How to Die without Regrets

When I was a kid, as a private dare with myself, I’d sometimes stop and picture being dead. I’d close my eyes, because the dead couldn’t see, and imagine eternity. What I saw was a conscious void, almost like floating through space in a body that couldn’t move, but in this fantasy my soul lived on to watch itself, forever. I pictured having to not just conceive eternity, but continually face it. A thousand years of absolute black stillness, then a million years after that. My heart would start racing and I’d run off to distract myself from such thoughts. When I was a kid, I feared death more than anything.

I’m still afraid to die, but the fear now hovers around regret. I’m afraid to die before I finish this book, before I see the parts of the world N & I want to see together, etc., but I’m more afraid to look backward at the moment of death and see myself at the end of a story about a coward. Or a tyrant. Or a miser of his emotions.

Avoiding that regret takes a certain serenity of mind re the complex mess of living a long life, but it seems also to task me with sowing the right seeds in this present. I am—we all are—right now living the very life we’ll one day see from the perspective of its end, and so what exactly are we making? And more importantly: how can we live the life that pleases us now and will also please us later?

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A couple weeks back I wrote about compassionate hedonism. That’s not what all this is about exactly, but I do think I’m talking about a focus on maximizing pleasures now without much concern for long-term effects (of, say, drinking or being yourself). Talk of life’s end brings to mind the popular obsession with longevity. I saw Death Becomes Her early in life (maybe even in the theater), so I know from the dangers of focusing on quantity of life over quality, and it’s almost not worth writing about the glut of articles online with headlines like These 3 Lifestyle Changes Will Add Months to Your Life. Fearing death all those years, I read every such article I came across, and spent the next week or so consciously adding more walnuts to my diet, or trying to remember to sit and breathe pranic-ly for 5 minutes.

I didn’t necessarily need to live to see 100, but I knew I didn’t want to die in my 80s. To die in my 80s felt like quitting the race before I reached the finish line, that I’d done too poor a job of pacing myself, and then having to watch others continue on without me. I’ve noticed in the last year maybe that I’ve stopped thinking this way, dropped the whole notion of a target number all together. I want instead to enjoy my time running, to belabor this race metaphor. I think I’d be okay dying in my 80s, my 70s, my 60s even, so long as I was dying without regret.

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It’s with all these notions that I was a quick liker of this recent Instagram post I found in my feed:

I’ll type it out (with edits) for better legibility:

Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Bronnie Ware, Australian nurse

Phenomenal clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives (same top 5 regrets people expressed in the last 12 weeks of life)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. (Every male patient; felt they missed their children’s youth and partner’s companionship.)

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I’d let myself be happier. (Realized happiness was a choice.)

I have some cynicisms to work through before I get into how this list moved me. One’s about this ‘phenomenal clarity of vision’. Ware wrote a book about these regrets, one I should probably read, but much of this sounds like a just-so story about death and dying—that deathbeds are a site of magical wisdoms. I haven’t sat by anyone’s deathbed, and I’m of course not a hospice nurse, but clarity of mind doesn’t seem to be a salient feature in the final weeks of a person’s life. (I’m thinking of those who die at a very old age, and all the levels of cognitive decline that attend such a death, but maybe Ware’s book’s wisdoms come from folks dying at all ages.)

I also want to dismiss the implication that happiness is a choice, another just-so story we like to tell about happiness. Why should that emotion get this special status apart from the others? Do we tell people that fear is a choice, or anger? I know so little about emotions, but whether or not we sort them into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ones, it seems like a total lie to imply that a successful life involves learning how to opt out of some in favor of others. Fear comes to you in a blink. People make you angry in how they treat you. Just imagine choosing never to feel surprise. (Or only to.) As this great recent New Yorker article unpacks, our emotions are not created or even experienced inside us, in isolation, but rather are far more external and socially constructed than we tend to see. Likely this bit about choosing happiness is meant to suggest silver linings, or mindfulness practices. Taking time in the thick of life’s messes and disappointments to reconnect with, or see anew, the parts of it that fill us with joy, however small or short-lived.

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As I said, I was moved by this list the way Scrooge was moved by the sight of his own grave. I took it as a warning, with the relief in my heart that it didn’t seem to be too late. Act now was the general idea. Check in with yourself on how true these are for you. I don’t live a life true to myself, because I’ve convinced myself that myself as I am—fiercely boundaried, caustically angry, endlessly horny, manic and spastic, talking to himself in silly voices, picking his nose amorously, quickly disappointed by virtuousness (I won’t go on)—makes me unacceptable to others.[*]

I do stay in touch with my friends. I Zoomed with 2 middle school friends on Wednesday and will Zoom with 2 college friends tonight. We do this like clockwork. It has changed the quality of my life immensely, and I love my friends so much I’d do anything to keep them in my life.

At any rate, as soon as I saw the post I started thinking about how to teach these—not, probably, in my own classes. But as a teacher, I have kneejerk reactions against Life Lessons, which often read more like learning outcomes than actual lessons. Any time you share something you’ve learned, you tell someone the end of a story they haven’t themselves lived through, and it’s likely a story you can’t reconstruct. What steps did you go through to come to understand that thing you know, and can you be sure those steps are translatable to another person’s lived experience?

Teaching is many things, but one of its arts is learning how to find (or, often, fabricate) that story from not-knowing to knowing.

So how do you teach choosing happiness, if happiness is indeed a choice? How do you teach gauging the limits of hard work? Note how much there is to teach in these stated regrets. What is courage, exactly, and how does it differ from bravery, or derring-do? How do you recognize courage within yourself, and then how do you cultivate it? How do you know when to use it? And then after the courage unit’s learning is achieved, it’s time to go on to feelings. What are they, exactly, how do you discern among them, etc. etc.

Finally, you can move on to the expression of feeling, which has been much of the focus of my therapy sessions for the last 7 years or so. Even understanding why this is unbelievably hard for me is unbelievably hard. I think much of the learning has been unlearning, undoing; my guess is that we as children don’t have trouble expressing anything, but somehow pick up over time habits of nondisclosure, or of shutting up, shutting down, burying feelings out of some disregard for them, or in some faith that the situation will improve with our silence.

Regardless of how I learned what I learned, I’m in therapy to unlearn it, because the life I’m preventing myself from living by not expressing my feelings has become more and more tangible and manifest. I can see it, just over there, almost like through a tall chainlink fence. And I also feel, at 44, that the time I have is starting to run out, and one day I’ll no longer have what it takes to climb over there.

Which returns me to a final cynicism about these regrets: is it even possible to die without them? Living a life without regret seems to be as possible as living a life without sadness, or anger, or even happiness. None of these are states to achieve, but storms that pass through us multiple times a day. Like ‘choosing to be happy’, we might also allow the dying to choose to ignore the times they, as human beings, didn’t live up to our ideals. Who always can?



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I know I said I wouldn’t go on, but the question naturally follows: Why not just be yourself all the time? And the answer that comes to mind is the same answer I always had at the ready when I asked myself Why not just be gay? I’ll lose everyone. As in some sudden exodus. And it’s worth remembering how that didn’t happen. Indeed, I didn’t lose anyone.

Back to School

The worst best time of the year. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve heard those words (usually just before the word “savings”), a spark of anger pins me to my spot. Not yet damn it. It’s like last call on the bar night of your summer. As a kid I felt this, the dread of a coming routine and monotony, of homework and new classmates to navigate. Those pains got mitigated by shopping: new bluejeans, a Britches backpack in a cooler color, a fresh 64-count Crayola box with sharpener. I liked thinking about my First Day Outfit. But if Back To School was the start of something, it was the start of another chore. Another room to clean. Another bag of trash to take out to the curb.

Now I’m a teacher, and Back To School is still a drag, because teachers love summer break more, I’d argue, than students do. But if my Back To School is the start of something, it’s always the start of another shot. Teachers have, if you’ll forgive the pervy comparison, a Woodersonian school experience: we get older, they stay the same age. What that means is that the school year is like Groundhog Day (there’s a far less problematic comparison), where it sometimes feels like the only thing that’s changed is our wisdom (or ignorance) and our energy (or our weariness). A third comparison: for teachers, the start of the new school year is what the start of the new calendar year is for everyone else. A chance to do better. That’s what makes Back To School more of a thrill than a drag, for me at least.

Here are my resolutions for this school year:

  • Privilege the macro-level when it comes to reading and commenting on student MSs. Not just overall shape and structure and form stuff, but stuff like implied authors, mode-shifting, and even that outmoded idea of theme. This is the stuff I feel shakiest on as a writer and teacher. The stuff that has always felt to be on the spookier side of writing—can’t we just take care of the pence of our texts and let the pounds take care of themselves, so to speak?
  • Keep my directing duties in their place. Easier said than done, but for me (who chases after quantifiable achievements so as to convince myself I’m not a bad person), it’s easy to believe that I’ve been hired for the job of Academic Director of the MFA Program, and that I need to fill my workday with answered emails and new spreadsheets and other “deliverables” to prove I’m worthy of the job, whereas the reality is that it’s my turn in the faculty rotation for this service duty, which should take exactly half my working hours—i.e., 3/6 of my workload alongside research (2/6) and teaching (1/6).[*]
  • Stay safe, flexible, and compassionate. Because the one glaring difference this Back To School is that the Groundhog Day effect is reversed: we are back in offices and classrooms after 17 months of shut-in pandemic monotony. That feels great, and yet people are wary enough about the prospect of coming back together that a colleague published an op-ed in last Sunday’s Chronicle that was given the headline: “Nice to meet you. Are you going to kill me?”

As much as the laziest parts of me might love business as usual, it’s neither a way to grow nor what our times seem to be calling for. I’m glad that we’re back. I can’t wait to see students in our offices again, behind masks for now. I feel excited this morning, maybe half-hopeful, half-wary, but tonight is the first night of classes in our MFA Program and the thrill of that is still palpable, even though I personally won’t be in classrooms owing to my teaching thesis students one-on-one this term.

I guess the point of this post is to capture that feeling, however poorly and distractedly I’m doing it. The best part of my job is getting a student to learn a new thing. And the ultra best part of my job is getting a student to see something they wrote in a new light, to realize that what they’ve been trying to do—be a good writer—has already been happening. For us teachers, today’s the first day that starts.

Now I need to go pick out an outfit.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. If you read this and think I should be using quote marks above when I write “Now I’m a teacher,” that’s fair. I’d much rather be a teacher than an administrator but this currently is my lot in life.

On “Art for Art’s Sake”

In my Nonfiction Studio course we begin each class writing from a prompt for thirty minutes or so, then discussing the choices we made in our writing and what it tells us about what writing is and can do. For camaraderie purposes, I write along with them. When I get something down worth sharing, I aim to post it here, if only because the semester’s beginning and my being deep into an essay project have led me to post much less here than I did in 2020. Last night’s prompt was to write an essay with the above title, and this is what I wrote.

“All art is quite useless” is a phrase I hold onto as dearly as “We are all sinners.” Both release me. Not the way the harness on a rollercoaster releases me after the car slides in to whatever that large hut thing is called, returning me to my calm-hearted life, but the way a snow day did, all those years ago. I don’t have to be anything other than what I am today, and what I am isn’t any worse than what you are. Ditto the art I make.

I come back, unfairly, and perhaps without enough compassion, to a former student’s writing, and revising, and revising again for their thesis, an essay about laundry. There was a paragraph about the temperature of water called for with various materials and colors. There was a whole thing about stains, and another thing about their delicates, and then the term “delicates”. It was, as far as art goes, totally useless, and while my job was to help them make the essay what they hoped it would be (I recall their aims being very personal, in that they found themselves thinking one day about laundry and how weird it was, and they wanted to inspire their reader to think this deeply about laundry themselves), I privately resented having, once again, to talk about this essay on laundry.

Q: Who cares?

Q: So what?

These are real, and indelicate, questions that “All art is quite useless” protects the artist from deigning to answer, and so I come repeatedly to this feeble feeling whenever I’m in the vicinity of Art For Art’s Sake-ers. But:

A: Why is caring important?

A: What else, if not this?

The question, in prayer one morning, that changed my life just a touch, but irrevocably, the way a cat’s tail knocks the heirloom glass off the table: “Why me, God? Why do I get unconditional love?”

The answer, immediate: “Why not you?”

When it’s so hard to accept that anything you do is good enough, Wilde’s epigram feels like salvation. I am tired of art that doesn’t say anything. I am tired of laundry essays that steer my mind only them-ward. This weariness is why I’m writing the book I’m writing now and not the book I wanted to write eight years ago. But the moment I think of duty, or purpose, and the moment I wonder whether to align my purpose with some cause in the world I’m writing about, I stop writing about it. I hate “Art For Art’s Sake” as a critic and an audience, but I hold it very close as an artist.

But Is That MFA Program Right for You?: A Guide for Admitted Applicants

generic classroom

January means application deadline season for most MFA in writing programs, and I know what that means for thousands of people in the country: the beginning of 3 or 4 months of anxiety. If you number among them, I hope you get into the program you want to. But I also hope you take this time to consider what it is you’re looking for in an MFA program, and how you know that the programs you’ve applied to are going to treat you well.

What’s “well” mean? Well, after ten years of teaching in MFA programs, I’ve come to understand some of what leads to graduate success—and I’m defining “success” here to mean graduates feel that (a) they’ve grown as writers and are equipped to continue growing even after we stop giving them homework and deadlines, (b) they understand the current literary and publishing landscape and are ready to be a writer in the world, (c) they’ve been taken care of these last few years and that whatever money or labor they paid for their degree with was well spent.

In grad school, Rita Mae Brown once asked my class if, in our careers, we’d rather be Britney Spears or an opera singer, and while I remember being charmed, in 2007, by this quaint comparison, I’ve taken it to heart: a quality education prepares a writer for a lifelong career, not an instant success. So success to me doesn’t mean a book deal, or NYC publishing connections, or a job teaching creative writing. Success to me doesn’t feel like students have “won” the Best MFA Grad competition. (It may look different to you.)

I direct an MFA program.[*] We all make lots of claims and promises about what makes our specific programs great. I believe we’re all telling the truth, there’s no reason to distrust people, but in the spirit of helping applicants find the programs they know will treat them well, I’ve come up with this list of questions you might think to ask the programs that accept you, should you find yourself this spring in the enviable position of getting to choose among them.

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This list is not exhaustive, but I’ve tried to split them up in 3 categories corresponding to my definition of success, above:

Your Aesthetic/Academic Growth
If you’re into genre, or formalism, or “the very personal essay” as found on websites, it’s no good for a program to “correct” this interest toward what it deems literary. An MFA program should be designed to not only help you develop the kind of writing you’re into now, but also expose you to other kinds of writing that are out there. That exposure is how growth happens; programs should be your partner in where you need to be, not where they’ve decided Every Writer Needs to Be. So:

  • How regularly will you be able to enroll in the classes you want to? What method(s) does the program use to place students in classes each term?
  • What openings are possible for you to take classes in a different genre than what you applied in?
  • What guidelines, suggestions, or restrictions does the program give instructors in designing their course reading lists?
  • Are directed-study courses possible, and how often do full-time faculty members agree to teach them?
  • In what ways does the program teach students about the writing process, and not just their writing products? How will you be taught not just what a good book looks like, but actively how to go about writing one from scratch?

Your Education on Today’s Writing Landscape
Assume that everyone teaching in an MFA program knows and can teach how literature was put together in the 20th century, but a lot has changed in literature, publishing, and the teaching of creative writing over the last twenty years. Much of these changes have come from queer and BIPOC voices (slowly) being better represented in publishing and academia (to say nothing of the very different means by which writing finds readers in 2021). By now, MFA programs should have already incorporated anti-racist representation, global literatures, and digital publishing into their curriculum. If they haven’t, you should try to get a clear understanding of their commitments and timeline for doing so. So:

  • What training do instructors get in how to manage issues of bias and representation in the workshop? What programming or coursework has the program committed to to fight racism and bias in writing?
  • What specific courses are offered in publishing, or do instructors take care of this on their own time in workshop courses? What kind of programming is in place to prepare students to publish their work successfully in the 2020s?
  • How often do senior/tenured faculty have their teaching observed or otherwise get feedback on their methods? Who reviews faculty teaching evaluations, and how often? What programming does the program or the university put in place to help faculty continually update their teaching?
  • What kind of contact does the program maintain with its alumni, and how readily can current students be in touch with alumni to learn about their lives and careers after getting their degrees?

Your Care and Management
Nobody likes to feel they need to be managed, like some problem, but if you think about it the way Hollywood types do, it’s a useful model: you need a manager-advocate (or two) who’s invested in your growth, and you need to make sure you’ll have as much as voice and presence in the program as you want. So:

  • Will you get an adviser to guide you through the program, helping you choose the best courses for you? Will you work with the same adviser throughout your time there, or new ones periodically? Are all advisers full-time faculty in the MFA program?
  • What kind of support is there for planning your thesis project before your final semester/year?
  • How many students, on average, should you expect in your workshop courses?[†]
  • Have the MFA students created an organization of their own, which they govern, and which works to develop community or build advocacy for students (or both)? If not, does the university provide resources for such student organizations?

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There are hundreds of other questions to ask programs I didn’t address here. You may have concerns about its labor practices vis-a-vis its part-time faculty. You may want to know how trans students have fared in the past (and whether the program has enrolled any). You may want assurance that you won’t be silo’d onto a campus and want to know how the program connects with the greater community. The point here is that you should always feel you have the right to ask these questions, and you should assume any program will be happy to answer them for you.

Remember: you’ve been accepted, so they now need you just as much as you need them. The only way you’ll succeed (in grad school, that is; grad school itself isn’t required for success) is by enrolling in a program that’ll work for you, in both senses of the term. So I urge you to take the time to learn the most you can about what your time as a student there will be like.

And yes, prepare for your classrooms to look like the photo above. It’s not all old wood and staring out leaded glass windows onto centuries-old oaks, folks.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I’ll note that I’m writing this post as a person who’s gone through grad school and still carries ideas and opinions; I’m not speaking in my professional role as director of an MFA program, though I try every day to practice the things I preach.
  2. Opinions, and university resources, differ here, but if you ask me, more than 12 is worrisome and more than 15 deserves an explanation.

The Time Ms. D Put Chris Y In His Place

This is a memory that came up in my therapy session today. Ms. D—JoAnne DeMaria—was my sixth grade teacher. She was the greatest teacher I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand how much of my own teaching she informed.

Chris Y was a year below us. At even 11 years old, he was always eager to start a fistfight or make fun of some kid’s weakness. Did we call him a bully? One day, he was sent to our classroom for misbehaving. This was unprecedented in the year we had Ms. D, but also didn’t seem peculiar at the time. We all knew Chris Y was bad.

His teacher had given him dittos to work on quietly, and Ms. D put him in a desk up in the corner of the room, away from everyone else. I don’t remember what happened next. My guess is he Acted Out in one of the ways any of us kids did. Let’s say he was talking when he shouldn’t have been. Whatever it was, he got Ms. D’s attention.

Ms. D always spoke to us with the same measured tone. Her philosophy was reason—”Common sense, David,” she’d tell, when I’d get too far in my head to understand something—and mutual respect. On the first day of class, she’d asked us students what qualities we believed made a good student. And we raised our hands and suggested some. She made a list on a large sheet of posterboard, and had each of us sign underneath. Then we collectively made a list of what made a good teacher, and she signed that list.

These contracts were hung over the blackboard for the year, a reminder that we all agreed to what it took to create an effective and equitable classroom.

“Do you want to earn the right to go back to your classroom, today,” Ms. D asked.

“Yeah,” said Chris Y in the tone of voice that made it clear he thought the question was stupid.

“Excuse me?” Ms. D said.

Yeah,” Chris Y said, louder.

“Excuse me?” Ms. D said? Her tone didn’t change.

Chris Y started getting very frustrated. “Yeah!” he said.

And every time Ms. D asked her question again.

“Excuse me?”

In my memory this exchange took a half hour, but it was probably all of 20 seconds. However long it took, we students were in agony. Everyone in Ms. D’s class knew you didn’t say “yeah” to answer a question. You said, “Yes.” Probably each of us had gone through some version of the Yeah-Excuse me-I mean Yes exchange at that point in the school year.

Maybe Chris Y eventually got it, but I seem to recall one of us—all of us?—whispering it to him, to save us all the agony: Say Yes! Because he finally said Yes.

“Thank you,” Ms. D said. And then she must have reminded him what he had to do to get back to his classroom, I don’t remember. Whatever she said, he didn’t act up again. He sat quietly, doing his dittos or not doing his dittos, and soon we forgot he was there.

Recalling this story 30 years later, the teacher in me rankles a little. I’m quick to get furious when teachers use their position in the classroom to assert authority over students, especially when they do this in ways that don’t lead to more learning, when they just do it to assert the hierarchy.

Teachers do this is any number of ways. Laptop bans in classrooms. Restrictive policies for assignments. Telling you what fonts to use and not use. Etc etc.

So a story about a teacher refusing to accept one kid’s “yeah” over “yes” sounds like needless authority bullshit. Except this isn’t how Ms. D operated. Witness the contracts we all signed, which hung next to the b/w poster of Bobby Kennedy. Or the personalized vocab/spelling lists each of us students received each week, based on errors we’d made in our work or difficulties we’d had in our reading the previous week.

What made Ms. D the best teacher I’ve ever seen is this level of personal attention she gave every student in the room. This was a public elementary school. She had 20-25 students. (Did she have kids of her own? No. Do I think it’s worth looking for biographical excuses of how/why she was able to be so committed and dedicated? No.)

What I realized in therapy today is that this scene isn’t about authority or coercion or control or punishment. It’s about strength. In fact it might be a scene about the difference between strength and power. Ms. D was the first teacher in my life (maybe first adult) who showed us her guns, so to speak, and then stuck to them.

She was the first adult to care enough to point out when and how we weren’t living up to our individual promise. The effect was that we learned not to disappoint. Which is different from learning not to misbehave. N.B.: When we misbehaved, we always felt that we had disappointed ourselves, not just her.

There are two ends to the story. One is that Ms. D died in 2003. I miss her more than I realize. The other end is that Chris Y is now a backyard MMA fighter with a sizable YouTube following. He spent many years in prison and is almost fully covered in tattoos, but he’s now trying to spread good messages and inspire others.

I just watched his video calling for an end to bullying.

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.

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.