When to Get Your MFA. Or Not. [Part 2]

What I imagined, back then, all of Iowa would look like. Photo credit Justin Sailor

[In last week’s installment, I detailed my undoubtedly flawed if also successful plan to apply to MFA programs. This week, how I made my decision to go, and some advice.]

Connie’s point, that I would just have to get a job once I got out of the program, made me think, but I had instantly understood she was being responsible to me, even as she offered me what I thought of as the chance of a lifetime. And once I got to Iowa and saw how many people there had, like myself, packed up their lives and left, and the various problems–financial, marital, etc., that can occur as a result–did I understand why she offered this caveat.

I had the kind of job I would try to get once I got out, in other words. Did I want to give it up?

To be clear, I was not just surprised to get in, I was shocked. I had applied with a chip on my shoulder, sending a story about a clairvoyant adopted Korean high school student in a coven. He worked with the police to find lost children. The story was filled with explicit gay sex, witchcraft and psychic powers and there was even a scene where he was possessed by a ghost. It was a mash-up homage to many of the books I’d read as a kid, and to my strange high school friends. I expected to be told, No thanks. I had even said to people, “I just want them to know what kind of freak I really am”, and we’d all laugh nervously and I would think, There is no way this freak is going to get in there.

And to that freak, they said, not only yes, but, Yes, and here’s some money. Come if you can.

Why did I do this, or think like this? Well, I didn’t believe people like me got into that program and I was acting out my resentment to the standards I imagined for them–a fairly youthful thing to do, though, this practice of making up answers for other people and then having vituperative reactions to them is an increasingly American mode, no matter your age or profession. And there wasn’t one Korean American openly gay writer I could think of–my Wesleyan professor Kit Reed even said, “If you move quickly, you’ll be the first.” And I now I am.

I was and am making it up as I went along. I don’t have a role model, per se. I am living this life off-menu.

But of course, you have to go because it is right for you, and not for any other reason. I liked my life back then and didn’t want to leave it: I had friends, a serious boyfriend, a shared apartment in Fort Greene I could easily afford, living with a painter and his beautiful pitbull mix dog, who sat at my feet while I typed on my typewriter and was too gentle even to chase the mouse that would sometimes appear near the stove. But the days of sitting and typing with the dog had become pretty few and far between under the weight of a 70hr-a-week job at OUT.

When I listened to my fears about going, they told me I feared vanishing if I went to Iowa. That I would go and my friends would forget me, my boyfriend break up with me (he had not gotten into Iowa), my nascent magazine career blowing in the prairie wind.

But I was tired already of writing to house style–it felt like ventriloquism, not writing. And I had other fears talking to me: I didn’t want to be another gay man in New York with a job he sort of liked in an apartment he sort of liked, waiting for the chance to trade up–living like that seemed like no life at all, but I knew a lot of people like this. Yes, I was doing work I loved and felt strongly about politically, with some excellent people, and startups can feel like an adventure, when they don’t feel like working for too little money and no health insurance. But I wasn’t getting any writing done. And worse, after I got off the phone with Connie, to my surprise, my boss told me I was in line to be promoted, made, perhaps, managing editor in a few months.

A job I would have been terrible at, because back then the last job I wanted was one that involved going around to make sure everyone’s work was done. And yet of course, it would mean prestige, and so it was tempting. Most of the best mistakes are.

I ran into an author friend as I tried out the idea of going. “Iowa?” she said. “Everyone is so competitive there, though.”

I briefly had the image of a group of writers in basketball jerseys. I said nothing. In that instant, I knew I would go. She and I were, after all, standing in New York, where the writers were not known to be the most supportive and congenial group, historically–the town where interns and assistants learned to muffle their tears in swag and eat all the free food in case it was all they could afford to eat, and legends stomped wannabes on their way to breakfast at Veselka. Iowa was offering me a stipend plus tuition waiver and no responsibilities for the first year, with the chance for teaching the second. And while it was less than half of what I was making at OUT, when I thought of having nothing to do but read and wander in my thoughts for a year while being paid to do so, all while taking classes from literary masters (see under: Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Deborah Eisenberg), I wanted to run all the way there from downtown Manhattan immediately.

Deep down past my fears, I knew what I needed was to leave and come back—that any work I wanted to do as a magazine writer was the kind you gave an author. When that editor from Crown had contacted me the year previously to see if I had a novel, I didn’t, and it felt terrible not to be able to pass him a whole book. He wasn’t the first to come looking for me, either. I wanted to have a novel for the next time someone asked. Fortune may favor the bold, but, to paraphrase Edna Mode in The Incredibles, it also favors the prepared.

I called Connie to say yes and gave my notice the next day. And the late Sarah Pettit, my friend and the executive editor at OUT then, said to me, “Go, you lucky bastard, and don’t ever let me catch you in an office job again.”

Here, now, are what I see as the morals of the story.

First Moral of the Story: Show Up.

To get into Iowa, or any other program, or colony, etc., you have to apply.

I know, it’s insane. But so far, telepathy is still in beta testing, and they cannot psychically find you and make you go. It isn’t the X-Men.

As I said, I was confused when I was accepted. I had applied thinking they would reject me. You could think, in other words, that people like me didn’t belong there, but you’d be wrong.

The lesson was, as my friend Emily Barton puts it, “Let them say no.” Don’t say no for them. And as a rule, now, I don’t imagine this or that about this or that opportunity in general. There is no way to predict what will happen. You can think you’re protecting yourself by pre-rejecting yourself on their behalf, but one way you’ll definitely know if you’re wrong is to apply. I remember when I sent my first novel in for the Michener prize, I said, “Well, there’s a waste of 10 bucks”. I was so sure I’d lose—and I had lost, several times before. But I showed up all the same, and that made the difference–that was the year I won. So, show up.

2nd Moral: Be Your Own Freak.

Again, at the time I went to Iowa, I didn’t think it was known for turning out “writers like me”. It wasn’t until I was at the workshop and a friend said to me, I really like how you always write about people who aren’t related, that I understood how, perhaps, my strange little story had stood out in a field of what are called ‘dead grandmother/grandfather’ stories.

But to be clear, the school’s reputation and the reality have always, I think, been at odds.

As the stakes of getting into an MFA program have risen, the strategies people invent to get in become more elaborate, and too often this means you won’t be yourself. If you make yourself over to resemble what you think they want, you’re more likely to be rejected. Take some chances. A lot of being a writer is learning to take risks, and that is one thing that is very hard to teach, and these strategies are even why people argue against getting a MFA–you turn into a politician instead of an artist, if you behave this way. Worse, the committees will make decisions based on something that isn’t you, and you’ll feel doubly humiliated if you compromise yourself and are rejected–and worse, if you do get in having compromised yourself, you’ll believe you have to do that for the rest of your life to succeed, which would be unending misery. If you are true to what you’re working on and where you’re at as a writer, at least you live and die by that instead.

What’s more, I’ve had students ask me if they should apply with gay material, and I always say yes, because I did and it didn’t hold me back. This is a common misconception. But also, would you want to go to a program that rejected you because of gay material? I wouldn’t.

3rd Moral: Don’t Give Up Just Because You Don’t Get In.

You may remember my ex who didn’t get in.

Faculty, when making decisions about the incoming class, are looking at who they can work with. My ex-boyfriend from that time applied again to Iowa the next year, to try to be there with me, and when he didn’t get in, I stopped in to ask Connie Brothers about it, as it had made me sad, for perhaps the obvious reason. She explained that each year, roughly 1000 people apply for 25 spots, and about 150 of them belong there for being talented enough–a clear recipe for heartbreak. The faculty choose the people they feel they can work with, where they read their work and think, ‘I know how to reach that student’.

And that is why you get in anywhere. No one should take a rejection as a verdict on their talent.

I’m not just being nice: My ex was an award-winning writer that year in his own program, ironically my first choice, UA Tucson, where he was studying with Maud Casey. His consolation prize? Studying with Joy Williams at AZ, who I idolize, who used to have a martini for lunch and do target practice with a pistol to mellow out before teaching his workshop. Or so he said (I believe him). Arizona put him forward for the AWP prize that year and he won it. He’s since published two novels, and is on his third. He’s a talented man.

And Deborah Eisenberg, one of my teachers there, had no MFA at all. “I honestly don’t know how you do it,” she said to us before class one day. “I would be terrified.”

The MFA is not for everyone. But more on that in part 3.

[Next week, Part 3: how to know if you’re ready or not, and what to do if you don’t want to go.]


  1. Alex, this is great. I’m going to pass the link along to a student of mine who’s thinking about applying to programs.

    Also, could Joy Williams be any more awesome? I don’t think so.

    1. No, she could not. I still remember being a student at the Bennington Writers’ Workshop the summer of my junior year, and standing in line for the keg behind her. I was in awe, thinking, I am in line for the keg behind Joy Williams…I was pretty jealous of my ex.

      Thanks, Laura, and I’m glad you liked it. And find it helpful.

  2. Tell me, sir, did Iowa help you develop the ability to keep an idiot in suspense? I already have an MFA, but I’ve been waiting — what, 42 months? — for you to post this second part. Good stuff.

    You probably made Laura’s day with the Joy Williams part.

  3. this is beyond the beyond, a great and generous post, Alex, on your decision process and experience. (even though i wonder how it is you even QUESTIONED whether or not to take that Iowa opportunity!!!) 🙂

    but then again, i got waitlisted at NYU, which isn’t as prestigious as Iowa but still more prestigious than the program i did attend, and then got in, & i couldn’t bring myself to leave the bay area…

    1. Thanks. And the reason I questioned is because Connie wisely put it to me that way. After all, as I saw once I got there, it was going to be her office you’d be in, crying, if you felt it wasn’t working out.

  4. there’s a part 3? oh man. i’m already in grad school but so want to hear what you have to say. is part 3 the end? or are we getting a part a week until xmas?

  5. I really connected with the part of this that’s abt operating out of one’s assumptions and expectations of a given institution — either to accommodate or to flaunt them.

    I also related to being surrounded by folks settling for a life they “sort-of” like.

    The ironic bit w/ NYers talking about other folks being competitive made me smile.

    Veselka was one block from an ex’s dorm room… strong personal associations.

    1. I still love going there.

      And thanks. Meanwhile, Tim, I vote you bring Taking Care, by Joy Williams, vis a vis your books for European travel poll, but you could do worse than to bring Written on the Body, Breece D’J Pancake and Joy Williams with you.

      1. …Because Veselka is delicious! I got inordinately excited when they went there in that silly movie, “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist.” The lives of movie teenagers so rarely resemble my own adolescence.

        I should close that poll — I’ve been back from Europe now for twoish weeks. I read the Winterson and the Williams and especially loved the Winterson. I do love the wildly inappropriate things adults say to children in Joy Williams stories. I also read the Rebecca Brown (love), Robert Lopez, Jamie Iredell and somewhat shamefully, “Disco Bloodbath,” James St. James’s memoir abt Michael Alig & the club kids (which was actually really entertaining and written in a distinctive voice).

  6. I love this series. Here I am, very much of a certain age, in the midst of a sea-change of literary ambitions of decades, no MFA: applied straight out of college, got in nowhere, and went ahead with the idea that it might be good to have jobs that weren’t related to writing so that the work itself could develop without economic pressures. So impractical and practical, both. Somebody I really respect just told me my apparently unpublishable fourth novel is “ravishing.” I’ve got my fingers way crossed for a job at a bookstore (changing paths!), and I still have the questions that most commonly come up for people twenty or twenty-five years younger than me about MFAs. It’s fun to get the stories and advice from your adventures.

    1. My fingers are crossed for you, Susan, and I’m rooting for you all the way. So many of us are. It’s hard sometimes when we don’t get what we want, but sometimes we get something we didn’t think to want–which is also perhaps the 4th Moral of this story, for me–I wanted so badly to go to Tucson, which rejected me. And Iowa was, no question, the very best place I could have gone, for me.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful story about ambition, work and creativity. My favorite line is, “I am living this life off-menu.” It can be frightening to follow your dreams, but then what else do we have?

  8. This is terrific stuff. Very generous advice. It also brings back good memories of Connie Brothers! When she called (some years ago now) to tell me that I had been admitted with a fellowship, I fled my office (at the Ag school, where I was working on a project to prevent farm injuries) and paced the campus in disbelief. I visited Iowa City to “check it out” but really to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood, or that they didn’t call me by mistake. Of the many things I learned there, the one memory that always stands out is Frank Conroy telling us over and over that this (writing) was a “dangerous way to live.” Off-menu, indeed.

    1. Lise, she’s a legend. We should have a Connie Brother’s celebration sometime from alums. She did so much to make me at home back then.

      Frank said something I think about a lot: “When you succeed, you celebrate, you stop writing. When you fail, you feel there’s no point, you stop writing. The effect of each is the same. So keep writing.”

  9. Hi Alexander,
    I’m an MFA student at University of Maryland, currently studying with Maud Casey. I passed your wonderful posts along to my workshop because although we’re already in an MFA program, I find it helpful to reexamine (and reaffirm) my big life choices, especially now at the end of the semester, when I’m burned out from teaching and working and doubting my writing ability further by the hour. Like you, I left a good job in New York City, but at the end of the day I couldn’t be happier with my program.
    Jacqueline Orlando

    1. Jacqueline: Thanks. You’re great to pass that along. And I’m glad it was helpful in that respect.

      Also, I love Maud. She’s awesome. I had a lot of fun with her at Bread Loaf this last summer.

  10. Everything you’ve written about the third moral is terrifically reassuring.

    What exactly is a (fictional) “dead grandmother/grandfather story”? The Google search I did proved insufficient.

    1. Emily, that phrase was, at the time, code among the TWFs (Teaching Writing Fellows), who read the incoming application manuscripts, for a thinly veiled autobiographical story about the death of an older relative. Most are not original, and the observations are relentlessly the same, as are the situations, but of course, one must still write about these things if one is driven to.

      Most beginning writers write about this because especially for many under 25, the death of a grandparent is one of the most dramatic things you can remember. It’s an argument for going out into the world and seeing some of it before applying for the MFA.

      1. Thanks 🙂 Love the post btw. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this series. Part that hit home for me was — get published/write part-time for several years before applying. Freaky but true — MFAs shouldn’t be just a (temporary) exit plan from a bad job!

  11. I really appreciate getting to read this, comparing it to my own experience and thinking about the whole endeavor more holistically. Thanks! Looking forward to the next installment.

  12. Hi Alexander,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This sort of really opened my eyes. Especially when you talked about hanging out in places where you could meet other writers, other people who’ll make you feel that doing It isn’t as lonely as it should be. I think that it’s one of the things that Asian-American writers can really benefit from: reaching out energetically to peers. I’m gay and Filipino (sounds like a double whammy), freelancing and broke, but this series offered hope – and really useful advice.

    Looking forward to Part 3!

    1. Migs: Take a page from James Baldwin’s book and think of your status as a double-blessing instead. Because, as Baldwin put it, you have to know twice, three times as much as someone who isn’t either of those things.

      Members of the dominant culture don’t have to know how it is for other people, but the rest of us have no choice but to know how they live–so much of the culture is about them–as well as what we know of our own lives. He saw this as being the source of his power as an outside observer to the culture, and I think he was right. History and posterity, moreover, agree, for now, and they rarely do.

  13. Your post addressed every one of my concerns in a wonderfully clear and positive tone, and brought immense clarification; I must apply! As you mention, I cannot let programs say no for me. I had my doubts, but I lose nothing by applying! (Well, some time and some money, but the amount is minimal when my future is at stake.) I can always say no! I don’t consider not showing up an option in other parts of my life, and I realize this is no different.

    I’m so grateful for your 2nd moral. I too feel that my writing may be considered not that of a typical MFA candidate and was impressed and encouraged by the contents of your writing sample! Thank you for sharing your application process. I am also relieved to hear that contrary to my beliefs, MFA programs do acknowledge and encourage individuality.

    It was great to hear you read at Greenlight, and look at what has become of that exposure! Enlightenment! I posted a link to your blog on the MFA Handbook blog. I think this post will clarify many of those readers’ concerns, just as it has clarified mine, while being extremely optimistic and supportive.

    Thanks again!

    1. Victoria, you’re great. Thanks. I wanted to address your question in particular as it’s hard for many Asian Americans to commit to careers in the arts, writing especially, due to family pressure to commit to high-status careers with high salaries. I was very fortunate–my late grandfather Chee only laughed when I told him I’d be a writer. You’ll be happy, he said. But very poor.

      He didn’t, for example, order me to be a doctor instead. Which has happened to many Korean American students of mine.

      Anyway, I wish you luck, and it was nice to meet you also. Keep that excitement, too.

      1. Ha, to this day my parents ask me when I’ll apply to med school or law school. For some reason, my undergraduate degree in film never convinced them that my path strays far from the traditional Korean’s!

        I’ll be in touch when I apply. I’m looking at schools that provide funding too. Perhaps this is already answered in another post, but what is UMass Amherst’s program like?

    1. Victoria: Amherst College has no MFA program, but U Mass Amherst remains one of the country’s best. It is 3 years instead of 2, and has more of an intellectual focus than some. And Chris Bachelder, Sabina Murray and Noy Holland, the fiction faculty there, are all wonderful. The reading series is great as well. If I were applying this year, I’d definitely have them on my list.

  14. Wow. As someone who finally decided to give it a whirl, I find this information extremely useful. I fear rejection the way some people fear clowns. Thank you for your encouragement.

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