University writing programs are booming -- and not just because everyone wants to be the next J.K. Rowling.
It was standing room only at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center as students and faculty from CUNY's four MFA creative writing programs mingled and read their fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays. The event, one in a series of Turnstyle Readings organized by the University's MFA in creative writing Affiliation Group, was not merely a platform for writers who study and teach writing at Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens colleges. It had symbolic implications as well. For while the publishing industry is in turmoil with deep cutbacks, MFA writing programs in the United States are thriving and increasing in number.
This is happening at the university as well. Hunter -- where the faculty includes Booker and National Book Award-winning novelists Peter Carey and Colum McCann -- received 719 applications for 18 spots in fiction, non-fiction and poetry for fall 2010. In 2009 the program received 506 applications; 392 in 2008. Brooklyn had 690 applications for 30 spots, up from 521 the year before. At Queens, applications have been increasing since the program began in 2007 and at least 100 have applied for next semester. This is up from 60 applications the first year when only fiction and poetry were offered. Translation and playwriting were added in 2008 and Director Nicole Cooley is delighted that the young program is "going to be able to take more students, in particular in translation." City, the oldest writing program at CUNY, received an additional 40 applications when it converted from a MA to an MFA program five years ago and that rate has remained steady.
The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), an international organization, reports there are 184 MFA writing programs in the United States, up from 109 in 2004. Significantly, in an era of budget cutbacks that also affect universities, these programs are by their nature small and intimate. Writing workshops are the staple of MFA programs; here, student work is critiqued by a professor and classmates, and they operate in tandem with classes on craft, where students read and discuss literature to deepen their understanding of a genre from a writer's point of view.
The reasons for the increases in MFA programs and students are myriad. With the Internet, there certainly are more opportunities for writers to present their work, paid or unpaid. Considering the economic climate, some students may be returning to a first passion: the arts. In doing so, writing can add quality of life beyond the daily grind.
Although the positions they take after completing the degree may not necessarily be directly related to creative writing or to higher education, sharp writing skills are an essential dimension to any career. Matt Burriesci, AWP acting executive director, says that most MFA graduates do not go on to teach at universities and colleges. "They edit, they are in publishing, they are in K-12 education, public service, community service, government jobs," he says. "Or they write novels."
Or poems. Or plays. Or nonfiction. Or memoirs. Or works in translation. Tyler Rivenbank came here from the south two years ago and is now having professional staged readings of his plays even before he turns in his thesis; Yoshi Tomonaga, from Japan, came to study American literature and is now working on a manuscript of short-shorts as well as translating experimental Japanese prose poems.
At CUNY, students write in all these genres, and each MFA program's menu of course offerings and faculty accounts for the variety of students it attracts.
In pointing out that Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are caused controversy when published in 1963 because some thought it too scary for children, she says, "Children are more thoughtful and aware than they were even a few decades ago. And there is a new genre that recognizes this. There is more openness. People want to talk about things, and children's literature has to reflect a changing attitude about life."
The influx of applications at Hunter is not surprising. Carey, author of the novels Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, is one of only two writers to win the Man Booker Prize twice, Britain's most prestigious writing award for fiction. McCann won last year's National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin. Like many in the University's MFA programs, they also have reputations as writers who love to teach. Hunter, which offers programs in fiction, poetry and memoir, was named the best MFA program in New York by the Village Voice in 2007, with a faculty the publication deemed "diva-free."
Carey notes that Hunter is competing for the best students with the best writing schools in the country, including the Iowa Writers' Workshop, The University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Irvine and the University of Michigan At Queens College, which is in what may be the most culturally diverse county in the country, the translation program is under way. Among the faculty is poet and translator Roger Sedarat, author of the collection, Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic. Before there was a Queens MFA program, Sedarat received a MA in English/creative writing from the college and then earned a doctorate in English from Tufts University. His presence seems to be in keeping with the school's diverse population. Diversity is a topic often mentioned at Brooklyn and City as well, a natural discussion that speaks to the character of the neighborhoods in which the colleges are located.
Queens is also the hub where a major effort is made to introduce and, in a sense, unite the university's MFA programs. This is due to Kimiko Hahn, a professor who in considering the program's similarities and different offerings decided to create an MFA affiliation group. She was prompted in part when the AWP held a conference in New York and felt it would be important for the CUNY programs to participate as an entity. It was also with this in mind that the Turnstyle readings began. The affiliation group also makes sure that news of importance to writers travels in an organized fashion from campus to campus. For example, as a result of the affiliation group, students in all the programs know they have reserved seats for an upcoming Seamus Heaney reading. About the affiliation group, Hahn, who like Carey is a distinguished professor, says: "It really plays to our students because we all have amazing writers and professors, but we don't necessarily know who's somewhere else."