Aug 13, 2020

Creative writing MFA program inspires, prepares students

In an era where the arts are often overlooked, a gem is tucked away in the heart of the English department at Fresno State.

A graduate degree in creative writing has been a staple on campus for over 30 years, but it wasn’t until 1996 it was transitioned from a Master of Art (M.A.) degree to a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degree.

There are currently around 50 to 60 students enrolled in the MFA program’s poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction sections, said Corrinne Clegg Hales, the James and Coke Hallowell Professor of creative writing.

Students working toward their degree in creative writing have the chance to not only build on the foundation of their education, but grow as writers in an atmosphere where they are can be mentored by several faculty members.

“Our student-writers are entering the professional writing world, so we encourage them to learn as much as they can about it, to work in publishing and editing to one degree or another, and to send their best work out to journals and magazines,” Hales said. “Our students have a terrific record of publication in some of the best magazines in the country.”

Opportunities in the department also provide creative outlets for students to gain experience such as writing and editing for The Normal School, a semiannual literary magazine published through the efforts of the creative writing program.

Alex Espinoza, a professor of English and creative writing, works constantly to emphasize the importance of publishing works, however he continues to focus on the bigger picture.

“I always tell my students to remember, first and foremost, that their aim should be to produce art, and producing good art takes time, energy, and intelligence,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza is no stranger to published works. His first novel, “Still Water Saints,” was released in 2007 in both English and Spanish and was recognized by Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers. The team of six in the program have published more than 20 books to date.

The program’s positive reputation has grown over the years and the university has recognized the importance and relevance of this artistic program. In turn, Fresno State has pledged significant support which allows the program to recruit top students from across the nation, said Steven Church, an associate professor of English.

“I worry a lot when I hear the rhetoric, ‘Who needs writing and art and music?’” Espinoza said. “Art took me— a poor kid born in a slum in Tijuana, the youngest of eleven— and turned him into a writer and teacher. Art took me— growing up in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles, where drugs and crime and poverty were the norm— and reshaped me into a novelist.”

Not everyone who earns their MFA or takes classes in creative writing will go on to become a literary writer. Often times, students are led into careers in law, business, education, politics and journalism, Hales said.

“The arts will help a person do better in whatever field they choose,” Hales said. “I’m certain of that.”

The faculty’s passion for students and cultivating diversity in writing has become a driving force for this program.

“Other MFA programs work very hard to homogenize the voices of the students in their program, we honor difference,” Espinoza said.

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