and credits, and then you would have the beginning of "My So-Called Easy Life at Grad School." (Sarcasm, anyone?)

So what would happen in this sitcom? Well, for one, it would be more "sit" than "com" if ya know what I'm sayin'. Head over to my blog to read more!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Strange Reactions

by Jonterri Gadson
I've begun bracing myself a little bit when people ask me what I do or what I'm studying. I can't believe how shocked people are to find out that I'm in grad school studying creative writing. I get a lot of "Wow! I never heard of doing that before"'s or they like to tell me what they expected me to study, "I thought maybe you were in the sciences," or "I thought they only give fellowships out for research." It's really weird! lol

Do you all get weird reactions from people? Maybe it's the way I'm explaining it. How do you explain what you're doing?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Has It Really Been Six Weeks?

by Emily May Anderson

On one hand, it feels like time has flown by, like just a few days ago I was moving into this apartment and meeting my peers for the first time. On the other hand, it also feels like I’ve been here forever, like I can’t remember being anywhere else and not knowing these people that I’ve come to know so intimately.

I just got back from an MFA party at a professor’s house. Her home was lovely, and all the MFAs, and their assorted hangers-on, are so nice! There were kids at the party, and cats, and husbands and sisters and boyfriends. And there was rather a lot of food, all of it very good. Those creative types can cook! I made an apple crisp and brought a bottle of Spanish Quarter red. It was actually rather funny – I stopped at the wine shop on the way to the party, got my bottle and got in line and noticed one of my professors in line a couple people ahead of me. As I was chatting with her, a guy from workshop came in, all of us buying wine for the party.

It was a nice time, and now I am home, and planning to do some work. Tomorrow I need to go for a long run, do some work, clean my apartment, and I’m trying to organize some of the first years into meeting for a few drinks tomorrow night.

I have been through six weeks of classes and am rapidly approaching the halfway point on this first semester. Each week is so busy that it seems to fly by. I know it will be November before I realize it, then Thanksgiving, then the end of the semester and Christmas. I can hardly believe my first semester is going so fast.

September-October Updates from the Low-Res Front

by Marita Siddal

Hello everyone! Just stopping by with a few links to relevant posts. In chronological order:

Since I'm a dual-genre student, I've been prepping some pieces for a fiction workshop submission while I work on my poetry semester. (I am a thin thread indeed!) So here's My Latest Story Idea! Feedback very much appreciated.

I've also been wondering somewhat about the . . . soul . . . of a writer. As in, how "real" are the experiences of people who pivot those experiences directly into writing.

Aaand a more general update on my semester progress as well.

Cheers and Happy Friday!
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