Why Not to Write a Statement of Purpose for MFA School

Some years back, I wrote a post full of guidelines and personal observations about the MFA application’s Statement of Purpose that was aimed to help people write better ones. But now I’m on sabbatical. And I’m no longer sure how much I believe in the SOP as a valuable part of a student’s application.

At least, not in the way they’re currently designed. The best SOPs say, “I am ready to work hard at your school and here’s my plan.” And when I read that sentence I feel very weary. It’s a tired, tamped down, dried-out place to hold a writer in before they’ve even begun working toward their becoming. I see an army of Type-A Tracy Flicks, getting all the good fellowships, again, because gumption and work-ethics are very legible to those of us in the institutional awarding game.

More and more what I learn about artmaking is how much I Don’t Know about the thing I’m making, and when I Totally Know about it, the thing I make is flat and dead.

The thing I do have to Know Totally About, though, is myself and my practices, my bad habits and my good ones, my positions with respect to my subject and myself, my desires, my lusts. None of these were in place before grad school, and any that may have been developed there have long since changed.

So what use is it asking applicants to speak with confidence or certainty about what they want to do and what their writing is up to?[*]

My dream SOP might be what a writer I once worked with at a summer conference told me, when I asked her how she wrote the stories she did. They were so unlike any I’d been taught to write. Here’s a paraphrase:

I don’t know how to write a short story. I don’t know how to create a plot. I don’t know what a character is or how to develop a character. I don’t know scenes. What I do know is that I can write a good sentence. Not every time, but when I write I only try to write a sentence that I like. And then I have to let that sentence guide me to the next one.

If there’s any good reason to go to an MFA Program, it’s to learn how to get comfortable with your ignorances and your doubts. How to hug them close, even, until they become your friends and then your talents.

If you must write an SOP (because a school requires it of applicants), just be honest. I’ll say it again: just please be honest. At every moment. After 9 years of reading SOPs, we’ve had so much smoke blown up our asses we fart clouds. (This bad joke I couldn’t resist, and surely my colleagues won’t appreciate the image, so let’s just leave it with me, and my own ass, farting those um, “clouds”.)

I think the posturing and fake language (e.g., “I am thrilled by the opportunity to work with your outstanding, award-winning faculty and become a dynamic and giving member of your generous community of writers!”) comes from an anxiety of not knowing What We Want To Hear, those of us who get to say yes or no to your future.

So let me try to be clear about this: there is no content I want to see in an SOP. No language. I’m not looking for anything other than you. What does your real picture look like? Not your LinkedIn profile, or your Instagram.

What are your doubts? And what are your loves? If you have any passions in the world, real ones of your own, let’s hear them.[†]

Now, as per the last time I wrote about SOPs, I’ll give you the caveat that I’m just one person with strong opinions. (Strong opinions that clearly waver and change within a fairly short timespan.) If you were to write an SOP that’s all the things you don’t know—including why you’re going to an MFA program, and why this MFA program of all the hundreds in the U.S., etc.—you may well turn off some people who think you’re unserious or unready.

But are those the people you’ll want to work with toward your becoming?

I direct the MFA Program (when not on sabbatical) at the University of San Francisco. I, at least, will welcome any applicant who doesn’t know anything or doesn’t pretend to. Give me one page (who needs more?) of all the things you don’t know, and all I’ll want to do is work with you to not know these things together.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s also a bad idea to ask applicants to write about why they want to come to our program instead of any of the others. What business is it of ours? Maybe we’re your dream school or your safety school. Maybe you’re queer in a small town and still believe in San Francisco as a heaven for people like you. Maybe you have no idea. Whether you dreamed of studying with us or have settled for us, begrudgingly paying enormous amounts of rent and hoping it’s all worth it—I’m still going to teach you the same as everyone.
  2. This doesn’t necessarily mean a list of writers you’re inspired by, carefully curated to show a range of styles and schools and backgrounds.

On Failing as a Writing Teacher

I.

I once taught John McPhee’s Oranges to graduate students in a class I called Canon Nonfiction. The idea was to teach myself a ton of books I hadn’t ever read, and also (I hoped) to talk critically about the canon and who got to make it. For each book we read, students had to write 1-page double-spaced response papers, because I didn’t want to read anything longer, and because I found (and continue to find) it a more useful exercise to ask students to make a smart, thoughtful argument in under 300 words than it is to ask them to fill 3 to 5 pages with ideas.

If you haven’t read Oranges, some of the book follows McPhee’s travels in Florida to understand the orange juice industry. He’s vocal throughout about his desire to drink pure orange juice, not from concentrate—this in the mid-1960s, when frozen concentrated orange juice was a somewhat new technology that had so taken over sales in the U.S. that it turned out, in one of the book’s ironies, to be everywhere in Florida, too, even with all those fresh oranges around.

One student (that I remember) hated the book. They took issue in their response with McPhee’s disdain for concentrate. The student had grown up in poverty real enough to make frozen orange juice the only juice their family could afford, and argued that McPhee’s language and attitude toward this style of orange juice betrayed his classism and ignorance, and thus rendered the book a failure.

I think this is what we’re now calling Cancel Culture.

I read their response, and I was very irritated. They had found one small aspect of McPhee’s narrator-self that they disagreed with and refused to engage with anything the book was up to craftwise. This was the basis of my comments on the response paper. I may have even written, in so many words, “In the future, I’d like to see you engage more in a book’s aims or formal design.”

After that, they stopped contributing to our discussions in class. At the end of the term they eviscerated me in their comments: “Dave seems to have old fashioned ideas about nonfiction. Maybe he should stop teaching and get out of the way of the rest of us.”

II.

Recently, I taught a class I titled Nonfiction Theory & Technique. My thinking is that if you’re going to take seminar-style readings courses in creative writing, you only need two of them: History Of Genre and Techniques Of Genre. You need a “What’s come before me?” class and a “How might I go about putting my stuff together?” class. This was the latter.

I taught Didion’s “The White Album” (the essay), which covers what for her is the end of the 1960s and the winds of paranoia and semantic disconnect that blew through it. One section takes Didion to Oakland, where her portrait of Huey Newton shows him to be a soundbyte-spitting robot, given the words from a group of handlers to keep the brand alive.

More than one of the students hated the essay, chiefly for this portrait. It was irresponsible for a white writer to dismiss Newton’s importance to black liberation in this way, to render him as substanceless, all message. Was the word “racist” used? I can’t remember, but in one way or another the point was made that it was racist for Didion to take of Newton what she wanted, and it reeked of enormous privilege for her to insist that her feelings about her end of her 1960s had something to say about The 1960s.

I felt frustrated, finding myself in this conversation. I felt the frustration of other students. I said this, as a way to redirect the discussion, “None of us in this room are going to live Joan Didion’s life and develop a mindset or habits of life that she did. We don’t have the ability to become or avoid becoming her, so what can we learn about writing by talking about her as a person?”

It was a similar message to the Oranges student: Can we please just talk about form and technique?

III.

Here’s where I’ll tell you that, in both of the above situations, the critical students were from marginalized communities—one student in a community I count myself among, the others not. Also: the straight, white folks in both classes didn’t, from what I could tell, share in these criticisms of the straight, white writers at hand.

And here’s where I’ll spell out my failures, if they aren’t already apparent.

In your head right now, or your heart, you might find some counterarguments. Here’s one: Contemporary politics surrounding the affordability of orange juice are too removed in time from the world McPhee is writing about to bear in any way on the text’s construction. Or you might ask what Didion, writing many years after every story about Huey Newton had already been told and retold, was supposed to write that could be worth reading? Or you might argue that if we can’t separate the artist from the art, then MFA Programs need to develop students’ characters as much as they work to develop their technique, and who among us is trained to do that?

Here’s one of my failures: I, too, had counterarguments, and I used my position as Teacher to correct my students’ thinking. Is how I thought of it. Unequipped, or unprepared, to participate in the discussion of these texts, I policed them as out of bounds and steered us back in bounds.

In other words, I shut students down. This was a failure.

It’s not that students are always right. Students are often wrong. Students often assert that the thing about the 2nd person is that it creates a feeling a closeness to the story, even though no one has ever said that the 1st person or the 3rd person makes us feel too distant from the action when we read it. (As though I would’ve identified more as a child with the character of Alice if “You” had fallen down the rabbit hole.)

I’m equipped, though, to have discussions about the effects of POV choices, and more importantly I’m comfortable asking students questions to get them thinking aloud together about POV choices to talk out something of their effects.

I’m not comfortable talking about class or race. Every time I walk into a classroom I know I’m outnumbered and I used to think if I showed any weakness or ignorance I would lose students all together.

Or make them rebel. That was my other failure, thinking that the only way I could help students learn was through the dissemination (I used the word mindfully) of my expertise.

IV.

This post is already too long, but I should mention here that it was originally titled “Adapt or Die” until I heard the neo-liberal techy Darwinism behind it.

In the face of student criticisms about representation, I could decide I Am Right And They Are Wrong, or I could decide This Isn’t Craft And Cannot Help Us Glean Lessons On Writing From This Text. And both of these would be deadly (bear with me) choices to make.

As much as I was able to dismiss my first student’s indictment against me in their evaluation, as good a laugh I got out of it in conversations for years after, it hurts now because I can see how they were right. If I can’t adapt and make room in the classroom for conversations about writing (and representation, and race) that I’m not immediately prepared to sound authoritative in, I’m going to stand in my students’ way. I’ll become not just bad at my job, but useless.

Again, it’s not that students are always right and we now have to just follow their lead on everything. It’s that a student’s rightness or wrongness in this way have very little use in the art classroom. The only wrong thing is not making art. The only wrong thing is not being given room to speak your voice, because I’m not training debaters or (god help me) politicians. I’m training artists, and an artist without a voice is like a dancer without rhythm.

What I should’ve done is ask these students to talk more about representation. I should’ve asked what we expect from an author, and what we can know about that person through the text, and what we learn elsewhere, and what our responsibilities are, then, as artists. I should’ve asked what aspects of their own (author) selves they disclose in their writing, and what they keep in mind when they construct narrators tasked with presenting this self to an imagined reader.

There are all kinds of ways to turn an unexpected comment into a conversation everyone can enter into. I’ve since learned to do this, and so I’m still alive, so to speak.

I’m reminded of something I read once about Wolfgang Tillman’s teacher (which I hope to get to again in a future post): the only reason, he argued, to make art is to put in the world the art you’re not seeing elsewhere, to fill a vacancy, one that makes you mad, with your singular vision.

If I believe that, and I think I increasingly do, how can it help a young writer to tell them, in so many words, that their visions, their stories, their opinions, their views are wrong or misguided or not worth discussion? It’s a deadly way to teach people, because, unless they thrive through a contrarian Fuck You spirit, it runs the risk of killing off a budding artist’s budding.

How Not to Write a Statement of Purpose for MFA School

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 out “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!