“Sometimes we’re accused of not being willing to expand,” Irvine’s McMichael says. “We say we would, if we felt the quality of the pool argued for it. Sometimes we have some trouble identifying more than four people we really want.” With those exacting standards come certain pressures, “but we’ve had some years where every member of the class ends up with a book contract,” McMichael says.
In writing, more than in almost any other academic discipline, “the content walks through your door,” says the novelist Christopher Tilghman, who teaches at Virginia. There and at Irvine and Michigan and Texas, to name a few, the numbers of applicants are staggering—often 500 or more. The eventual notoriety or prominence of one’s program can be made or broken in that first step.
At Virginia, the fiction faculty meets in Tilghman’s living room to hash out the choices. Almost every program director says virtually the same thing about the process: GREs, college grades, and what institution one attended as an undergrad are nearly meaningless, used at best as tie-breakers. Of main importance is the short writing sample each student submits for consideration. Almost exclusively from that sample of 10 to 50 pages or so, the selectors must try to divine talent, ambition, teachability, and collegiality—the four critical elements of the ideal apprentice writer’s makeup.
Ha Jin says, “Looking at the writing samples allows you to get to a list of 30 to 40 out of the 300. From there, each person in some ways deserves to be accepted. That’s where other factors enter the discussion.” Here may be where the personality of a program is truly shaped, even if not consciously. For example, he says, “what if you have someone applying who has already published four books? Is that person really willing to consider re‑ examining his writing?” Others worry that applicants who have already published extensively are looking for the degree only as a teaching credential.
At Michigan, where each applicant’s work gets read by at least two faculty members, Pollack says, “you’re still trying to think of how this writer will fit into the community.”
When the historical novelist James Michener endowed the University of Texas with $20 million to support a writing program, the university “started to get good writers,” says James Magnuson, director of the James A. Michener Center, probably the top program in the country in funding creative-writing graduate students. The Michener Center gives its writers free tuition, a $20,000 annual stipend for three years with no teaching responsibility, and a $6,000 “professional development fund” for travel and research.
Texas has the distinction of being a university with two graduate programs in creative writing, which seems something like being a college with two basketball teams. The Texas English department offers a two-year M.A. in creative writing in poetry or fiction, and the Michener Center is a three-year M.F.A. program that requires its students to work in two of the four disciplines offered—playwriting, screenwriting, poetry, and fiction. While paying customers might be more attracted to a program that confers a degree in fewer years, the Michener Center “offers the gift of time,” Magnuson says. “We sometimes overvalue what we do as teachers, when it’s about just letting people write.”