Becoming a writer means years of dedication. Inspiration. Perspiration.
And at the University of New Orleans, becoming a writer means Monday nights if you’re in fiction, Tuesday nights if you’re in nonfiction, and Wednesday nights in poetry and screenwriting.
For 25 years now, a new generation of writers has been steadily willing itself into being, learning a craft, supporting one another, building a community.
This year, UNO’s Creative Writing Workshop celebrates a quarter-century of great work. There’s a new anthology of 40 stories, “Monday Nights: Stories from the Creative Writing Workshop of the University of New Orleans,” a ceremony honoring Joseph and Amanda Boyden with the Distinguished Alumni Award, and a full day of programming to come at the 2017 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
Former workshop director Joanna Leake remembers talking with writers Jim Knudsen and Rick Barton, conjuring an ideal writing program.
That conversation took place sometime in 1980, Barton recalls, and then the English department began offering limited creative writing courses.
Change came slowly, course by course, but by 1991, the full program was in place. Now, the UNO Creative Writing Workshop can count and impressive 350 graduates with 100 books to their credit. .
From the first, as Barton said, it was location, location, location. “I remember when Jim Knudsen came up with the advertising slogan for the program — “Can you imagine a better place to write?” It worked.
Joseph Boyden — now known for his searing portrayals of life among the First Nations of Canada: “Three-Day Road,” “Through Black Spruce,” which received Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, and “The Orenda,” which won the Canada Reads competition in 2014 — heard that siren song.
“I left so much back home in Canada to come down to New Orleans to study in the UNO Writing Workshop back in 1992. Rick Barton and Joanna Leake and Jim Knudsen, though, had created one of the greatest catchphrases ever to try and sell their brand-new MFA: New Orleans. ‘Can you imagine a better place to write?’ I couldn't,” Boyden said.
“And those three mentors were right. I’m still in this city 24 years later, having graduated and then returned to teach in the MFA that birthed me. Now, I'm watching so many of my own former students publishing such brilliant work. But the greatest discovery of that big journey south so long ago was finding not just the life of a novelist, but a life to share with another writer who fell for that same genius bit of marketing."
That writer is his wife Amanda Boyden, author of “Pretty Little Dirty” and “Babylon Rolling.”
“No doubt, it's not an original thought where the creative writing MFA at UNO is concerned,” she said, “but I've always thought of it as The Little Engine That Could. Never enough money to bring in huge-name visiting writers or give monstrous scholarships. Nonetheless, the program has succeeded beyond measure ... and so you know what? Go us! Here's to courage, to crying in our Monday-night beers after a terrible critique, to meeting our life partners in workshop or some dreaded lit class, to believing that we could do this thing, this wonderful, intimidating, life-affirming thing called writing."
The program worked primarily because of its basic philosophy.
From the very beginning, faculty members Leake, Barton, Knudsen and John Gery settled on a basic premise: “not to judge but to assist” creative work, to help the writer make the work as good as it could be.
Monday night seminars were followed by gatherings at the Parkview Tavern, downing beers, forging friendships, talking books and life.
As time passed, other elements strengthened the program. Bayou Magazine provided opportunities to learn editing skills; it is published by UNO but doesn’t publish the work of workshop students.
The University of New Orleans Press evolved over time, giving students hands-on publishing experience. Abram Himelstein, who wrote the introduction to “Monday Nights,” is an alum of the program, as well as director of the press.
Neal Walsh, author of “My Sunshine Away” and the current director of the program, sees himself as the most recent in a line of stewards.
“Despite all the budget problems UNO has had,” he said, “we have the most applications of any graduate program on the campus. … I want to keep that energy going.”
Barb Johnson, winner of the prestigious A Room of One’s Own fellowship and author of “More of This World Or Maybe Another,” is a graduate who returned to teach.
“I went into the CWW a broke-down carpenter with bad knees, and I came out a writer with a book deal,” Johnson said. “What I experienced in between was the greatest gift any writer or human, really, can receive: big-hearted teachers with no real agenda save to help each of us write what was in us to write and a supportive community of fellow students. And I have the good fortune to pass that gift on to my students.”
Other notable alumni include novelists Andrea Boll, Skip Horack, Nicholas Mainieri, Jen Violi, Bill Loehfelm and Missy Wilkinson.
Maurice Ruffin, the program’s distinguished alumnus of 2015, is a lawyer who is making waves with his award-winning short fiction and essays.
“When I met Rick Barton, he told me the CWW would accelerate my development as a writer 10 years,” Ruffin said. “I trusted him, but he was wrong. The program pushed me 20 years ahead. The professors and other writers I encountered became my heroes and role models. I learned so much from them all. My writing life was enriched by my UNO community. I've been so inspired by these folks.”
Susan Larson hosts WWNO’s The Reading Life and is the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”
UNO Creative Writing Workshop faculty and alums celebrate the publication of “Monday Nights: Stories from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans”
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3
Where: Garden District Book Shop
2727 Prytania St., New Orleans
And more: Joseph and Amanda Boyden will be honored as Distinguished English Alumni, Friday, Nov. 4, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. at the Homer L. Hitt Alumni Center Ballroom, UNO