Culture

How to Apply to MFA Programs

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Editor’s Note: Since March, PJ Lifestyle has been highlighting some of the most innovative fiction writers at the recently-launched new media publishing platform Liberty Island, featuring interviews and story excerptsClick here to see our collection of 24 so far. To learn more check out this interview Sarah Hoyt conducted with CEO Adam Bellow: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.” Also see COO David S. Bernstein’s recent essay here in which he defines Liberty Island as, “an imaginative playground where brilliant and creative people can test their ideas without being harassed or threatened by the new breed of ‘community activists’ who police thought and speech in the media.” Also see Bellow’s recent cover story at National Review: “Let Your Right Brain Run Free.” 

1. Who are some of your favorite writers, books, movies, and intellectual influences?

Writers – Herman Melville, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Haruki Murakami

Books – The consistent favorites: Moby-Dick, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, The Secret History, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  I read these five books over and over.  Then there are other beloved titles: Middlemarch, The Romance of the Forest, The Catcher in the Rye, Pnin, Pale Fire, The Sound and the Fury, and too many others to count.

Movies – The Prestige, 3-Iron, The Red Violin

Intellectual Influences – I have not read much philosophy or other such texts.  I spent the majority of my youth studying music, so when I think of great Western achievements of the mind, I think of compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and all their descendents.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have been influenced by specific thinkers, but that I attempt to model my working processes on successful figures.  For instance, I admire Hemingway’s discipline in writing.  He made sure to write at least a certain number of words every day.  I measure my progress by time spent writing; I hold myself to achieving a set number of hours each week.  Similarly, thinking of Marie Curie’s years spent isolating radioactive elements from pitchblende helps me to forge through rejections.

2. How do you describe yourself ideologically?

Center right.  I would be considered a right-wing ideologue in my home state of Massachusetts, but I am probably more of a right-leaning moderate in comparison to the rest of the country.

3. Which thinkers/commentators have influenced you?

I enjoy reading The American Conservative and National Review.  I don’t attribute my influences to any one specific commentator or thinker.  I try to fairly consider points of view that oppose my own, though this is easier said than done.

4.  What are your writing goals?

I hope to publish my first two books within the next six years.

5. Where can people find/follow you online?

I have tried to resist the intrusion of the Internet into daily life, and so sadly I do not have a Twitter or Facebook account.

6. What’s your craziest hobby/pastime/interest?

I spent nine ill-advised years attempting to play the French horn.

Check out Anne Eckart’s “How to Apply to MFA Programs” at Liberty Island. Here’s an excerpt:

At your daily office job, conceal that you’re applying to graduate school. Conceal that you write at all. Your best piece so far–a story in the fashionable present tense, closely mirroring the style of a certain New Yorker-approved writer–happens to be about an arsonist. You can’t imagine your colleagues reading your work and still believing you are sane. Do not consider the fact that this might also apply to readers of MFA applications.

Sign up for a writing workshop, where you will hear the valuable opinions of other writers just like you. In the week before your story is due, sharpen the dialogue in the scene where the arsonist meets his love interest. He finds her loitering around the abandoned mansion he plans to burn next, and discovers she’s an arts-and-crafts geek who wants to salvage old wall paper. Add a few paragraphs to the climax, when he twitches and trembles and finally burns the house down.

At workshop, plaster an awkward smile on your face as the class settles down to eviscerate your story. First, some tepid compliments. Your description of the fire is good. Your description of the protagonist’s fire-setting procedure is worryingly good.

But… The whole story is rather, ah, dramatic. Such things never happen in Raymond Carver stories. You are told to read some Raymond Carver and ponder his glorious subtlety. Talk proceeds to the ending. Half the class loves the current finale, where guy ends up with girl and they live criminally ever after. Half the class hates it. Any woman with a brain in her head would run the other way as soon as she discovers his hobby. All female characters must have brains in their heads, so as not to be misogynist.

At home the next day, flip through ten marked-up copies of your story, feeling overwhelmed by red ink. Decide to work on the ending. Since opinions are equally split, flip a coin. Heads: the characters should break up. Edit the story to reflect this.

Using The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, pick twelve schools and start filling out their application forms online. Prepare an Excel spreadsheet listing the different application materials and deadlines. Email your current workshop leader, a past mentor, and a college professor to ask for recommendations.

Labor over your story for two to three hours each night after work. Improve the description of the decrepit mansion on page three. Evaluate the logistics of how your characters get there. Start drafting a personal statement about how you spend so much time writing, and you’ve been published in a few online journals, and now, rationally, this is all you want to do.

Study for the GRE. On a sample math section–you were a music major, and haven’t done math in over five years–you score 40%. Get a numbers-loving friend to tutor you. Struggle to remember the difference between exponents and fractions. When taking practice tests, try not to think about how you could be spending this time writing.

Continue reading at Liberty Island here.

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image illustration via shutterstock / Gajus