Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Helpful tips for applicants + cross-genre work, Cont'd

by Marita Siddal

I started to write a comment about Denis's provocative post this morning, then realized the length made my input better suited to a new post!

General note on researching programs

I'll begin with an old adage: It never hurts to ask.

I went through the whole MFA application process twice. The first round, I was accepted by a few . . . and upon further investigation, I didn't care for any of them! I'll attribute this in part to my own belated realization that I wanted to study fiction in addition to poetry, and none of the programs to which I'd been accepted would offer this flexibility; and in part because, well, I didn't care for them.

When I began my second round, I cut to the chase. I didn't want to wait until after I'd spent $40 to $75 bucks on each application before being admitted and speaking to faculty extensively, only to learn that the approach and the attitude of the program wouldn't "fit" me. So I contacted administrators directly to inquire about their programs.

I'll plead with you, please do not pester these hardworking people with a barrage of open-ended e-mails. Try, as much as possible, to have a consolidated preface about your artistic passions and what you'd like to learn through an MFA.

You'll then face a variety of responses:
  • The scattered, "Huh? We have a website . . . here are some links . . ." from poorly organized programs.
  • The scattered, "Huh? What'ya wanna know?" from poorly organized programs.
  • The somewhat pretentious, though somewhat justified, "Thank you for your inquiry. Here is a cursory, administrative-toned answer." from some of the highly competitive programs who are not concerned with courting you because they get the best applications anyway, and might legitimately be too busy fielding the flood of those applications to give you much individual time.
  • The warm and gracious, "We have solid answers to your questions. Also, why don't we put you in touch with a few of our faculty and alumni who could answer your questions with their personal perspectives in greater detail!" from organized programs who, whether or not they already have an applicant pool full of glittering young stars, would always like to do whatever is within their power to help aspiring writers reach their goals.
VCFA leapt firmly into the last of those categories, and my conversations with faculty and alumni quickly led to my realization that I'd found my MFA home. Lesley University is another very earnest low-res program that I considered.

This process did take a while. But in the end, I saved a considerable amount of time by preparing a mere three applications as opposed to seven the year before -- and happily enrolling and attending, rather than regrouping for anothe round of applications in the wake of disappointment. (I do realize that many people, the reputable blogger Seth Abrahamson included, would advise that you apply to many more programs than this. However, I was only interested in low-res, which narrows my options from the start. Anyway, my point concerns relative effort rather than actual numbers.)

Cross-genre / Dual-genre

Denis, I think we chose our schools for similar reasons! Though I did have to decide beforehand which genres I'll pursue, VCFA's dual-genre option allows me to work in both poetry and fiction. Students can also opt to incorporate CNF and writing for children in a dual-genre degree. If you look under the section entitled SELF DESIGNED STUDY on this page of VCFA's site, you'll see a hint of how dual-genre works. (I'd be happy to answer any further questions about it!)

Overall, I'm an extreme believer in genre fluidity. Exploring a spectrum of the arts can only infuse a person's work with more comprehensive and flexible perspectives, whether or not they end up pursuing the explored genres seriously.

The only aspect that would concern me about an entirely open cross-genre model is how it might affect workshops. I'm considering my own development as a writer here . . . I do know, had I applied to VCFA in poetry a year earlier and they had allowed me to study in both poetry and fiction, I would've been a pothole in a fiction workshop! I simply wasn't ready to pursue fiction on a graduate level at that point. I browsed the Hollins site and couldn't quite tell, can you workshop in any genre you like? If you are not required to pass through another competitive application process beforehand, seems as though this might prove to be a hindrance or at least a slight hiccup in workshops. Not to say that someone who applied in one genre cannot offer brilliant feedback in another -- simply that they might not have as much experience in it yet, to the extent that a classroom could feel disjointed.

I would agree that study without too much formal recognition of genre might file down the nails of of competitiveness, perhaps for a different shade of the reason Denis calls to our attention . . . Statistically, cross-genre might still yield the same number of students from one school submitting works of the same genre to a single publication. This might be best illustrated with an example: you could have 4 students who each submit both CNF and fiction to the Kenyon Review under cross-genre, instead of 2 submitting in CNF and 2 submitting in fiction to that same journal when students must stick to one genre in their studies . . . Yet the former scenario suggests a simultaneously unified and diverse community of writers, rather than a set of CNF writers and a set of short story writers. Though students might generate the same amount of competing work, I wonder if they notice as much when their program does not categorize so closely.


  1. Great advice! I was such a punk about the application process, so I could have used a nudge like this to make contact prior to applying. Maybe I wouldn't have ended up applying to 16 programs.

  2. Great advice about asking specific questions BEFORE shelling out all the money for application fees. Although, I think some people, like me, are still figuring out what they want from a program while they are applying, which would make such questions a bit difficult. But if you know what you're looking for, by all means, ask. You can definitely tell a lot about the attitude of the people running a program by how they respond to queries like that.

    Also, a very good friend of mine started the low-res program at Lesley this summer and is having a very good experience so far. Nice to see you mention it.

  3. Yes, we can choose whichever workshop we want. We filled out a questionnaire earlier in the summer to rank our genre preferences. The director of the program will decide which classes are offered based on the questionnaire.


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