Your Questions Answered

“Am I Ready For The MFA?”

To prepare for a MFA in writing, focus on community and a writing practice first.

Alexander Chee
3 min readDec 14, 2020

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It is MFA application season, and I’ve received a number of variations on this question from students to which I have a single answer, and so I’ve decided to offer that answer here.

I typically do not answer as to their readiness with a single yes or no — I don’t want to be that powerful in such an important situation. They need to feel ready, and so I instead guide them on how to prepare. I extend the following caveat: do not let the application process be a referendum on your future as a writer. And then I offer an assignment: To submit work to contests and magazines, and to find a literary community. This is because an independent idea of your art and of yourself as an artist allows you to get the best out of the program, even as it also protects you from turning the experience into an obstacle.

The author at age 22 holding a pencil, in thought. Photo is black and white.
Me at the first OutWrite conference in San Francisco in 1990, a year before applying to MFA programs. Photo by Rick Gerharter.

After I left college, I moved to San Francisco, got a job as a bookseller at a LGBTQ bookstore, and began writing. I created zines with friends, I worked on the first OutWrite conference, I took an internship at a local magazine and began a freelance writing career too. I didn’t know I was participating in a community, exactly — but I was guided by that community, by people who were either doing this work or had done this work. It is clear to me now how my accomplishments then came out of being a part of that literary community, and I’m not talking about connections: I mean showing up for events, putting my work out there and taking opportunities as they came to me. By the time I applied for my MFA three years later, I had published poems, stories, reviews and a few magazine articles. I’d read for audiences. I had met heroes, mentors, rivals, even nemeses. I had a sense of my value as a writer. I didn’t get that from getting into a MFA program — I arrived with it. And so when critiques didn’t go my way, or writing heroes didn’t like my story drafts, it might have hurt, or been difficult, but I kept my perspective and kept going.

A friend in my program at the time said to me, “You just carry yourself like you know it will happen for you.” I was surprised by this, as I didn’t actually feel that way. But I had…

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Alexander Chee

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.