Think Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Or James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
"It's the experience just about every successful writer in the last 400 years had," Jeff Parker says, "a mentorship, a one-on-one correspondence with an important contemporary writer."
The University of Tampa's new low-residency program for a master of fine arts degree in creative writing uses that mentorship model. One of several dozen around the country and the first of its kind in Florida, the program combines two intensive 10-day sessions on campus each year with individual long-distance mentoring to allow students to earn an MFA in about two years — without moving to Tampa. Some students in the first class will be living as far away as Lebanon and Russia.
Parker, a fiction and nonfiction author who is the program's director, says it is an alternative to traditional MFA programs that require students to attend classes full time. "That's a great model. I did it, and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he says of earning his MFA at Syracuse University. "But a lot of people can't do it."
UT English department professors Donald Morrill, Richard Matthews and other faculty had been working to create the program for a decade, Parker says. The first semester kicks off Thursday with about 20 students and a faculty that includes such widely acclaimed writers as Michael Connelly, Francine Prose and George Saunders as well as UT faculty members Parker, Morrill, Erica Dawson, Josip Novakovich and Terese Svoboda and UT alumna Amy Hill Hearth.
The program will also have a public component, an event series called Lectores. "I'm so fascinated with the lectores in Ybor City," Parker says of the people who, in the first half of the 20th century, were hired to read aloud — novels, plays, newspapers and more — to workers in the city's cigar factories as they labored. "I wanted to tie (the program) in to the literary history of this place. And it's a great example of how literature actually affects things."
The free events will include two panel discussions and readings by many of the faculty authors.
"We have two signature events," Parker says. "The opening reading by Connelly and Hearth goes to the community character of the program — he's a local author who is a bestseller, she's a UT alum."
The other signature event, he says, is the reading and discussion by Saunders. "He's the embodiment of the esthetic that I'd hope the program would have," Parker says. Saunders, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient and professor of creative writing at Syracuse, is "like Vonnegut, Twain and Orwell rolled into one. He's got a popular audience and a literary audience — he can write for the New Yorker and then go on The Colbert Report."
The program has only a few writers from outside the UT faculty this year, Parker says, but he hopes to increase that number. The mentorship model can be a plus for faculty as well: "Everyone's dream is the tenure track job, but it's a golden chain, too. We don't approach the salary (of that kind of position), but we offer much more flexibility."
Flexibility is key for many of the program's students, who live all over the eastern United States and in several other countries. Some of them are well into writing careers — "This is not a program for beginning writers," Parker says — and are attracted to the convenience of low residency. One student, for example, teaches creative writing in the Baltimore area and is involved in that community's City Lit Project. Another is married to NPR's Baghdad correspondent and lives in Beirut with the couple's daughter. "These are people who otherwise wouldn't be able to do this because of jobs and families," Parker says. The program's tuition is about $7,000 per semester, with some partial scholarships available.
Parker says he is "amazed" at the quality of the students the program has attracted in its first year. "We have one guy who's like 30 years old and already has an agent and has been an editor at Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and the Atlantic."
Students will be assigned a mentor each semester and can work with as many as four in the course of earning the MFA, although they can opt to stay with a mentor for more than one semester. Choosing faculty can be "tricky," Parker says: "You want great writers, but also people who have reputations as great teachers."
The university advertised the program in publications such as Poets & Writers, but much of the response has come from word of mouth, Parker says. "I've been running lit programs for the last decade in Russia, in Portugal, in Canada, so I know a lot of people."
He grew up in Tallahassee and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, and he says that returning to Florida to direct the UT program has been "simultaneously familiar and indescribably strange."
But Parker believes that the Tampa Bay area will be a welcoming home to the program. "I've been happy to discover that there are a lot of really active cultural citizens here."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.