An Interview with Tom Kealey,Author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook

in Books, Project Maker Interviews, Weblogs, Writing

To MFA or not to MFA, that is the question many writers ask themselves. It’s a big decision, a major commitment of time and money and of course lots of writing energy. Which program is right for me? Will I get in? How much does it cost? Tom Kealey, writer and writing teacher at Standford University, has put together not the answer for you (only you can do that), but a guide to help you figure out your MFA plan: The Creative Writng MFA Handbook. Below is an interview I conducted with Kealey about his book, the MFA Blog he runs, MFA programs, and writing in general.

How did your book come about? Why did you write it?

Six or seven times a year I’d get a call from a friend of a friend of a friend who was applying to creative writing programs. They wanted advice and insights, and it was no problem to talk with them. I began to realize a few things though: 1. They didn’t know anything, 2. Relatively speaking, I knew a lot about MFA programs, and 3. When I applied in 1998, I was every bit as clueless as the people I was now talking to. There’s just a real vacuum of information out there, and the MFA program websites are little to no help.

I mentioned this to my friend Katharine Noel one day. I said, "I’m thinking about writing a handbook about MFA programs." She said, "You should do that. You could actually pull that off." I said, "Really?" She said, "Really." So, I did.

How does the website complement the book, and vice versa?

The MFA Blog takes up a lot of time, but I learn a lot from the visitors there, and there’s a good deal of fun involved with it as well. We joke around on there often, especially about Man Facting. Basically, most of the visitors have read the MFA Handbook and have additional questions. I attempt to answer them.

Again, it’s a learning experience for me. Sometimes I have the answer, sometimes I don’t. When I don’t I say: Does anyone else know? And often, people will begin to post comments. We get over 1,000 hits a day.

It’s been a big help in selling the book. Basically people surf over, they listen to our advice, and they know that they’ll receive similar attention in the book. It’s also a nice way to build some community in the MFA world.

What’s the most common question prospective MFA students have? What answer do you give them?

One of the most common is: "What’s the best program?" I answer with another question: "What’s the best program for you?"

The Creative Writing MFA world is not like law or medicine, where you can just pick out Harvard or Stanford or Northwestern or whatever. The MFA is an artistic degree, not necessarily a professional one. Perhaps more importantly, if you’re applying for law or medicine, you know what your undergraduate transcripts say, and you know what your standardized test (LSAT etc.) scores are. You know whether you have a good shot at a particular school.

This isn’t true at all in the MFA world. Students are chosen based on their writing samples (stories, poems etc.), and so it’s a subjective process. I encourage students to apply to between 8 and 12 schools to increase their chances.

Just as importantly, criteria like location (city, ocean, mountains), funding (whether you’ll receive financial support from a school), or receiving teaching experience can be every bit as important as, say, who teaches in a particular program. Just because William Shakespeare teaches at State or Private U doesn’t mean that he’s a good teacher, or even that he’ll be around.

I have profiles of 50 programs in the MFA Handbook. But I encourage students to approach them with a critical eye and by using their own criteria.

Every once in a while some MFA graduate publishes a blog post or essay explaining that getting an MFA was a total waste of time and money. It seems to be a debate that pops up rather frequently, some people agreeing wholeheartedly, others disagreeing completely. I’m not so interested in the debate, but I am curious why you think the debate comes up time and time again (perhaps it’s as simple as writer’s writing what they know)?

It really has to do with the person. It is a complete waste of time for some people. You really have to be willing to commit 2-3 years of your life to the craft. That’s what the degree is about in many ways: You’re ‘trying on’ this life of a writer. It doesn’t fit for everyone.

I think most of the negative opinions come from people who dropped a lot of cash on their program. Columbia for example is around $35,000, plus the expenses of living in NYC. I make funding a main focus of the MFA Handbook.

And then there are also people who have had truly horrible experiences. Lousy teachers, angry peers, not much support from the community. That’s why it pays to do your homework when researching programs. You want to know that the program has a good track record, especially from the last few years.

Overall, I think most writers really enjoy and value their MFA experiences.

As for your question: the debate comes up because of all these factors, and also because I think people sometimes have unrealistic expectations. The idea in some people’s minds: you put in two years and you come out of it with a book deal and a professorship. But that’s very far from the reality of the degree.

It’s a craft degree, and it’s an experience. It’s pushing yourself to be the best writer you can be, and that includes falling on your face a little or a lot. Like most serious pursuits, those people who fail, get up, and dust themselves off often have the most long-term success and personal fulfillment.

And finally, yes, part of it is: Writers write. And they write about their experience. Part of their experience is the MFA program. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

How do people in MFA programs engage the writing process?

I guess that they do it every which way you could think of. On a basic level, some people write in the mornings, some in the evenings, some people write intoxicated on their rooftops in their underwear. Some people write from experience, others use their imagination and make everything up. Everyone has their own process.

This may or may not be relevant to your question, but I was discussing attitude with a writer friend the other day. It came up because he’d said "I’m working on my novel this afternoon. I’ll probably end up crying a lot."

I laughed. "You won’t," I said. "You’re just saying that."

"That’s true," he said. "It’s actually my favorite time of day. But you’re supposed to act like it’s the most terrible thing, because that’s what writers do."

And writers definitely do. I definitely say that kind of thing often. Though, less often recently. I always write a quote on the board before every class, and I sometimes used to write funny things like "Writing is easy. You just open up an artery and bleed." — Red Smith

Or a thousand other quotes that make the process seem this horrible experience. Anyways, I stopped writing these on the board last year. Why? I guess I believe attitude goes a long way, and if you think writing is going to be a terrible experience, then that attitude will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s not to say that writing isn’t difficult. It certainly is. But I want to instill in my students the idea of ‘play’ in writing. The idea, quite frankly, of fun. That when you sit down with your characters or verses or screenwriting software, whatever, that there’s a sense of play there. A sense that something really interesting is going to happen, not just on the page, but actually within the writer. You’ve got to keep that sense of play, and that sense of discovery, otherwise you begin to see your writing as your enemy, and that’s poison for a writer.

I’m not even sure if I’m right about all this, to be honest with you. But I believe it, and I want my students to believe it. I think the old way: the "bleeding from your forehead" way is unhelpful, especially for younger writers.

I guess my main point is: writing is about creating, and it’s also about solving problems. And while the problems themselves may be unpleasant, the actual process of solving them is when we grow the most as writers. I think it’s important to look at that process in a positive way. It’s important to remember that sometimes the solving of problems is the most fun in the writing process. And often it produces the best writing.

What can someone who does not want to go the MFA route do to engage the writing process in a similar way?

I guess the best advice, MFA or no MFA: If you want to be a writer, read a lot, then write a lot. Then read a lot more. Then, at some points, get some feedback from readers that you trust. Then read and write again and again.

There’s no substitute for these things. An MFA program simply facilitates these activities in some way.

So, you can either be self-disciplined about these things or you can help yourself in multiple ways: Write with one or two other people a few times a week. At a coffeehouse, or over at someone’s house. You can take writing classes too. That’s always a good way to meet people. Also, go to readings. And ask other people for book recommendations. Don’t just stay in your narrow field of interest. Read as many varied and interesting works as you can find. The person behind the counter at your local bookstore is an excellent resource.

Bottom line: be around writing, in both private and social ways, and your writing will improve.

You know, I haven’t read this book, but I’m going to plug it anyways, because 1. I’ve heard good things about it, and 2. It seems to be aimed right at your question.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. Check it out and see what you think. It might be a good way to keep non-MFA writers focused and on task.

What do you tell your students on the first day of class? What do you tell them on the last day?

First day: Don’t be afraid to fall on your face in this class. I want them to stretch as writers and move outside their comfort zone. That’s the only way to learn. In writing and outside of it.

Last day: Ha. I guess I tell them a lot of things. Certainly: "I’m going to miss you," because they are usually great classes and I enjoy teaching them. But I think the quote I put on the board is the most important:

"Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust your own judgment, learn inner dependence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad." — Doris Lessing

What writing advice do you often give out, but have to remind yourself about on a regular basis to actually follow?

Work hard, but make it play. Make it fun, or you’ll begin to see it as homework instead of something you love. Write about what interests you, not what you think will interest other people.

Visit the MFA Blog.

Read the interview with Tom Kealey over at The Publishing Spot.

Buy the book: The Creative Writing MFA Handbook.

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