Going beyond book club

I’ve always thought that 40-somethings make the best students. At mid-life, we know exactly what we are interested in and, conversely, what we aren’t. We have a thirst for knowledge and homework seems a breeze compared to dealing with real life issues. Lisa-Jardine

When I enrolled in Manhat­tanville’s masters of arts in creative writing program several years ago, I thought it would be a nice place to foster my love of reading and pursue my childhood dream of writing a novel. At that point, I had never published anything.

What I found at Manhattan­ville was so much more than I was looking for.

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This chapel on campus was restored by Maya Lin, the famous architect who designed the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C.

In the 1980s, the masters in creative writing program was started by a petite powerhouse of a nun, Sister Ruth Dowd, who was a total visionary and unlike any nun I’ve ever come across. She continued to run the program until she retired in 2011 at the age of 92.

Two years ago, Mark Nowak, an award-winning American poet and cultural critic, playwright and essayist from Buffalo was brought in as the new director of the writing program tasked with transforming it from a masters of creative writing to a masters of fine arts, the highest degree one can receive in creative writing. This past May, the first class of the new master of fine arts program graduated at Manhattanville College.

MFA programs have grown from just a handful in the 1990s to more than 200 programs in the United States today. The program at Manhattanville, although in its infancy, has so much to offer.

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This is Reid Hall, where most of the MFA program events take place. Photos/Lisa Jardine

“The proximity to New York City is ideal as it’s easy for us to get incredibly famous people to come and hang out with us. One of the things our program is known for is the ‘Meet the Writer’ series. This past March, we had Tracy K. Smith, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, take the train from New York City to our beautiful campus in Purchase to give a poetry reading. Pete Seeger will be here on Sept. 20 to talk about song writing, language and imagination, and then we have a fabulous kick-off to our Fall Writers Weekend with Diane Glancy, one of the most celebrated Native American authors in the country, and Dina Nayeri, author of “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” which has been translated into 13 languages. All of our ‘Meet the Writers’ series are free and open to the public,” Nowak said.

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This classroom is used for various classes in the MFA program. It was designed by Maya Lin and made of glass and sustainable wood located on campus in a new environmental park.

The program is 36 credits and can be completed in two years, but most of the 50 students in the program take three to four years to complete it as the program is more a journey than a destination. And alumni continually return to take the writer’s workshops and come to the readings to keep fresh and reconnect with the supportive writing community. The students range in age from recent college graduates to writers who’ve finished raising their families.

Most of the students enter  unpublished, but have found wonderful success having their works published while in the program. James King, won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel in 2009 for his novel “Bill Warrington’s Last Chance.”

“I was looking to join a community of writers, which I found at Manhattanville. Guidance from the faculty of experienced writers and feedback from fellow students, sometimes harsh, was instrumental in helping me start and eventually complete my novel,” King said.

And not everyone is in the program to write the next great American novel. The program is flexible depending upon the interest of the student, and MFA students are encouraged to build an individualized program that best fits their interests and long-term goals.

Tina Tocco, is a current student in the MFA program.

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Mark Nowak, the new director of the master of fine arts program at Manhattanville. Contributed photo

“The first time I heard the term flash fiction, I was sitting in Foundations in Graduate Creative Writing, the program’s introductory class. My professor, Joanna Clapps Herman, was sincere and challenging in her encouragement, and even helped me publish my first flash fiction piece. I’ve been writing in the genre ever since,” Tocco said.

Another student in the MFA program, Terry Dugan, entered the program as a well-established writer and a previous managing editor for Hearst, but, as she says “the creative writing program at Manhattanville put my writing on steroids.” She has a long list of awards, publications and readings that she credits as a direct result of the classes she took at Manhattanville.

In addition to their fall and summer writer’s workshops and their “Meet the Writers” series, students also participate in literary festivals such as the Page Turner Festival, coming up on Oct. 29 in Brooklyn, which includes an all-star lineup of writers including Junot Diaz.

“We are trying to branch out and try new things with the program. As part of our curriculum, we encourage our students to participate in community-based creative writing workshops with interested writers from all aspects of society, from cancer patients to prisoners, high school students to public libraries,” Nowak said.

The program has a newly minted online journal of literature, art and ideas, The Manhattanville Review. The Review is a collection of diverse voices and visions featuring works by creative minds from all walks of life. This is a great way for the program to share the work of their students and teachers alike.

Admissions to the program are rolling and online. For more information about the program, the workshops or how to apply, go to the program’s website: www.mvillemfa.com.

“I’m always on the lookout for a great story, an amazing restaurant, an unusual day trip or a must-see cultural event in Westchester County.”

To contact Lisa, email lisa@hometwn.com.
And you can follow her on Twitter, @westchesterwand

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