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M.F.A. By the Bay

Which local writing program is best for you?

To apply or not to apply? If Hamlet were contemplating a writing career, no doubt he'd ask himself that question. That is, if the University of Copenhagen offered a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing back in those gloomy days.

With application deadlines coming up as soon as November 1, it's a decision many local writers are sweating over right now. On the pro side, an M.F.A. buys a writer two years to focus exclusively on writing and work with professionals, then leave the program with credentials to begin teaching and publishing. On the con, writing programs can be expensive, guarantee no lucrative career and at worst put students at the mercy of academic politics and the criticism of dilettantes.

If your heart is set on an M.F.A. by the bay, you have options. It's hard to rank something as subjective as creative writing programs, but in 2002 U.S. News and World Report released a list based on the opinions of hundreds of academics in the field. No Bay Area program made the top tier.

That said, the ranking didn't consider location, and San Francisco is one of the most active literary communities in the country. Its combination of urban swirl and natural beauty can provide the characters, setting and human drama to crack even the most stubborn case of writer's block. Of course, the Bay Area can also be prohibitively expensive for a struggling writer.

Of the following Bay Area programs, the most obvious difference is tuition. Most programs follow the same basic structure: a two-year curriculum of workshops and literature classes, culminating in the completion of a publishable manuscript. (Publishable doesn't necessarily mean "published"; the school determines whether a manuscript suffices.) You have to look closely to find the nuances of each.

San Francisco State University has both the best reputation and the lowest tuition, $1,345 per semester for in-state residents, of the Bay Area programs. Graduates have published in the Best American anthologies and have received accolades such as the Pen Faulkner and O. Henry awards. About 500 applicants vie for 100 spots in poetry, fiction and playwriting each year, and the program also offers uncommon courses that focus on "the writing life" itself.

St. Mary's College in Moraga, a small town tucked into the other side of the Oakland hills, was ranked just slightly below S.F.S.U., and though considerably more expensive, it's also much more intimate. Only 19 applicants were accepted this year, four in fiction, seven in poetry, and eight in the school's brand new program in creative non-fiction (playwriting is no longer offered). St. Mary's tuition is $12,327 per year, but each year about 70 percent of the students get scholarships averaging $5,000 apiece. St. Mary's is the smallest program in the area, and the only one in a small town.

If you get the average amount of financial aid, Mills College in Oakland costs about the same as St. Mary's. You pay the $15,000 fee your first year, but in your second year you'll likely receive a teaching assistantship for full tuition remission. Mills accepts about 50 students in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, and offers electives in children's literature, poetry translation and journalism, which other programs don't.

Most graduates of those three schools pursue a career in teaching, editing or publishing when they finish. But the writing classes at the University of San Francisco are evenings-only, so most students keep their day jobs during the program, and after they graduate. The result is 75 untraditional students -- this year's included a U.S. Marine, a brain specialist and a make-up artist -- with less reason to compete with one another. U.S.F. manages to avoid the competition and egotism that can poison a writing program. The tuition is comparable to that at Mills, but there is little available scholarship money.

New College of California and the California College of the Arts also offer M.F.A. programs (CCA's is brand-new this year), each with an experimental curriculum that emphasizes interdisciplinary studies. If creative writing resists ranking, these programs appear to flout it altogether. Because of this, their reputations aren't well-established, but both are worth exploring.

Farther afield, there are also graduate programs at San Jose State and Fresno State, each with its own urban resources. Stanford, of course, has the famous Stegner program, which is a non-degree writing fellowship with no education requirements. Most Stegner fellows already have an M.F.A., however, so it might be an aspiration to nurture while you get your masters.

As John Gardner pointed out in The Art of Fiction, the beginning writer normally wants a set of rules on what to do and what not to do, and this applies as much to the decision to pursue a graduate degree as it does to writing itself. But in a field steeped in the subjective, the best you can do is learn all you can, and trust your own instincts.
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San Francisco State University
415.338.2234
Deadline: January 15

Saint Mary's
925.631.4088
Deadline: February 1

Mills College
510.430.2217
Fall Deadline: February 1
Spring Deadline: November 1

University of San Francisco
415.422.6066
Deadline: February 1

New College of California 415.437.3460
Fall Deadline: March 1 (priority); August 1 (final)
Spring Deadline: October 15 (priority); January 1 (final)

California College of the Arts
415.703.9500
Deadline: February 1