March Madness for Hoopsters and Wordsmiths

I just got back from a visit to the University of Indianapolis where I did a reading and visited an Editing and Publishing class. Just like at my school, Ohio State, some of the undergraduates were already thinking about applying for MFA programs. We’re in recruitment season now, trying to convince those who received offers from us to join our program next year. A number of those people will have offers other than ours, and we’ll enter into a seductive dance as we try to persuade them that Ohio State has the MFA Program that will be best for them. We do have a very fine program here, named one of five up-and-coming programs a few years ago by the Atlantic. But there are a number of very fine programs out there, and sometimes we lose some folks to them. Often, though, we get the people we want. Our success rate is pretty danged high. It’s always interesting to me that this wooing of writers heats up at the same time as the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness–for hoopsters and wordsmiths.

While I was at the U of Indianapolis, I heard more than one undergraduate talking about making those applications to MFA programs. As I say, I see my own undergrads go through this same process, and I’ve come to understand that somehow–possibly because MFA programs are so numerous these days?–undergrads have come to think of graduate study in creative writing as the next logical step. In some cases, I get the impression that the undergrads have started to believe that entry into an MFA program is a right guaranteed to them. My advice to my own undergrads is that they wait a few years after graduation before they get serious about graduate programs in creative writing. This isn’t to say, of course, that it’s impossible to make a successful move from the undergraduate degree to an MFA program immediately, but I do think that with most people, a few years of seasoning is a good idea. More life experience is a good thing for your writing. You only get once chance to do your MFA. Why not wait until you’re at a time in your life when you’re most capable of taking advantage of the tremendous opportunity that you have when you spend two or three years studying your craft, working closely with like-minded people, and creating a manuscript that with a bit of luck and a ton of hard work just might become your first book.  I also think it’s a good idea to be away from school a while, working a job that you really don’t care all that much about, so you can test how committed you are to a writer’s life. Is it something you think you want to do, or is it something that you have to do? Will you find time for it even when the demands of your job make it difficult, or will not writing be something easy for you to accept? I guess I’m saying that there’s no hurry. The MFA programs will still be there when, and if, you decide that this isn’t just something that you think you want to do. It’s the way you want to live your life–is the only way, in fact, that your place in the world can make any kind of sense to you at all.

I write stories and novels and essays and memoirs because that writing allows me to give some shape to the world swirling around me. Being at my desk, working with language to dramatize, express, interrogate, reflect slows the world down for me. I enter a meditative state, one that’s essential to my being able to see more clearly, to understand, to believe that patterns exist even within something that appears chaotic or shapeless. As I told the class I visited in Indy, I think of my work as a spiritual experience for me–spiritual in the sense that I pay close attention to the small details, that I write my way toward knowing that those details contain this life, all the lives that have come before, and the life on the other side of this one.





  1. Ray on March 23, 2011 at 7:27 am

    This summer I am slated to work with you, Lee, at the Vermont College Post-Graduate Writer’s Conference, where we met in 2009, when you led a nonfiction workshop and I brought what I know now was a novel shell, finished then with three drafts. My novel has progressed significantly since: three new drafts, a lot of refocusing, and now a honing of the first section I want feedback on from you. That section includes images from the 2004 NCAA tournament, a parallel with the baseball at the work’s essence, and a viewpoint character’s rites of midlife passaging.

    My attendance at the conference this summer is contingent on my finding a real job; I adjunct now, and come May, I will once again willow, unemployed in my own midlifing, the same state I have experienced since that 2009 conference. I look forward to working with you, Lee, and hold my breath that I can.

    Why I respond to this blog post: the bad choices I made in attending Oregon’s MFA program in 1987 continue to haunt me. I am a New Englander, and while I was 27 when I entered grad school, I had just gotten my BFA and was not ready to leave Vermont. So you are right: choose wisely. The opportunity to attend an MFA program is life-changing, and something I am now wishing I could embrace rather than look back on with wonder.

    • Lee Martin on March 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Ray. It’s good to hear from you, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you’ll be able to make the Vermont summer conference. You’re so right about the far-reaching effects of an MFA choice. I went to Arkansas for mine, and for the most part I felt like a fish out of water. I later went to Nebraska for my Ph.D., and that was my chance to have a “do-over.” That is to say, I felt like I was finally ready for graduate study, and I loved those five years in Nebraska. I always said it was like doing the MFA over with the wisdom of more experience. Hope to see you in Montpelier in August, Ray, and thanks again for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

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