The Little Program that Could

With alumni and faculty winning awards at home and abroad, USF’s MFA in writing program has emerged as a top destination for the country’s best new poets and writers.

Written by Kristina Shevory
The Little Program that Could

Joshua Mohr is one of those young writers people love to hate. In the last year, his two novels have either been reviewed in The New York Times, tapped by Oprah Winfrey as one of the year’s 10 best books, or selected as an NYT Editors’ Choice.

Throw in a bestseller and you have the makings of full-blown jealousy.

But dig a little deeper and you realize Mohr’s success is bitterly won. Fired by his prestigious agent in New York after his first novel couldn’t find a publisher, Mohr was told to try again with a second novel he had yet to write. Instead, he found a new agent who sent the first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, to a small independent publishing house that later bought his first two novels.

“I thought if 500 weird artists read the book, then I’d be happy,” said Mohr, MFA ’05, who is working on a third book, All This Life, due out next year.

Mohr, whose second work, Termite Parade, was named an NYT Editors’ Choice, is perhaps the best example of the type of graduate the University of San Francisco’s MFA in writing program turns out: quirky and eminently successful writers who have a strong grounding in the local literary scene.

The program, begun in the late 1980s as a series of adult education classes of sorts, has morphed into a professional and rigorous program that attracts more applicants than it can admit. Over the last 10 years, applications have more than doubled as its faculty and graduates have reeled in domestic and international awards.

The program has always had a wonderful, looser feel and that’s been appealing to students,” said Aaron Shurin, academic director and poetry professor.

As the economy sputters, applications for creative writing programs nationally have surged by as much as 50 percent. USF’s MFA program received the most applications ever in the last three years. The current class of 45 is among the largest in the program’s history.  

Pulling in Top Honors

USF faculty members and alumni in the MFA in writing program have gained notoriety lately, winning both accolades and awards for their books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Notable recognitions include:

BradyGreyCatherine Brady — Director, MFA in Writing and Professor

A noted short-story author, Brady’s third short story collection, “The Mechanics of Falling,” was published in 2009 and won the Northern California Book Award for Fiction. Her latest book, “Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction,” was published in October 2010. She has also won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the Western States Book Award.

ShurinGreyAaron Shurin — Poetry Professor

Shurin has penned 11 books of poetry and essays and won multiple awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the San Francisco Arts Commission. His most recent collection of essays, “King of Shadows,” appeared in 2008, and “Citizen,” a new book of poems, will be published early in 2012.

USF’s popularity mirrors the explosion in interest across the country in creative writing. Over the last 15 years, the number of MFA programs has jumped 139 percent to 153, according to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

“The arts have been democratized in America. It’s not just creative writing, people are making their own films, publishing their own magazines. A lot of people think they have a story to tell,” said David Fenza, AWP’s director at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Unlike graduate degrees in the sciences, a creative writing program carries relatively low cost and is easy to start. No specialized equipment or buildings have to be built and the only real expense includes salaries and fellowships.

In the last 10 years, USF’s administration and MFA professors teamed up to completely overhaul the program and make it more professional. The curriculum was expanded, a regular reading series with noted authors was introduced, and the program grew from one to two nights. The MA degree was tossed out in favor of an MFA. A nonfiction coordinator was hired and the program moved into a new building. Spending money on the changes wasn’t hard to do.

“It was an easy decision because it was so clear to me that we could raise our national profile and make our mark in a city where writing is an important feature,” said Jennifer Turpin, USF’s provost and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

In 2009, David Vann, the new nonfiction coordinator and a decorated writer (see sidebar on page 18), led a revision of the nonfiction curriculum to coordinate it with those of fiction and poetry. Earlier this year, Vann was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship (see page 5).

Unlike many MFA programs, USF students can take up to half of their classes in other genres regardless of the focus of their study. There is no stated house style and the professors stress community and writing over publishing.

Unlike many MFA programs, USF students can take up to half of their classes in other genres regardless of the focus of their study. Classes are taught by working writers. There is no stated house style and the professors stress community and writing over publishing.

Abeer Hoque, who studied poetry at USF, credits the multiple fiction classes she took for her successful first book. After graduating, she took her thesis, a memoir that incorporated poetry, and turned it into Olive Witch, the winner of the 2005 Tanenbaum Award in nonfiction. 

VannGreyDavid Vann — Coordinator of the Nonfiction Program and Associate Professor

Vann’s fiction debut, “Legend of a Suicide,” was published a little more than two years ago to great acclaim, winning the Grace Paley Prize, California Book Award, selection by The New Yorker Book Club, and recognition from The New York Times as one of its notable books of the year. He was awarded the prestigious French literary award, Prix Médicis, for best foreign novel in 2010 and has been a French national bestseller. The book may also be made into a film. This year, “Caribou Island” was published in January and “Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, Steve Kazmierczak,” the winner of the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction, was published in September.

DohrmannGreyGeorge Dohrmann — MFA ’06

A Pulitzer Prize Winner (for a series of stories in 2000 that uncovered academic fraud at the University of Minnesota), published “Play Their Hearts Out" in October 2010, receiving rave reviews from Kirkus Reviews. Library Journal also called it one of the best books about sports, and The New York Times called it a “must-read.”

Click here, for a list of MFA in writing student achievements.  

“This flexibility should be built into every program, and not just allowed, but encouraged,” wrote Hoque, MFA ’03, in a review of the program on Everyone, regardless of their chosen genre, should have to take at least one poetry, nonfiction, and fiction workshop. It only broadens your experience of writing.”

Classes in the two-and-a-half-year program begin in the summer with a first-person autobiography course that all incoming students must take together. The next two summers are spent honing a student’s thesis with a mentor. Many students have published excerpts from their theses or turned them into books and plays that have won multiple accolades.

“It forced me to sit down and focus and take two years to write. When I graduated, I had the book in hand,” said Craig Santos Perez, MFA ’06, who won the Poets & Writers California Writer’s Exchange Award in 2010, and whose second book, from unincorporated territory [saina], has been nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.

Community is a theme that comes up again and again with graduates and professors. Perhaps because of its small class sizes, USF keeps the class tone light and friendly. The collegiality was the main reason Vann was attracted to USF from Florida State University.

“Teachers are not overworked and they can focus on the students,” said Vann, whose book, Legend of a Suicide, has won seven prizes and been on 40 best book lists worldwide. “Teachers can then be generous with their comments. This is the first program where everything is amicable.”

While writing is the natural thrust of the program, turning out good readers and editors is another goal. Professors emphasize multiple revisions and keeping an open mind to approach new works.

“USF didn’t just teach me how to write, but how to revise and communicate better and help writers become better,” said Amy Novesky, MFA ’95, a children’s book editor and author, whose picture book, Me, Frida, came out in October.

Reading and writing groups have sprung up among graduates, as well as lifelong friendships. Mohr and six other graduates take a look at each other’s drafts before they send them to editors. Santos Perez maintains a writing group with fellow poets and circulates calls for submissions.

“The conversation is not constrained to the classroom, it overflows the four walls,” said Catherine Brady, professor and fiction coordinator, whose new book, Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, came out in September.

Connections are key to publishing success and USF has come through for its graduates. Santos Perez sold his first book of poetry, from unincorporated territory [hacha], to publishing house Tinfish Press with the help of one of his professors, while Brady helped Mohr revise his first book.

“I definitely wouldn’t have had the success I do now if I hadn’t gone to USF. If you want to be serious about your writing you have to focus on it. USF gives you the ability to do that.”

Marisela Treviño Orta, MFA ’04

Some of Marisela Treviño Orta’s poems from her thesis have been published, but she’s drawn more attention for her play writing. In her last year at USF, she wrote the first draft of a play, Braided Sorrow, that would go on to win the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Drama. It was the first play she had ever written.

"I definitely wouldn’t have had the success I do now if I hadn’t gone to USF,” said Treviño Orta, MFA ’04, a resident playwright at the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. “If you want to be serious about your writing, you have to focus on it. USF gives you that ability to do that.”

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