Stephen B Tuttle is a writer of fiction whose short stories Amanuensis and The Weather Here I am happy to recommend. After finishing his MFA and PhD in creative writing at Utah, he became what he is still: a professor at BYU. He currently represents BYU’s new creative-writing MFA on the graduate committee and has been one of the architects of that new MFA. I spoke with him in mid-May, shortly after the close of the program’s first full year.
So maybe the first question I’ld like to ask is, what is the difference between the M.A. in creative writing and the M.F.A. and why did B.Y.U. decide to upgrade?
That’s a good question, the crux of the change was that—how do I explain this—the M.A. in creative writing doesn’t really exist anymore to the degree that— Well,to go back one more step, we didn’t have an M.A. in creative writing. We had an M.A. in English literature and we had creative writers coming through doing creative theses but they didn’t receive anything that said “creative writing” on it anywhere. So our first motivation was to create a creative writing degree so that our students graduating in creative writing would have something to show that they had specialized in creative writing. The logical step would have been to simply rename our M.A. an M.A. in creative writing, but the problem with that is that degree doesn’t really say much anymore. Thirty years ago that would have been fine but at this point the M.F.A is the degree of record. Or at least it’s the degree that everyone recognizes. The few schools that have M.A.s in creative writing don’t really need clout, these are places like Boston. Places where the prestige of the school is big enough that they can give any degree they want really. And it’ll be fine. So what we were looking for was the degree that made most practical sense for the work our students were doing.
What kind of work are your students working on?
We have students specializing in three genres, and this is pretty typical: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The theses they’re producing: Poets are producing something like a chapbook of poetry, you know, fifty-plus pages of poetry. Fiction writers—some of them are in novels, some are writing story collections. We have, as you may know, a kind of specialty in young-adult literature. So quite a few of them are working in young-adult literature. Some in other genres like historical fiction and other things like that. And then the non-fiction writers are, by and large, writing classical essays. This is largely the influence of Pat Madden. He specializes, himself. We have several people who can to teach the memoir but I don’t really think I’ve seen memoir stuff. So basically anything you can find in the literature section of a bookstore, with the exception of say, plays, screenplays, those kinds of things.
Are screenplays and plays left out because they’re covered fairly heavily by—for instance, Eric Samuelsen’s working in theater and they teach writing over there, don’t they?
True. There’s another place for those students. We don’t actually get applicants writing screenplays or plays, that I know of. I mean maybe somebody will submit a short story and a very short one act play but there is somewhere else and it’s drama or media arts. Secondly, we don’t have anybody, well, Susan Howe has written plays, but we really don’t have people specializing in that. So, to admit somebody working in playwriting doesn’t make a lot of sense for the students; there’s nobody to help them with it.
So this raises an interesting question, and it’s kind of a two-part question. In fact, they’re not even close to each other on my page of questions. But what are you looking for in candidates and how does that connect to who’s teaching? Who do you have working in the program?
That’s a good question, and it’s the kind of question that we ask ourselves a lot. I mean we’re constantly reorienting ourselves around what we do or don’t think we want.
The short answer is that we’re looking for good writing, and I know it’s a really vague answer. What it means for us is that we’re looking for the kind of writing we want to read. Writing that’s interesting, that’s literary, that’s smart. And, what I always tell my students who are getting ready to apply for graduate programs is that you’re not doing yourself any favors to go work with people who don’t write the kind of work you want to write because people tend to teach other people to write the way they write. But I think we’re largely looking for the kinds of things that we ourselves would like to be writing, the kinds of things we admire, and that’s a pretty broad range of things. When it comes to what we’re looking for in applicants, I would say the one mistake people make most often is to assume that because we’re BYU we’re looking for the kind of things that might show up in the Ensign or something like that. The truth of the matter is that we are all writers who have come out of academic backgrounds. So we’re the kinds of writers that have come through the MFA programs or PhD programs and we put heavy emphasis on what we call literary writing. Which is not to, you know, exclude things like science fiction or something like that, because we get a lot of things like that and we’re happy to work with that. Rather, we’re looking at things that we recognize as being literary work. That also doesn’t exclude things that happen to have moral overtones or some—I’m not sure how to say it—we don’t want to exclude those things that would be consistent with someone who likes to read the Ensign. We’re not looking for things that are feel-good-only, for instance.
I know it’s probably early to ask this question but do you notice trends in what your students are producing?
Do we notice trends?
Are they writing—are you surprised that they’re tending in a similar direction or are your students producing what you expected them to produce or how is that?
In answer to that question, I’m new enough at this, I’m only in my fourth year at BYU and, I’m probably the least prepared to answer that question. Doug Thayer’s in his fifty-second year. But I would say that I am regularly surprised by the range. It’s easy, I think, for programs to produce a bunch of writers who write the same kinds of things. I say that only in a good way—I haven’t taught any of the programs and I was in one program but I haven’t been in many, and I would say that I’m heartened by the fact that our students write a really interesting range of things. The same range that I was telling you about before, a genre range, between short fiction and novels and classical essays and lyrical poetry. I think that range is pretty consistent in terms of theme and subject matter. It’s hard to quantify what that range is but there’s plenty of diversity amongst our students I think.
Why should someone come to BYU over a more established MFA?
That’s a question I have trouble answering because I don’t really know all the things that might go into a student’s decision to choose one program over the other. If it’s only a question of the established nature of the MFA then, I don’t know, pick another one is what I guess it comes down to.
This may sound like something of a contradiction of what I said two minutes ago, but I think there is something students find satisfying about working in a place that is sponsored by the Church. Which is to say people feel comfortable at BYU writing things that are perhaps family-oriented, or perhaps—the term I heard once, the term that makes my skin crawl is “life-affirming”? But not all of our students are doing that. I think one of the reasons a student would want to come to BYU is to get away from all that subject matter and things like that.
New programs have, I think, more energy and more enthusiasm than more established programs. I think there’s some virtue in going to a place where everybody’s still really excited about what’s going on and the newness of it is translated into the classroom as enthusiasm. We have, again, anecdotally, I know that we have programs in the nation where there are long-lasting feuds and all kinds of tensions and people become entrenched in certain approaches to teaching. We don’t get any of that at BYU. We’re a surprisingly nice program. We work together very well. And I think the mood there is—
It’s a productive place, I think, for students. Everybody knows each other. We’re small enough where you can literally form friendships with everybody who’s in your class. The fact that we get along very well—it’s a good productive environment for writing, I think.