13 Books to Consider Reading Before You Start Your MFA Program

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: Lisa Tignor of Dumfries, Virginia, reads a book by the fountain of the U.S. Navy Memorial June 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. Weather forecast predicted the area is heading towards a cooler weekend. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

So, you are starting your MFA program this fall semester. You are nervous, clutching the weathered copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find you bought during your junior year of college when you started to toy with the idea of applying. 

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, $9, Amazon 

It's completely normal to feel terrified or utterly unprepared the few months before you start graduate school. I know before I started my program I had no idea what to expect. If you took some time off before applying to MFAs, maybe you feel rusty; you've been saving money working long hours and haven't been able to keep up with your normally rigorous reading regimen. If you're fresh out of school, maybe you feel intimidated. What if the other candidates have read every single Derek Walcott poem? Every single Judith Butler essay? What if you're the only student who hasn't published?

First of all, don't allow yourself to feel inadequate or inexperienced. You will most likely be surrounded by a mixture of students who are more established than you are, and students who just started reading poetry the year before. If you were accepted into a really competitive program (Iowa, anyone?), then don't sweat it. You were chosen for a reason: You are a phenomenal writer.

However, the best way to prepare yourself for your MFA program (besides definitely purchasing some of the books your future professors have published — that way, you'll get a sense of the kind of aesthetic and form they use in their own work) is to read. A lot. You want to read books that give you an idea of the kind of writer you want to become; books that are so unbelievably good, you'll want to cry because you didn't write them yourself. These books should give you an idea of what is already out there, what has been successful in the literary world, and what you're going to be doing for the next two to three years. 

If you are looking for some suggestions, here are 13 of them. Prepare to be floored, friends.

1.  Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith 

Tracy K. Smith is a great example of a poet who follows form (something I hate doing, but respect), but doesn’t allow it to make her work grow stale. Her poems are always surprising, beautiful, and deeply moving. If you are a poet, you should always aim to surprise your reader. 

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2. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis 

This intimidating little salmon-colored book holds incredible short stories — ones that break the mold, yet are clearly written by a very disciplined person. Funny, absurd, and lyrical, all of Davis’ stories are oddly relatable, since many of her characters are neurotic wrecks struggling with relationships and their own insecurities. Sound familiar? 

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3. Glitter in the Blood by Mindy Nettifee 

At first, I wasn’t sure about Nettifee's prose, which seemed too chatty and playful to be impactful. I didn’t know you could get away with mentioning Radiohead in your poems, or cracking jokes about sex. I was proven very wrong, however. In her “how to” book, Nettifee gives you some of the most valuable poetry writing tips you'll ever get. Included are exercises, so if you’re stuck, these are pretty handy.

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4. Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories by Jerome Stern 

Whether you’re studying fiction or poetry, you need a good short story collection to which you can always refer. I like this little book because it’s dainty and doesn’t weigh down my tote bag like a Norton anthology would. I also really like micro-fiction because it teaches you about brevity; all of the stories in Micro Fiction are 250 words or fewer. That’s like a hefty paragraph. 

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5. Please by Jericho Brown 

Soulful, violent, sexual, musical, Please is a gorgeous collection of poetry that explores identity, Janis Joplin, love, and blues. This book will FLOOR you. You will finish it wondering if you could ever write this well, this effectively, or this stunningly. Please is one of my favorite books of poetry because it makes my jaw drop ever single time I read it, and it also is capable of making me use clichés like “makes my jaw drop.” 

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6. The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel 

If you loved Raymond Carver’s terse but emotional stories, you will love Amy Hempel, a writer who focuses on human tendencies, mistakes, and... dogs. And the thing about dogs is that your professors are probably going to tell you to NOT write about dogs. Why? Because it’s been done before (by Amy Hempel) and it’s just hard to pull off (unless you're Amy Hempel). But you know what? If reading Hempel inspires you to write a good dog story, then go for it. You are, after all, learning from the best. 

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7. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter 

Reading a book about a fictional character’s downward spiral may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not! At least, it’s not in this case. The Financial Lives of the Poets focuses on a man named Matt Prior who ditches his vanilla financial journalist gig to start his own website that doles out financial advice in the form of poetry. Since we all know math and poetry go together like chocolate and poison, this business is a complete failure. And there goes his money, house, and marriage. Read this for giggles, as well as really good prose.

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8.  Don’t Kiss Me: Stories by Lindsay Hunter

If you’re craving a strong, female voice, read Don’t Kiss Me. Lindsay Hunter, a relatively new writer who is the cofounder of Quickies!, a flash fiction reading series based out of Chicago. These stories are weird, tragic, ugly, primal, awesome, and gutsy. 

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9. The Color Master by Aimee Bender 

The Color Master, Bender’s latest collection of short stories, is filled with story after unexpected story about all kinds of flawed and quirky characters. I took a fiction class last semester, and after not writing any fiction for the last two years, I had no idea where to begin. So, I read The Color Master, and witnessed how Bender weaved stories from nothing. One even begins at a Panda Express. Bender shows you that anything is possible, and that stories are everywhere. So, no excuses (writer's block doesn't really exist!). 

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10.  Dearest Creature by Amy Gerstler 

I just realized I have three Amys in this list! Anyway, if you’re a poet, absolutely read Dearest Creature. It’s a collection of magical, whimsical poems that illuminate the fantastical in daily life, whether it’s through the perspective of a caterpillar or a dog (yes! More dogs!). 

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11.  Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler 

Inspired by the notion that the decapitated head has two full minutes left of consciousness, Butler wrote a series of short stories from the perspective of famous (or infamous) people or characters who died by having their head chopped off. Key lesson here? Perspective. Writing is all about perspective. And sometimes having a morbid imagination.

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12.  Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a must-read regardless of what you’re studying, or what career you plan on pursuing. Didion investigates San Francisco and its stagnant youth in this collection of essays, and she really does an amazing job painting a city that reads almost alien-like. You can read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, or The Year of Magical Thinking (although, be prepared to sob) and I promise that no one will teach you how to write more concisely or intelligently than Didion. Although she’s a journalist, she’s ultimately a storyteller, a nonfiction writer who manages to recall vibrant, and telling memories.

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13. The Palace of Contemplating Departure by Brynn Saito 

Lately, I’ve been all about this collection of poems. I recently decided I want to move to L.A. as soon as finish my program, and this book is filled with all kinds of physical and psychological traveling, as well as transformation and change. Whether you’re moving across the country to attend grad school or just moving because you hate how long it takes you to get to work, we’re all in some kind of state of metamorphosis.

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