In 2020-21, the Creative Writing Program at George Mason University marks its 40th anniversary. It is a time to celebrate our past and look toward our future.
Ours is one of the older MFAs in the country, started in 1980 near the beginning of a wave of graduate writing programs that appeared across the country. Originally, it started as a two-genre program—fiction and poetry—and added nonfiction in the mid-1990s. The MFA was the first terminal-degree program in the English Department at Mason. As such, it has always received the attention and solid support from the English Department and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) within which it is housed.
Novelist Susan Richards Shreve and poet Peter Klappert were its original architects and key faculty. It was patterned on a studio-workshop model that also blended in a significant requirement for major literary study, and so the curriculum has always required and still requires workshops, craft courses, and “reading” courses. Due to this approach, and its location near the nation’s capital, the program found early success, which led to the core faculty being enlarged to include fiction writers Richard Bausch, Stephen Goodwin, and Alan Cheuse, as well as poets C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, and Susan Tichy. When in the mid-1990s, the faculty and administration added nonfiction as its third genre, writer Beverly Lowry was hired to anchor that concentration.
Over the intervening years, departmental and program leadership carefully selected from the best contemporary writers to serve as new faculty members who expanded the program’s offerings and continue to enrich its aesthetic diversity. As a result, the Mason program doesn’t teach what might be thought of as the "Mason way" to write; instead, it offers experiences and opportunities in a nourishing environment that encourages students to grow into the writers they want to become.
Today, students learn from a core faculty of highly acclaimed, extremely experienced literary artists who bring to each course and workshop our program’s most precious commodity—their love of teaching.
Another trademark of the Mason program is the development and expansion of “non-classroom” opportunities, which have been established to encourage the enrichment of individual writers according to their interests and abilities (as well as to add experiences and credentials to their resumes). The rich array of ways to engage publishing practice and literary citizenship that distinguish Mason’s MFA program from all other programs starts, at least chronologically, with the Fall for the Book festival (https://fallforthebook.org/), begun in 1999 as a venture in partnership with numerous community and arts organizations throughout the region. For more than 20 years now, it has presented multi-day literary experiences that students can—and we think should—take advantage of during their years at Mason. In addition, working behind the scenes with Fall for the Book can help students gain valuable experience in events production and arts management.
In 2014, some MFA faculty, administration, and alumni joined together to found Stillhouse Press (https://stillhousepress.org), designed as a teaching press that both offers publication opportunities for writers from around the world and affords Mason students first-hand exposure to all facets of book publishing. Soon after its founding, Stillhouse produced its first title, a volume of short stories, Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, by Mason alum Wendi Kaufman. Today, Stillhouse offers students experience in everything from manuscript selection to book design and production to effective marketing and business strategies required in the changing world of publishing. Engagement with the press is undertaken through course work, internships, and newly developed Graduate Professional Assistantships, as well as on a volunteer basis.
Writer Alan Cheuse, during almost 30 years of teaching at Mason, encouraged young writers to both find their own strengths and also look beyond themselves to the larger world for ideas and inspiration. For example, through his involvement with the annual Pegasus Prize, he brought to the Mason campus each year an international writer whose work had been selected for translation into English and publication in a special Pegasus edition. The event featured the international writer reading from their work in the original language and then Alan reading from the translation. When in 2014 talk within the program’s administration and faculty turned to exploring international links, Alan advocated for a center that would bring writers from around the world to Mason on a consistent basis. Alan died unexpectedly in the late summer of 2015; it seemed only appropriate to name for him the center for international writing that grew out of those early conversations.
Today, the Cheuse Center for International Writers (https://cheusecenter.gmu.edu/) regularly brings literary artists to campus and the Washington, D.C., area as part of its work to facilitate “the exchange of international creative writers and writing in order to help foster the tolerance and understanding a more connected world requires.” Events on campus and in the community built around those visits offer truly unique experiences for Mason’s students, but the Center also offers MFA students a chance to propose their own research-abroad agendas and receive financial support to make them possible.
In 2019, the Creative Writing Program announced a collaboration with nonprofit Daily Poetry Association and Mason University Libraries to relocate the curation, publication, and administration of Poetry Daily from Charlottesville to Mason’s campus. Launched in 1997, Poetry Daily is a highly esteemed online journal that features poets, their poetry, and publishers of poetry. The new collaboration transforms it into a significant learning opportunity for Mason students. Working with Poetry Faculty, students help select works to be featured each day on the Poetry Daily website (reimagined and redesigned at https://poems.com) and emailed every morning to a burgeoning list of subscribers. Students also work with Poetry Daily’s editorial board of poets, and gain experience in design and use of online publications, social media and multi-media platforms, and nonprofit arts administration.
Finally, the Creative Writing Program boasts not one but two highly-acclaimed and innovative publications. In the early 1970s, authors Richard and Robert Bausch started phoebe and immediately folded it into the new degree program. phoebe prides itself on supporting up-and-coming writers whose style, form, voice, and subject matter demonstrate a vigorous appeal to the senses, intellect, and emotions of its readers. It publishes one print and one online issue per year (http://phoebejournal.com/). So to Speak was founded in 1993 by an editorial collective of women—all MFA candidates—and has served as a space for feminist writing and art for more than 25 years. As the journal has evolved over the years, so have its editors’ outlooks on feminism; they believe in an intersectional feminist outlook that includes, advocates for, and amplifies the perspectives and experiences of marginalized women and nonbinary people (https://sotospeakjournal.org).
Meanwhile, the Department of English launched a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 2013. One of only 30 BFAs in creative writing nationwide, students choose from three concentrations to choose from (fiction, poetry, nonfiction). The BFA is structured to give undergraduate students ample opportunity to learn to write and think creatively while also developing vocational writing skills, skills that are desperately needed in the workplace. BFA graduates also become competitive candidates at MFA programs across the country.
Together, the BFA, MFA, and vibrant activity centered on contemplating, creating, and celebrating the literary arts form a community that distinguishes the Creative Writing Program at Mason.
Thanks to Bill Miller, who served the George Mason University community for 33 years and was Director of Creative Writing from 1992 to 2018, for drafting this program history.