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What I thought all of Iowa looked like back then.

[In the previous installment, I detailed my undoubtedly flawed if also successful plan to apply to MFA programs. This week, how I made my decision to go, and some lessons learned.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Moral of the Story: Show Up.

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

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

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

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

2nd Moral: Be Your Own Freak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MFA is not for everyone.

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

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ALEXANDER CHEE is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony. He is currently the Visiting Writer at Amherst College. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and a Booksense 76 selection. In 2003, Out Magazine honored him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His columns and articles have appeared in Out, Martha Stewart Living, Garden Design, TimeOut/NY and Bookforum. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has taught fiction writing at the New School University and Wesleyan. His second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is represented by Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency. You can reach him at alexander dot chee (a) gmail dot com

29 responses to “When To Get Your MFA Or Not – Part 2”

  1. MFAs are not the X-Men?

    Well, 86 that noise. I’m no longer interested.

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

    Probably my favourite line in a piece full of them.

  2. DonnaFaz says:

    Excellent information. I’m forwarding a link to my son in the hopes that he’ll follow your ‘show up’ and ‘don’t say no for them’ advice…and I hope it translates over into the looking-for-a-job-that-pays-a-livable-income phase of his life. He already has his MFA (and owes RISD tens of thousands to show for it). Now he needs to find a career he loves.

  3. I’ve hidden from programs like this my entire writing life – even when people have given me the application and put a pen in my hand, as a matter of fact right now on my desktop are the applications for MacDowell and Yaddo – untouched – instead, I’m choosing to call myself an isolationist. Now, I may have to scratch that out and put the word: coward. Of course, that will be etched onto the wall of my writing cave where no one but me will see it….. thanks for a great, great piece…. it’s a fortunate thing I get wifi in the cave!

    • Thanks, Robin. My cave also has wireless. One way to think of a MFA program is as a series of these caves near each other.

      For me it turned a possible 20 years of wondering whether or not what I was doing was any good into 2 years of finding out. And the structure, which involves listening to people talk about my work—including some people I would never have agreed to speak to otherwise—forced me to break myself open and think about my work from some intensely unfamiliar angles. But that was where I learned what my stories were actually saying to people. This part is very uncomfortable and not everyone does well in that environment, and that’s what I mean. So yes, there was some “I hate that guy!” but when I cooled down, thought about what was said, I think it made me a better writer.

  4. Great post, Alexander. And yes, I agree with you in that the most important thing to do in writing is to be authentic–absolutely true to oneself.

    When I was applying to graduate school I was rejected by three schools and accepted by three. One of the three that rejected me sent a letter saying that my GRE scores hadn’t arrived. The letter also said not to worry about sending them because they don’t take people who write the way I write. I was sort of stunned and shocked, I wondered “how do I write that they flat out won’t take me?” It was humiliating and terrifying. The next day I got a phone call from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. I was one of the twelve that Hopkins accepted that year.

  5. Ryan Day says:

    I love it. I always wanted to do an MFA, but have found myself doing a PhD in lit, which is great… But it isn’t the direct dedication to the thing itself that I was really after. The days of the writer/scholar aren’t numbered, but they are heading that way. Too much academic specialization, and high demands on time have created a false divide between the academic and creative and I think that both will suffer for it. I toy with the idea of redirecting all the time, especially when I read things like this.

    • Thanks, and that’s interesting, Ryan. I do know many colleagues with secret dreams of writing novels, but there’s never time, between service, scholarship and teaching. Only one, really, has gone all the way to authorship, a Victorianist friend here. And she’s quite happy. She does wish she started earlier, just…fyi.

  6. Wonderfully insightful and inspiring. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Mary says:

    Heh. I don’t know what got into me, but I decided to do an MFA in creative nonfiction immediately after undergrad. It was an amazing experience. It did not lead directly to a job. MFAs don’t count for much if you are too young to have even done the first freelance gig. But it did help me find my voice. Like you said, we’re doing this off-menu. There is no guide really (except yours, which is great by the way). Through the MFA, I developed confidence in my own style and I sharpened my approach to craft.

    This is a really cool series. I’m looking forward to the next piece.

    • Thanks. And I have no idea how young you are, but right now, with the economy as bad as it is, I’ve amended the “stay out of school for three years” advice to “there are no jobs, apply, go for fellowships.”

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    You’re right about the fear.

    In the year and a half since I graduated college, I’ve applied for hundreds- maybe thousands- of jobs. And- shocker- I’m still underemployed. So while I’ve been mulling over the idea of going to grad school for a while, I find myself unable to make the move. Because I’m not sure I can take more rejection.

    Any advice on how to be brave?

    • Bourbon? Sort of kidding. A writer works with rejection almost as much as language. Nothing prepares you for that, except getting rejected. As my brother once said to me in 1995, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not trying hard enough. So, you are trying. And that preceded my first mass-mail of stories and essays to anthologies and mags, and …when I look at my CV, I can see the effect, which is that I got a lot published in the years that followed.

      Being brave, remember, isn’t about getting rid of fear. It’s about proceeding in spite of it. It’s about staying close to what you want for yourself.

      Also, be clear for yourself about the difference between fear and worry.

      In terms of enduring rejection, well, my first novel was rejected for 2 and a half years before finding a publisher, and during that time I began doing a lot of yoga. Anything you do apart from writing that is just for you will help you get through. For me, that way, I could say, well, another rejection, but I did get up into a handstand today. And to be honest, it made a difference.

      Consider looking for jobs overseas. Many of my former students are getting jobs in India, China and Korea right now.

      • Which is to say, regarding fear and worry, fear is typically about danger. Worry is where fear, with your imagination, produces elaborate fictions starring you as a failure. That usually don’t protect you.

        I’m sorry it’s hard, now, Marni. The state of the economy in the US continues to appall me.

    • Matt says:

      *achem*

      Marni, I graduated in 2004. Still looking for legitimate, gainful employment.

    • Greg Olear says:

      When you stop getting rejected, then you start getting published, which means you (hopefully) start getting reviewed, which means you start getting bad reviews. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach you get when the rejection letter comes? It’s the same feeling you get when you get a particularly bad review. It never ends. It’s part of the job, alas.

      Marni, you should be applying for MFAs and fellowships and what have you. You’re one of the best writers on here. Enough kiosks. Go (Mid) West, young lady!

  9. Matt says:

    Very good piece, Alexander. As I said on the last installment, I have some thoughts regarding the usefulness of M.F.A. programs and my experience in them, but I’ll save them until you’ve finished.

    Which means, of course: get to it!

  10. Greg Olear says:

    I’m really enjoying this, Alex…so glad you’re sharing your story.

  11. Really enjoy reading this.

    I have been contemplating the MFA, mulling it over it seems every Sunday. Sunday because when I go to bed, I will awake to Monday and have to head to the office. And though I enjoy my job 4 of the 5 days in the week, there’s still a piece of me that says, “Apply to a Creative Writing program.” It’s the piece of me that wants to write more, that wants to have a schedule that allows me to churn out a novel. I try and make the time during the week and weekends but it’s hard. It’s real hard. I know many can agree. I’m not saying “I don’t have the time” because it’s all about making the time as a writer. That’s what most writers do and have to do for their craft. But I tell you, working an 8-5 everyday doing technical writing and then writing on the side for a newspaper and magazines here and there, leaves a very small morsel for actual creative writing, the type of writing I love: shaping scenes and characters and dialogue.

    Looking forward to Part III.

  12. Aaron Dietz says:

    And when is this Part III coming out? I’ve been thinking a little more about the MFA ever since we spoke for just a moment in Denver. How perfect that you wrote a piece on making this decision!

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