On Augsburg University’s Creative Writing MFA Program

Recently, like many programs in many institutions across the United States, Augsburg University’s Creative Writing MFA Program was on the chopping block due to budget cuts. After a hearty outcry and protest from faculty, current students, and alumni, thankfully the decision to terminate the program has since been suspended until further review and discussion this fall. Below is the letter I shared with the university’s administration upon learning of their initial decision:

My name is Ryan Purdy and I graduated from Augsburg University’s Creative Writing MFA program in the summer of 2018. I was saddened to learn of the university’s recent decision to scuttle the MFA program, especially considering there was very little discussion or even notification of the matter with faculty and students. As such, I wanted to reach out to share with you my experience in the program and the impact it’s had on my life.

I chose Augsburg because its Creative Writing MFA program is built around the low-residency model. In looking at other programs in the area and beyond, I knew that it wasn’t feasible for me to simultaneously work a full-time job and regularly attend classes. I liked the idea that throughout the year I could complete my work remotely and engage with my mentors and cohorts online, and then get the opportunity once a year to attend a summer camp for writers of sorts

Additionally with the low-res model, I knew that I would have more opportunities to work closely with a mentor than I would not have with larger programs; furthermore, the proximity of the campus was a big draw, as I live just an hour north of the Twin Cities.

Prior to the program, I knew how to put words on to the page, and how to tell a story (for the most part) from start to finish. This worked, but it was a pretty rough approach. Augsburg’s Creative Writing MFA program provided a refined focus to first the craft, and then the art of writing, and helped me understand how to put these concepts into practice, how to apply them to my own work. I learned how stories function, how they are put together, from the macro level (big ideas, plot, and characters) down to micro level (word choice, syntax, tone).    

Part of becoming a better writer is becoming a better reader, and throughout the program, I expanded the types of texts and authors I read, which helped me learn to ask better questions, of my own work and others’ work.  

The relationship I developed with my mentors is one of the essential aspects of the program. Because I was part of such a small cohort each semester, I had the chance to truly get to know my mentor, and in turn they got to know me and my work. In addition to the amount of work the mentors put into their respective courses, they routinely made themselves available by telephone, text, or Skype.

While I worked with plenty of great mentors, Lindsay Starck is by far one of the best teachers I’ve had the privilege to work with. Lindsay routinely went above and beyond in her work with me as well as the other students. She engaged in regular email and text communication, offered to meet in the twin cities, read through my work time and again, offering specific feedback and asking key questions to get my book in the shape it’s in today.

The structure of the program is distinctive as it allows a writer to pursuit his or her craft in an incredibly supportive environment (both the summer residency and the off-campus semesters) with the some of the best mentors in the field, all without having to completely step away from careers, family, etc. In addition to helping develop craft, this program culminates with a book-length manuscript, and  prepares folks for what the life of the writer entails beyond the program.

A large part of writing is a solitary act. You have to sit down and put the words on the page. But throughout the program, I discovered that being a writer also means being part of a writing community. For those of us who are either anxious about joining a community or in my case just didn’t know how to go about joining one, Augsburg’s summer residency and in turn the long-distance semesters made this happen.

The residencies are the equivalent of summer camp for writers. The days are jam-packed with workshops, meet-the-mentor sessions, craft-talks, visiting writer readings, field trips,etc. And during this time I was working with and getting know other writers from around the region, country, and world. And we were all helping each other build toward this goal of becoming better writers. Though the days were full, the evenings offered opportunities to form friendships, and this was especially important for me. I don’t originally hail from the Midwest, so prior to Augsburg I didn’t have a writing community. Over the course of three summers I made some lifelong friends.

If the summer residency is analogous to the camp experience, the long-distance semesters represent a pen pal program. Everyone’s working on his or her own writing, but then once or twice a month we come together through Moodle or Skype to provide suggestions and questions about creative projects, shared readings, and elements of craft. This online community has extended beyond the program, and handful of us share work every other month.  

The program also offers opportunities to add concentrations: Translation, Publishing, and Teaching. And though I didn’t add a concentration to my MFA, I did attend the summer workshop for the teaching concentration, and in working through and discussing the required readings during that session, I walked away with a better understanding of how to approach the teaching of both creative and non-fiction writing to my own students.

I really can’t speak highly enough of the transformative power of the program, its faculty, and its students on the life of a writer. I know that mine is but one story in the larger tale of Augsburg’s Creative Writing MFA program, and that many students could and most likely will share similar experiences. It’s my hope that you would take these into consideration and reconsider your decision to cut the program.

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