Professor Joe Meno
“We grew up together,” says award-winning fiction writer and playwright Joe Meno, referring to Columbia College, where he received his undergraduate degree, his MFA, and—eventually—a full-time gig as Associate Professor. His perspective as both alumni and faculty: “I don’t know if I can capture how much the school has changed and blossomed; you feel like you’re at this place that’s both established itself and is still inventing itself. It’s never boring.”
I don’t know if I can capture how much the school has changed and blossomed; you feel like you’re at this place that’s both established itself and is still inventing itself. It’s never boring.
Meno appreciates the unconventional creative writing program at Columbia for creating a distinct and separate Fiction Writing department. “Usually, it’s part of the English department, and typically other schools have between three and twelve creative writing classes—we have upwards of fifty here.”
The Master’s program is deeply rooted in fiction writing and prose form classes that employ Columbia’s exclusive Story Workshop© approach, a nationally-renowned method of teaching developed by the College’s own John Schultz. “I believe it’s the best selling point on the program,” says Meno. “There’s something different about the way we teach writing. We focus on positive reinforcement; we look at a student’s manuscript, see what’s working and we respond to that. We have all these different ways for seeing how your writing works, and I really take that to heart.”
Other schools have between three and twelve creative writing classes—we have upwards of fifty here.
“The other big thing, for me as a student and as a teacher, is that there’s diversity here — in background, in language. It makes you a stronger writer to have to write a story that makes sense to a wider audience.”
Meno’s work certainly has broad appeal. His most recent novel The Great Perhaps was listed in 2009 as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. In the same year he was also named a Columbia Distinguished College Artist, a two-year fellowship given to faculty members who have produced an extraordinary body of work, while showing the potential to continue creating innovatively. With seven published books and nine produced plays, the Nelson Algren Award, the Midland Authors Award for Fiction, and three awards from the Illinois Arts Council, Joe Meno has been appropriately deemed by Fiction Writing Department Chair Randy Albers to be “the hardest-working writer I know.”
However, Meno reassures that not every grad student must show up to the program with a published book, like he did. “We have these great classes like Freelance Applications for Fiction Writers,” he says, as well as publication opportunities on campus: Hair Trigger, the Fiction Department’s annual anthology, and two other nationally distributed publications, Spec-Lit, a science fiction journal, and F Magazine, a journal devoted primarily to novels in progress. These publications empower students to find their own voices, give them a vehicle through which to showcase their writing to a wider audience, and expose them to the workings of a professional literary environment.
On the future of the literary field Meno says, “People are just story creatures; we need stories to help us construct meaning in our lives, that’s how we understand things. You do this all the time, all day—that need is never going to change; it’s just that the form it takes might be slightly different.”