Mentor. Feedback. Art.

Graduate program in creative writing develops artists, cultivates professionalism

Storytelling is how we make sense of our world. Whether we’re scientists, mathematicians, poets or preachers, we tell ourselves stories to understand the world around us. The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program helps hone this natural talent into a craft — a craft that turns stories into art.

“We build our program on the writers we bring in,” says MFA director David Bajo (pictured). “Then we give them time to work on the craft of writing. Along the way, they are getting feedback from faculty and their peers. Mostly, they learn from each other.”

The program is intentionally small — four new students in each track every year, creating a cohort of 24 MFA students on campus at one time.

“What I love about the program here is that you have the camaraderie of a small program with the resources of a large university,” says Elise Blackwell, a writer and professor in the program’s fiction track. “We get to know the students well and have that close mentor relationship. We tend to follow their careers rather closely.”

Another key to the program is that it’s fully funded, meaning all the students have enough teaching assignments and financial assistance to pay for all three years. That allows the program to bring in writers from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of styles.

“There is no ‘MFA style’ of writing,” Bajo says. “If you saw the four theses that are being defended this year, you’d see that diversity.”

During the program, each writer creates a book-length thesis, whether in fiction or poetry. They also take classes, of course, and teach undergraduate classes in English literature and writing.

“Ninety percent of our students finish in three years,” Bajo says. “That’s pretty impressive, to get a book done in three years while working full-time. But that’s part of the professionalization of the craft. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to make money.”

The last year of the program is usually spent on the second, third, fourth, whatever draft of the thesis. Then, in the spring of their third year, if all has gone as planned, the students defend their work.

“The defense is a conflicted experience,” says Bajo, who went through the process himself at UC-Irvine. “You feel you know your work better than anybody in the room, but it’s intimidating. That’s what being a writer is. As you present your work, there is this vulnerability. Getting past that is part of the professionalism we try to teach.”

By the time the students reach the defense, however, there should be no surprises, according to Bajo.

“Outside the workshop environment, they get a lot of feedback,” he says. “There is a lot of one-on-one time with faculty.”

Blackwell and Bajo understand the demands of a writing life. The two met as MFA students at the University of California-Irvine and came to Carolina as a married couple. They spend their days teaching; Bajo runs the MFA program and Blackwell is director of the Open Book Series, which brings in several authors each spring to discuss their work. They also find time to produce their own literary fiction.

“Most of our students understand they are going to have to do something else. Maybe they want to have my job somewhere,” Blackwell says. “What I hope they get out of the program is the motivation to write for themselves, no matter what else they do.”

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