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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first thing I wrote for myself, not for class, that wasn’t a diary entry, was a poem I composed using my mother’s typewriter at the age of 11:
In my world everyone is a friend.
The most happiest times never end.
I’ll lie there at the break of dawn
Watching the fun of a little fawn.
Take me to the world of dreams,
Away from all the fights,
Away from all the screams.
The second thing I wrote for myself, not for class, was a poem I typed on a computer my dad got us when I was 12 or 13. I don’t recall the linebreaks, so here it is, to the best of my memory, in prose:
Being an adolescent is not as easy as you think. You don’t understand what I’m going through, ’cause all you do is drink. The pain, the problems, the pressure. It’s too much for me to bear. The confusion and the choices. It’s like you just don’t care. It pisses me off the way you think adolescence is such a blast. You just don’t understand it all, so kiss my little ass.
That first poem was written out of wish fulfillment: I wanted the other kids to be nicer to me and for my life to go more easily. The second poem was written differently. One day in my English class, I saw on the wall a poem by Bryan Billington, a boy in the grade above mine who was once on my basketball team and who my sister had a crush on. Bryan Billington’s poem was so mad at a father who was so terrible. I was shocked that people our age could say such things on paper, and by the end of the poem I felt something of the catharsis the speaker went through. I was so impressed by it, and I wanted to make such a poem, too, in the hopes that I might impress somebody, so I imagined what it must be like to grow up, as I did not, with an alcoholic, abusive father, and I tried my best to write what Bryan Billington had already written.
The semester just ended a couple weeks ago. In my workshop, I tried to talk about risk and vulnerability in nonfiction, and a number of my students talked openly about Imposter Syndrome: they feel often like they’re posing or pretending as writers. My response was, unhelpfully, Join the club.
I’ve spent 15 years now pretending to be a writer, posing as one, the way I started writing back when I was 13. I’ve worked hard to read very closely what other successful, published writers are doing, what they are making that’s getting attention, and trying to replicate that in something I’ve made in the hopes that I might get similar attention.
Attention is the heart of it. When you’re the youngest kid in a family, attention is gold. You spend hours each day digging around for it, sniffing out where you might find even just a pebble-sized speck of it. And when you do find it, you raise it up in the air and kick your heels together in delight.
In college, I had friends who wrote, who were officially in Creative Writing Classes, and who got to give readings at coffee shops in town. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’d grown up somehow to believe I was special, different, probably better than most kids, and that I deserved a life befitting such a special person. But I couldn’t act. And I couldn’t sing well. Writing seemed my only shot at escaping the fate of never being noticed.
So: I’ve been an imposter for 15 years, working on books and publishing a couple of them, getting up most mornings to write more of a draft, or revise another one—yet what else does a writer do? What else makes a Real Writer than getting up and writing most days? What I was tacitly packing into my “Join the club” response was this feeling: All this time I’ve been doing the work of writing, of being a writer, and at every moment I’ve been waiting for a student, or a critic, or a peer to call me out on it. You’re only pretending to be one of us. You don’t actually have any talent, drive, or vision.
Imposter Syndrome. It was their word for it.
Imposter Syndrome is a trap the mind makes. That trap is the basis for David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon”, which remains my favorite of his stories, because nobody else has done as good a job rendering the contours of this experience. One way out of the trap is learning that no one—foremost none of those imaginary people waiting to call me out on being a fraud—can pin down with any certainty what authenticity entails.
In other words: We all fake it until we make it.
But here, remembering my earliest writing, I’ve found another way out of the trap. I’ve always thought that I began posing as a writer since the first thing I ever wrote, but that’s not true. It’s only the first thing I ever wrote on a computer. The real first poem, the one I wrote on Mom’s typewriter, came from somewhere different than the big lie about my dad.
“In My World” was unoriginal doggerel that nevertheless put forward a vision I had of making the world a better place. It came out of what I felt, and what I wanted. And now, every time I stand in front of a classroom, and I pull out of my ass something to say that I hope sounds smart enough to ward off the pending mutiny I’m always afraid is afoot, and every time I delete a sentence I’ve written because I imagine some future reader calling me out for ripping off Wallace, or Unferth, or Nelson, or Koestenbaum, I think back of the first time I tried to make a piece of writing, and I remember that if I’m posing, all I’m trying to pose as is that kid, wanting the world to be better and more beautiful.