This time last year I’d been holed up in the second-floor bedroom of a ramshackle house in Queens, where I paid $250 a month to split a small room with my freshman year roommate. We lived across the street from a family of motorcycle enthusiasts, spent nights listening to backyard karaoke and quinceanera celebrations. We installed ten-dollar box fans on each of the bay windows, two facing inward and one outward, in a desperate attempt to regulate the summer’s humidity, which settled in the bedsheets and left a clingy dampness on every surface. We had not one, but three house-keys —courtesy of a security door with two sets of locks, and a temperamental oak door that frequently locked us out.
It wasn’t always like this. I had lived on Fifth Avenue my freshman year of college, in a spacious –and subsidized– dorm with hardwood floors just two blocks away from Washington Square Park. Now, I was living two blocks downrange from LaGuardia and cooking my meals on a portable burner, because the communal stove drew too much power and regularly tripped the circuit breaker. The walls were thin and the windows mottled with water spots, even though it never rained. And in the five other rented rooms were sets of girls from –it seemed– every college in New York. It was the summer before my senior year at NYU.
I had just learned I would be graduating a year early, thanks to a forgotten cache of AP credits. I was less than pleased. In truth, I wasn’t ready to leave NYU. I liked living in New York, with its Japanese tea-houses and macaroon shops, narrow streets lined with Stan Smiths and undercuts.
But New York was expensive, and I had just spent the last two years moving into a series of progressively smaller and less desirable apartments. I knew that upon graduating, I would have to suffer in Queens or Brooklyn for a series of interminable years, stringing along odd jobs because I didn’t want to work in marketing (despite being a Communications major), didn’t want to get swallowed up in a career that didn’t interest or challenge me, didn’t want to lose focus of my ultimate goal: to write, and to get paid to write. So I decided to pursue an MFA, because I wanted to write without interruption, without worrying about money.
By then, I had less than six months to research schools, study for the GRE, write my manuscript, source recommendation letters, and complete fourteen individualized Statement of Purposes. Still, I was lucky. There was nothing actively preventing me from applying: no student loans, no children, no house, no lease, no long term relationship. My thought process at the time was something akin to: I should totally apply —all my assets are liquid, baby!
I spent the first month almost entirely at a 24 hour Dunkin Donuts, where I alternated between completing a fifty book reading list and writing throwaway vignettes. I tried every donut. Then I spent the next three months working on my manuscript. I stopped exercising, spent over a thousand dollars on food delivery services, and staggered through my Fall semester courses with the enthusiasm of a decaying corpse. By December, I was physically and mentally exhausted, having applied to fourteen programs:
- Brown University (fiction)
- Cornell University (fiction)
- New York University (fiction)
- Sarah Lawrence College (creative non-fiction)
- Syracuse University (fiction)
- University of California, Irvine (fiction)
- University of Iowa (fiction)
- University of Michigan (fiction)
- University of Minnesota (fiction)
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas (fiction)
- University of Texas at Austin (fiction)
- University of Virginia (fiction)
- Vanderbilt University (fiction)
- Washington University in St. Louis (creative non-fiction)
I chose these programs primarily because they topped the Poets & Writers list of “The Top Fifty” MFA programs. At the time, I felt like I needed to apply to the most selective programs, because an acceptance would provide me with enough external validation to reassure myself that I was, in fact, a good writer. I remember thinking that the application process was a rigorous test I needed to endure in order to determine whether I should pursue a career in writing.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t apply to MFA programs because you’re insecure about your abilities. Getting into a program won’t make you more confident in your writing, primarily because these programs have neither the authority nor the ability to determine who’s good and who’s not. Remember that most programs send out rejection letters to dozens of qualified applicants. And every year, these same programs let many unqualified ones slip in. What I’m trying to say is, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Don’t forget to eat well, exercise, and go out from time to time. If you take the pressure cooker route like I did, prepare for an intensely unpleasant time. Needless to say, it was an immense relief when I finally sent off my applications. During the intervening months, I reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in months. I slept a lot. I turned twenty-one. For me, waiting was the easiest part.
In the end, I was accepted to five programs, and chose Iowa because I admired writers who came out of Iowa. They offered me a generous fellowship and the opportunity to work as the fiction editor for The Iowa Review. I accepted their terms without hesitation. There was champagne and tequila involved. After three years of New York, I wanted to head for the country, for Iowa City, another hyper-literate place –like Brooklyn– only sans brownstones, sans oppressively high property values, sans the Great Uncertainty that is the G train.
For those of you who are looking to apply to MFA programs, know that the decision to apply isn’t one that should be taken lightly.
MFAs are expensive —even the fully funded ones. On average, it costs around $65 to submit just one application. If you applied to fourteen programs like I did, you’d be looking at over $900 in application fees. That’s not even including the money spent packaging and mailing your (heavy) manuscripts to the programs that you’re looking to apply to. And even after spending all that money, there’s no guarantee you’ll get into a program —which might be a good thing, because the real costs begin to pile up once the acceptances roll in. You might need to buy a car, especially if you previously relied on public transportation. You’ll need to pay for a house or an apartment, possibly in a neighborhood that’s more expensive than what you’re used to. You’ll need furniture, light bulbs, extension cords, new clothes, an expensive new haircut. Maybe you’ll need plane tickets and an U-Haul, and insurance for your new car. Even if you applied to a school that’s a block away from home, you’ll still need to confront the fact that the generous stipend and fellowship you received is far less than what you’d make minimum wage.
And then there’s the cost of tearful goodbyes and two to three years of your life. Finally, remember the liquid assets I was talking about earlier? In the months it took for you to apply to MFA programs, you might have fallen in love, had a child, bought a house, or signed a lease on an expensive car (hopefully you had the foresight to not put $12,000 down on that Maserati —but as for the rest? Choose love, choose life). By the time you get into an MFA program, you might realize you’re no longer in a position to go. It takes a special set of circumstances for someone to pursue an MFA. One should never forget that it’s a rare privilege to be able to devote two to three years of your life to writing.
Next month I’ll detail my first month at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as my experiences editing The Iowa Review. To those of you who’ve decided to apply to MFAs —good luck. And to all of you —I hope to see you in print.