Janette Turner Hospital, an author and Adjunct Associate Professor at the MFA Writing Program here, really likes Columbia. Her school spirit is perhaps second only to that of Roar-ee the Lion.
Today, she wrote an email to her old students at University of South Carolina. She is, it seems, happier here than she was there. In many hundreds of words, she details everything that she loves about Columbia, and encourages USC students to stay in a nearby hostel (with linens provided!) so that they can just smell the Morningside (“Upstate Manhattan”) air. Gawker got hold of the email, and it is unreal. We bolded some true gems. The MIT and Matisse bits are our very favorites.
To those I’m supervising and to all other MFA students:
Forwarded below are a couple of emails sent to all of our Columbia MFA students. It’s the kind of invitation students here receive-and take up-at least once or twice a week in a cornucopia of literary riches. It seems to me that USC writing students should also know about these opportunities, since you could car-pool up to NYC very cheaply and stay at youth hostels on Manhattan (within walking distance of Columbia U and Central Park) for just $30/night (shared room) with linen, towels, and breakfast provided. MFA students from other states take advantage of this and visit in groups. Why not USC?
As for news from this very different MFA planet, I’m in seventh heaven teaching here, and not only because I have Orhan Pamuk (whom I hope to bring to USC for Caught in the Creative Act), Oliver Sacks, Simon Schama, Richard Howard, Margo Jefferson, etc., etc., as colleagues, though that is obviously part of it.
My students also live and move and write in seventh heaven and in a fever of creative excitement.Columbia’s MFA is rigorous and competitive but students don’t just have publication as a goal – they take that for granted, since about half the graduating class has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation – so they have their sights set on Pulitzers.
This program is huge, the largest in the country. It’s a 3-year degree, with 300 students enrolled at a given time. Each year, 100 are admitted (in fiction, poetry, nonfiction) with fiction by far the largest segment. But 600+ apply, so the 100 who get in are the cream of the cream…
This kind of rigor about the thesis (absolutely no easy rides here) has a lot to do with the high publication rate. But there are certainly other factors which contribute: students do internships at the New Yorker, Publishers’ Weekly, Paris Review, and at major publishing houses. They attend multiple readings by famous writers every week (not by any means all at Columbia, but at the NY Public Library, the 92nd St Y, at NYU, etc.
Also, the program hosts a reception for all graduating students with about 30 major editors and agents invited. At his reception, each agent or editor is presented with an anthology of the work of the graduating students, along with contact emails. No wonder the students are off to a flying start. Agents and editors hover like major-league recruiters at college championships.
But I think what thrills me most of all is the sheer intellectual intensity of the students. Although I have taught at a number of the most highly regarded MFA programs in this country and in England, there’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years. At both places the crackle of intellectual energy in the air is almost visible, like blue fire.
And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning. This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as “Upstate Manhattan.” ) We love it.