The reviews are in for the Bowling Green State University creative writing program, and the news is good.
|Denise Duhamel (teal dress) talks with graduate students in the Creative Writing MFA at BGSU. (Photo: Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tribune)
Just recently the program tied Purdue University as the 30th most popular Masters of Fine Arts program in the nation out of more than 150 programs. That's based on how desirable the program is to applicants. BGSU placed just a few spots behind such esteemed writing workshops as University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University.
And BGSU does better - 15th in the nation - at placing its MFA graduates in jobs.
That's impressive for a program with only four tenure-track faculty and 20 graduate students (selected from several hundred applicants), said Sharona Muir, the program's director.
That faculty also runs an undergraduate writing program, making BGSU one of the few schools to offer a BFA in Writing.
Both graduates and faculty have also scored honors lately.
Those include Tessa Mellas, who earned her MFA from BGSU in 2005, winning the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, for her debut collection of stories, "Lungs Full of Noise," and Monica McFawn Robinson, a 2001 BFA grad, winning the Flannery O'Connor Award for her collection of short fiction "Bright Shards of Someplace Else."
Reflecting on the program's small size and modest resources, Muir said: "We're making gold from straw,"
The faculty makes the size of the program work, she said. Professors Muir, Wendell Mayo, Lawrence Coates and Larissa Szporluk and instructor Abigail Cloud, all of whom have new or forthcoming books, work closely with small groups of students. Together they form a community of artists.
"Students sense we're working on the cutting edge of things," Muir said. "We have a lot of energy and passion. We challenge them as much as we challenge ourselves."
What they challenge them to do is find their own styles.
"There's not a Bowling Green style," Muir said. "The Bowling Green angle on creative writing is that every student has a unique voice and is a distinct artistic presence."
That work is built on a foundation of "solid craftsmanship," she said.
"We're small and intensive," said Mayo, who teaches fiction. Students in the program "tend to be unique writers, not assembly-line writers."
Both the graduate and undergraduate programs are structured around writing workshops where 10 graduate or 15 undergraduate writers gather to read and critique each others work. Part of that is "figuring out what the writer's goals are" rather than imposing outside expectations. "Creative writing tends to set its own rules for reading," Mayo said.
Workshops are the core of all writing programs. BGSU, Mayo said, has added another layer for MFA candidates.
In technique workshops five students will study poems or fiction the writer has deemed finished. Together the workshop will parse the work sentence by sentence.
Mayo said it can take three hours of discussion to get through 10 pages.
Those workshops, said Mellas, "made me aware of every word I put on the page and how you can change the arrangement and change the effect it has on the reader."
Mellas, who taught earlier this year at Ohio State, said she brought those techniques to her own teaching.
Robinson said the high expectations of the MFA program exist for the undergraduates as well. As a junior and senior, she said, she felt her training was really almost at the level of an MFA program.
At most schools undergraduates interested in creative writing get a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing. The fine arts degree requires more intense study of writing as opposed to criticism, and in the end the students are judged by the body of creative work, fiction or poetry, they produce.
In Robinson's case that included play writing.
The faculty, she said, allowed her the freedom to pursue that craft, which she continues to pursue, even though it wasn't part of the curriculum.
Muir noted that the faculty is a curious group, with interest extending well beyond writing to history, science and the other arts.
Her own forthcoming volume, "Invisible Beasts: Tales of the Animals that Go Unseen Among Us," draws on the ancient form of bestiary. She brings it up to date, applying real science to imaginary creatures in a meditation on the natural world.
Mayo's fiction, including his new collection, "The Cucumber King of Kedainiai," winner of the Subito Press Award, looks at the troubled lives of Eastern Europeans in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Coates' novel "Garden of the World," is a historical novel set in the wine growing country of California during Prohibition. The book recently received the College English Association's Nancy Dasher Award.
Cloud's forthcoming volume of poetry, "Sylph," winner of the Lena Miles-Wever Todd Prize, draws its inspiration from 19th-century ballet.
Szporluk's volume of poetry "Traffic With MacBeth" explores the dark magic in Shakespeare's great tragedy.
Muir said the faculty "encourages students to read as much as they can. We believe in books and reading." It's all part of "encouraging students to challenge themselves and expand their range of skills and work their imaginations hard."