Last spring, when Joshua Hren and I announced the formation of a new online Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston (see here), we did not know if anyone would show up. We had designed the program with some big aims, but who could say if our aims were but a pet project between us or an expression of an unmet need among aspiring writers?
We wanted to found the first graduate program in creative writing that would help writers to find their footing within the broad terrain of the Catholic literary tradition and make their own original contribution to it. We wanted to found a program that recognized a few principles that the Catholic tradition, with its theology of the Incarnation and its metaphysics of truth, goodness, and beauty, takes as central to human life and to works of art.
What principles? That the human soul is ordered to the knowledge of reality, both the knowledge of created being and the God who is Being Itself. That human life is a spiritual drama about the struggle for redemption, about being conformed to reality through God’s grace and our own free response to it. That being is deep and rich, not bare and simple. That works of fine art are made things that manifest being specifically as an intelligible splendor that everyone calls beauty. That to encounter a work of fine art is at once to encounter something good in itself but also capable of changing one’s life.
These are the principles that all serious people have taken for granted for millennia, when they sit down to read a book or rise to look upon a work of sculpture, painting, or architecture. But were they principles that others would recognize and be drawn to?
Sure, I had met many young people over the years, fresh out of college and yet unable to find a graduate program that would nourish rather than alienate their love of literature. I was aware that there is an increasing interest in literature among Catholics and an increasing awareness that literature flourishes best when it has the kind of cosmic and existential scope that the Catholic tradition affords and even “jams open” (von Balthasar speaks of the Church as a “guardian” of metaphysics, keeping the soul’s gates to being open, even when an increasingly narrow and Philistine modern culture would otherwise close them). So, we announced our aims and did so under the rubrics of craft, Catholicism, and coherence.
Craft: while all MFA programs make at least nominal gestures toward taking artistic excellence as the sole guide to workshop instruction, this is often untrue and sometimes even a lie. The state of political ideologies, identity politics in particular, is so compulsive among much of contemporary intellectual and cultural life that the basic autonomy of the artistic act is violated and subordinated to other ends. We propose to respect the integrity of the work of art as a work. In poetry, we especially emphasize craft by being one of only two MFA programs in the country that places mastery of meter, rhyme, and form at the center of our curriculum.
Catholicism: we are the first and only MFA program in the country to have designed a comprehensive curriculum that will make our students better writers by giving them a rich initiation into the Catholic literary and intellectual traditions. Writers need to think about the philosophy of art and beauty; it makes them better writers and critics. We have a course for that. Writers need to think about the principles, practice, and tradition specific to their genres. We have multiple courses for that. The western literary tradition is broad and there’s much to study. We have a sequence of courses that will lead students through that great and beautiful body of work specifically as it expresses and reflects the Catholic tradition, one which is especially attuned to the spiritual stakes at work in human life and in works of art. Although our readings are wide-ranging, students will graduate with a sense that they have learned the foundations of a clear and coherent tradition and have that as something on which to build their own writing and also their understanding of literary history and practice.
Coherence: by this I mean two things. In contrast to most MFA programs, all our courses build upon each other. There is no random distribution requirement, but a curriculum that will lead each student through a coherent and integrated body of knowledge – the Catholic intellectual and literary tradition. But I mean something else just as important. Because our MFA program stands apart from any other academic unit, students will not simply be electing this-or-that seminar, which they would then take with doctoral students. Our courses are designed for writers. So, as they study the literary tradition, our students will be called upon to write the sort of literary and critical essays that are proper to a creative writer, rather than those of the sort proper to a doctoral scholar (which are often of significant value but, in our age, have all too often become especially pedantic and soulless). Literally, all the work students do in our program will coherently contribute to their development as writers. At the end of the program, they will all have two refined and potentially publishable manuscripts: a thesis of poetry or fiction and also a thematically unified collection of literary essays that will help establish a beachhead into literary life.
Would anyone answer this call?
We have been overwhelmed by the response. Our courses are full beyond the number at which we had aimed. They are in fact full beyond the number we had aimed for in the first three years. Every accepted student demonstrated both potential and seriousness as a writer and a clear vision of why they should do their apprenticeship with us.
We were also greeted by donors who wanted to support and advance our work (additional help may be offered here). Such support will help us to ensure worthy students can afford our program and will help us to develop contests, festivals, conferences, and a journal that will connect our students with a broader reading public, in Houston and across the world. And with that great thing: our Catholic cultural tradition.
*Image: Still Life with Books by Jan Lievens, c. 1630 [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands]
You may also enjoy:
Brad Miner’s Acts of Recovery: Schall and Esolen
James V. Schall, S.J.‘s A Liberal Education: Reading Lord Peter Wimsey