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Minnesota's creative-writing MFA programs thrive despite the economy

Even in a recession, practical doesn’t always win out: The University of Minnesota is reporting that it is sifting through a record crop of applications to its MFA-in-creative-writing program: 443 applications for a mere 13 seats.

Ouch to almost everyone in that group then, although it’s not as if the lucky 13 will tread an easy path leading to sure riches or even gainful employment. Even technical writing grads are having trouble finding work these days, much less the poets and novel writers. But that’s not what it’s all about.

“I think it's a mistake to judge a fine-arts program using vocational measures: Many students, who already have day jobs themselves, enter MFA programs to improve their writing and benefit from the rigor of a reading/writing curriculum. They have no interest in changing their day jobs,” says Richard Robbins, program director at Mankato State University, whose creative-writing program receives about five times as many applications as it has spots.

“That said, there are students who would also like their degree work to lead to something in an allied field. For them, we try to create opportunities to gain teaching experience, editing experience, other related experience, while keeping the primary focus on the improvement of their writing.”

Kris Bigalk, director of Normandale’s creative writing program, says, “Writing skills are never a liability. Everyone loves a good writer.”

The community college has offered an AA in creative writing for just two years, but the young program already has a good reputation, and funnels its star students into Hamline’s creative-writing program. Normandale’s students typically run the nontraditional gamut, and Bigalk says some of the program’s most talented writers come from walks of life that may not have encouraged such an esoteric educational focus.

“I do hear there are parents who are sometimes concerned about future employment issues," Bijalk says. "But the students really love the program, and they get so much from learning to express themselves in writing — although, really, the level of talent many of them have already have coming in is really amazing.”

Hamline received about 100 applications for 45 spots in its creative-writing MFA program this year.

“Our program is of particular interest to aspiring writers because we are geared to working adults. We offer courses in the evenings and on Saturday morning, and students can choose to do the program full time or part time. We also offer depth and breadth in three genres — poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction — and encourage students to experiment across genres before focusing,” says Mary Rockcastle, dean of Hamline’s graduate school of liberal studies.

Hamline now offers a specialized degree in creative writing for children and young adults, one of only three colleges in the United States that does so. “If you look at the numbers of picture books, novels, and books of poetry and nonfiction published each year for children and teens, you'll know how popular writing for this audience is," she says. "And yet there's very little formal education in the craft and process of writing for kids.” 

That’s not to say writing kid lit is where the jobs are, but perhaps teaching children’s writing classes is a growing field.

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