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Re-defining the Creative Writing MFA

New MFA program looks to "collapse boundaries" for fiction, poetry writers


12/14/2015 | By: John Trent  |

Chris Coake, along with his colleagues in the Department of English who are involved with the University's first-year MFA program in creative writing, knows he's on the ground floor right now.

Like all new programs, there's been a fair share of extremes during the fall semester - the euphoria of having the first 11-student cohort of MFA program participants enrolled, in place and ready to learn, and the emotional grind that has come as the reality of the program's day-to-day existence has kicked in.

Still, Coake is convinced the program's potential to become something special is very real.

He speaks of a program that is hoping to occupy a needed and often overlooked niche in traditional MFA approaches.

The University's program, promises to "be friendly" to students who wish to master and pursue careers in genre writing (such as young adult, science fiction, fantasy, mystery or horror), while also emphasizing poetry in addition to traditional fiction. The program's first class, which included a student from Canada, and one each from the states of Arkansas, South Carolina, Pennsylvania as well as locals, featured seven students in fiction and four in poetry.

"The culture in general is starting to find that these boundaries can be more fluid," says Coake, a nationally recognized and award-winning fiction writer who joined the Department of English faculty in 2005. He credits his colleague, Susan Palwick, for helping the program develop a distinct feel and purpose. "Susan and I have found not a lot of use in seeing (the genres) as being separate from traditional fiction.

"We imagined the program having a huge spectrum that could collapse a lot of the boundaries."

As with any new academic program, the gestation period from concept to reality was long. Coake recalls first talking about such a program when he first interviewed for his position in the Department of English more than a decade ago.

The creative writing faculty in the department was smaller then, but gradually, even as the recessionary period of 2008-2010 saw the campus undergo deep and dramatic budget reductions, the department was able to attract several new professors in the field, while continuing to support established faculty. One of several key hires, Coake says, occurred in 2011 when poet Steve Gehrke (a former fellow at the prestigious Michener Center of Writers at the University of Texas) was added to the faculty.

"Once we were through the budget cuts, we had enough faculty to move forward," Coake says of plans for the program. In fall 2013 a formal proposal was put forward to the University administration and approved. The program's first applications were received last year.

With 11 students starting the three-year, 60-credit program, Coake admits the first class "is a little bigger than we planned to have." Still, he says that the higher number of participants could be a blessing, in that "we want them to have a cohort that will make a difference for all of them."

Nationwide, Coake says the program already inhabits a space where not many other programs reside. He says that estimates are that about 3,500 to 4,000 people each year apply to the country's 170 or so MFA programs. Competition, obviously, is high, particularly for newer programs working to establish an identity.

That's why the University's "collapsible boundary" approach could prove beneficial.

"We wanted to make sure we had a very clear answer to the question, 'Why in the world does the world need yet another MFA program,'" Coake says. With dozens of applications to sift through a year ago, Coake adds with a smile, "You can see very quickly that we've sort of answered that question."

Coake can speak to the effectiveness of such programs first-hand. Coake received his MFA from Ohio State's creative writing program in 2004. His experience in the program was transformational, he says.

"I was two years removed from the death of my wife," Coake says. "I applied for OSU, and it absolutely made a tremendous difference - all of the difference - in where I was heading. It was one of the best decisions I ever made."

What impacted Coake then, and has stayed with him ever since, was not only how the program taught Coake to become a serious and respected writer of fiction, but also how Ohio State's program was close-knit and caring.

It was not uncommon, Coake recalls, for students and their professors to spend hours "picking each other's brains" on what made good writing, who was doing good writing, and who had the potential to go out and do even greater writing.

"It really fostered a family relationship," Coake said. "(The professors) left us with no illusions with how much money we would make. But the professors were very caring, very family-like in their approach. I really loved my professors. They took time, to work with you, to talk with you, to help you understand what you were learning.

"It made all of the difference in the world to the students in the program. I've made no secret that I'd like our program to look like Ohio State's."

Why?

"If you do things right, you've created connections that can stay with your students the rest of their lives," Coake says.

It's an approach that has certainly been central to Coake's success as a professor at the University.

During his decade-long tenure at the University, Coake has taught/mentored several notable young writers who have used their experience at the University as a springboard to serious, well-received fiction.

The group includes such University graduates as Claire Vaye Watkins, already a Nevada Writer's Hall of Fame Silver Pen winner whose collection of Nevada-themed stories "Battleborn" earned universal praise; Gabe Urza, the grandson of the legendary Nevada writer Robert Laxalt whose first novel, "All That Followed," was released last summer; and Ben Rogers, a versatile and talented writer whose work spans disciplines, including his novel "The Flamer."

"It's been quite an undertaking, especially when you consider the long road we traveled to get to this point," Coake says of the program's launch this semester. "And again, what I really like about the program is that we don't see a lot of difference, a lot of the segmentation that you might find in a bookstore, in what the program hopes to accomplish. It's going to be interesting to see if this program can help collapse some of the boundaries that are out there right now."

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