Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Best MFA Program in Creative Writing

[Update: After my 2009 experience applying to Michener and other top MFA programs, and coping with my subsequent acceptance to none, I am geared up to make a second go of it.  Wish me luck!]

For the last two years I've seriously considered pursuing an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing. If I my novel ends up not getting published, returning to school to sharpen my skills would hopefully improve my chances second time around. Moreover, the supportive environment and imposed structure may be what I need to pick myself up and take a second swing, as this has been a taxing experience.

And if I do publish my novel, I may go for the MFA anyway, because even though I'm not finished I'm absolutely ready for something new --- a new project, a new location, new learning experiences, new people. And there will be much to gain by increasing the amount of feedback I get from other serious writers.

At the very least, it would be nice if the second phase of my writing career weren't quite so solitary.

What I know of MFA programs I've garnered from two sources. The first is Tom Kealy's The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, which as far as I can tell is the most focused and comprehensive source out there (especially in conjunction with his blog). Second is this more digestible list from the Atlantic Monthly*.

After poring over these I found myself gravitating most toward the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin. Inevitably I came to idealize it, which is inconvenient since, ya know, these programs are pretty hard to get into. Practicality aside though, the Michener Center is highly reputed, which is the most obvious reason to put it near the top of my list. But there are three additional factors that make the Michener Center my favorite:

1) It's the best-funded program out there. Many MFA programs pay full tuition for students, and some even pay a stipend with no or minimal teaching requirements. The Michener Center pays a 25,000 dollar per year stipend for three years, no teaching requirement, and allows you to apply for an additional 2,000 dollars for "professional development." You get paid living wages to write and to learn to write. Am I dreaming?

2) I like its multi-genre emphasis, such that students must choose a primary and a secondary focus among the four areas of fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting.

3) I've yet to hear a bad word uttered about Austin, Texas. All reports I get from those who lived there are that Austin is fun, young, cultured... I hear it's even warm.

Since deciding the Michener Center is my top choice, I've lately found a fourth reason to go there, which is that James A. Michener, reputed author and founder of the program, is my new nemesis. If I'm to complete the prophecy, bring balance to the force, and prove that I am the chosen one, I must descend upon this writers' Mecca to challenge and defeat his legacy. The prophets have spoken. I shall journey to Austin and face my destiny.

If I feel like it, that is.

*I also recommend this associated article. It contains provocative thoughts from BU's MFA program director Leslie Epstein, like his theory that a novelist must have a semi-concrete notion of an ending in mind (which I agree with) and his scorn for the ellipsis (which I think is a little harsh).


Amanda said...

Are you qualified? Do you have the prerequisite "things" on your CV? You do? Well I suggest you get you gone to Texas!

I'm a great believer in fate and things being so for a reason. Go for it. If you don't you'll wish you had.

Braver said...

Lol, I hope you applied a month ago when the deadline was. I applied too, for similar reason to yours. They only accept, like, three fiction writers a year. I hope I see you there... and we can unite to bring down the archenemy

jim cooney said...

Nope I definitely won't be going anywhere for another year or two at least. I could see possibly applying next year, but we'll see.

I'm so excited to have caught the attention of some one who's applied! Who are you Braver? Do you know whenabouts you'll get an answer from them? I'm rooting for you!

Braver said...

Heyo, I'm a senior at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Sadly, I'm a chemistry major, but I don't know if that will help or hurt my chances. Wow, I hope to hear back soon. Something tells me that the sooner I hear back, the more likely they have chosen me... or, maybe the longer I wait the higher I advance through their screening process. Then again, the longer I don't hear back, the more likely it is that I messed up my application. Regardless, I'm waiting.

jim cooney said...

Soon or late, in any event please keep me posted, Braver. I'm rooting for you!

Adrienne F said...

Don't go to Texas! How will you ever be able to write creatively with all that sun and Southernly good will? Boston, if nothing else, fuels misery and, hence, creative drive. Who wants to write when they're happy??

Braver said...


Dominique said...

I'm finishing my under grads at St. Ed's in Austin next December. My poetry teacher went to the Michner Center and she loved it. Austin's okay, I guess. I think for grad school, the culture around me is just as important as the prestige of the school though. But, if I got accepted, I'd totally go (best funding :D).

Dominique said...

Oops! *Michener

Anonymous said...

How have you learned to accept failing to live up to your destiny?

I am trying to do that myself and can't seem to get out of feeling like my life is worthless.

Ink and Beans said...

An oversimplified response:

1) I find strength among my peers who are doing the same. The first year I applied, and was rejected across the board, I marveled at how many others shared my fate yet resolved, on the spot, to work hard and apply again the following year. It inspired me to do the same.

In fact, one of my incoming classmates applied to MFA programs three years in a row before she finally got in. I'm in awe of her resolve.

2) Come up with a game plan to improve your chances for the following year, but more importantly, to rebuild your self-esteem and feel empowered again. I wrote a blog entry about my plan, and I think it worked out pretty well (in both respects).

Best of luck. I know the feelings of worthlessness very well. Just remember, they're only feelings, and they will pass.