I’ve been dreaming of pursuing an MFA in creative writing since I was an undergrad. One day, while I was wandering around the university bookstore, I stumbled upon The Creative Writing MFA Handbook by Tom Kealey. I read the first three chapters right there in the store, caved and bought it. A bit redundant, daydreaming about school when you’re already in school, but my trains of thought are underailable. By now I know better than to fight it. Undergrad dragged on / flew by and I gravitated toward the idea of the MFA. The only problem was, I was going to have to chill out for a little bit before I gave chase; a few classmates of mine applied to programs during senior year, but I only knew of one– a terrifyingly gifted writer– who was accepted to a Lit MA program. Other than that, the overwhelming response was, “Go mess around for a while, then reapply when you have shit to write about.” I moved home and waited for something remarkable to happen.
Eventually I realized that some guy wouldn’t just knock on my door and say hey I found some extra writing material that I can’t use, maybe you could take it off my hands. So I got three jobs, went to parties with the explicit and yet subconscious purpose of humiliating myself as much as possible, dug into relationships way past the point of no return, and thought a lot about everything I could think of. Couldn’t tell you what exactly I’ve learned or if the things I’ve written down have any utility or entertainment value whatsoever, but maybe other writers could. Regardless, I now have material.
Out of the 215 programs on the Poets & Writer’s database for Creative Writing MFAs, I’ve narrowed it down to 16 just by asking myself, “Could I live with myself in [insert city]?” Call it oversimplified, reductive, or obtuse, but I learned my lesson in undergrad when I moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles. You can love the people there all you want, but the city itself is a personality that you’re going to have to deal with for the duration of your residency, and I’d rather not take up with another– excuse me– lunatic like LA. It was fun and all, but it gets old. Like that one “free spirit” you dated for awhile, or Joan Rivers. Maybe you dated Joan Rivers. Who would date Joan Rivers?
The resulting shortlist:
1. University of Minnesota
2. Minnesota State University – Mankato
3. Hamline University
4. University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
5. University of Iowa
6. University of Wisconsin – Madison
7. Cornell University
8. Syracuse University
9. Columbia University
10. New York University
11. Emerson College
12. Boston University
13. University of Baltimore
14. Johns Hopkins University
15. University of Virginia
16. University of New Orleans
Poets & Writers have ranked these programs in various places, and some of them are in the top twenty and some aren’t even close. But after a bit of digging, I’ve decided the veracity of their methodology is tenuous at best. Sure, there are certain deal-breakers and -makers, but beyond that I think it’s a bit of a crapshoot. I need a good city, full funding, and a solid writing community. The rest is gravy.
Sometimes I lay awake and tell myself I’m as looneytunes as the city I left, that maybe some of its crazy rubbed off and I should keep my nose on the 3-part-time-jobs-grindstone. But then I pull out Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, or O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or the book that started it all, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’ll fall asleep rereading those passages that made me want to become a writer in the first place, and wake up with the words riding on the air in my lungs, stretching out to nap in the synapses between my neurons. They affect the way I put on my coat in the morning and how I pour the milk on my cereal. Arranged a certain way, words change the little things. And the little things are everything.