Top-Ranked Program Nurtures Creative Writers

Posted: January 11, 2010 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: January 21, 2010 at 12:07 pm

By Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05

In Susan Tichy's class, "Bookish Beasts," MFA students create art projects about and from books. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Stone

In a classroom tucked away in Robinson Hall on Mason’s Fairfax Campus, you can find Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio’s book commentator, teaching a class on modernism or travel essays.

At the campus Starbucks, you might see students workshopping their writing with Nigerian novelist and poet Helon Habila. At the nearby home of poets Eric Pankey and Jennifer Atkinson, you might find a small dinner party and poetry reading.

Across the street from the campus, you can find the headquarters for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), an organization that holds a national conference each year for writers and editors and offers free membership to Mason writing students.

And just a few miles’ drive will take you into Washington, D.C., where award-winning writers gather nearly every night for readings and workshops, and members of the Mason faculty serve as board members for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

All these reasons and more are why George Mason University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program is one of the best graduate writing programs in the country.

Recently, it was ranked number 37 in the top 50 writing programs in the country by Poets and Writers magazine. The last time U.S. News and World Report did a ranking of MFA programs, in the 1990s, Mason was tied for 20th place.

“A Diverse Group of Voices” in the Writing Program

One of the benefits of the program is the small-knit community. Here students gather in professor Stephen Goodwin's home for a fiction workshop dinner. Photo courtesy of KVC photography

The program, started in 1980, offers three concentrations. Each concentration — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — requires 48 semester hours and takes at least three years to complete.

Course work blends writing workshops with craft seminars and the study of literature. Each concentration also requires completion of a thesis (a book-length manuscript).

Besides Cheuse, Habila, Atkinson and Pankey, the faculty includes poets Sally Keith and Susan Tichy; novelists Susan Shreve, Courtney Brkic and Stephen Goodwin; and non-fiction writers Beverly Lowry and Kyoko Mori. Faculty publications total more than 65 books.

The program has grown in the last few years, bringing in many new faculty members. Poet Ben Doller will join Mason in the fall. Doller has published two volumes of poetry already and his third is due out later this year. He is a winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and, with Mark Levine, he co-edits the Kuhl House Contemporary Poets series published by the University of Iowa Press.

The university has emphasized bringing a diverse group of voices to the writing program, and course offerings include global literature and poetries in translation.

“We are very good at taking the resources we have here and doing good things with them,” says program director William Miller, MFA ’87.

“Our faculty tries to work with students while they are here, but they also encourage forming a community that becomes a support network for after they leave.”

The support network begins while students are in the writing program, with 34 teaching assistants receiving a tuition waiver and a stipend. In addition, four full fellowships provide money to students without having to teach, and donors have given money for five partial fellowships to further support students in the program.

Accomplished Alumni

Novelist Mary Doria Russell answers questions during a reading at the annual Fall for the Book festival at Mason. Students in the creative writing program have many opportunities to meet and interact with well known authors. Photo courtesy of Peter Flint

Mason’s creative writing students serve as editors for two literary journals, Phoebe and So to Speak. Mason graduates have also gone on to create their own publications, such as Scott Garson, MFA ’96, who edits the online journal Wigleaf, and Alexis Santi, MFA ’07, who is editor of the journal Our Stories.

Alumni and students also publish with both small and major presses.

Brandon Wicks, MFA ’05, served as the fiction editor for Phoebe when he was a student at Mason.

“Working as the fiction editor for Phoebe not only put me in contact with the larger writing community but helped me understand the process of publishing in journals and small presses,” he says. “In many ways, it helped me gain confidence in my own work.”

Mason also hosts the annual Fall for the Book festival, the largest and oldest literary celebration in Northern Virginia. Throughout the years, the festival has brought internationally known writers such as Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Mitch Albom, Pat Conroy and Doris Kearns Goodwin to Northern Virginia. The festival provides students exciting opportunities to meet and interact with these authors; for example, students can volunteer to drive authors to and from the festival venues, an experience that offers time for a one-on-one chat with a writer.

The benefits of Mason’s creative writing program can stand on their own merits, but it’s the continued success of the alumni that really speaks to the quality of the program.

Alumnus Mark Winegardner, MFA ’87, has published several books, and, after an international competition, Random House chose him to write two sequels to Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”: “The Godfather Returns” and “The Godfather’s Revenge.”

Jessica Anthony, MFA ’04, just had her first novel, “The Convalescent,” published by McSweeney’s, and it was chosen by Barnes & Noble as a recommended summer reading pick, part of their “Discover Great New Writers” series.

Poet J. Michael Martinez, MFA ’06, won the 2009 Walt Whitman Award for his collection of poems, “Heredities,” and a book by Brian Brodeur, MFA ’05, “Other Latitudes,” was the winner of the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize and published by University of Akron Press in 2008.

“During my time as an MFA candidate at Mason I learned much more about the craft of writing and the writing life than I would have just reading and writing on my own,” says Brodeur.

“The poets and teachers at Mason were indelible mentors and friends who taught me, through their classes and through their examples, about the dedication and personal sacrifice necessary to write.”

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