A degree in creative writing isn’t essential to launch a successful literary career. (Jennifer Egan didn’t bother.) And it’s easy to find people who’ll tell you that to pursue a writing MFA is to deliver cookie-cutter prose. But Michael Chabon—MFA, UC Irvine, ’87—hasn’t written the same way from book to book, and workshops provide a built-in peer group and teachers with a track record. Here’s what a few of the local workshop programs do best.
George Mason University and University of Maryland
Bill Miller, head of George Mason’s MFA program, has heard the gripes that such programs homogenize writing. “That complaint has been around since the ’70s,” he says. “We don’t try to ingrain students in one style of writing.” In particular, he points to the aesthetic variation among GMU’s poetry teachers, and the heavy hitters among the fiction writers, including NPR critic Alan Cheuse, Nigerian-born novelist Helon Habila, and longtime D.C. novelist Susan Richards Shreve. For its part, UMD claims novelist Howard Norman, leading poets Michael Collier and Stanley Plumly, and a big-name artist-in-residence this year in Michael Ondaatje.
The Jenny McKean Moore Endowment
George Washington University’s creative writing faculty has some of the best-known names of any area program, including Thomas Mallon and Edward P. Jones, but its program is open only to undergrads. Still, English department chair Gayle Wald points out, frugal civilians do have a way of benefiting from the program’s brainpower. As part of its Jenny McKean Moore endowment, a visiting writer to the program teaches two semester-long free workshops that meet one evening a week and are open to the public. Literary credentials and publications aren’t required, but an introductory letter and writing sample are. Tim Johnson is teaching this year’s (already in progress, sorry); past fellows have included Tayari Jones, Tony Hoagland, and Vikram Chandra.
“I like to think of us as the city’s program,” says poet Kyle Dargan, associate professor at American, which claims a few high-wattage names of its own, including novelist Richard McCann and Danielle Evans, author of a much-decorated 2010 debut story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Dargan stresses the age range of the students, and the fact that the program allows for part-timers—so the would-be writer with a day job has more than two years to hone a thesis.