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The unvanquished

With an award-winning literary journal and frequently published professors, the U of M’s creative writing program is a story in itself.

By Sara Hoover

Faulkner’s Memphis — the promised land of sin and delight not far from the fictional Yoknapatawpha County — is home to masters of the written word who are guiding the University of Memphis creative writing program and its students.

The Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing in the College of Arts & Sciences is 20 years old and was founded by Dr. Tom Russell, professor of creative writing. The first class of 14 was fully funded and all from out of state. Since then, the program has grown tremendously.

“We came in at the beginning of when a lot of MFA programs were coming in,” Russell says. “It’s become more professional in the sense, because we shared a lot of other schools’ beginning twitches and strange little syndromes that beginning programs have.”

Most important to Russell was maintaining the integrity of the classes by having them taught by working, published writers with national reputations.

After 27 years at the U of M and 20 as the coordinator of the program, Russell is retiring.

Published in fiction and poetry, his latest novel is about an affluent neighborhood in the Midwest on the eve of Reagan’s election in 1980.

The program has more than tripled since its inception. Forty-six students are enrolled for the fall semester with 60 percent from out of state. Students study fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. Almost half the students receive funding in the form of assistantships. Approximately 130 students have graduated with their terminal degree and the graduation rate, which has steadily increased, is 85 percent.

The program plans to grow its faculty, too.

“We’re hoping to get the kind of support from the administration where we might be the flagship of the English department,” says Russell. “We have the most chance for visibility at the University, the most chance for the community to feel in some way they are part of the department. That’s a very honorable thing to be pursuing.”

Students from around the country are drawn to the program due to its highly decorated faculty.

Cary Holladay, associate professor of creative writing, was awarded the First Tennessee professorship, a three-year honor in recognition of outstanding contributions toward the University’s educational, research, service and outreach missions.

A Virginia native, Holladay identifies as a Southern writer and her work has been selected for New Stories from the South, an anthology of the best writing from or about the South, for the past several years.

“I am proud to be a Southern writer. I regard my work as heavily influenced by Southern culture and geography, locale, history, Southern food and Southern writers.”

She lists such writers as Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter and Elizabeth Spencer as influences.

 With her love of history, Holladay is working on several collections of short stories, depicting other times and places. One is focused in central Virginia’s Orange and Culpepper counties.

“There was a case back in 1745 of a slave woman accused and convicted of poisoning her master and she was burned at the stake by a river. In another story there was a female minister who was unpopular and harassed to the point where she left. Nobody ever admitted who drove her away. I turned it into a story called, Ice Hands. Another story is called the Deer in the Mirror. Apparently Governor Spotswood’s wife, back during the early days of Virginia being a colony, kept tame deer inside. That little detail just fascinated me and started this story.”

Many of her individual stories have been published in journals or anthologies and Holladay plans to find a publisher to put out the collections.

She is also director of the River City Writers Series, a program that brings writers from across the globe to read and lecture. The series has brought Pulitzer Prize winners, national book award winners and poets laureate to Memphis for 33 years. The events are free and open to the public, and held on and off campus.

At the U of M for eight years, Holladay has received many honors and awards for her work, including the O. Henry Award and an NEA Fellowship, and was recently profiled in The Writer magazine.

Her words of wisdom for aspiring writers are to write about things you like.

“John Gardner says, ‘A writer’s material is what he cares about.’ I’ve got cats in my stories, cooking, trains, rivers, seashells. The search for material is crucial for a writer’s career. It’s part of the fun of being a writer.”

Dr. John Bensko, professor of creative writing, draws inspiration from history and a sense of place, which is evident in his poetry and short stories.

Inspired by realists, surrealists and The Bard himself, Bensko often spends his summers immersed in one author, like Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

His first collection of poetry, Green Soldiers, won the renowned Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. He also received the McLeod-Grobe Poetry Prize and the Germantown Arts Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award. His most recent publication is the short fiction collection, Sea Dogs.

At the U of M since 1994, Bensko, who is married to Holladay, created the first study abroad program in creative writing. A Fulbright Professor at The Universidad de Alicante in Alicante, Spain, in 1992, he kept in touch and developed a three-week summer program held in June, during the Fiesta of San Juan. It included a poetry workshop and an English as a Second Language component, taught by the co-founder of the program, U of M applied linguistics professor Dr. Charles Hall.

“It’s using the poetry workshop as a tool for teaching people a second language,” says Bensko. “What I found out was students who were studying English enjoyed the poetry workshop as a way to access their English. I thought we would try to experiment with different ways we can use creative writing to practice the issues between one language and another.”

Next year’s course will be open to the community. They hope to eventually expand to fiction and creative nonfiction.

Bensko’s latest projects include a novel and two collections of poetry.

“The novel is set at the University of Alabama in the 1950s. It’s kind of a sports story and that’s new for me. It has to do with the early days of Bear Bryant coming to the University. That was one of my reading kicks. I got fascinated with Bear Bryant. I read all the books I could.”

His advice to new writers: “One of the great secrets of being a successful writer is to have a trust fund. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that. We have to try really hard to become disciplined and learn how to persist in our writing when all kinds of other things are coming in, like the necessity of earning a living and trying to raise families. That makes it extremely hard to keep writing because writing is difficult. Samuel Johnson said, ‘No person but a fool ever wrote except for money.’ The fact of the matter is you really can’t make much money at writing. You have to figure out other ways to make money. You just hope whatever that thing is helps you rather than hurts you in your writing.”

Dr. Kristen Iversen, associate professor of creative writing and interim coordinator of the program, is the author of Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, the first creative nonfiction textbook to cover all the major subgenres.

Iversen is most known for her biography Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Biography, now in its ninth printing.

As an expert, she has been featured on A&E Biography, The History Channel, The Today Show and NPR, and documentaries have been based on her work. She has also worked with the Molly Brown House Museum.

Her ideas come from everywhere.

“I feel like I always have a camera on top of my head. I’m living my life and yet I’m always thinking and observing to see where there’s a story, and there are stories everywhere.”

Published in both fiction and nonfiction, she draws inspiration from Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion and Terry Tempest Williams.

“Creative nonfiction is one of the fastest growing fields in the country. We’ve been able to build a really exciting program in creative nonfiction at the University. There’s a lot of opportunity to become one of the premiere creative nonfiction programs in the country.”

One piece to boosting the program is The Pinch, the literary journal of the U of M. Iversen took over as editor-in-chief when she arrived seven years ago. Student-run, it publishes fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction and artwork by established and emerging authors and artists from all over the country. It does not publish U of M students.

“The journal has a long history of which we’re very proud. Originally called River City, The Pinch gives our graduate students an opportunity to work on an award-winning journal that is sold in bookstores around the country. It has become the face of the MFA program on a national basis and the University of Memphis.”

U of M associate professor of art Gary Golightly produces the award-winning covers. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, The Pinch is one of the oldest literary journals in the country.

Iversen’s latest project is her environmental memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats.

“I grew up in Colorado right next to Rocky Flats, a facility owned by the Department of Energy that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs for almost 50 years. There was significant radioactive contamination of the environment in the air, water and soil, including plutonium and other radioactive elements. It was all secret. My siblings and I rode our horses around the plant, played in the fields and swam in the lakes. The book itself is a weave of my own family story and other residents, and of the plant itself, which is a very dramatic and very controversial story to present day.”

Richard Bausch, the Lillian and Morrie A. Moss Chair of Excellence in the English department, in his five years has helped create a studio degree, giving students more time to write. He also instituted The Moss Workshop, an annual free community workshop that he teaches.

“It affords people with talent, who do not have the resources to attend the University, to be in a workshop through a given semester. It is a means of communicating with the city, and also a means of discovering talent that, in the end, does end up in the University — and they are always among the best students.”

Besides having an MFA in creative writing from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, Bausch is the author of 11 novels, eight short story collections and one volume of poetry and prose. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, an O. Henry Award, Pushcart Award and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award. His short stories have appeared in many prize-winning anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last Good Time, was made into a feature film.

He doesn’t know where his ideas come from — they just happen.

“They choose me. It’s like something dropping in a pond. The ripples start.”

Bausch just published his eighth collection of stories, Something Is Out There, with Alfred A. Knopf Publishing. He is currently at work on his 12th novel, Before, During, After, about a woman stranded in Jamaica due to 9/11, who was supposed to be moving to Tennessee to begin a new life with a resigned Episcopalian minister. He is also working on Pulse, a short story about a man running a Shakespeare Company in Memphis with a visiting director who wants to stage King Lear with Cordelia being deaf while the fool signs all of her speeches. 

His most recent novel, Peace, which follows American soldiers at the end of the Second World War in Italy, won the international Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

A winding road led Bausch to be a writer after a stint in the Air Force and professional gigs as a stand-up comedian and singer. With his brother, Robert, they are the only known twin novelists in history.

In response to the argument, “If you want to be a writer, don’t you just need to sit down and write,” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction editor sees benefits to MFA programs.

“The question concerning writing courses and writing programs is an old one, even for such a relatively new development in college curricula. Because it is tied to language rather than painting or music or architecture or even drama — and all these forms of artistic expression have been ‘taught’ at universities since at least the Renaissance — writing programs are very often doubted or questioned. But one is never teaching writing any more than one is ever teaching painting. One is providing a place and an atmosphere where it may happen, and as a teacher, always trying to facilitate that. One teaches patience, the efficacy of revising and the life. Reading a manuscript and commenting on it as another artist is at least as old as writing itself — Shakespeare and the gang drank together and hung out and I guarantee you they were talking shop.

“This is not to say that one must attend a writing program to learn how to write. One learns to write mostly from reading and from the practice itself, done with all the obsessiveness of an oyster making a pearl. The fact that you can go to a university in pursuit of it, and be paid a stipend while you do so, is a beautiful development.”

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