Wednesday, November 11, 2009


By Casey Tolfree

So, awhile back one of you asked me what Adelphi's stance on commercial fiction is. I didn't have an answer then but I have one now. As I was so kindly informed yesterday in a meeting with my professor, genre fiction is just unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the program. She actually suggested that I not stay in the program if I was unwilling to write literary fiction. I apparently use cliches unapologeticly. I thought we were never supposed to apologize for our writing.

Anyway, I told her that it's not that I'm not willing to write literary fiction but that I am not going to go back to my old stories and try to change them to make them literary. I would start new work for the program that fit the bill. I can do that. I can use big words and flowery sentences I just prefer not to.

So, yeah, that's Adelphi's stance on commercial fiction.

Another topic that came up - that apparently has been brought to the director of the program's attention is my "work life". They are concerned that I work two jobs. Do these people think I work two jobs for my health? I work two jobs because I need to pay my bills. I need to have health insurance. I'm not working at least 50 hours a week and going to school just for the fun of it. Obviously if I am working two jobs I need to. I'm trying to keep my cool but it's getting harder and harder. This professor is meddling in stuff that has nothing to do with her and it is unacceptable. I am in class, I participate, I do my work on time.... that's what should matter to her. How I live my life outside the program is none of her business.

Writing is supposed to be fun. This lady is killing any fun I got out of writing. I write well, I have great command of prose but it's unacceptable, it's not good enough. How do you tell a person that?


  1. First, I'm sorry you are experiencing stressful drama in the midst of all the work you are doing to be able to survive and be in your MFA program. That's no fun. But I commend you for working as hard as you do.

    So what were the pieces in your writing sample? I'd imagine you submitted commercial fiction, right, since that's been your thing? So I'd question why they accepted you if they didn't find that acceptable. They accepted you and the money you are paying to be in the program. This makes me wonder: What's their acceptance rate? Do they just take anyone regardless if they feel the writer's work would be a fit for the program? Is this a cash cow program? I don't know anything about it, so I'm not passing judgment but what you've posted makes me wonder.

    On the other hand, do you read much literary fiction? I think you might have a negative perception of it. I don't read much literary fiction but I get exposure to it by going to my classmates' readings every week. The lit fict. I'm hearing is great, extremely relatable, with real characters who sound like real, young people with issues that I care about. I know, with poetry, once I saw how different poets handled different topics I was able to open my mind to my own possibilities for writing poetry. Maybe you could open your mind a little more to literary fiction. Seriously, there's some good stuff you'd really like and you might be able to blend the things you love about commercial fiction into your stories in a unique way that others without your exposure might not be able to do.

    So are they concerned about your jobs because you aren't keeping up academically? That's the only reason I could see that they would bring it up. Otherwise, I don't know why that would be a concern.

  2. Giant big big ditto to Jonterri's question about your writing sample. That's exactly what I thought. If a school sees potential in a writing sample, that's why they decide to take you on. They assume that they will be able to work with you and help make your already good basis better.

    In addition, it seems a little rash for one professor to start suggesting that you shouldn't even be there, when you haven't even completed your first semester?

    I wonder too if some of this comes down to a personality conflict with one professor. You can't let that bring you down, since you'll never be every teacher's favorite, and even if this prof is an "expert" with a degree, sometimes they don't know everything.

    I understand your frustration and disappointment. I don't think this comes down to what you write, regardless of if it is commercial or literary fiction--or both. It's that you are trying to be forced into writing something else instead of making what you already write better. And that I can sympathize with.

  3. Gosh, that sounds stressful. You sound like you are willing to work with them concerning future writing you do in the program, so maybe that will make it okay for you. I have to agree with the first two posts in that I don't understand how your application materials didn't make it clear who you are and what you want to do in an MFA program. I mean, they accepted you, presumably because they thought they could work with you. I guess I would want to ask them about this.

    In regard to your work life, wow, I could never do it. I wish I had your energy! Theoretically, your work life is your business. I guess I would have to ask them directly if they felt my academic work was suffering. I have to think this is the only reason they would care. I also think missing a lot of class due to work could really annoy a department/professor, especially if they believe it's negatively affecting the cohort (if you're often not there to workshop the writing of your peers.)

    I wouldn't tell them that you expect writing to be fun though. I'm pretty sure that will go over badly. But really, it sounds as though there is a fundamental disconnect between your expectations and those of the department. I hope you keep writing what you want to write though, even if it's outside of workshop. And maybe you will end up finding that there are forms of literary fiction that you like. Just trying to be optimistic for you...

  4. Maybe try reaching out to a second year student to get their advice? You probably don't know/haven't worked with all the professors in the program, so perhaps there's one more sympathetic to your style/goals out there, and a more senior student can clue you in to who to try. Connecting with both the older students and different faculty could turn an annoying situation into an opportunity.

  5. Literary fiction does not equal "big words and flowery sentences."

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I don't know why they accepted you.

  8. this is just sad and disappointing :(
    i feel for you!
    i went through an experience during my first residency (low-res) where someone i was working with said i was being too snarky in my writing and tried to push me towards being their type of poet. i kept going and other profs didn't feel that way.
    i hope you get it worked out! but there are a lot of great programs out there that i bet would be glad to have you!

  9. You're in your first semester at an MFA... you are there to try new things. Try it out, see what happens. Maybe it will give you new perspective on the type of work you hope to do in the long run.

    Think about this: I was talking to a very skilled visual artist (and some of his works were really interesting conceptually, too...) a couple of months ago. He got an MFA from one of the top studio art MFA programs in the country. His adviser/mentor told him he should (or might as well) burn everything he'd made up to that point. He'd have his real breakthrough down the road.

    So, chill out and take in what you can.You're in graduate school to learn, not to be self-defensive.

  10. funnily enough the piece I'm workshopping is the piece my application sample came from.

    And this professor isn't even my workshop professor. I've never missed class (she cancelled the class I was supposed to miss) and I do all my work on time and well.

    The piece I was workshopping was commercial but I am open to writing more serious, literary stories I just haven't gotten there yet. And no one in my program seems to be able to tell me the distinction between literary and commercial except to tell me that it's about how the language is used.

  11. I agree with what many people are saying. Your program shouldn't be telling you what to write. They saw your writing and accepted you, and beyond that? It's YOUR MFA, YOUR money, YOUR time and YOUR words. I think you have to have an open mind to what your classmates and professors tell you, but you have every right to be concerned that they are saying "write this and not that."

    I'm sorry you have to deal with that. I'm hoping that there are some mixed signals involved in this whole thing, because it may be that your profs are just concerned about you and are handling it badly or communication isn't working out. You have a lot on your plate and I can understand why there would be concern, but YOU should be the priority, not what the program "wants" you to be.

  12. so if the professor who is taking issue with your multiple jobs (the one whose class you were supposed to miss, then didn't) is ot even your workshop professor, how can she also take issue with your commercial writing? are you dealing with just one combative teacher or multiples?

  13. I had the same questions/concerns JayTee raised about your writing sample, and about the motivations of the program. Can you talk to the director, or someone other than this professor who's giving you a hard time?

    I am also willing to be the negative one here, and say that this issue with jobs is why the prevailing advice about MFA programs is not to go to a program that won't fund you. If you (not "you, Casey", but the "general MFA applicant you") don't get in to a fully funded program, or don't already have the resources to pay for 2-3 years without working, maybe the universe is telling that general you that it is not the right time to pursue an MFA...

    I know that is not what you want to hear, Casey, and I'm certainly not saying that you shouldn't be in your program, but I feel obligated to put that idea out there for future applicants who might be reading.

    Hang in there, keep writing, talk to the Director, or to other professors or older students. I am sorry you're dealing with all this negativity, but I hope you can get things figured out and start next semester on a much better foot!

  14. Paying for the program isn't the issue - just to play devil's advocate. What person can not work for 2 years? I have a car, I have insurance, .... I'm not understanding what fully funded as to do with life??

  15. I don't have to work for the next 2-3 years(except in the summer) and I have rent, a car payment, car insurance, and a child. Being fully funded means I don't have to work full time and can focus on my writing. I just started working a very low key part time (13 hours/week) job this week, but that's not a necessity.

    Being fully funded doesn't just mean tuition is paid for, it means you are also getting paid a stipend to cover your living expenses. It usually comes with a clause that states you can't work more than 20 hours (if at all). I'm not understanding how you don't understand how being paid by a program could eliminate at least one of your jobs.

  16. I didn't know that fully-funded programs provided housing and a stipend, but really is that enough to live on? Maybe I just can't imagine not working. Work doesn't really detract from my writing. I couldn't spend all my days at a computer it would block my flow. I like the variety working gives me.
    I didn't even know programs that paid you to go existed in this universe that's an interesting idea.

  17. Oh, they don't provide housing, but some of them provide enough to cover rent.

    I'm not picking at you, but are you serious that you weren't aware that there were programs that give you stipends? I know I was shocked to find this out when I did, but luckily I found out before I applied so I (mostly) only applied to schools where I wouldn't have to pay tuition and they would also pay me enough to live on without working a full-time job.

    It's good that working works for you though. I know I needed a fully funded program because my job was soul-wrenching and I just wanted some time to focus on my writing without working so hard.

    If you consider pursuing more graduate studies in the future, definitely look into funded programs...and not just for creative writing.

  18. Casey,

    PHD programs by and large fund all students for at least 4-5 years. This is one reason why a lot of MFA programs (the MFA still being a terminal degree) have been fighting for more comprehensive funding (stipends, teaching, editorial and research positions for students, summer funding etc.). While funding varies from program to program (with the high end being around 20k and the low end floating around 9k per year), students can and do survive on said stipends with or without an additional part-time job (housing is usually up to you, but you can find rooms in shared houses pretty cheaply in almost any city and some universities have fairly reasonable grad housing). Because competition is fierce for jobs related to writing/editing etc. and because there is really no guarantee of any kind of real world employment, finding programs that fully fund is even more important. I can understand not wanting to write 24/7 and having some sort of other outlet, but isn't the whole point of going to an MFA program to immerse yourself in your writing? The skills you have in juggling art and the real world are a great asset, however, part of the gift of MFA programs (and any full-time academic program for that matter) is to escape "the outside world" and devote yourself to your field of study.

  19. So, I started writing a comment about working and the MFA in response to Emily's comment... in particular about how I don't think working vs. non-working is a clear cut argument. It got long and I ended up writing a whole blog post, if anyone cares. :)

  20. You actually might be happier keeping your work life exactly the way it is and simply taking workshops outside of an MFA program -- at least for now. I am not being snarky in any way at all. I am being serious. Previously, you've said that work needs to be your top priority (and it sounds like you really enjoy your work.) Graduate programs want you to make them the top priority. In fact, it's sort of the assumption that you will, excepting, of course, things like illness and family emergencies. I think most writers go into MFA programs with the intention of doing that, even if they have to live in a crappy studio apartment and not eat out very often. (Hell, I do that now.) Obviously, you can't make your program into a fully funded program, but I hope you can find some kind of compromise. Seems like a low-residency program or a program specifically set up for working people in that there are mostly night classes might meet your needs better. It's hard to tell just reading about this over the Internet. I don't think I totally understand. It seems like you were expecting a really different experience than you are having, and that sounds really difficult. I hope you find a solution.

  21. I know a lot of people suggest that someone shouldn’t do an MFA program unless they are fully funded, but that is pretty unrealistic. Yes it’s important to avoid a huge amount of debt, and to allow yourself time to focus on writing, but my guess is that the majority of MFA students in the country DO WORK along with going to school.

    If the choice is between being fully funded or not doing an MFA at all, would it really be better to not pursue something that you love? There is room for both. We can’t all be as fortunate as those fully funded students, there just aren’t enough fully funded programs out there. And for most funded programs there is a teaching requirement, which is very much a job that requires a lot of time, and can take away from your writing. Quite frankly, it bothers me that people seem to be suggesting that as a full time worker I or Casey can’t or shouldn’t be pursuing an MFA at this time. Casey - however you can make this program work for you is up to you, so don’t worry too much about how other people do it.

  22. Chessie,
    It is Casey's program that first suggested she consider leaving. The department has flat out told her they will not accept the type of writing she wanted to pursue. To me, this is the larger issue.(Why did they let her in and, as she says, now refuse to take seriously the sample that got her in in the first place?)

    Their problem with her work life (if I understood her correctly) is that she has to work 50 hours a week and has to miss class directly because of this more often than the department thinks is appropriate. The combination of those things, if it were me, would make me question whether I should either find a different program that won't tell me my work is "unacceptable" and that I work too much or find a non-MFA venue that doesn't have a say in my genre at all and won't give me a hard time about my work schedule. There is a big difference between working fulltime and not missing class and working more than fulltime, needing to miss class to work and expecting a department to be okay about it. That was my point, not that people shouldn't be allowed to work while in school. And my feeling is that we're all just trying to help here. No disrespect to the working folks intended at all.

  23. Well said, Kerry. It's easy for comments to take off from the original intention of the post and I think we have strayed a little. But in Casey's case she is struggling with a work life that is interfering with class time and some issues with genre. And I also think it's important to note that MFA programs do demand a lot of us and work/money issues aside, it probably doesn't suit anyone to stay in an MFA program that isn't helping them to become the writer they want to be. And as far as I can tell this is more of Casey's worry right now.

  24. Whoa whoa now. I have missed ONE class guys. One. Not a lot and my work only conflicted with my classes on that ONE day.

    And work life is not interfering with class AT ALL. My teacher just thinks I work to much. lol.

    And to add even more confusing issues, my actual workshop teacher was SHOCKED that my other professor said this to me about my writing. So it wasn't the department it was one teacher that has been giving me a hard time all semester.

  25. I think a lot of what Casey has said has become very convoluted throughout the course of this post, these debates of what is literary vs. commercial, and the idea of working vs. fully funded programs, but I wanted to clarify one thing in relation to her work.

    As far as I understood, work has NOT interfered in any way with class/workshop. The only time when Casey almost missed class due to a work obligation, the class was canceled due to an unrelated issue.

    If Casey has been attending classes regularly, completing work for classes in a timely manner, etc, I see no reason for any school administrator/department member to question/interfere with her decision to work fulltime to pay for that schooling, unless they plan to offer an alternative means of funding the program (i.e. assitantship/grant, etc).

    This does not seem to be a productive conversation, in the same way I would never expect/appreciate a professor here to question the time I spend completing my duties as a freshman English instructor.

  26. Casey, I happen to have a husband with a very good job (MD) so I can be a full-time student. But that is just luck. When I was an undergrad I worked full-time and I know that it is both hard and sometimes necessary. So people should be supportive of you, and not judgemental. I still think that the literary vs. commercial stuff is a lot of crap. If Charles Dickens was alive today people would accuse him of writing "plot-driven novels;" Kafka of using "pedestrian language;" Poe of writing "genre fiction" (horror, fantasy, detective); Jane Austen work would be called "chick-lit" (with her happy endings, etc.); and Louisa May Alcott of writing "YA." Somebody in another post mentioned Graham Greene. Certainly he was England's greatest 20th Century literary novelist, but many of his books were thrillers and books like The Human Factor or Travels With My Aunt completely blur the line between "literary" and "commercial" fiction. Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing wrote--shudder--Science Fiction series. Casey, your love of the written word is beautiful, and a million times more important than all this academic BS.

  27. Thanks Isabella! I agree that we should be supportive of Casey and others in our community, whether about writing styles or life outside of school, rather than not.

  28. I think we're all being supportive in various ways. The question was if her program was being supportive or not.

  29. I think this is a really good discussion, and I've been following this blog silently for some time now, but I really think inflammatory comments, like the one made by mfaapplicant1 should be removed. It is completely inappropriate, disrespectful and rude. No one would say this to someone's face in real life. Plus, we're all writers here. We all know the power of words. I know it's probably not my place to say all this, but I really like this blog and would hate it to be a place for haters like that.

  30. I hear you Lemon on Rye and I think it's great you spoke up. I took the comment to mean "I don't know why they accepted you" as in "I don't know why they accepted you if they didn't approve of the stuff you were writing" which was basically the same question I had initially and didn't mean any disrespect by it. So I lean towards keeping the comment, but with awareness that it could be seen as inflammatory.

  31. I don't think that we should be censoring comments. If people think a comment is "completely inappropriate, disrespectful and rude" they can ignore it.

  32. Thanks, JT, for your response. Yeah, I respect that, and I like what you all are doing here. Back to carrying on...

  33. Speaking of inflammatory . . . I didn't see anyone give Jennifer's comment much credit. She pointed out the part where Casey says, "I can use big words and flowery sentences I just prefer not to."

    Hon, I'm sorry that your program is being fickle and dismissive. Yet it's really no reason to be dismissive of other people's work. Literary fiction is a great deal more than "big words and flowery sentences." Actually, my greatest struggle in attempting to create true literature is the process of ironing out my affinity for flowery language - I used to read a lot of Victorians and their influence is more heavy than it ought to be. People can write - and I am trying to write - noteworthy, contemporary literary fiction unfettered by bombastic language.

    Please, a little respect.

  34. Obviously, the poster should be able to do whatever she wants, and I applaud her tremendous work ethic. It's really admirable. Should she choose to continue in the program, then no one in that program should try to stop her.

    However, I do hope that she's not paying tuition because I doubt she'll get much out of it. An MFA will not get her a better job, and she doesn't even want to write literary fiction.

    On a final note, if it's 100% true that no one in her program could tell her the difference between commercial and literary fiction, then she MUST quit that program immediately and apply again next year to a different school. Somehow I doubt that no one could tell her the difference between the two. That just boggles my mind.


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