Saturday 4 February
Why Aren’t I Online More? (With boldface passages for easy skimming!)

Filed under Endorsements


  1. Public U.S. life now has become one of resistance to the federal government’s continually terrible and dangerous policies, and the most convenient and quickly satisfying arena in which to work out this resistance is social media.
  2. Social media is a lousy and terrible arena for activism and argument. This is for at least two reasons:
    1. Posts tend toward brevity (esp. on Twitter or in the 600×600 pixel box of Instagram) and few issues regarding national politics benefit from being discussed in brief, which is what cable news taught those of us who were paying attention.
    2. Posts come engineered with the possibility of like- and share-rewards, which reward us not on the content of the post so much as the feeling it rustles up in the post’s viewer, and as such we learn to write posts less with our messy thoughts and feelings in mind and more in terms of how the post will play out to our followers.
  3. I get enough information on what is happening and how to resist from the news I read, and I haven’t been convinced that I need this information sooner or more rapidly than I want it.

But I miss it. I miss the Twitter I came to love in Obama’s second term. I miss irrelevant Twitter, and I miss having a place where irrelevance could be given free rein. I get that times are different now, but I reject, I think, the idea that different times call for unilaterally different behavior.

I, too, am worried and insecure about the future, and about the future’s total unforeseeability. I acknowledge that I am the source of these feelings, that they’re mine. Therefore, I’m in charge of deciding whether and how to act on them. The worry I’ve had is that by being irrelevant and silly on social media I would appear irresponsible and ignorant, a kind of head-in-the-sand apologist/Pollyanna. But I’m not in charge of how I’m read, I’m in charge of how I am.

In short: if now’s not the time for jokes then when ever is?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-02-04  ::  dave

Monday 23 January
I Got My Picture Taken

Filed under Live Blogging

I’m leaving MacDowell soon after four weeks here, and one of the many generous things they offer you is a photo shoot. During mine, the photographer had me pretend to be working. Here is what I typed:

New project. She’s taking my picture. I keep laughing. Can’t imagine I’m looking good. Telling bad stories. My waddle must be shitty, too. Never know wheter to close my mouth or not. Or keep it open. So I don’t know what else to do much here alos. My eyes, too. Stern brow? Gentle look of curiosity? Look right at the camera? Or here at my laptop screen? I guess here and not at her. Here. How’s my posture? Hopefully it’s beeter this way. Proud chest

For the record, my waddle in the pics was shitty.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-01-23  ::  dave

Monday 26 December
Here I Am Bragging About My Teaching

Filed under teaching

Did my semiannual review of my students’ course evaluations this morning, which at my school are complex and quantitative and—if you’re the sort of person who sees your score and then sees your school’s average score and maniacally compares them free of any context, even if the thing scored doesn’t apply in any way to your subject—unhelpful. Sometimes, but rarely, do students write in qualitative comments. For one course, one student did. Here’s part of what they said:

His feedback is so helpful for students needing to make revisions to their written work. In rare instances when perhaps the dialogue exchange isn’t helpful, he hears himself not being helpful and fixes it.

Reading that was one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher.

One of the last things people who know or are partnered/related to me would commend me for is my communication skills, but early on in my teaching — especially when I started teaching nonfiction — I realized that listening to what students want to do with their writing is more important than what I think they should do. Being clear about the difference, being clear about how what I think they should try to do stems from what I hear they want to do, is always a challenge. It’s one of the hardest parts of teaching artists how to grow.

So here I am bragging about my teaching, but with the greater point of pointing out something all writing teachers should be working toward.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-12-26  ::  dave

Thursday 8 December
The End of Anti-Intellectualism

Filed under NF

Here’s something I found today in my notebook:

Anti-Intellectualism has always been a part of America, and no one’s done a more patriotic job of carrying that banner than its creative writers. We’re told, in craft books and MFA classes, to “write down the bones,” whatever that is. Maybe this is because people who feel things very easily are the people who most often become writers, but I’ve never been such a person. Feeling an emotion is as difficult for me as finding the derivative of a function by using the definition of a derivative, or swimming a swimmer’s mile—I can do it only after a lot of concentration and effort. But ideas come at me in flashes ten times a second, it feels like. Going through CW school I was taught to treat all this as a kind of noise I had to fight through or silence to get at something truer, as though the fire that lit up my brain was the wrong kind of fire, something showy and inauthentic.

What was it I was feeling?

The passage is labeled “excerpt for Ackerley blog post” but I’ve long since forgotten what post I must have been planning. I re-read, for class, J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself the other week. You can read my thoughts on it here. In sum: Ackerley’s book is great because it performs the act of thinking more explicitly on the page than any memoir I’ve read, and to me the art of memoir lies never in the events recalled but in the process/method/textures of the recall itself. Here’s how I put it specifically:

The book swims forward and backward in time in order to work all this stuff out, and in doing so it’s rarely scene-y. It’s thinky. It’s also a masterpiece. I was stunned by the book. I thought, I’ll never be this smart to put such a book together.

That emphasis is in the original, but I’ll repeat it here: I’ll never be this smart to put such a book together. I want in this post to talk about where smarts fit in with writing.

Sometimes I look at the world of “creative writing” the way I look at my own country. How did I end up here? When will I fit in? This goes doubly for the genre I write most: nonfiction. Searching Twitter for smart memoir, the most recent tweet was back on Nov 19. Shrewd memoir goes all the way back to Oct 29.

But Heartbreaking memoir? Dec 4. Sad memoir? Dec 5. Beautiful memoir, moving memoir, and haunting memoir were all used in the past two days. Brave memoir? Seven hours ago.

When we talk about the hallmark of the genre we use emotional terms, even though the only job of the memoir is to remember.

There is a general confusion about where the art of memoir lies, one best captured by John D’Agata:

If one were to examine recent high-profile nonfiction book reviews … one might venture to argue … that the reception of nonfiction literature is also often focused on the books’ autobiographical facts—the illness, the incest, the poverty, the depression, the rape, the heartbreak, the screwing of the family dog—rather than on the strategies employed to dramatize those facts, rather than on the “how” of their tellings, instead of only their “who,” only their “what,” only their “where,” their “when,” their “why.” Only their facts.

Dave Eggers’s writing in his popular memoir about the conviction with which he raised his younger brother after the deaths of their parents, for example, was described by The Toronto Star in 2000 as having “gorgeous conviction.” Mary Karr’s writing in her memoir about growing up in the rough east Texas town of Leechfield among the tough-minded family and friends who raised her was described in The Nation in 1997 as “rough and tough.” Frank McCourt’s writing in his memoir about the searing conditions of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, was described in the Detroit Free Press in 1995 as “searing.” In fact, nearly every review describing Frank McCourt’s writing seemed to insist on linking the qualities of the prose directly to the condition of the author’s childhood, as in, for example, The Clarion Ledger’s review—“Frank McCourt has seen hell, but found angels in his heart”—or USA Today’s review—“McCourt has an astonishing gift for remembering the details of his dreary childhood”—or The Boston Globe’s review—“A story so immediate, so gripping in its daily despairs, stolen smokes, and blessed humor, that you want to thank God that young Frankie McCourt survived it so he could write the book.”

I think people read to feel things they might otherwise not. Or to feel that their feelings aren’t strange. I’ve never read this way, but for years I’ve been trying to write this way.

I’ve got this residency coming up in January. Four weeks in a cabin in New Hampshire to write whatever I want to. I don’t yet know what I’ll work on, but regardless of what it is I know I have a job to do—shut up the voice in my head that says I’m being too smart here. That says I’m thinking and not feeling. That says my writing is no good because it won’t be called “brave” or “haunting”.

I’m committed to the idea that there’s a form of artistic bravery and risk that’s not tied to confessing, or evoking in the reader sympathetic emotions. I have to be, because otherwise my work doesn’t succeed not because of what I’ve done but because of who I am. And that’s too scary a possibility to consider.

UPDATE: The news that OUP chose post-truth (“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”) as 2016’s word of the year helps me read the above as a kind of cri de coeur. Stop trusting your emotions, folks. They’ll never not betray you.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-12-08  ::  dave

Saturday 19 November
On It Probably Being Time Once Again to Disable Social Media Accounts

Filed under Endorsements

I, along with dozens of online thinkpiece writers, feel that Facebook and Twitter helped sway the election for the worse. Trump trolled the U.S into voting for him, realizing early on that the presidency could be had for a lot cheaper than folks in the past had spent on TV ads. All he needed was to be loud and passionate. When the experience you focus on hourly unfolds before you as mute text in the same font, noise becomes very attractive, even as it’s repellant.

The 2016 election was the most emotionally charged, intellectually bankrupt election I lived through. Emotional charge + intellectual bankruptcy is what gets you mad likes/retweets.

Twitter isn’t any one thing. Everyone builds the Twitter they deserve by following whom they choose to follow. The problem for me is that I don’t know what kind of Twitter to build where reading it will expand my understanding of, or wonder at, the world. These days all Twitter does is make the world feel flatter and less colorful.

It’s a shame. I’ve always preferred it over Facebook because of how I felt the 140-character constraint challenged us to be interesting in fewer words. Also, following is a much less loaded activity than “friending”—kudos to s/he who has the strength on FB to unfriend their actual friends. For people on FB, it must feel weird to be friends in real life and not on FB. But then again the people I’m friends with in real life are different on Facebook. On Facebook, I don’t want to be friends with anyone.

So now I’m torn between using social media as a broadcast medium for these blog posts and other news, and leaving it all in full. I did this once, in 2012. I left Facebook after being an early adopter (back when one had to have an .edu address to join). People were confused and some people were mad. For years after most people assumed I’d unfriended them and blocked or hid in some way. People assumed I did this silent, cruel, passive-aggressive thing. That I had just disabled my account wholly seemed unfathomable.[&]

What’s great is that right as Twitter has become almost intolerable—today everyone feels impelled to share the same opinion about the VP-elect’s reception at a Broadway musical—it’s also tripled the number of promoted ads I now have to see, all of them autoplay videos. What’s the draw? How would I sell Twitter to a non-user?

It’s an app/website where people share hasty opinions in one or two sentences, without nuance, between flashy vid clips for Hollywood retreads and junk food items. Also a lot of reactions to the nonsense tweets of celebrities and slow-witted politicians.

“Having an opinion is so boring,” one of my closest (real life) friends once told me. He’s in many ways a role model for me, and today he’s in the hospital, and I’m worried about his health. It’s one of the wisest things I’ve ever been told. To me, imagination trumps opinion every time. And nothing kills my imagination like logging on.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Though I killed my personal profile, I forgot that I’d made a profile for Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy, to promote The Authentic Animal. This is how I’ve since been a lurker and then, with a new book to promote this summer, a revived intermittent user.

2 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-11-19  ::  dave

Tuesday 15 November
I can’t Sleep

Filed under music

talking-heads-remain-in-light-1980Chalk it up to a number of things. Election results. Flying to the east coast the weekend Daylight Savings Time ended. A court date yesterday N & I spent a very long time preparing for. I fell asleep (maybe? never clear whether I was out or just trying to be) past 1:30 last night and woke up for no good reason at 4:00. Around 5:30 I got out of bed and went to read on the couch.

Right now it’s 8:15.

These days I’m reading a biography of Talking Heads. David Byrne has been a hero of mine at least as far back as my senior year of high school, when I wrote about him and Warhol and Picasso in a college application essay. The movie he directed, True Stories, and the overall embrace of pop culture that it and his music presented which somehow also made room for critiquing it,[x] is what helped me see DeLillo’s White Noise as a feeble thing written with the critical acumen of a dull pencil when assigned it in graduate school.

Talking Heads’ story is a sad one about three art school friends, two of whom get married after the third serially ditches them for collaborators he’s more excited by. Where I am in the book is they just put out Remain in Light, which is both their most collaboratively created record and the one (if their biographer is to be believed) with the skeeviest denial of credit-giving. Tina and Chris did the cover up at MIT, but all the credit went to the design firm that laid out the liner notes. After agreeing on a “Songs by” credit with all four members + Eno in alphabetical order, the first pressing said, “All songs by David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Talking Heads.” Even, you can see up there, their faces are masked.

It’s not my favorite of their records,[y] but it’s the one I’ve been listening to the most these days. I don’t have a point in this post. I just need to wake up to get my day started. I need to read students’ thesis work closely enough to understand what it’s trying to do and come up with constructive tips for revision. This is a kind of collaborative work.

I have periodically in the past collaborated with writers and artists. The Cupboard was created with the idea of being an anonymous collaborating collective, but that iteration never took off. What I like about collaboration is making something that’s mine and yet new to me, that’s something I wouldn’t’ve been able to make, stuck as I am in my own brain.

It is, though, a vulnerable place to put myself in. To have another person negate a thing I added in the pursuit of creation is scary, and when it happens it hurts and makes me feel stupider than I am. I imagine it’s like co-parenting a child. Maybe collaboration is a way to grow up.

I’m led, in the Heads biography, to sympathize with Tina Weymouth, who seemed only to want to make art with her friends for the rest of her life. Is it a form of arrested development? There’s a tie between collaboration and open relationships I could make if I were better rested.

Right now “Listening Wind” is about to end. Byrne is singing about the wind in his heart and the dust in his head. Once again he’s saying it better than I can.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “I discovered that it’s more fun to like things, that you can kind of like things and still be gently critical, without blind acceptance,” Byrne told Time in 86.
  2. That would be More Songs About Buildings and Food.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-11-15  ::  dave

Monday 14 November
Whiteness and Gayness and Americanness

Filed under queers

This week I’ve thought about my country the way I’ve imagined people with abusive or deadbeat parents think about their abusive or deadbeat parents. (I mostly know such people from bad movies.) No matter who they are or what they do, the parent will continually let them down. The parent has too long a history of putting their own needs before the child’s. The parent has never really been there for the child. Eventually, the child gives up on the parent.

The question then is to what extent I give up on my country.

Then I remember that only 27 percent of eligible voters chose the president-elect last week. That’s 18 percent of the total population. When I say “America” or “Americans”—when I look around and wonder whom to feel betrayed by—I almost never know what I mean.

But this week, of all the things I am, I’m most ashamed of being an American.

Reading Nell Irvin Painter’s NY Times op-ed this morning made me turn to whiteness. “Who defines American whiteness right now?” Painter asks. “How will white people who didn’t support Mr. Trump in 2016 construe their identity as white people when Trumpists, including white nationalists, Nazis, Klansmen and [Breitbart News], have posted the markers?”

I’ll be damned if I’m going to let myself get lumped in with those fucks. But I don’t have an answer to Painter’s question of how to construe my identity, how to publicly and visibly be read as the sort of white man who would never want himself represented by the president-elect. Who would never see his race as something noble and pure, something he needed to protect.

I used to roll my eyes at the A in LGBTQIA. Unless you’ve been hated for who you want to fuck, don’t horn in on our acronym. But I’ve changed. One path I can see through the miasma of race and history I’m lead through when I consider my fearful brethren and white shame ends at being, and maybe identifying, as a capital-A Ally.

It’s not horning in on someone else’s struggle, it’s showing solidarity with that struggle. When you love people different from you and see them being hated, hurt, and killed, wouldn’t you want to do something? I want to do something. For me, the days of criticizing others acting out of love might be over. Thanks, Trump.

Ally thoughts have led me to queer rainbow thoughts. Specifically these:

  • I am, for the first time, worried about spending the holidays in South Dakota this year.
  • I no longer want to pass as straight.

The problem with the former is one Neal and I have talked about and will face together, surrounded there by his family which is full of people whom I know love us. The problem with the latter is that I don’t know what to do.

I never had the conscious goal to pass as straight (when it happens, that is; God knows I’m no Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor). It’s mostly a factor of straight folks’ naivëte. Or how shabbily I dress. I was also maybe afraid to be different. Now what I feel most is the need for solidarity among the majority of us who did not want this man in charge, and I want this solidarity to be visible.

I want that 18 percent’s face slapped with my gayness. I want to wear pink T-shirts with all-caps messages on them. Or hold Neal’s hand more often in public. Or tattoo BUTTSLUT across my knuckles. Of course, I run into an immediate problem: What does “look more gay” even mean? Aren’t I engaged in the struggle to enlarge the common conception of what “a gay man” looks like?

As soon as I “look gay” to someone who doesn’t know me, I enforce something false at best (I dress the way I am) and homophobic at worst. Other than sucking dick in public, there might be nothing I can do. Is this a kind of victory?

Maggie Nelson read at USF last week, and she kindly signed my copy of The Argonauts. “I want to give you some seeds,” she said, slipping inside the front cover a packet with morning glories on the front. I thought it was a quirky gesture until I got home and read the printed message she’d taped to the front. Maybe you’ve seen it passed around online these days, but it was the first I’d heard it:

They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.

2 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-11-14  ::  dave

Thursday 10 November
Why I Write

Filed under teaching

I had to teach a class the morning after election day, and knowing my students and myself I knew it wouldn’t work to discuss “Consider the Lobster” and talk about the uses of research in nonfiction. So I went to church in the morning to pray over what to do and I was reminded of George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” (PDF), and I thought, let’s talk about that.

I read it aloud and we talked about it. We talked about the election. We talked about the role of the writer in society. We talked about the role of the writer in the self. I asked students to write essays titled “Why I Write” and said that the only way to do this wrong is to be false about it. If you write to get revenge, write about that. If you write to explore erotic fantasies about your junior-high classmates, write about that.

I said, “And think right now. Why do you write right now? It’s not a contract you need to hold yourself to.”

I invited them to share the essays with me. A couple actually did. Here’s the one I wrote:

Why I Write

I am sitting in the chair I sit in in my living room and Neal is around the edge of the wall in the kitchen area and I have an idea for dinner. We should, I think, make frozen Chinese food. Neal, though, may have his own idea for dinner and it may be better than my idea for dinner. So I think that I should ask whether he has any ideas for dinner. I say it in my head: Do you have any ideas for dinner? I wait patiently until he comes back into the living room.

“Drrvnideusdurn?” I say, my tongue a slug in my dumb mouth.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Doyouhaveanyideasfordinner?” I repeat.


Once, in an election year summer, I was on a porch with a man telling me that my generation was going to bring about the end of the American Democratic Project. He and I were born within a decade of each other. I was trying to say that I wanted to vote for the candidate who inspired me the most, but he was telling me I had only one choice and that was to vote against the candidate he feared the most. He has, I think, been made afraid by messages and images he sees on TV and the Internet. I say instead, “You’re, like, bullying me,” and I leave the porch.


Sometimes, certain words strung in a certain order have a kind of beauty to them. Here’s one I discovered and chewed over in my head for a while just last week: Help me not to feel that people feel that way about me. There is a feeling there, and an idea about the self and how the self is seen and maybe created by others, that I hadn’t known or understood until the words came to me in a rough but interesting order and I reshaped them into that sentence. The process of doing this is what I think of when I hear the word “writing.” Writing isn’t just the record of thinking it is the mechanism through which I think, and what I have found over the last decade of doing it is that aesthetics—say, the careful attention paid to words’ sounds and effects—can lead me to new truths.

This is ancient, this idea. It is at least Keatsianly ancient: beauty is truth and truth beauty. It has the pleasingness of facts and folk wisdoms and what I’ve for a long time erroneously called “universal truth”, but it is only partially true, and at times dangerously untrue. There are many strings of certain words in certain orders that have a beauty to them on their own, but the problem with words is that they signify, and some beautiful words create lies, or obfuscate truths.

A not nefarious example: once, I heard on the radio a eulogistic essay for a newly dead coach. The man reading it was a longtime sportswriter. It ended with the line, “People talk about someone being a gentleman and a scholar. Well, he was a gentleman and a coach.” It had, I could hear, the sound and feel of a beautiful ending, but it said, in the end, nothing. The sportswriter let his beautiful language take over and get in the way of my understanding his subject.


Some beautiful words tell truths and some beautiful words tell lies. Why I write is to know the difference, and to use that difference to be understood. I speak and no one listens. I write it down and people know it to be true. That’s Rene Ricard. Replace “know” in his second sentence with “feel” and I begin to get a sense of why I write.

3 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-11-10  ::  dave

Wednesday 2 November
Why I Voted for Hillary Clinton

Filed under Announcements

The long and short of it: I didn’t want to feel more alone.

For much of my life I had desires about who I wanted to touch and see naked that nothing in the culture around me supported or made me feel good about. I was gay, in other words, and while I didn’t grow up around homophobes I grew up adjacent to enough homophobes to know that what I desired made me worrisomely different from people. It kept me out of what I saw as the community. One of the more courageous things I’ve done was decide to leave that community and find another where I could feel happy being who I am.

I’m in a place where I might need to find another new community, but I’m afraid of leaving behind the one I’ve spent my life among.

You might argue with me how political orientations aren’t the same as sexual, that the latter are fixed by biology more than the former, but I can point you to studies that argue the opposite. Regardless of which of us is right, this is how 2015/2016 has felt for me: like being in the closet again. When I’ve told people that I was voting for a third-party candidate—maybe Jill Stein, probably Gloria La Riva—I’ve been met with bemused condescension at best and verbal shaming and belittling at worst.

2016’s biggest lesson: people on the left are just as intolerant as people on the right. There are shitty, hate-filled people voting alongside me this year.

People have called what I’ve wanted to do “protest voting” or “throwing my vote away.” That has felt at times like hearing I’m “going through a phase” or that “maybe I’m just not good at bedding women.” I’ve found very few people willing to listen to where I am and how I’ve come to my decision, that when I look at the Socialist Party’s platform I agree with every single point, and when I imagine working to make such a future possible I’m filled with hope and happiness.

But when I was finishing my ballot—five pages long, front and back, full of local and state-wide referenda I researched one-by-one—I had one more decision to make. I had to choose someone for president, and after days of putting the decision off I chose the person everyone else I know in my life is choosing. I chose, this time, to stay in the community.

Or maybe “stay” isn’t the right verb. I didn’t leave my community when I came out, I just clarified my position within that community. That’s why I’m glad, I think, to have voted for Clinton: I can do the political work I see making me happy and fulfilled within the very community (i.e. the Democratic Party) I see as problematic.

Also, I’m happy to be part of the public that put the first woman in the White House. This morning, in church, I found myself thinking about 2024. (I know, yikes.) In 2024, the 18-year-olds who will be voting for the first time will only know a U.S. that’s been led by a man of color and a woman. White men running the country will seem quaint, maybe old fashioned. I don’t think white men are per se a problem, but I’m keeping those 18-year-olds, the world they might help bring about, in mind on election day.

We’ll keep doing things as a country that give me shame. We’ll keep killing civilians in drone attacks. We’ll keep protecting corporate profits at the cost of public health and financial security. We’ll keep ignoring environmental destruction and putting guns in the hands of anyone who wants them. I know that if I want things to be different I have to work outside the election booth to get it done. I hope some of you in my life will join me.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-11-02  ::  dave

Thursday 27 October
How Not to Write a Statement of Purpose for MFA School

Filed under Uncategorized

caveat 1.
I’m one person with strong ideas, so read all of the below with as much skepticism as helps. Also: nothing in here can guarantee you’ll get into the MFA program of your choice. Your writing sample is going to do the major lifting there.

But I’ve been reading MFA applications for five years now at two very different programs, and as a person with strong ideas I see the same misfires come up enough that I thought I might write this guide to help. It’s a weird thing to write, an SOP, particularly when your purpose for MFA school seems ignoble. You’re out of options. You’re afraid of office environments. You’re sick of the town you live in. You’re tired of just reading books but have no idea how to write them, and you trust higher education so much that you want to run back there to learn how.

Those were pretty much my purposes. They tell you why I wanted to go to grad school, but they don’t tell you what I planned to do there, which is one of the things I’m looking for when I read SOPs.

what I’m looking for.
I want to know how we’re going to work together. The best SOPs give me a sense of what kind of student the applicant will be in and out of the classroom. It tells me what the work alone can’t. I’ve found this comes down to two data points I always want in an SOP but rarely get:

  1. A sense of the applicant’s plan for how they’re going to spend their time here.
  2. Some evidence the applicant is thinking critically about their own work.

your plan.
So many applicants treat the SOP as a kind of defense: explain to readers why they are most deserving of admission. Or even crazier: why they desire it more than any other applicant. You are not in competition with other applicants. (Not in this way, at least.) So, never begin with a story about how you’ve always wanted to write, or were born a writer, or a reader, how at a young age you wrote poems or novels or read the backs of cereal boxes. I just don’t care about it. And why I don’t care is that I’ve never been shown how a lifelong love for writing translates to success in graduate work. The logic of it seems wrong. People come to our program having discovered writing very late in life, with maybe two years of experience behind them, and they succeed as incredibly hard-working students who improve dramatically in two years and go off to write the rest of their lives. Are they for some reason less deserving of admission because they didn’t write their first illustrated novel at age eight?

I was one of them. I came to my grad program after just like a year or two of thinking I wanted to try to be a writer. So maybe I’m reacting personally here, but even if I am, the truth of SOPs is that 75 percent of them begin with some story on how the applicant has been writing since they were little. Maybe even 80 percent. And if there’s one thing you shouldn’t do in an SOP, it’s something that everyone else is also doing. The SOP is just as much a place to stand out as the sample is (though see “more don’t” #1 below).

It does help to give me a sense of who you are and how you came to want to apply to our program. But it’s at most 20%-of-your-total-SOP important.

Instead, focus on your plan. Not why you want to come here but how you imagine spending your time once you’re here. You have two or three short stories and you’d really like to write enough to end up with a full collection, but you don’t know how to do that. You’ve written a lot of poems but they all look the same and have the same sense of the line and you’d like to expand your understanding of what else poetry is and can do. You want to focus for two hard years on your novel. You want to dabble in every genre and emerge a well-rounded writer. Whatever it is. Ask yourself: what’s the best way I can imagine spending my time in my MFA? Then tell me about it. Talk to me about the work you want to work on.

caveat 2.
With your plan, always be personal, honest, and specific. Write what is honestly relevant to you and where you are, not what you think I want to hear from “an applicant”. And by “specific” I mean avoid the generic ideas everyone puts in their SOPs. Everyone wants to find themselves immersed in a community of writers. Everyone wants the time to focus on their own writing. Everyone wants to grow in a supportive environment. Don’t do what everyone else is doing in the SOP.

your own work.
So much of MFA instruction involves thinking critically about other people’s creative work that it helps to see your ability to do this kind of work with your own. Looking specifically at your writing sample, or at the stuff you’re writing more generally, what do you feel are its strengths, and what do you feel you need help with? What is your work doing that other writers’ work is not doing? What are you concerned with as a writer that you wonder why others aren’t as concerned with? Do you celebrate a kind of regionalism in your work? Is it important that you depict the lives of sex-positive people, given the oppressive role of shaming in our culture? Is it time, do you think, for a return to the 5¶ essay form?[*] And don’t be afraid to talk about weaknesses. We want to know what we can help you with. Do you find dialogue a challenge? Does it feel like your essays are too narrow in focus, or that you rely too much on outside research?

Knowing you’re thinking critically about your writing tells me you’re ready to be a writing student.

why us?
It’s often a good idea to include some explanation on why you’re applying to that program specifically. This is tricky, because you’re probably applying to multiple programs. Yes, I think you should tailor your SOP to each individual program. Don’t use the same reasons for every school you’re applying to. Don’t just find-replace to swap our University of Iowa with University of Michigan or wherever you want to apply. Again (see above), know that everyone else is doing this.[†]

Instead say something honest. Most people want to come to USF because they love San Francisco. That’s fine. That’s 100% perfectly fine and well and good. We hope to be the best MFA program in the Bay Area. We actively try to make connections to SF’s literary history and community. If that’s the only reason you’re applying, great. Fine. Well and good. It’s specific. If you sincerely like that we have cross-genre courses, or something else you’ve found on our Web site, also great.

But don’t blow smoke up our asses. Just be honest. With everyone. If you want to go to Iowa because it’s the oldest and most prestigious MFA program in the country, great. It’s your loss, but say that.

more don’ts.
The SOP, I feel, is not the place to show off your creativity. Your writing sample is the place to show off your creativity. This is the place to show off your teachability. Or if that sounds too passive or Orwellian, then think of it as the place to show your readiness to learn and work. So can it with the vivid verbs and dramatized moments of discovery.

Maybe don’t mention any faculty members by name. It can be a bummer to read an SOP that mentions many of my colleagues by name but not me. Especially when the SOP lists every single NF professor except me. Do I get over it? Of course. Can you ever know who will read your SOP? No. Is it your job not to damage the fragile psyche of neurotic, insecure writer-teachers? No. But still: it’s a bummer. Best not to bum me out before I’ve read your sample.

Don’t say that getting your MFA will help you realize your dream of teaching, especially at the college level. This makes us feel bad because it’s untrue. MFA degrees don’t guarantee anything in this job market, and most of the time there’s nothing we faculty members can do about it. That’s a dean- or state-admin-level problem. If you want to teach, it’s not impossible, but use the SOP to focus on your time in the program, not what you’ll hope will come after. (So don’t talk about wanting an agent or book deal, either. There’ll be time to get there once you’re in.)

caveat 3.
I should say I’ve never passed on an applicant because of anything they wrote in an SOP. Again, it’s the writing sample that matters. Also, I’ve never made the lone decision on an application. Both programs I’ve taught in required at least two readers for each application because a colleague might see something I didn’t in an applicant, and vice versa. It’s hard to find this out, but if the school you’re applying to doesn’t put at least two eyes on your application, don’t try to go there. (At Iowa, students working toward MFA degrees read your application, btw.)

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There are plenty of shitty writing professors out there who will read this in an SOP and think, I can’t possibly work with someone who doesn’t see that the way of writing I’ve built my career on is the only way to write. And then potentially pass on your application. So there’s danger, potentially, in following this advice, but wouldn’t you rather study with people who respect your tastes as a student writer, and who understand they’ll continue to change? A visiting poet once told me a story about a professor at Iowa who won’t allow anything other than realist fiction in her workshops, because to her that’s the only real literature worth writing. “And I won’t say her name,” he said, “but it rhymes with Marilynne Robinson.”
  2. And sometimes poorly. It’s always a shame when we at USF get an SOP that includes a line like “…which is why I think I’ll be a perfect addition to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.” Triple-check those SOPs, folks!

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-10-27  ::  dave

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