Weld Hall MSUM

In Memoriam: the MSUM Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program

Ten years ago, I was at one of life’s low points. I was nearly two years into the only job I could get with a fresh-out-of-college writing degree – journalist at the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. It paid crap, and I was going into debt a bit more each month no matter how I cut expenses. I worked Sundays at Herberger’s selling shoes, where I made more per hour than I did reporting (and I got significantly less flak from random people working in retail than for the news). I was progressively more and more exhausted by the mundane, repetitive reporting that comes from being in a small town. Just two years in and I had the second highest seniority in a revolving door news department of six staff members. And after several years of being a young, single guy in a town that people run from after high school and return to once married, I had no friends.

I had resisted going back to grad school because I thought it would be a cop out – that it meant I couldn’t hack it in the real world and was heading back to school to avoid life. It would also mean more debt. And what if I sucked? My undergrad experience was one of tons of pompous writing majors that I didn’t hang out with and thank goodness cause I wrote like shit back then, utter shit. After four years of undergrad, I had one poem and one short story worth reading.

On the other hand, looking down the future at more years in journalism. Fergus Falls had become a source of hopelessness I no longer had the reserves to handle even with a therapist.

I did some research, asked around and whatnot, and got some great recommendations for Minnesota State University Moorhead. Bonus, they would let me start in January if accepted.

I was accepted, and I jumped.

I took that one good short story from undergrad and spent the next 2.5 years making it into a novel that I’m very proud of. I sold shoes part time to pay for living expenses, taught freshman comp classes, and forged some great friendships with fellow grad students and mentors. I still keep in better touch with those people than I do with undergraduate friends. I love to hear of any publishing successes they earn, and they do earn and deserve any recognition – so much talent in every group! I got to participate on a book team for New Rivers Press – which allowed an up close and behind the scenes look at small press publishing. Classes would go from 6 to 9 at night, then continue for hours over beers at Lauermann’s or the Red Bear (both now closed). *

I didn’t realize how special this all was until long after graduating. Becky has been an adjunct at MSUM, SDSU, NDSCS, UND and HTC. By FAR, MSUM has been her best and only experience with a functioning faculty that cares about student learning. (And from what I understand from reading about higher academic departments, it is rare.)

Seven years after graduating, I still think the writing I did at MSUM is the best I’ve ever done. I’ve used what I learned at MSUM in my job since then – first as a writer for NDSU, where I used creative writing techniques to create narrative journalism pieces that earned national recognition. I also use the empathy one gains from two years in heavy humanities studies every day in my current position. My company believes in empathy as a guiding force in design – in other words, they start designing products by asking what customers need to make their lives easier, which is an act of empathy. I write ALWAYS with the audience in mind, as I was taught and as I taught others, in order to generate attention grabbing emails and press releases about new products and news.

On Monday, I found out that this place that was a huge part of my life as a student for 2.5 years, as a student/adjunct teacher for seven years, is going to be no more.

My MFA program is being cut from the budget.

They are doing this to keep people I learned from and shared beers with employed. I can’t argue against that. They are amazing people and deserve every dollar they get, and if it takes destroying a program to keep their paychecks coming, so be it. I can accept that.

Still. It’s a death that gut-punches on a Monday morning. I imagine it’s like hearing that your childhood home has been demolished.

Becky and I are finally at a place financially, as in not deciding between medicine and food, where we can pursue writing in our off hours. This comes in the form of blog posts, art reviews, and other creative endeavors. I’m starting to try to get published again – but slowly.

Writing has long been a cry against death. And as Al Davis reminded me, the bound novel that is my thesis sits on a shelf in the English department, not only as proof that I was once there, a vibrant member of the MSUM academic community and fledgling writer, but now also as proof that an MFA program once collected a community of writers looking to engage others and be engaged by craft. Those shelves hold the weight of hundreds of dreamers tied together by a program that will soon no longer exist.

Thesis shelf

A toast to what was, and what will remain in between the lines of each one of those books – and thank you to each student and teacher who took the time to help me become a better writer.


*Other images that stick with me:

  • Playing catch outside with Greg and Jay and Jens before the night’s workshop
  • Catching a smoke with KC on the bench outside Weld and having about a dozen of his students stop by for a chat, every time
  • Parties at Kevin Carollo’s house
  • Finding out I have a horrible poker face when I hear feedback about someone’s story that I don’t quite agree with
  • Overnight Diabolo II sessions
  • Sharing an office with Conor and honing my impression of his best mannerisms as well as driving him nuts by saying someone else borrowed me a book
  • Staying up until 3 in my non-air conditioned apartment working on revisions or new sections of my novel wondering how the hell I was sweating so much from typing
  • Epic darts tournaments
  • Taking a bus to the cities with the intro to publishing class


Please share any moments or any posts you have in honor of the MFA program at MSUM below.

Bowling night
Bowling night
At Kevin's house
At Kevin’s house
Share Button

8 thoughts on “In Memoriam: the MSUM Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program

  1. Craig Garaas-Johnson, ’03. I don’t think people understand what a good program this is. When I began looking for MFA programs, 3 years before I attended, I was looking for faculty that supported students, took an interest int heir development, and had educational expectations that were beyond writing a snappy story. I applied to more than a dozen programs and was accepted by half of all that I applied to. I spoke by phone with the Director of one of those programs I turned down who said to me “I don’t think anyone’s ever turned us down before.” That was interesting, but, when the time came to make a decision, I chose MSUM’s program for its size, teaching assistantship, and the reputation it had among writers I knew. Mark Vinz was a recognized writer in this region, and after reading two of Al Davis’ stories and a few Tammaro poems, I figured it was a good fit.

    And it was. For three years I lived and worked as a writer, talked about writing, and explored my abilities. This was also during the attacks on 9/11, and though I was immersed in this environment, it was the reason I stopped writing poetry. I became a fiction writer, and close to the end, really began to discover my voice, not the air I put on when writing in the beginning. I credit John Early and Al Davis for a lot of this, but Lin and Thom were essential and powerful influences.

    Finally, I met my wife, Kristin, during my time in this program. We’ve been married for 11 wonderful years, and in some way i credit the writing workshops for that as well. While we were dating, we went through several workshops together. People who think they re comedians joke about their wives asking if their butts look big. Imagine your wife asking you if her character sounds like a real person, or if her poem is any good. It was hard for me to hear, and I’m sure tough for her.

    I will miss this program, and I’m glad I can still call all the people associated with it, friends.

    Thanks for posting this Joel.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Sounds like I juuust missed you by half a year. When Robert Bly visited a class, one thing he said that stuck with me was the best thing that an MFA program provides is a community of writers that you can keep going to long after you leave. I feel that way about the people I grew with at MSUM, even though I didn’t marry any of ’em 🙂 But I do owe Thom my first writing job out of grad school – he passed on the job opening tip to me and his recommendation held weight with NDSU – and I never even had Thom as a teacher! That’s community.

  2. Shameful that I don’t actually remember what year I graduated, but I believe you and I were in the same class, Joel.

    I initially applied for the program as a way to hide my head in the sand of academia and avoid having to be a grownup for that much longer. My undergrad GPA was an embarrassment, but Al let me in on the strength of my portfolio. Today I can credit that program for forcing me to grow up, become critical of my own work and others and for allowing me to see what I’m capable of. It also gave me some life-long friends–like you, Joel!

    I feel an almost overwhelming sadness that other people won’t be able to experience the inexplicable experience of this MFA program, but I’m even more grateful that I got to be a part of it. We are an elite class, guys. We’re basically unicorns now.

    1. I’m 90 percent sure we graduated together – there were like 9 of us or so in a bigger than usual class. 2006. did you wait a year before moving? Anyway, Becky loves the idea of being married to a unicorn 🙂

  3. Entered Fall 2009, not yet graduated. I was recommended to go to MSUM over Mankato because “the faculty there cares. You won’t get a better faculty elsewhere.”

    I’ve gone to five colleges in my lifetime. Everywhere, there’s faculty that cares, and faculty who are burnt out, by-the-book, even lazy or chaotic. Job security and fair pay prevents burnt-out faculty, but no amount of money can make a bad teacher care or give that extra mile to helping non-standard students succeed.

    Writing can’t be really taught, and that’s why writers need good teachers who can show them how to work with passion and not let it burn them out–or let it go to their heads. Empathy, focus, experience, discipline. Learning to see writing as a process, not as a test. Self-encourgement balanced with Hemingway’s bullshit detector.

    I continue to appreciate the professors who gave so much time to helping me succeed on more fronts than just the literary, and I know I would not have stayed in the program if not for them.

    Cut out that part– good teachers– and the program is just a skeleton of itself, so while I’m sad it has to fold so soon, I think cutting it now gives it the best chance to come back, strong and sound, as an example of how good a MFA program should be.

  4. There are a lot of facts that have not been openly discussed in the media or by faculty/administration.

    1. The dissolution of the program happened in under 24 hours. Up to this point, students had been told the program was being restructured so that it may continue to be offered on campus. There was absolutely no input from or communication with current students in the program about this threat. Had this threat been communicated, students could have overloaded credits or could have transferred to another university. This option was stolen from them.

    2. Administration has agreed to honor TA and GA scholarships through spring, but have not reach a decision about what to do come Fall ’14. Many students in the program structured their courses around these assistantships which they were promised for 4 semesters; now they might be yanked from under them. Without these assistantships, many cannot afford to continue their education.

    3. MFA courses will no longer be offered after this spring, which means students remaining in the program will most likely be funneled into undergraduate workshops for the price of a graduate workshop. When a person comes to graduate school, especialy an MFA program, it is expected that courses will be full of other grad students in your genre, graduate professors knowledgable and respected in their field, like minded people who can discuss craft and writing with you. Undergraduates committment to classes vary, and they do not have the graduate skill set to offer critique and commentary graduate students in an MFA program seek for their work. This is not the condition under which students entered into the program.

    This budget cut has a lot of victims. The Write Site was cut. The MFA program was cut. Professors are facing lay-offs. But none of the newspaper articles have interviewed a single student. No one has offered an apology to the students in the program who might have just wasted years and money on a degree they can’t get anymore. The situation is very frustrating and polarizing. I am done with coursework this semester and my thesis will be approved by the end of spring, so I am getting out unscathed, but many of my friends have no idea what will happen to them. Yes, it is very sad and yes, we all have fond memories here, but people are mad and no one is listening or able to answer the hard questions when it comes to the fate of the remaining students.

    I don’t argue the dissolution of the program. Admin wanted it to be an online program with 100% acceptance rate for maximum profits–I can’t blame faculty for rejecting that. But they way students are being treated is appalling. MSUM needs to do whatever they can to allow the remaining students to graduate with a quality MFA degree.

    1. Hi Naomi,

      I can certainly understand that students are upset about the decision to close the MFA program. But I want to be sure you know that the University is committed to providing the support and coursework current students need to complete the program. In particular, we will honor our commitment to provide the full 4 semesters of Graduate Assistant support to students who were awarded assistantships when they entered the program.

      I have a meeting next week with two MFA students (which you would be welcome to join, if you wish to) and I know that the MFA faculty have met with current students. Obviously, there are still students who do not feel heard, despite our efforts.

      Please feel free to contact me at anne.backhurst@mnstate.edu if you would like to meet or if you have additional questions or concerns.

      Anne Blackhurst
      Provost, MSUM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *