2005 to 2015. Ten years. A decade. That’s how long it’s been since we welcomed the first group of students and faculty into the newly-minted low-residency MFA in Writing program at UNO.
I remember the afternoon of the first day I walked through the front doors of the Lied Lodge and Conference Center to greet the inaugural class of twelve students and to meet with the ten new faculty, a couple of whom I knew then only through correspondence. As I stood in the cavernous entryway looking across the lobby at that monolithic stone fireplace looming behind the wide descending staircase to meeting rooms below, I thought, “My god, what am I entering, the Temple of The Hallowed Word?” Our dear Associate Director, Jenna Lucas, with whom I had met for three and a half years constructing the program on paper, sensed my nervousness and, because she had graduated from another low-residency MFA program and knew how the magic worked, said quietly, “Wait until you see what we have wrought.” And sure enough, in that first evening when new faculty and students sat down to dine together, there seemed to emerge instantly a bond between everyone as writers with a common desire, and they had found their home.
During the years before I’d reached my own first decade in grade school, I recall that each year of my single-digit age passed with the plodding deliberateness of a decade, and that carefree summer months away from school and my friends there seemed to crawl under the weight of a whole year. Time in general moved at a slothful pace, and a year was a generational chasm separating me from those even a grade ahead of me or behind me. Now, however, well into my seventies, I am aware of the phenomenon of temporal acceleration. A year gallops as swiftly as a month, and these ten years have gone by so rapidly I must force myself to backtrack in my mind to reconstruct the major landmarks we have passed along the way to this celebratory moment.
Even now, on the tenth anniversary of our program, I find myself having to stop and recalculate how far back in time it truly has been since that inaugural group of twelve students and ten faculty members met each other. For those of you who were not among us then, imagine what it must have felt like for me to experience the moment a nascent graduate program bore itself off the pages of curriculum proposals and projected budget plans, through the peristaltic labor of bureaucratic academic approvals over four long years, until its miraculous metamorphosis into that first congregation of twenty-two flesh-and-blood humans who traveled to Nebraska City from all across the country, led by their common aspirations to exploit their individual talents as writers. When they walked through the great front doors of the Lied, they arrived with little more than the paper promise of a life-altering experience and the realization that their dreams were still two more years away from reaching fruition.
I couldn’t be prouder of that first group of students and faculty who took the risk with us when we congregated for the first time on our hospitable Lied “campus” in August of 2005 and we looked each other over during the first meal we shared together in the dining room, and we recognized in our hearts that “Yes, I was right. This is where I need to be. This is the community I belong to.”
What courage. What trust. What a gamble.
For the past ten years, nearly every semester has been a series of first time events, and each graduating class of students has completed a leg of a journey neither they nor the program has traveled on before. This July is a benchmark in the academic and artistic history of creative writing at UNO as yet ten more graduates earn their Master of Fine Arts degrees for literary achievement. Their substantial progress in the program, their accomplishments in their artistic growth, has been nothing short of extraordinary. The awarding of their degrees from the University of Nebraska is just an emblem signifying the enormity of what they have accomplished over the two years of their intense study. The faculty of the program, all accomplished writers who have mentored them through their studies, have certified that every member of this graduating class has achieved a level of mastery over their art and craft worthy of the designation of Master of Fine Arts.
Currently the program has grown to twenty faculty mentors, all who provide input into the artistic direction for the program through the substantial investment of their time and energy in their students. Beginning in 2005 with the traditional offering of major tracks in Fiction, Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, we entered the company of a few select programs offering low-residency, individually mentored instruction and guidance for non-traditional students. In the past four years alone, we have added to our literary arsenal of creative disciplines with a Playwriting track and an emphasis in Young Adult Fiction. And there is “backroom talk” of exploring the possibility for combining Screenwriting with Playwriting for a Dramatic Writing track. (Screenwriting in the heart of the heart of the country? Hmm. Keep an ear to the ground for the results of discussion about that!).
And hey! What about our reach in recent residences beyond the walls of the Lied meeting rooms to include a wider variety of visitors and alums presented through our new “satellite” distance lectures and readings brought to us through the magic of digital conferencing?
This past year has seen the approval by the University of two new MFA courses for post-graduate study: an Enrichment Residency and an Enrichment Distance Seminar. Both courses are open to anyone with an MFA in writing degree, and will open the MFA experience to graduates wishing to refresh and recharge themselves in the energy of a residency session, and to offer those with a desire to pursue a mentored semester of new writing or work with that mentor they never got to experience during their degree studies.
The point is, because of the strong and vibrant family of writers, teachers and editors that have come out of the UNO MFA in Writing program and who remain involved with one another, the potential for an expanding vision for the program is strong. This is just the beginning!
Congratulations to all of you who have made our first ten years a roaring success. Come back to us as often as you are willing and able to continue developing as artists in a close-knit circle of writers.