Like Michael Oatman UNO MFA faculty member pictured here, we should all reach for the sky

Michael Oatman

Michael Oatman

Why start an MFA program?

Why start anything? A love affair, cooking school, martial arts, mountain climbing, spelunking, photography, why start making love, the world might end and you might not get to finish, or you might find that you’re not as good at it as you hoped you’d be. Or you find that there are others getting famous while you’re still cave diving in a thoroughly amateurish manner for months, maybe years.  We start writing programs because it’s a journey we want to take.  Because we want to start walking down a road, learning an activity that we might take years to get good at.

Among the many courses I took in college were: French, Spanish, horseback riding (seriously) dance (four years) theatre, astronomy (I was in love with Carl Sagan).  Of all of those, the most useful has been the Spanish.  But I’ve never regretted any of those.  I still ride horses, speak French, dance, (not as well as Amy Hassinger) love plays, and when I get out of the city, and I look  up at the stars, I can name them like old friends staring down on me just as they did when I grew up in the woods of New Hampshire and I could see the whole Milky Way and I used to say to myself, I am going to do something amazing in this galaxy not having a single clue how small I was.

When I started to take writing courses, I sucked and I continued to suck long after I graduated with a Master’s in writing, I continued to write a lot of really bad stuff, and I enjoyed the heck out of it.  I enjoyed getting my writing muscles going, swimming around in language and getting to read some big writers.  When I started, I was reading mostly science fiction.  My teachers said no to science fiction.  They told me to read Hemingway who I liked very much and I even went hiking in the woods and tried to imagine myself as a Nicola Adams, I liked reading all of it, even the big white male writers stomping around in the world.  I was so excited to be part of it.  I didn’t learn to be a writer in graduate school, I didn’t learn till later, but I was given the tools that would carry me forward into my future writing life.  When I graduated, that life stretched before me like blue hills to the horizon.  That’s why you start an MFA, to begin a journey, like learning to enter the caves of the imagination.  At first, it’s wet and dark and cold down there, and that’s all you notice and then your eyes adjust and you see that you’re inside a big story.

Read Bhanu Kapil’s response to MFA programs, you’ll like what she has to say as well.


Kate Gale

This post originally appeared on Kate Gale: A Mind Never Dormant.

It All Begins With a Dream

A year ago my Grandfather passed away. It was tragic. Death always is. But through meeting all this family that only remembered me when I was young and sweet, I met someone who started a dream of mine. I am currently living that dream.

Jody Keisner found out that one of my hair pulling dreams is to obtain a Masters in English Creative Writing, more specifically, Fiction Writing. At my Grandpa’s funeral, she came over and apologized for my loss and then started talking about my fiction writing. She talked about this MFA program out of UNO like it was the whip cream on top of a sundae, the best part. I shrugged her off and went back to wallowing in my sorrows.

A few weeks later MFA and UNO kept finding their way into my thoughts; I thought I was going crazy for awhile. They whispered their way into my life. Finally I got quite annoyed with my psyche and sat down to explore what this thing was all about. Soon I found it was a low-residency program.

This made it seem unattainable. I’m a mom; I can’t take nine days out of my life, my job, and away from my child, no matter how sweet the program is. But UNO and MFA kept whispering their names in the back of my mind. They drove me nuts.

Finally the time came to apply and make decisions. I applied for the Iowa Writers Workshop, because you can’t be a writer and not apply to the program that everyone talks about, UNK, and then last but not least the pesky UNO MFA program.

As time when on last semester, UNO and MFA kept appearing in my head, and on my Facebook page. I swear to you. This thing was haunting me. It was driving me nuts. I had it in my head that I was going to attend UNK for a Masters in Creative writing, and then I would maybe, only if money allowed, get an MFA.

Well, I heard from UNO and the director, Jenna, was really pushing for an answer. Telling me that this was the right choice. I kept telling her I wasn’t sure because I had never heard back from UNK as to whether I could teach and specifics on that program. So I lay down one night. In my mind I weighed the pros and cons of each school.

I lay there and thought about my Grandpa, and how proud he would be of me to just be lying here and be making a decision about Graduate School. I thought about how I found out about this program–at his funeral. A voice in my head told me to “just do it.”

I walked in for orientation, and was greeted with open arms. I was engulfed in love, appreciation, and acceptance. I was brought under the arms of some of the 4th semester and graduating students. The first time I met Jenna, she shook my hand and engulfed me in the love of a truly caring director. This love is what makes being here nine days in a row not overwhelming, or boring, or over the top. I’ve been here six days and already I feel like I have another family. And I do. I have met the beginnings of what will build and build to be known as my writing family.

Here I am, sitting in my hotel room, taking in what seems like a dream, but I know this is right where I am supposed to be. I am appreciated, loved, and free here. This is where Grandpa wanted me to go. I was just too stubborn to take the hints.

I also was offered a scholarship to be a Resident Assistant; this scholarship pays me in full room and board to be Jenna’s right hand man. I cannot even begin to describe my thrill for this little bit of money and the opportunity to work side by side the one person that gave me the push, the little incentive I needed to make a decision, and follow the pesky voices in my head. This scholarship not only adds to my resume, but it also adds to the line of people and things telling me that I can’t give up until I achieve this dream.

I am so thankful for being 20 years old, attending Graduate School, Facetiming my son every night, and be somewhere where I am not a nerd, but rather a peer. I’m making memories, embracing the awkwardness, and for the first time in the past year I know Grandpa is standing beside Jesus looking down on me saying “Look, that’s my grandbaby.”

Elizabeth Sorgenfrei
This post originally appeared on Elizabeth’s blog, Single Mama Tackling Her Dreams

“This is the community I belong to.”

2005 to 2015. Ten years. A decade. That’s how long it’s been since we welcomed the first group of students and faculty into the newly-minted low-residency MFA in Writing program at UNO.

I remember the afternoon of the first day I walked through the front doors of the Lied Lodge and Conference Center to greet the inaugural class of twelve students and to meet with the ten new faculty, a couple of whom I knew then only through correspondence. As I stood in the cavernous entryway looking across the lobby at that monolithic stone fireplace looming behind the wide descending staircase to meeting rooms below, I thought, “My god, what am I entering, the Temple of The Hallowed Word?” Our dear Associate Director, Jenna Lucas, with whom I had met for three and a half years constructing the program on paper, sensed my nervousness and, because she had graduated from another low-residency MFA program and knew how the magic worked, said quietly, “Wait until you see what we have wrought.” And sure enough, in that first evening when new faculty and students sat down to dine together, there seemed to emerge instantly a bond between everyone as writers with a common desire, and they had found their home.

During the years before I’d reached my own first decade in grade school, I recall that each year of my single-digit age passed with the plodding deliberateness of a decade, and that carefree summer months away from school and my friends there seemed to crawl under the weight of a whole year. Time in general moved at a slothful pace, and a year was a generational chasm separating me from those even a grade ahead of me or behind me. Now, however, well into my seventies, I am aware of the phenomenon of temporal acceleration. A year gallops as swiftly as a month, and these ten years have gone by so rapidly I must force myself to backtrack in my mind to reconstruct the major landmarks we have passed along the way to this celebratory moment.

Even now, on the tenth anniversary of our program, I find myself having to stop and recalculate how far back in time it truly has been since that inaugural group of twelve students and ten faculty members met each other. For those of you who were not among us then, imagine what it must have felt like for me to experience the moment a nascent graduate program bore itself off the pages of curriculum proposals and projected budget plans, through the peristaltic labor of bureaucratic academic approvals over four long years, until its miraculous metamorphosis into that first congregation of twenty-two flesh-and-blood humans who traveled to Nebraska City from all across the country, led by their common aspirations to exploit their individual talents as writers. When they walked through the great front doors of the Lied, they arrived with little more than the paper promise of a life-altering experience and the realization that their dreams were still two more years away from reaching fruition.

I couldn’t be prouder of that first group of students and faculty who took the risk with us when we congregated for the first time on our hospitable Lied “campus” in August of 2005 and we looked each other over during the first meal we shared together in the dining room, and we recognized in our hearts that “Yes, I was right. This is where I need to be. This is the community I belong to.”

What courage. What trust. What a gamble.

For the past ten years, nearly every semester has been a series of first time events, and each graduating class of students has completed a leg of a journey neither they nor the program has traveled on before. This July is a benchmark in the academic and artistic history of creative writing at UNO as yet ten more graduates earn their Master of Fine Arts degrees for literary achievement. Their substantial progress in the program, their accomplishments in their artistic growth, has been nothing short of extraordinary. The awarding of their degrees from the University of Nebraska is just an emblem signifying the enormity of what they have accomplished over the two years of their intense study. The faculty of the program, all accomplished writers who have mentored them through their studies, have certified that every member of this graduating class has achieved a level of mastery over their art and craft worthy of the designation of Master of Fine Arts.

Currently the program has grown to twenty faculty mentors, all who provide input into the artistic direction for the program through the substantial investment of their time and energy in their students. Beginning in 2005 with the traditional offering of major tracks in Fiction, Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, we entered the company of a few select programs offering low-residency, individually mentored instruction and guidance for non-traditional students. In the past four years alone, we have added to our literary arsenal of creative disciplines with a Playwriting track and an emphasis in Young Adult Fiction. And there is “backroom talk” of exploring the possibility for combining Screenwriting with Playwriting for a Dramatic Writing track. (Screenwriting in the heart of the heart of the country? Hmm. Keep an ear to the ground for the results of discussion about that!).

And hey! What about our reach in recent residences beyond the walls of the Lied meeting rooms to include a wider variety of visitors and alums presented through our new “satellite” distance lectures and readings brought to us through the magic of digital conferencing?

This past year has seen the approval by the University of two new MFA courses for post-graduate study: an Enrichment Residency and an Enrichment Distance Seminar. Both courses are open to anyone with an MFA in writing degree, and will open the MFA experience to graduates wishing to refresh and recharge themselves in the energy of a residency session, and to offer those with a desire to pursue a mentored semester of new writing or work with that mentor they never got to experience during their degree studies.

The point is, because of the strong and vibrant family of writers, teachers and editors that have come out of the UNO MFA in Writing program and who remain involved with one another, the potential for an expanding vision for the program is strong. This is just the beginning!

Congratulations to all of you who have made our first ten years a roaring success. Come back to us as often as you are willing and able to continue developing as artists in a close-knit circle of writers.

Warmest regards,

Richard Duggin