Chapter and Verse

Chapter and Verse


UCI’s renowned M.F.A. program in creative writing continues to churn out heavyweight talent

By Roy Rivenburg

It’s like attending your own funeral, one former student says: “Everyone is talking about you like you’re not there – and you can’t respond.”

Another compares the experience to standing naked while classmates examine your body with a magnifying glass.

“A wonderful crucible” is the metaphor used by a third alumnus.

What they’re describing is the half-century-old ritual that anchors UCI’s storied M.F.A. program in fiction and poetry writing. Each week, a dozen students file into a small classroom and cluster around a conference table. Then the siege begins. Joined by an instructor, the aspiring scribes meticulously dissect each other’s prose or verse.

“It’s no baby shower,” says Michelle Latiolais, a professor of English who graduated from the program in 1988 and now co-directs its fiction workshops. “When you walk into that room, there’s a force field in the air. It’s intense.”

Over the years, the charged atmosphere has transformed a variety of students – a professional Frisbee player, a Vietnam vet, a forensic scientist and a dyslexic locomotive engineer, among others – into literary luminaries. Three have won Pulitzer Prizes. Some have conquered best-seller charts or landed movie and television deals.

The lineup includes “Game of Thrones” co-creator David Benioff, poet Yusef Komunyakaa and novelists Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), Aimee Bender (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) and Richard Ford (Independence Day).

Novelists Michelle Latiolais and Ron Carlson

“UC Irvine has nurtured a wide array of America’s most recognized and most accomplished writers,” says David L. Ulin, former book editor at the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a great and essential program.”

But M.F.A. officials play down any focus on their famous alumni. “It’s not that we don’t love all of them,” Latiolais says. “But we have so many new writers of note who deserve attention.”

Showcasing Future Wordsmiths

As a lazy cat snoozes near the window of a tiny Long Beach bookshop, a woman in a flower-print dress reads aloud from a manuscript in which “particles hover in the afternoon light” and youngsters shed tears “like sprinklers.” When she finishes, a sandy-haired poet who grew up in an Arkansas religious sect takes her place.

While a crowd of three dozen listens intently, he recites a piece about Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson enduring a nervous breakdown. Next, a former psychotherapist weaves a narrative that ends with surgeons cutting open her father to remove a blood clot.

The readings are part of a UCI series in which M.F.A. writers share their works in progress at public venues around Southern California.

Sometimes, agents drop by to scout for fresh talent, but “we tell students to resist any offers until after graduation,” says fiction program co-director Ron Carlson. “If they concentrate on their writing, they’ll have a stronger chance of survival later.”

Latiolais agrees. “Some schools bring in agents and editors,” she says. “We purposely avoid any marketing talk until a student’s third year, when we send them to Squaw Valley,” a venerable writers conference near Lake Tahoe. Mystery writer Oakley Hall, who helmed UCI’s M.F.A. fiction division from 1969 to 1990, co-founded the Squaw Valley group.

“That’s where I got my agent,” says journalist and author Hector Tobar, M.F.A. ’95, whose best-selling account of Chile’s mining disaster miracle, Deep Down Dark, inspired a movie. “I owe my entire career as a writer to UCI.”

Surfers and Scholars

When UCI rolled out its graduate writing experiment in 1965, only about a dozen such programs existed nationwide. Today there are nearly 400.

Irvine was ahead of the pack, says David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a national group that promotes college creative writing instruction. It was another two or three decades before the concept really caught on, he says.

Credit goes to Hazard Adams, UCI’s founding English department chair. Bucking academic tradition, “I thought the study of literature ought to involve some effort at understanding the writer’s point of view,” Adams recalls. So he offered a creative writing minor for undergrads and an M.F.A. for professionals. To shepherd both, he hired novelist and short-story virtuoso James B. Hall, who had mentored One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and established a creative writing venture at the University of Oregon.

The first batch of grad students included a foreign correspondent-turned-Surfer magazine editor, a stage actress and a Welsh immigrant who once wrote speeches for a U.S. senator. The initial curriculum required classes in music, art or dance, plus a final exam on literary history and theory. Both elements were eventually shelved, as were a playwriting option and plans to add specializations in television, movie and technical writing.

“UC Irvine has nurtured a wide array of America’s most recognized and most accomplished writers.”

Some early alumni went on to publish novels, history books and poetry collections of mild renown. Several embarked on careers as college professors or filmmakers.

“Somehow the fact that we were fledgling didn’t keep us from getting applicants who were quite good,” says James McMichael, a founding English professor who oversaw the M.F.A. program’s first official poetry workshop in 1969. (Before that, poets and novelists studied together.) Still, nobody achieved stardom right away. “There isn’t always a correlation between who’s the most celebrated and who writes the best,” McMichael says. Even Pulitzer winner Ford, who graduated in 1970, didn’t have a breakout novel until 1986’s The Sportswriter.

Then lightning struck. In March 1987, student Chabon’s thesis project, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, sold for $155,000, a record sum for a novice novel. Overnight, applications soared and Anteater fever swept the publishing world, opening doors for M.F.A. alumni old and new.

To this day, “saying that you went to UCI in a cover letter is often enough to ensure that an editor or publisher will give your manuscript a look,” says Michael Andreasen, M.F.A. ’07, whose debut short-story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, is due out next year.

‘Flawless Parodies’ and Dickinson’s Dictionary

An “avenging unicorn” action figure – with a plastic mime impaled on its horn – sits on a shelf in fiction professor Latiolais’ book-crammed office as she and Carlson discuss the nuts and bolts of UCI’s writing academy.

Every year, several hundred people vie for the program’s 12 open slots: six in fiction, six in poetry. “We look for writing that has reach and fire,” Carlson says.

“And different voices,” Latiolais chimes in, explaining UCI’s aversion to producing authors who sound alike, a problem at some other campuses.

Novelist Bender, a 1998 grad whose prose has been likened to “Hemingway on an acid trip,” is a poster child for the emphasis on diverse styles. “There was real appreciation and support for my weirder writing, the writing I thought would be dismissed,” she says.

That support is augmented with a financial package that covers tuition and pays students $20,000 a year in exchange for teaching one undergraduate writing course per quarter. The benefit is more than monetary, says Walker Pfost, a newly minted poetry alumnus: “Teaching forces you to articulate what makes a good poem or story. It was hugely formative for my own writing.”

Throughout their studies, M.F.A. students learn to scrutinize words and phrases backward, forward and inside-out. For example, Michael Ryan, who directs the poetry division, keeps a copy of the 1828 Noah Webster dictionary used by Emily Dickinson so he can more precisely interpret her work during lessons.

Amy Gerstler and Michael Ryan

“We once spent an entire quarter, in class, analyzing fewer than 100 lines of published verse, diagramming sentences and counting how many times each part of speech appeared,” says Sarah Cohen, a 2009 poetry alum. “The writing workshop applied the same laser-like focus to our own works, so that by the end of two years, we could produce flawless parodies of one another’s styles.”

Originally, students were supposed to earn diplomas at the end of their second year. But as time wore on, officials added three quarters. The idea was to give folks more time to polish their thesis project – a novel, short-story collection or book of poems. During the extra months, students continue to teach but no longer attend M.F.A. workshops or classes. The revised format paid off, says McMichael, who retired in 2011: “Remarkable things often happen in that third year.”

Bonfires, Proms and Mr. Grumpy Grammar

Keeping enrollment small inspires family-style bonds and traditions – sometimes literally. A few students have married classmates. More often, they form lasting friendships and networking ties. Alumni frequently drop by for school social events.

“I still feel very connected,” says novelist Charmaine Craig, M.F.A. ’99, a onetime film and television actress who served as a model for Disney’s animated Pocahontas character. Touched by Latiolais’ support for her new book, Craig adds, “It’s so warming to have that 18 years out of the program.”

Incoming class members are initiated to the clan each fall with picnics and retreats. “My first year, we went to Ojai and stayed in a big house together and bonded with late-night dance parties and chats,” says 2016 poetry grad Liz Meley, who describes good verse as “a mixture of fact and magic”.

“When you walk into that room, there’s a force field in the air. It’s intense.”

At Halloween, students write ghost stories, read them around a bonfire at Huntington Beach, then toss them into the crackling flames, says Rebecca Schultz, who expects to finish her fiction degree this year. Perhaps the most entertaining ritual is “prom,” an end-of-the-year costume party and roast of the graduating class. “One year, the theme was hubris, so people wore crowns and gold glitter,” says Pfost.

The extracurricular friendships sometimes help in the classroom, softening the sting of workshop critiques. “You realize the person taking apart your story is doing so because he or she cares about you and wants it to be the best it can be,” Schultz says.

Even so, the process can fray nerves. To cushion some of the blows, poetry professor Ryan shifts into an alternate persona, “Mr. Grumpy Grammar,” when pointing out syntax errors in student verse. But many learn to value the feedback. “Sometimes the most useful criticism is also the harshest,” Andreasen says. Jill Kato, a third-year fiction apprentice, says, “Once you get over the initial pain, it always makes your piece better.”

Instructor Carlson concurs. “The discussions are very honest and very serious,” he says. “By the end of three hours, everyone usually has their equilibrium back.” But just in case, Latiolais adds, “we always go to the pub afterward.”

Notable Plot Points in M.F.A. Writing Program History

1965: English department chair Hazard Adams and novelist James B. Hall establish the UC system’s first M.F.A. creative writing program, at UCI. A handful of students enroll.

1967: Dora Beale Polk, former speechwriter for a U.S. senator, becomes the program’s first graduate. Three others in her cohort finish in subsequent years. Polk goes on to teach creative writing at California State University, Long Beach and publish mass-market romance novels, poetry and a California history book.

1969: After James B. Hall departs for a provost job at UC Santa Cruz, the M.F.A. writing workshop is split into two branches: poetry, led by founding professor of English James McMichael and poet Charles Wright; and fiction, led by author Oakley Hall, who was later joined by founding professor of English Donald Heiney (aka MacDonald Harris).

1970: Future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford graduates.

1977: Prose poet Killarney Clary, whose first collection becomes an international sensation, graduates.

1984: Kem Nunn, M.F.A. ’84, writes Tapping the Source, an acclaimed surf noir novel.

1987: While still a student, Michael Chabon sells his thesis for a record-setting amount for a first novel, catapulting UCI’s program to national fame. Applications double the next year.

1992: Newsweek says UCI has “the hottest writing program in the country.”

M.F.A. students launch Faultline, a literary and art journal.

1994: Poet Yusef Komunyakaa, M.F.A. ’80, wins the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Neon Vernacular.

1995: Whitney Otto ’87, M.F.A. ’90, sees her best-seller How to Make an American Quilt adapted into a film.

1996: Richard Ford, M.F.A. ’70, collects a Pulitzer in fiction for Independence Day.

2001: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, M.F.A. ’87, wins the Pulitzer in fiction.

2002: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, M.F.A. ’98, debuts as one of the best-selling first novels in American publishing history. A film version is released in 2009.

2007: The Atlantic ranks UCI’s M.F.A. writing program among the nation’s top 10.

2011: Novelist and screenwriter David Benioff, M.F.A. ’99, co-creates HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series.

2012: “The Art of Waiting,” a first-person essay on infertility by Belle Boggs, M.F.A. ’02, goes viral and later appears in book form.

2016: Yusef Komunyakaa is named state poet by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

IFC Films releases “Certain Women,” based on short stories by Maile Meloy, M.F.A. ’00.

2017: Pretend I’m Dead author Jen Beagin, M.F.A. ’11, wins a Whiting Award for emerging writers. Past recipients include Danzy Senna, M.F.A. ’96, and poetry workshop professors James McMichael (emeritus) and Michael Ryan.