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

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.

What’s Your Project #128Dream Journal Project

I keep a dream journal that I write in several times a week. Here’s how to start one of your own:

1. When you are brushing your teeth before going to bed, brush for awhile with the hand you don’t normally use. This activates the non-dominant, non-logical side of your brain and gets you ready to be tuned into your unconscious.

2. Even more important, as you fall asleep, have the intention to bring a dream back with you when you wake up–I think of it as similar to going fishing. Sometimes you will catch something, sometimes not.

3. Keep a journal by your bed. There are several approaches to this. You can be very disciplined about it, making sure to write down every fragment of dream that you can recall, especially when you wake up during the night. Or, you can take a more relaxed approach and just write whatever’s left in your head in the morning.

4. I am using a journal with black pages that I write on with silver and gold ink, because that has a cool look that differentiates my dream journal from my regular journal. Choose whatever notebook and pens work for you, fancy or simple.

5. When you write your dreams down in the morning, just write everything you remember. Then go back and reread, and try to do a little analysis. If any words or phrases are lingering in your head, look them up in a dictionary, even if you know their meaning. There will be cool second and third levels of meaning to discover.

6. Make sure to keep a playful and respectful attitude toward your unconscious mind, which is very powerful and wants to make your life more fabulous!

Anya Weber
Jamaica Plain, MA

Just Back From South Africa

Sorry for the lack of recent posts — was traveling in South Africa. What an amazing trip it was. I’ll be writing all about it soon.

In the post below (the last one before I left for South Africa), I mentioned that I was searching for my summer projects. Well, writing down my experience in South Africa is definitely now on the list. More than ever, this trip really got me thinking about vacations and travel. I’ll be exploring that in the post about South Africa.

For now, though, I’ll just offer this up as a possible project: Write down the experience of your most recent vacation.

Or this: Write down the memory of a long ago vacation.

Or maybe this: Find a favorite picture from every vacation you’ve ever taken and collect in a single photo album.

For Some Writing Inspiration

Read “92 Days” by Larry Brown in the book Big Bad Love.

See the movie Before Night Falls. There’s a scene where the main character is typing on a balcony in the burning hot sun, sweating and smiling and you will know what I am talking about when you see it. (Of course read the book as well, by Reinaldo Arenas).

Read John Fante’s Ask the Dust.

Writing Tip Project

Collect up all the stories you’ve written, the ones from long ago, the stories that have been rejected, the ones that have been published, the one from that writing class four years ago. If you take on this
project, you’ll be surprised what stories are lurking in folders within folders on your hard drive. Put these stories in one document and print them out. Then read your work. Oh, the pain. The horror. You will
think, as you read various pieces, that you truly are the worst writer that there ever was, and you will throw those papers across the room and stare at them and wonder what the hell, just what the hell were you thinking, sitting there for all those hours and struggling over those terrible, terrible words. And yet, wait, pick those papers up, keep reading, and you will find a passage here and a passage there, and
think, whoa, did I write that? That’s not too bad. It’s not great or anything, but hmmm, that’s not too bad, if you don’t say so yourself. That’s just writing, you know, that’s just what it is, and as long as
you keep doing it, you’re going to nail that sentence, that passage, that story, that book. Just keep on writing. Collecting up and reading all your stories is just a part of the overall writing process. I
suppose this project is all about making sure that the process is underway and full steam ahead.

This is from the June 2006 52 Projects Newsletter. The newsletter sign up field is in the left column of the site.

Favorite Poem

This is like having a favorite movie. I have one, but then another, and then this one, and oh yeah, that one, and the list goes on and on.

But given that it’s Poetry Thursday, I was thinking about my favorite poems. Truthfully, it’s been a while since I’ve read or written any poetry, so I was having a hard time actually remembering specific poems.

And then it hit me, sort of. I couldn’t remember the name of the poem, or the poet… But I knew to look up "A Shropshire Lad." Thank God for Google. That’s the name of the collection, and so I was able to be immediately reminded that the name of the poet is A.E. Housman — of course! How could I forget?

But wait, what was the name of the poem…? I scanned the index of first lines. I was at a loss, This is no good, I thought to myself, but towards the end, almost giving up, I saw it, and it all came back: "Terence, this is stupid stuff."

How could I forget the anthem of my youth! "Terence, this is stupid stuff!"

Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.

Oh this is such an amazing poem. You can shout this one out amongst drunk friends, or you can whisper it to your reflection in the window as you stare out into the moonlit night.

Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour.

This is a poem that I heard told, and I know if YOU read it, you’ll be re-reading it until you’re old.

Poetry Thursday

We were standing underneath that tree
You said, Hey
And then you just kept going
I didn’t say a word
I heard this screaming coming four days ago

What are you going to have to lose
To see me in this shade
This was a pretty picture four years ago
A smile closed my eyes
I heard the sunshine

This whole place is echoes
I even ran up that hill before
Looking up at the four birds
That I thought you were watching
I heard every word you never spoke

–Jeffrey Yamaguchi

(Poetry Thursday is a site that encourages you to post and share an original or favorite poem every Thursday on your website. Here’s the site’s FAQ.)