Everyone is wondering about the frozen, severed finger in the last paragraph of Joe Kelly’s short story. After eight minutes of offering kudos for Kelly’s scene setting, tone and dialogue, someone finally mentions it.
“As a reader, I am trying to figure out whose finger is it and why is Jack glad to be throwing the finger?” says one student.
“I don’t know what purpose it serves in the story, but I am an advocate,” offers another.
“This makes sense to me—but it also doesn’t make sense to me,” says a third before going on to explain.
Kelly listens and twists his pen. His arms cross and uncross. He thumps his foot.
He says not a word.
For 25 years, Monday nights at the University of New Orleans’ graduate level Creative Writing Workshop for fiction have resembled this. Students gather in one of the cinder-block-walled classrooms at the Liberal Arts Building, close the door and dive in for three hours, discussing works written by two of their fellow Master of Fine Arts candidates. Each work gets 90 minutes of detailed feedback while the authors themselves sit quietly, listening—no speaking allowed. At least, that is, not until the informal gathering at Parkview Tavern afterwards, when authors usually have the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say and more.
Rick Barton, writer-in-residence and research professor at UNO and one of the faculty members who founded the University’s MFA program in creative writing in 1991, says he’s never wavered from the no-speaking rule in his fiction workshop class.
“Once your story goes out in the world, you’re not there to defend it,” he says. “When it goes to an editor, the editor decides whether to accept that story or to turn it down … I want students to get used to the notion that they have to be on the paper.”
In 1991, Barton and fellow Creative Writing Workshop founding faculty members Joanna Leake, Jim Knudsen and John Gery set out to create an interdisciplinary MFA writing program built around community rather than competition, one where writers were permitted and encouraged to take writing courses outside their focus genre.
Leake, now a writer-in-residence who continues to teach fiction workshops on Monday nights, recalls the group sat in her kitchen and began designing a program based on the things they liked and disliked about their own graduate writing programs.
“To our amazement and delight, it started to materialize,” she says. “It turned into something we were really, really proud of.”
Today, the program offers degrees in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting.
After a quarter-century of supplying a master’s-level writing program in New Orleans, proof of UNO’s Creative Writing Workshop success can be found in the work and experience of the graduates themselves. That’s what inspired Barton and Leake to edit and publish an anthology of 40 stories by graduates and current and former faculty.
In the 457-page “Monday Nights: Stories from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans,” published by UNO Press last fall, readers find stories by Skip Horack (“The Other Joseph,” “The Eden Hunter”), Denise Lewis Patrick (“No Ordinary Sound”), Maurice Carlos Ruffin, whose work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Callaloo and the Iowa Review, Amanda Boyden (“Pretty Little Dirty”), Joseph Boyden (“Born with a Tooth”), Barb Johnson (“More of This World or Maybe Another), Bill Loehfelm (“The Devil She Knows,” “Let the Devil Out,” “The Devil’s Muse,” and “Blood Root”) and current Creative Writing Workshop Director M.O. Walsh (“My Sunshine Away”).
Walsh, who joined UNO’s faculty nearly six years ago, says he was immediately struck by the close-knit nature of UNO’s Creative Writing Workshop, which has managed to avoid the ego wars that sometimes take hold in writing programs elsewhere. He said that once prospective students visit New Orleans and get a taste of the campus writing community, it usually seals their decision to come.
“A lot of MFA programs get the reputation for being really cut-throat and competitive in petty ways,” Walsh says. “This place is not like that at all. Everyone really supports one another and we celebrate each other’s work and it feels like a real close-knit community.”
Leake and Barton say that approach is intentional.
“I have never subscribed, nor have my colleagues, to the notion that you teach someone to be a better writer by tearing them down and, you know, holding things up for scorn and ultra-tough love,” Leake says. “Which is not to say that certainly we’re honest in ways that a piece can improve … I think that the more supportive approach to workshop has helped our writers not only be better writers, but they really help each other, they pull for each other to succeed.”
Alumni and faculty from the Creative Writing Workshop came out in force twice over the year to celebrate the program, both during the release of “Monday Nights” at Garden District Book Shop in November and again during the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans in March, when festival organizers devoted a full day of panels to the acclaimed writing program.
Tracy Ferrington Cunningham, director of communications and marketing for the Tennessee Williams Festival, says it seemed natural to highlight the talent that has sprung out of program—one that has drawn hundreds of talented young writers to New Orleans to see themselves shaped by and shaping the city’s lively literary scene.
“The Creative Writing Workshop at UNO is our local connection to the brightest and best of the writing world right here in new Orleans,” she says.
While Leake and Barton say essentials of teaching good writing have not changed over 25 years, the program has incorporated some course additions that students say have enhanced the experience.
One of the most exciting course additions came under the oversight of UNO Press Editor-in-Chief Abram Himelstein, himself a 2005 graduate of the MFA program. The UNO Publishing Institute is a course that gives workshop students the real-world experience of soliciting, selecting, publishing and marketing a book of fiction. The program solicits fiction manuscripts by holding a contest that provides the winning author a $1,000 advance on royalties and a contract to publish with the press. The institute’s 2016 publication, “Each Vagabond By Name” by Margo Orlando Littell received critical acclaim.
Back in the Liberal Arts building, nearly an hour and a half has passed and the MFA workshop students are winding up their discussion of Joe Kelly’s story. After talking about the story in overarching terms and turning their attention to the page-by-page—sentence structure, word choice, cadence—they and Barton give Kelly detailed written responses that he can pore over as he considers his revisions.
They are about to take a break and start on another student’s story.
One of the students can’t resist. He looks at Kelly.
“Whose finger was it?” he asks.
Kelly smiles, shakes his head and breathes a long, audible sigh.