One of the things I was proudest to accomplish while at the University of Iowa was establishing an undergraduate curriculum for science fiction writing. I taught it for two years, first while a TA as a proof-of-concept class within the Fiction Writing track, then as an adjunct with an official course title: Writing and Reading Science Fiction. These classes were popular with students, and I was thrilled that even after I left the University the course continued, taught by Van Choojitarom. And it continues still, now under the steady professorial hand of Willa Richards. By the time she’s done with it, there will be a graduating class of Hawkeyes who’ve never known a semester when a course on writing genre fiction wasn’t offered by their university. That is perhaps the most satisfying thing I’ve yet achieved in my career. So thanks, again, to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and University of Iowa for championing science fiction, and to Van and Willa for keeping it going.
Tag: Iowa Writers’ Workshop
I couldn’t attend ICFA this year, but I’ve been following along as best I can on social networks. Earlier today Nick Mamatas livetweeted a panel discussion on graduate school and job possibilities for writers with MFAs/PhDs. Apparently someone (or several someones) at this panel expressed an opinion that Nick summarized as “Genre writers seeking MFAs shouldn’t do only genre in samples or classes. Or try milder non-real not hardcore space opera.” I think that, in the absence of a discussion about why one is seeking an MFA in the first place, this advice is misguided.
If your only goal is to receive an MFA, and you either do not care about or consider it of secondary importance where you go and what kind of experience you have, then sure, you can probably maximize the statistical likelihood of MFA program X accepting you by leaning toward realism in your writing sample. But if what you want is to spend a few years working on your writing in the company of supportive teachers and receptive peers, then you do yourself a disservice by misrepresenting the kind of writing you plan to focus on. If hardcore space opera is what you want to write, finagling an acceptance to an MFA program where you will be told that exploding spaceships are a waste of the workshop’s time is a pyrrhic victory.
I applied to MFA programs with a portfolio that consisted entirely of genre fiction, and made it clear in my personal statement that I intended to continue perpetrating genre at any program that accepted me. My theory was that, as a person primarily interested in being a science fiction writer, I wanted to be rejected by any program with a culture unsupportive of that goal. I was rejected by 4/5 of the programs I applied to, but accepted by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa, I came to learn, is actively expanding the varieties of fiction they champion. I’m the only pure SF writer in my class, but this semester they have Kevin Brockmeier teaching Iowa’s first-ever graduate workshop specifically devoted to science fiction and fantasy. We are discussing stories by authors like Theodora Goss, Arthur C. Clarke, and J. G. Ballard, and everyone is trying their hands at some variety of fabulism. (And if Kevin hadn’t chosen to do a class on SF, the other visiting professor, Andrew Sean Greer, says he would have.) More personally, I was just awarded a fellowship for my second year, on the basis of the stories I wrote my first semester: one hard SF story, one fantasy story. I’m having a wonderful experience, and I feel valued both as a student and as part of a project to diversify my program’s literary culture. That’s a project I couldn’t have been selected for if I hadn’t signaled my writing intentions in my application.
So, to summarize, my advice for genre writers looking to get MFAs is this: if what you are looking for is a good experience, rather than just a degree, don’t try to juke the system. Write the kind of stories you want to write. Write them as well as you can. Then let the MFA faculties do their jobs and decide whether or not you are a good fit for their program. That way you can be confident that any program which accepts you is interested in supporting the kind of fiction you are passionate about.
About a month ago, the PBS Newshour ran a segment about the 75th anniversary of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest writing MFA program in the country.
At 1:16 in the above video, the segment cuts to workshop director Samantha Chang standing in an office filled with crates full of manuscripts in red folders, explaining that over 1,200 people applied to the workshop that year. The picture then zooms in on a crate containing “the lucky twenty-six who were accepted.” Somewhere in that lingering shot are 58 pages that passed through my printer before getting to Iowa City.
In the fall of 2011, I will begin studying for an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I decided I wanted to attend graduate school for the time it would afford me to focus on writing, and because I wanted to be in a place that would provide me with extrinsic motivation to create fiction. I had also learned at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop how fantastic it is to be in group of similarly impassioned people, and wanted more of that. It was my original intention to apply to MFA programs immediately after attending Clarion in 2008, but instead I spent most of the next year bedridden by Crohn’s disease. It took me until 2010 to get my life sufficiently orderly to pursue those plans again. So my first steps toward making writing my main focus were fairly stumbling, but things seem to be going smoothly now.
There are still some foreseeable difficulties though. Most notably, that I’ve spent the last 26 years living in a place where the annual temperature looks like this:
and now I’m moving to a place where the annual temperature looks like this:
I’m going from a place where it almost never gets below freezing to a place where I can expect to see frost for half the year. I am flatly terrified that I am going to find a way to die of exposure walking between classes. But I have chosen to fight terror with terror, and, in a effort to curry the favor of the elder gods, have purchased one of these to protect me:
Bring it on, Iowa.