Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

Above: “Breathing Life into Creation.” Art by Tim Hazell for Volume 13 of South Loop Review, a literary journal published by the Department of English with help from graduate students in the new Creative Writing – Nonfiction MFA program.
Above: “Breathing Life into Creation.” Art by Tim Hazell for Volume 13 of South Loop Review, a literary journal published by the Department of English with help from graduate students in the new Creative Writing – Nonfiction MFA program.

Creating Nonfiction

Students enrolled in the new Creative Writing – Nonfiction graduate program in the Department of English are learning how to blur traditional literary genres.

A bass player for an alt-country/indie rock band.
A former foster child with a passion for helping others.
A chief information officer for a private foundation.

The members of the inaugural class of Columbia’s new MFA Creative Writing – Nonfiction program are not typical graduate students. But, then again, this not a typical MFA program. Last Fall, the Department of English launched its new Creative Writing – Nonfiction graduate program, welcoming ten students as its first cohort. This Fall, the size of the program has doubled, and the MFA students here are discovering a program and writing community as eclectic and challenging as the genre itself.

Getting Started
With strong undergraduate and graduate programs in Creative Writing – Poetry, as well as an undergraduate program in Creative Writing – Nonfiction, Department of English Chair Dr. Kenneth Daley felt the timing was right to launch the department’s fourth program. “Nonfiction is a burgeoning genre,” he says. “There has been increasing interest across the country, and Chicago did not have a big presence in nonfiction.”

The Creative Writing - Nonfiction graduate program is a three-year curriculum that gives students a solid foundation in the history of the personal essay, while also nurturing an understanding of the role of poetry, memoir, and hybrid forms of the genre. With a strong diversity in the course offerings, in the scope of the faculty members’ areas of literary expertise, and in the creative interests of those enrolled, students are exposed to a dynamic learning environment that is allowing them to blur traditional literary genres.

“Because nonfiction is an emerging genre, people come from poetry, fiction, and prose,” says Tatiana M. Uhoch, a student in the program who discovered creative nonfiction as an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island. “Writing can be such a solitary thing, and all of a sudden you have a community of writers. It’s a constant source of inspiration and ideas.”

Students complete their coursework in the first two years and devote the third year entirely to writing. As characteristic of the MFA experience, writing workshops provide students with an opportunity to explore their own writing while working closely with faculty and peers. Finally, the program not only provides the space for students to develop as writers, but it also broadens their literary knowledge by placing a strong emphasis on reading, which is essential in a genre as diverse and changing as nonfiction.

“The combination of creative, theoretical, and literary stresses in nonfiction is something that many MFA programs don’t have,” says David Lazar, a Professor of English who, in the summer of 2006, came to Columbia and helped create the new graduate program. Lazar also directed the program over the 2010/2011 academic year.

Being part of a college like Columbia endows the program with other unique advantages. “This is an unusual program because it’s housed in an institution that is strong across the arts,” says Aviya Kushner, Assistant Professor in the Department of English. “For the kind of writer who has an interest across the arts, a program like ours will probably be a strong fit.”

In developing the program, Lazar, who had previously established the doctoral program in Creative Writing – Nonfiction at Ohio University, sought out faculty members (such as Kushner) who represent different approaches across the spectrum of nonfiction writing. Lazar is a noted essayist, and Kushner brings students her experience with the memoir. Assistant Professor Jenny Boully, who also teaches in the program, is a lyric poet who experiments with a variety of techniques.

“I’m an experimental writer with a deep love for the traditional form,” says Boully, who takes over directing the program this Fall. “I try to give my students insight into traditional writing through experimental writing. I want them to see traditional writing as experimental in its own right.” She adds, “I hope that my students will break out of their comfort zones and try something different for them, whatever that may be.”

And the students are rising to the challenge. “I came in as a poet and it’s asking me to blur genres,” says Texas native Jennifer Tatum-Cotamagaña. “It’s exciting to find my own way.”

Making Their Mark
Over the last academic year, the first cohort of students had a unique opportunity to help shape the program for current and future students. Tatum-Cotamagaña says the highlight of her first year was working with three other students to start The 33 Reading Series. Beginning this Fall, the student-curated series will take place twice each semester and feature the original poetry and nonfiction work of second-year graduate students.

Students have also had the opportunity to sit down with faculty to provide feedback about the new program. “It’s an intimate relationship at Columbia. It feels good to be involved with it,” says student and part-time musician Ryan Spooner. “It’s nice to have something new and fresh where students can be directly involved.”

To become a part of the larger literary community, students in the program are gaining firsthand experience by working on two of the literary magazines published by the Department of English: Hotel Amerika and South Loop Review. They can also build connections with other writers from across the country by representing the college at prominent national conferences, including NonfictioNow and AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs).“It’s amazing to be in the presence of so many writers,” Uhoch says. “The program has been very supportive in helping us get there.”

Outside of the classroom, readings and workshops given by visiting authors are enriching the students’ experience. “The access you have to writers is just great,” Uhoch says. For her, sitting down and talking one-on-one with guest speakers has been an inspiring and eye-opening experience. “They’re people whose writing I love and aspire to,” she says.

Looking Ahead
In the future, the Department of English will find ways to enhance students’ experience by developing opportunities for interdisciplinary study, integrating nonfiction with film, photography, dance, or other arts. “There’s such rich potential in nonfiction collaboratively working with other disciplines,” Dr. Daley notes.

As the program grows, Boully hopes the Department of English will hire additional faculty members and expand the reading series to bring in more writers representing different types of nonfiction: “We’d like to bring the students as much diversity as they bring us.”

Although the long-term impact Columbia’s Nonfiction graduates will have on the literary, professional, and academic worlds of writing has yet to be felt, Lazar already sees their potential. “We’re putting people out there with a broad, interesting, even quirky sense of the form,” he notes. At the same time, however, the program offers students practical opportunities that will prove useful in the larger marketplace for writers.

Among the first of those students slated to graduate is Sharon Burns, a single parent and an IT executive, who came to Columbia last Fall looking for a new challenge. Burns says that entering the program was the best decision she could have made. “It’s a great program for someone who wants to expand all areas of nonfiction in both reading and writing.” She adds, “My goal is pretty simple: to be a better writer. … I’m already able to declare success. I’ve already learned so much.”