As Boise State’s MFA in Creative Writing program turns 20, a look at its national successes and vision for the future
By Ellie Rodgers
Boise State’s Master in Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing is ranked as one of the top MFA programs in the U.S. The program left the English department to merge with theater and film. It also added new faculty and a program manager, and has new co-directors at the helm.
Now part of the Department of Theatre, Film and Creative Writing, the program makes its home in the new School of the Arts. Nestling fiction writers and poets among artists and other storytellers, including playwrights, filmmakers, musicians and thespians, the change opens the door to undergraduate students eager to live the writing life, said fiction professor and MFA program co-director Brady Udall.
Three new degrees are available, including a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Creative Writing, a BFA in Creative Writing and a BFA in Narrative Arts. Undergraduates will learn from the MFA program’s acclaimed fiction and poetry faculty, an opportunity previously only available to graduate students.
The new BFA is among the first in the country — currently there are 30 others — said MFA co-director and poetry professor Dr. Martin Corless-Smith.
The new degrees and classes also give undergraduate and MFA students training for screenwriting and production jobs created by the proliferation of cable and network TV series (for more on the Narrative TV Initiative, see page 30).
“We want to make it clear that being able to write and tell a story can apply to all kinds of different vocations,” Udall said.
Before Boise State offered the new degrees, undergraduate students interested in creative writing only could receive an English degree with an emphasis in creative writing. The new BFA in Creative Writing and Narrative Arts degrees will focus more on the craft of writing and storytelling. Meanwhile, the new BA in Creative Writing will follow a more academic path emphasizing the study of literature.
“Now we’ve got more of a creative open book. We deliberately included courses that allow professors to respond to the interests of students and respond to the needs in the classroom,” he said.
“We’re taking the strength of our MFA program and applying it to undergraduates now,” said fiction professor Mitch Wieland, former MFA program director. “It reminds me of the early days when we got started. It’s just as exciting.”
The program began in 1998 with the publication of The Idaho Review, the university’s award-winning literary journal. The journal has published acclaimed authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, Joy Williams and Anthony Doerr. Prize anthologies such as Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards and the Pushcart Prize have selected its stories numerous times, which has bolstered the MFA program’s reputation.
“Idaho Review has been a big part of what we’ve been able to do,” Wieland said. “And we’ve got such a strong publishing component also with Ahsahta Press directed by poetry professor Janet Holmes.”
The MFA program got its start in 1999 with author Robert Olmstead as its first director. Following Olmstead’s departure in 2002, Wieland and Corless-Smith traded off as director. Udall joined the faculty in 2006. In 2017, the department hired novelist Emily Ruskovich as an assistant professor of fiction and her husband, Sam McPhee, as lecturer. The program also hired poet Kerri Webster as a lecturer. Fiction writer Elizabeth Gutting, who also teaches in the program, became MFA program manager the same year. New York Times bestselling author Ridley Pearson is currently an adjunct professor in the program.
The Path to Success
Boise State’s three-year MFA program receives hundreds of applications each year, some from as far away as Hong Kong, Africa and China. The program only accepts 2 percent of applicants annually for the handful of openings. Every student receives full funding to attend for three years. The program has eight fiction and eight poetry students, many of whom have won prizes and published novels, poetry books and stories.
“We’re getting the best students and are competitive with top programs, such as Iowa and Michigan,” said Udall.
He believes the strength of Boise State’s program is the result of many factors: its small size provides students more interaction with faculty, and because it’s a three-year program, writers have more time to grow. Also bolstering its reputation are the Distinguished Writers program, MFA Reading Series and journal publications, as well as the number of students who publish while in the program.
The Distinguished Writers professorship, for example, has allowed students to work a full semester with acclaimed writers Joy Williams and the late Denis Johnson, and poets Pierre Joris and Bahnu Kapil. Rick Bass will teach this spring.
The MFA Reading Series, which is open to the public, also brings top poets and fiction writers to campus, such as short fiction writer Ann Beattie, who gained a reputation for her prize-winning New Yorker stories; fiction writer Chris Offutt, author of the novel “Country Dark” as well as numerous collections of short fiction and memoir; poet Alice Notley, who has written more than 25 books of poetry and been hailed by the Poetry Foundation as one of America’s greatest living poets; and poet and documentary filmmaker Tom Pickard.
“We get quite a bump from this,” Corless-Smith said. “It’s a way for students to understand how a major poet develops instead of by taking survey classes.”
First-year fiction student Di Bei, who is from Beijing, became interested in Boise State’s program after being referred by her English teacher while getting her undergraduate degree in Virginia. Bei already has won awards in China for her children’s literature, and last summer, she signed a contract for three young adult novels to be published in China. She said she likes the MFA program more than she expected and had worried about adjusting to life in Boise.
“As an international student writing in English, I struggled a lot as I first started out, both in language and in culture,” she said. “My professors and classmates, nevertheless, have been very understanding and helpful. I really look forward to my three years with them.”
As teaching assistants, graduate students traditionally taught English composition. But now they’re teaching fiction and poetry classes. In their third year, they can design their own class to teach in the Honors College. And with the trend of novelists turning to TV writing, students will be well-prepared to work across fields and genres.
Corless-Smith said the program plans to hire another poet and add a creative nonfiction track in the near future.