Creating Great Writers

illustration: Santiago Uceda
Illustration: Santiago Uceda

The peaks of the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon are still snow-capped in July. The lake is clear and still. The sun shines down hard, and writers at Summer Fishtrap chase shade even at breakfast. Guzzling coffee among them is Jon Ross, a creative writing graduate student at Oregon State University, who wears a tentative smile below his floppy hat.

The mountains, the lake and the rolling hills of the valley provide the perfect setting for writing about the West. That’s what Fishtrap is all about. The nonprofit literary organization based in Enterprise has been hosting its summer writing conference on Wallowa Lake for 25 years.

Fishtrap director Ann Powers takes pride in her setting.

“It’s beautiful to look up at the mountains every day,” she says. “Innovative thinkers and creative people can make this place flourish. We want to cultivate clear thinking and good writing in the West.”

Marjorie Sandor, former director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Oregon State, has a similar goal. A few years ago she was thrilled to learn that Powers, a former student of hers from the Rainier Writing Workshop, was the new director of Fishtrap. That’s when she began plotting an opportunity for OSU students: to add a third year to the typical two-year master of fine arts (MFA) program. By applying their writing skills in a professional environment, they would deepen their educational experience and test their creativity in practical circumstances. It’s an approach that is taking root in several writing programs at Oregon State and turning the university into a writer’s haven.

“The typical two years of an MFA program is a very brief time when you’re trying to make your way as a writer,” Sandor explains. She admits that the hard work of creating a body of publishable work while teaching and taking courses leaves MFA students with little time for networking and exploring writing-related careers outside the university.

Camped out at the summer Fishtrap workshop in Wallowa County, Oregon State graduate student Jon Ross prepares for an experiential year in OSU's MFA program in creative writing. (Photo: Callie Newton)
Camped out at the summer Fishtrap workshop, Oregon State graduate student Jon Ross prepares for an experiential year in OSU’s MFA program in creative writing. (Photo: Caroline Zilk)

This fall, that will change for two MFA students. Jon Ross and Sally Parrish will complete a third year of their program with help from Fishtrap. Ross will work as Powers’ assistant. Parrish will head the Fishtrap College Program and teach writing courses to high school students for Oregon State credit. She will also teach courses and workshops to younger students and to members of the community. Supporting their work financially are the Oregon State School of Writing, Literature and Film; private donors; and the Ford Family Foundation.

Both students will live in Wallowa County, working for Fishtrap and on their theses and personal writing projects.

Sandor hopes this new partnership with Fishtrap will be the beginning of myriad third-year options for OSU MFA students. Other Oregon State programs, such as the Spring Creek Project, have been inspiring writers for years. At OSU-Cascades in Bend, a new low-residency MFA degree will enable students to work off campus and draw inspiration from the details of their daily lives.

A Sense of Place at Oregon State

Parrish is a poet. Before she came to Corvallis, she spent six weeks basking in the warm glow of the Costa Rican sunlight, touring the country and taking a break after earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina Asheville. She didn’t know it at the time, but the experience would provide inspiration for much of her written work at Oregon State.

“Place is a really important aspect of my writing,” she says, “I’m looking forward to experiencing the contrast between Corvallis, where I’ve spent the last two years, and the Wallowa County. I hope it’ll encourage reflection on both environments.”

Sense of place is also important for another Oregon State program, the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word. Director Charles Goodrich calls the project willfully and energetically interdisciplinary.

“At a university where people get into their own cubbies, we pull them out and have conversations around topics of how to create a sustainable world and how to become good citizens in it,” he says.

Spring Creek combines the talents of creative writers, environmental scientists and philosophers in discussions about how to envision our relationship to nature and how we should live. Goodrich hires writing students as interns and brought MFA student Maya Polan on board to coordinate the “Campus Creature Census.” Through short written pieces, artwork and photography by members of the Oregon State community, the “census” explored the flora and fauna on campus.

“The goal was to get people to pay attention to what is in their place,” Goodrich says. “We want people to think about this campus as a home and as a habitat.”

He also encourages MFA students to participate in the Spring Creek’s residential experiences. For example, writers can devote a week or more to the forest at two locations: the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascades and a cabin in the Oregon Coast Range. “There, we ask them to engage with the place,” Goodrich says. “In turn, they produce pieces that have been published in The Atlantic and other prestigious journals.”

Among the Best in the Nation

The growth of Oregon State’s creative writing programs strengthens the university’s research-based, land grant mission. Creative expression and imagination, Sandor and Goodrich feel, are just as important for solving our world’s problems as are science and engineering. Others are paying attention. In 2012, Poets and Writers magazine tagged the MFA program as one of the 25 best in the nation.

This year, the MFA program received over 400 applications for only 14 spaces. Sandor is excited to be accepting students who turned down nationally-ranked programs at other institutions, including the University of Iowa. “You can’t have application numbers like these and not be recognized,” Sandor adds.

Adding a third-year option for MFA students is one of Sandor’s goals, and a new low-residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades may become a vehicle for that. Emily Carr directs that initiative and says the program will begin in November. Applications are open and will be reviewed throughout the month of August. Writers around the region are applying, and over time, Carr believes, the program will gain national recognition.

“The low residency MFA, I think, is the future for creative writing programs,” Carr says. “The format is a pragmatic response to what it means to be a writer in this economy in the 21st century.”

“Low residency” means that students will work from home and correspond with instructors online. In addition, they will attend classes at the OSU-Cascades campus during two intensive 10-day residencies per year. Mid-career professionals and parents of young children may benefit most from this arrangement.

The high-desert landscape provides Emily Carr with new inspiration for her own writing. The director of OSU-Cascades' low-residency MFA in creative writing received her Ph.D. at the University of Calgary.
The high-desert landscape provides Emily Carr with new inspiration for her own writing. The director of OSU-Cascades’ low-residency MFA in creative writing received her Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. (Photo: Tom Fehrenbacher)

Carr, who started at OSU-Cascades on May 1, has been developing the program from scratch. So far, faculty members include T. Geronimo Johnson, a fiction writer (Hold It ‘Till It Hurts), and Arielle Greenberg, a poet (My Kafka Century). “I wanted to find faculty who know what it means to be entrepreneurial as a writer and who do that in their own writing lives,” she says.

Carr hopes to inspire students in the low-residency program to be just as entrepreneurial, to engage with the Bend community during their short time on campus and learn how to market their writing skills.

Students need opportunities outside the classroom to use their writing experience in a professional environment, say Carr and Sandor. “You need to make mistakes as a student before you take on a real job or set out to write professionally,” Carr adds.

Ross and Parrish know they might be making some mistakes during their year at Fishtrap, but both say they feel prepared for the challenge. In Wallowa County the two students will be part of the small but vital writing community.

“Our program is about excellence,” Sandor says. “It’s about creating good writers and good teachers.”