Everything I know about Letters of Recommendation

CW Programs

Note: This is about LORs for the academic job market, not for applying to MFA programs. That post is here. 

True Story

Screenshot 2014-10-20 18.48.32A few years ago, a writer I knew (I’ll call her Chris) sent me an email asking me for some information. A graduate creative writing program had asked her to speak with their MFA students about “going on the market.” How to do a CV. How to write a good letter of application. How to read job ads. How to ask for LORs. That sort of thing.

The problem was that Chris was not on the faculty of that (very prestigious) MFA program. She was visiting and had only been on the job market in a limited way. So when Chris asked me if I would share my job search materials with her to share with MFA students in this program, here’s what I said:

You know, no. And I’ll tell you why.

First, I think that it’s the responsibility of the faculty of that very fine school to mentor their students. Not mine. And really, not even yours. THEY need to make their CVs and job letters and wisdom available to people who worked really hard to get into that school. That is why one works hard to get into that school–for access to that sort of thing.

Second, my materials are for my students and for my friends. If YOU want to see my letter, my CV, really ANYTHING, I would give it to you in a heartbeat. But not to them.

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Come upstairs and see my route book?

Come upstairs and see my route book?

The Circus in Winter Writing

Route books are a gold mine of circus history. They’re a yearly archive of a show’s acts and travels, meticulously recorded for posterity, then printed and given to circus personnel as a keepsake.

I have one that belonged to my great great uncle Henry Hoffman, superintendent of the menagerie for the Great Wallace Show.

When I started doing readings for The Circus in Winter, I took lots of pictures and put them in scrapbooks. I wanted to remember as many of those wonderful moments as possible.

But I noticed that many of the pictures from those years featured me standing behind a podium or sitting at a table.

That isn’t how I remember readings and events. I remember looking out at a sea of faces.

So for the last few years, I try to take a picture of the audience at all my readings.

Check out the new Route Book page

When I was creating my Route Book page for this website, I decided to do more than caption the photos. Where. When. I decided to share my memories of those events, and what I realized is that I’ve met and re-met so many people by going on the road.

Readings are hard on me. I have a bad back. I have anxiety issues. I’m an introvert. But I also love the experience of being in the room when people are experiencing my work or reacting to my ideas.

So feel free to follow the link and thumb through the pages of my route book. Maybe you’re in one of the pictures?

Check out the new Events page

I’ll be adding lots of pictures to the Route Book page soon; I’m going to be on the road a lot this fall. For more information, check out the Events page.

And may all your days be circus days. 

 

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

CW Programs Teaching

My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.

But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious! 

Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.

So: here are the results of my Novel in MFA Programs survey.

The faculty results.

The student results.

Tell me what you find interesting, surprising in these results, and when I’m back to my desk, I’ll talk about it!

How I Answered the AWP Survey

How I Answered the AWP Survey

CW Programs Teaching

Take the survey! You have until March 22. It’s important. I filled it out the other day, and I found that I had so much to say in that little comment module I decided to cut and paste it into a document and share it with you. FYI: I also provided my email address on the survey, so I didn’t say all this stuff to them anonymously.

[Question 21. We welcome any additional comments, feedback, and suggestions you would like to share with us through this survey or at conference@awpwriter.org.]

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Survey Results: 56% say MFA favors story over novel

CW Programs Teaching Writing

It is possible to teach novel writing in MFA programs, and many do. My panelists (David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) prove it here, by sharing their syllabi with you. You’ve got everything you need to design your own novel-writing course. You’re welcome!

Opening Remarks: “A Novel Problem: Moving from Story to Book in the MFA Program.”

About a year ago, I submitted an essay to The Millions titled, “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from Story to Book,” which the editors were kind enough to publish, but with a more provocative headline: “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.”

The essay touched a nerve. I got a lot of reactions, from faculty and from students in both residential and low-res programs, and from people who opted not to pursue an MFA because they felt programs were “anti-novel.”

They are not alone in this opinion. Continue reading

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices

Teaching

If you’d like to teach a class in novel-writing but don’t know how, have no fear. My panel is here!

David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and I have all taught the course, and we’ve compiled a Best Practices handout: syllabi, exercises, and other resources to guide you on your way.

Some of us focus on the early stages of writing a novel–generating ideas, writing a summary or treatment, studying published books as models, getting scenes on the page–while others focus on later stages and include all-group workshop of novels in progress. There’s 16 pages of material here, and we hope you find something that works for you.

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

CW Programs Teaching Writing

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.  

Should take just a minute or two. Please consider the questions carefully, answer, and then (this is important) please share this post widely via social media so that I can gather a range of responses.

I’m doing this in preparation for my AWP panel, “A Novel Problem: Moving from “Story” to “Book” in the MFA Program,” which is scheduled for Thursday, March 1 from 12:00-1:15 PM in the Lake Michigan Room at the Hilton Chicago. I’m moderating, and the panelists are, David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I will share the results of the survey at the panel in Chicago.

So: help me out here. Take the survey. Share it with your friends and colleagues. And let the discussion begin.

Description of the Panel

Short stories are often our main pedagogical tools, but the book is the primary unit of literary production. When are apprentice writers “ready” to write novels, and how do we review them in a workshop setting? How can we create courses that encourage students to move toward and complete book projects? This panel will explore the challenges of accommodating the novel or the novel-in-stories within the structure of an MFA program and in the classroom.

Statement of Merit

A recent essay on this topic by the panel’s organizer prompted a good deal of response. Some claim that MFA programs are subtly (or deliberately) “anti-novel.” That theory is disproved by the faculty panelists, who have experience mentoring in MFA program settings. They will share their best practices with the audience. 

Resources

Here’s a brief list of other articles that have come out in the last year or so related to the topic of our panel: 

Brian Joseph Davis,  “Why MFA Programs Matter.” Huffington Post.

Anelise Chen. “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” The Rumpus.

John Stazinski, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories.” Poets & Writers, the January/February 2012 issue, print only. 

Celebrating (and Celebritizing) Teaching Creative Writing

CW Programs Teaching Writing

 

Today, Fiction Writers Review is running “Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation about Creative Writing Pedagogy (Pt. 1),” a co-written article by myself, Anna Leahy, and Stephanie Vanderslice. This lively, wide-ranging conversation took place during the summer of 2010 via email exchanges.

I just want to thank FWR for publishing this article. You might be wondering why it appears there and not in, say the AWP Writers Chronicle or a pedagogy journal. Well, the truth is, we did submit it to the Chronicle, but they passed, as is their right, of course. When we got the very kind rejection, we discussed what to do next. Where else do you publish an article about teaching creative writing? (I’ve discussed this problem at some length here.) Since most creative writing teachers don’t (won’t?) read pedagogy journals, we decided to shoot for more mainstream publishing venues. Our first priority was making these ideas “findable” and “share-able.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to make two suggestions that weren’t included in this conversation:

A keynote address on Teaching Creative Writing at the annual AWP conference. I would pay good money to hear anything Charles Baxter or Peter Turchi or Janet Burroway had to say about teaching. Why can’t Good Teachers be “celebritized” at AWP alongside the Good Writers?

More “teaching-creative-writing blogs.” This blog has invigorated my teaching in many wonderful ways, and it’s brought me many new friends. Yes, it takes time, and I know we all struggle to find the time to write, to teach, and to live our lives. In the midst of a busy life, why make time to write about teaching when it doesn’t “count” for tenure and promotion?

Because when you force yourself to articulate what you do and how you do it, your teaching improves.

Because. Teaching. Matters.

Anxiety + Community = AWP

CW Programs Teaching Writing

"Are you somebody?"

[Note: This post has nothing to do with snow. ]

AWP is like my Facebook feed.

It’s where I go to feel connected to and learn from other writer-teachers. So many panel topics! So many great discussions! Sometimes I just show up to listen and learn, taking notes. Sometimes I propose a panel and start a conversation. It’s often energizing and enriching. I’m part of a community, a profession, a discipline. If this is what it feels like to have “a calling,” to be doing the thing(s) you’re supposed to be doing in life, then that is what I feel like when I’m there at AWP, on Facebook.

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Who says that nobody cares about creative writing pedagogy?

Teaching

I’m still trying to process the response to my essay in The Millions, and all I can think to say is: holy shit.

Thanks to analytics and Google Alert and trackbacks, I’ve been able to follow much of the unfolding conversation. A dialogue has begun. This makes me happy.

I learned a lot this week. It was sort of like going to AWP without having to go to AWP. It was a standing-room only panel in an enormous hotel ballroom, the inspiring kind of panel that recharges your soul-weary batteries.

I laughed! I cried! It was better than AWP!

What’s clear to me is that many, many people in this world identify as writers, and they’re all working to lead literary lives. Many have experienced some form of creative writing instruction, and thus, they have very strong feelings about pedagogy and creative writing curriculum-even though they might not use those terms to describe those feelings.

How do you change the default setting of the traditional workshop so that big things can be brought class and discussed meaningfully? Twice in the essay, I provide bad examples, how not to do it.

Okay. Very funny. So how DO you do it?

The first draft of my essay described the ways in which I’ve been trying to practice what I preach-in the classroom and in my own writing life-but I cut it. The essay was getting really long. I opted instead to include a link to this blog.

Please, check out my previous posts (Tags/Topics)and consider subscribing. [See right column.]

I will post at least once a week about teaching and writing big things. I will endeavor to make these posts worth your while-and believe me, I know you already have too much to read.

Many creative writing students and teachers responded to my essay by sharing their own experiences and best practices. For the next week or so, I’m going to make frequent posts highlighting those.

I’m calling this series: This Is How You Do It.

Thanks for being here.