Some Advice on Applying to MFA Programs

K-State English

First, let’s dispel some of the myths.

If you say “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror, you will not get into Iowa.

No matter what you read on Twitter or The GradCafe, almost no one — no one! — with actual affiliations to creative writing programs believes you attend an MFA program to “get an agent.”

Even getting into an MFA program might not make you particularly happy or productive: grad school is hard, sometimes disorienting, sometimes despairing. It’s sometimes great, sure, sometimes.

Nine years ago, on the now defunct K-State Creative Writing Blog, we posted a list of tips on applying to MFA programs. Since then, so much has changed. (Remember when we didn’t wear masks all the time?) So much has stayed the same. Here’s an updated and revised version of that advice:

The realities

1. The most well-known MFA programs — those that receive lots…

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Facebook Author Pages Are Useless. Make One Anyway.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A writer asked me, “Should I start a Facebook Author Page? My book is coming out next week, but I want to keep my personal profile private and just get everyone to like my author page.”

What I heard: I don’t want to share my real self or genuinely connect, but I want people to sign up for my commercials.

Because yes, we share our blog links and promote our friends’ books, too, but these are all commercial activities. Read me. Buy me. Buy this other thing.

Nobody wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.

Facebook already knows this. That’s why Facebook feeds you a steady stream of news from family and acquaintances, posts from interest groups you’re part of, and a very occasional post from that author page you liked a long time ago because your friend asked you to.

Even when you like and…

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For Whom the Bell Fails

That’s way too harsh and really more about me than the book. So, let me start by saying that Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) is a fine book by almost any standard, but not the ones I apply to a writer as important and good, normally, as ErnestHemingway Hemingway.

This book had slipped by me for a long time and given its status in the canon and my love for Hemingway’s work, my expectations were high. So, that’s on me too. My expectations of some books I’ve put off—Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—can skyrocket if I already know and like the author’s work. Add a National Book Award, a Pulitzer, or in Hemingway’s case, a Nobel Prize, to the mix and I’m pretty much expecting to be unable to sleep, eat, write, watch soccer, kiss my wife, or talk to my kids until I’m done reading the book. (That never happens, but shouldn’t it feel like it could?).

And as far as Hemingway goes, this is a very Hemingway work: war, alienated protagonist, spare prose, and a lot of strong-minded yet understated characters. We start in the mix of it too: the Spanish Civil War and an ex-pat American, Robert Jordan, who is on a mission to blow up a bridge and kill some Fascists. Sounds fun even in 2019. But despite starting the reader off in the midst of this action, the first 200 pages or so kind of drag. There’s a lot of history to learn here and Hemingway seems Hell-bent on teaching us. That would be fine if, in the current time of the story, more was happening. Sure, there is a lot of downtime in war, but this is fiction, the author’s job is to shorten the down time and fill it with really compelling characters and events. Hemingway tries, to be certain, but really doesn’t hit his stride with compelling action until the last third of the book.

If you know Hemingway and know what he is about, you expect spare prose. You don’t expect under-developed characters taking center stage at times or over-developed backstory about minor characters. It’s as though Hemingway is more concerned at times with proving he was really there and he knows the culture and the history, all at the expense of pace and a compelling story.

Ultimately, the story of Robert Jordan is compelling and there are moments of both action and interiority that take your knees out from under you. And despite the under-developed characters getting too much importance, there are still plenty of well-rounded characters, Pilar comes to mind, who deepen the read and win the day.

This is not Ernest Hemingway at his best, and I would not recommend it to anyone as an introduction the author, but it is an essential, and ultimately enjoyable, read once you know and appreciate his work. For Whom the Bell Tolls may not fail for everyone, even if it did fail for me.


A Free Chapbook for Your Thoughts.

So I have this chapbook, Something L.A., and I’d love to see it actually get a review or FullSizeRenderten on GoodReads. (Yes, I’m giving away at least 10). If you’re up for a true, funny story about a modeling agency party in Hollywood that also features two famous people making cameos (no spoilers, but one’s an actor and one’s a musician), and you wouldn’t mind writing a short review (like, 2-5 sentences) and posting it, I’ll send you the chapbook for free. Just message me with your address from my website (, Facebook (R Dean Johnson), Instagram or Twitter (both @rdeanwriter), or good old-fashioned email ( I’ve even sign it to you (unless you plan to re-gift or sell it, then I won’t; just let me know).






If ever a band were to benefit from a Greatest Hits collection – and I use the term ‘Hits’ very loosely – The Trashcan Sinatras would be that band. With the right marketing and management and all those things that the Trashcans are seemingly so averse to, or just plain bad at, a TCS Best Of could do for them what similar collections have done for acts like Crowded House or James, acts whose definitive compilations are owned by every second home in the UK (pre Spotify statistic, clearly) and as such have helped those acts become household names. If the purpose of a compilation is to bring the artist’s music to a wider audience and perhaps encourage new listeners to dig deeper into that band’s back catalogue, then notwithstanding record company…

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Winding down the Tour.

My first official reading for CaliforniumKGW_Oct_2017 was July 5, 2016. In terms of proper premieres, this one had it all:

  • A full two weeks before the novel’s official release date of July 19
  • An amazing venue—the second-oldest bookstore in Lisbon, Portugal, Livraria Ferin (1840)
  • A great bill that included David Caplan and Frank X. Gaspar
  • A full house featuring so many writers I admire—Molly Antopol, Erica Dawson, Annie Liontas, Denis Johnson, Maaza Mengiste, Jeff Parker, Arthur Flowers, Chanan Tigay, and more.

It was nerve-racking to kick off a new book, my first novel, that way, and it was perfect. People laughed at the parts that were supposed to be funny and, just as importantly, didn’t laugh at the parts that weren’t.

Since then, readings for Californium have taken me to both coasts, seven states, several bookstores, one book group, a few college campuses, and the occasional book festival. I’ve given interviews for print and podcasts, and I even got to be live on NPR one evening with three other writers.

Though there is nothing official about my upcoming reading being the last of a two-year tour for Californium, it has that feel to it:

  • A sizeable city close to my home
  • An amazing venue—the Carnegie Centre in the historic section of Lexington
  • A great bill that includes Shayla Lawson and Kathryn Ormsbee
  • An event I’ve long hoped to be a part of: The Kentucky Great Writers reading series

I’m sure I’ll read from Californium again. I’ve never stopped loving the book and have never grown tired of dropping into the world of Reece, Keith, Treat, Edie, van Doren, and C_qmDmUXoAEyz7MDikNixon. It’s always a pleasure to go there. But, I’m also glad to be transitioning more and more attention to finishing the next two projects—an essay collection and a novel. The former is close and the latter, who knows, but I like where it’s going so far.

So, this coming Tuesday, I hope all goes as it has gone since that first reading in Lisbon, which is warm and friendly, fun, and well. That’s a proper way to wind down the tour, to end the chapter, and to begin the next.

Alumni Spotlight: R. Dean Johnson

Alma Matters (file under Morrissey puns)

K-State English


There’s this troubling question I’ve been getting since my second book came out. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but my first book, which is stories and not a novel, came out with a small press and didn’t get the fanfare. There were no interviews or Q&As at reading events. So I was caught unprepared the first time someone asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?”

The problem is, the answer: I was an adult. Out of college and working at an advertising agency. I’d been catching up on all the reading I should have done in high school or college since I was a business major, and after I finished reading Catcher in the Rye, the first book I’d ever read in its entirety in one day, I closed it and said, “I could’ve written that.” Embarrassing. But, it made me want to…

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Book Review: Hallow This Ground


In essays that take us from the field where flight 93 crashed on 9/11 to a bumpy road between two concentration camps at Treblinka, Colin Rafferty contemplates the personal in the public memorials marking some of history’s most tragic events. Part memoir, part new journalism, part lyric, and part immersion, Hallow This GroundRafferty (Indiana University Press, 2016) is more than a collection of essays. Rafferty leads the reader to a complete whole as thematic ties bind these essays together even as, individually, they stand alone.

At a time when Civil War monuments are hotly debated, Rafferty reminds us that a memorial, no matter which side of history you are on, is at best an approximation of the people and events it attempts to honor. And as we see the experience of each place grow personal for the author, we can’t help but bring our own experience to the read as well, creating a book that is so many things at once—warm, thoughtful, timely, informative, and wholly enjoyable.


Goodreads Giveaway for Californium.

Goodreads is hosting a giveaway for signed copies of Californium right now through Seattle Review of BooksDecember 15.

Tell it to your snotty literati friends (I’m stealing that term from Jennifer Spiegel) . Yell it at your irritatingly cool punk/music friends. Or, just enter yourself and then re-gift the book over the holidays (because you already own it, right?).

Oh, and when you stop by Californium at Goodreads, bring some stars with you. They’re always much appreciated.


Denis Johnson: Front Row, Center

To say Denis Johnson was at the 2016 Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon isn’t quite enough. He wasn’t just there. He was sort of everywhere—popping into workshops, sitting in at presentations, mingling at receptions, and going to readings, so many readings, and usually sitting front row, center.

I have a picture of him at Padgett Powell’s reading, DJ01which you might think makes sense, one big name writer honoring another. But Denis didn’t discriminate. If you were reading, whether he knew your name or not, he was listening.

I know because about a week before the Padgett Powell reading, Denis was at my reading. He didn’t know my name, I’m certain, even if we share the same last name. Maybe he was there to hear my talented and better-known co-readers, David Caplan and Frank X. Gaspar. It was exactly two weeks before my debut novel, Californium, was to be released, and it was the first time I’d be reading from the novel, my uncorrected proof in my hands, a room full of people, and Denis Freakin’ Johnson shuffling into the room and sitting about five feet away from me, front row, center.

I read what I hoped was a funny chapter, the one where a group of high school boys are Disquiet_Itrying to come up with a name for their punk band and running through a list of possibilities: Atomic Anarchy, Gone Fission, Second Thoughts, Screaming Mimes, The Variables, Solve for X, Los Punks, and ¿Habla Anarchy?.  To my relief, people were laughing in all the right places, including Denis. After the reading, he even had a suggestion for a band name: Dowager Orgy.

At the time, it was one of the most affirming moments of my writing career. Denis Johnson didn’t just listen to my work, he reacted; he engaged in it. It was better than any blurb or review I could ever hope to get because it was a gut-level reaction, it was positive, and it was Denis Johnson.

I haven’t had a lot of time for reflection, for hindsight. This was all still less than a year ago. But even before I learned of Denis’s passing, I understood that what is more important about that day is all the days I saw Denis, at all those other events, being a generous writer and a gracious person. A lot of people will, and should, praise Denis’s talent in the coming days and weeks. I hope, if they had the pleasure of meeting him, their experiences weren’t unlike mine. Of course I hope my writing can someday be worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation as his, that universities might pair our books in Johnson seminars, but it’s more important to me, a much better goal, that I try to be the kind of writer Denis was when I met him—honest, engaged, and sitting front row, center.