The Sieve

This year the Michener Center for Writers became the most competitive of all University of Texas graduate programs. Receiving three hundred and sixty applications, admitting twelve, our acceptance rate dropped to three per cent.

The question is, what are we to make of this? The assessment of writing talent is notoriously subjective. Every year I walk away convinced there are at least another dozen young writers who are going to get into the best programs, publish, be successful in a myriad of ways.

But this fierce winnowing does mean something; what I think it means is that by the time we're done, there are no qualms. At a time when the mushrooming of workshops and writing programs can seem like a vast Ponzi scheme, it is a relief to know that whatever else we're offering, it is not false hope.

The admission process is intense. It takes three months, with eight members of the writing faculty doing the reading. The final selections are made during a long March evening in the conference room, with pizza boxes, sheaves of hand-written notes and cartons of files vying for space on the twelve-foot long table.

I am always impressed by how thoroughly everyone has read, how they ache to be fair, how thoughtful the arguments are. Poems are quoted, plays are dug out of applicants' folders to be looked at one last time. Occasionally the conversation gets testy: there is the sense that a lot is at stake here. By the time we're done, I don't know if everyone is wiped, but I am.

So what is it that we're looking for? The truth is, it's not so much what you're looking for as it is what pieces of writing jump out and make a claim on you. Slap-dash, short-hand distinctions like "language" versus "story-telling" fall away when you're caught up in reading something first-rate.

Getting into a highly competitive writing program scarcely guarantees anyone a career. A literary vocation is too filled with gut-wrenching twists and turns. But I think it should be a source of legitimate pride for any young writer to know that so early on, someone has spotted something shining and indisputable in their work.