Poetry & Prose
A Look Inside the Creative Writing Progam
When Arthur McMaster retired in 2002 after 34 years of service with the US government, including stints in Special Operations and the Central Intelligence Agency, he decided it was time for a career change. At age 58, he entered UF's creative writing program and has spent the past two years pursuing his dream of becoming a poetry professor.
"I wanted to get back to writing," he says. "I had been writing poetry, stage plays, travel stories, fiction, critical essays and reviews for years, but I wanted to get the credentials I needed to teach writing."
McMaster, who graduated in May 2004, was one of 36 students in the Department of English's Creative Writing Program, which offers a Master of Fine Arts degree to a handful of writers and poets. Ranked 20th in the nation by US News and World Report, the program has earned the right to be selective. Only 10 percent of its applicants are accepted, and admission is based almost solely upon a writing sample.
Once admitted, students are paired with either a poetry or fiction writing professor and spend two years working on their craft while receiving constant feedback from their appointed faculty "director," who serves as their editor. Many students apply to the program just for the chance to work with its renowned faculty. "I think we all came here because we really admire the professors," says Nora Spencer, a first-year student in fiction writing. "That's what draws people here."
But just as important as faculty input is the feedback students receive from their peers in the four semester-long writing workshops they are required to complete. Made up of 6 to 12 students, the workshops allow the writers to bounce their work off each other and get tips on how to improve the piece and, often, their writing as a whole. The students become so familiar with each other's work, they can spot recurring themes and mistakes.
During the process of reading and commenting on each other's work, students learn how to strengthen their own writing and how to intelligently comment on the writing of others, which opens the door to jobs in editing, publishing, criticizing and teaching. Alumni of the program are doing everything from teaching at colleges to editing for The New Yorker. "The primary purpose is to become the best writer you can become," says Padgett Powell, the program's director. "But in doing that you become also the best critic you can. If you are a good critic you can do some things -- you can criticize books, which means you can edit books. A really broad array of occupations opens up."
In addition to completing four writing workshops, taking elective literature courses and their teaching load, students are required to complete a creative writing thesis by the end of their second year. For fiction students, this comes in the form of a 125-page novel or collection of short stories. Poetry students have to write 24 poems.
Upon graduating, some students are fortunate enough to publish their thesis, and a few even get book deals while they are in the program. But, whether they get published or not, many students say the program has helped them become better writers and taught them to believe in their talent. "An MFA program in creative writing isn't going to make you a great writer if you aren't one, and it isn't going to make you stop being a writer if you are one," says Oindrila Mukherjee, a second-year fiction writing student. "In the end, writers are their own best critics, and we've learned to rely on each other for support and guidance in the writing process."
The program recently received funding to establish its own literary magazine, tentatively titled Subtropics, which will publish poetry, fiction and essays by writers from all over the world. The new magazine will not include any work by UF professors or students, but will be edited by poetry writing professor Sidney Wade and fiction writing professor David Leavitt. The first issue will be published during the spring semester of 2005.