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The Michener Center for Writers

By Ric Williams, Fri., April 21, 2000

Denis Johnson (far right) teaches a class at the Michener Center for Writers
Denis Johnson (far right) teaches a class at the Michener Center for Writers
Photo By John Anderson

Writers write. Plain and simple, right? You wish. Writing is hard, lonely work that isn't known for its high percentage of success stories. Writers are constantly seeking avenues to increase their potential for professional recognition and a living wage. Some writers might try a writers' colony or circle for inspiration, company, and feedback. And others try school, competing with 40 or 50 others for teaching assistant positions and a clerkship in a mall bookstore. Most writers use the old tried-and-true method, the one that James Magnuson, director of the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin, used to hone his skills as a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter: "Bang around, stay alive, and write."

Staying alive and writing: operative words for the aspiring writer.

What the Michener Center provides for its students, besides a three-year M.F.A. degree in writing, is the best of all the worlds described above with a substantial amount of the crap quotient removed. For one thing, it's a small program, admitting only 10 students a year from the 250 applicants who vie for a coveted spot in this young, well-respected, and unique institution. That's why that writing colony camaraderie flourishes at the Michener Center.

Since they are funded by a generous grant from the late James Michener, students needn't worry about finding some "you want fries with that?" kind of job to sandwich between their Dostoevsky seminars and that damned thesis advisor's meeting. They are paid an annual stipend of $15,000 per academic year. They pay no tuition or fees and have no teaching duties assigned. In other words, as Magnuson says, "We're able to offer basically free rides for everybody who gets into the program."

That, my prospective student, is a description of a writer's paradise. And Magnuson intends for it to stay that way. He has taken Michener visiting faculty member and novelist Denis Johnson's description of the program to heart: "It's great and it's small. Just don't let it get any bigger."

The Michener Center caters to fiction writers (the largest contingent among applicants and students), poets, screenwriters, and playwrights. But in addition to a main field of study, the student must work in at least one other area of the four disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach allows an exciting, free-ranging exchange of ideas often resulting in screenwriters becoming novelists and novelists poets. And not just by luck, but by design, this multi-genre approach also cuts down on the vicious competition that marks many of the larger writing programs. According to Magnuson, "People here don't cry because they're being ripped up in their workshops. The reality is that the atmosphere in the classes is very supportive. We are not a factory, and this isn't a Harold Robbins school."

That Harold Robbins remark directly addresses one of the raps against the school, one that Magnuson finds baffling and totally unjustified. Perhaps because of Michener's success as a popular novelist, the assumption is that the school wants to produce Michener clones. The track record of the program and the caliber and diversity of its writing staff puts the lie to the commercial rumor. With faculty as diverse as Stephen Harrigan, Denis Johnson, Ruth Margraff, Sherry Kramer, Anne Rapp, William Hauptman, August Kleinzahler, and Talvikki Ansel, commercialism and even academicism have little play in the Michener Center's universe.

This independence of spirit has a lot to do with Michener's original vision. He wanted the writers in the program to have freedom: the freedom to interact with other writers, the freedom to be a-institutional, the freedom to become professional writers. And Magnuson firmly believes in those ideals. He personally eschews what he refers to as the "slick writing" that some say graduate writing schools produce. His bent is more toward the experimental, the nontraditional, the outsider's vision of the world of character and action. It is an odd and generous Texan-Bohemian attitude that has been extraordinarily successful. (There have been accusations that the program isn't Texan enough even though Michener's specific instructions dictated that the program was to be national in its scope, and despite the significant Texas-rooted staff -- Harrigan, fer chrissakes -- and many El Paso and Austin students.)

Students in the program -- which is only seven years old -- already have won numerous awards, including the Rosenthal Foundation Award, the Steven Turner Prize, the Bakeless Literary Prize, the John Ciardi Prize, the FC2 National Fiction Competition, Pushcarts, O. Henrys, Paisanos, the Marc Klein Playwrighting Award, the Larry L. King Outstanding Texas Playwright Award, the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, and more. Many of their screenwriters are working under contract or have had their work optioned with New Line Pictures, Warner Bros., Edward Pressman Productions, Joel Silver Productions, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame. With numerous articles in national magazines published, chapbooks and plays produced, major house novels published including Joseph Skibell's A Blessing on the Moon and Karla Kuban's Marchlands (which sold for a lot of money despite her well-publicized but vaguely nonspecific disgruntlement with the Center), one thing is beyond debate: This program produces.

That's where Magnuson feels the program speaks for itself. That's where he hangs his hat.

"I don't have any guilt about what we're delivering," he says, "because in a lot of the grad programs you feel like you're selling people a bill of goods, promising something that will never happen. You know how hard writing is. You can just break people's hearts, [but] the people we let in have a shot. [Still] it's not a guarantee for them either and they know that [because success] is really hard. There's nothing worse that you can do than to let someone into a grad program when you know they don't have a chance in hell. At Michener you got a real shot."

How to apply: The application process involves two offices at UT. You must send a dossier to the Michener Center that includes your writing sample (the thing that really gets you in, so write well). Fiction applicants should submit one or two stories totaling approximately 30 pages; poetry applicants a collection of at least 10 poems, not to exceed 25 pages; screenwriting applicants a feature-length (90-120 pp.) original screenplay or adaptation which must be bound; and playwriting applicants a full-length play or two one-act plays which must be bound. Also include a statement of purpose and three recommendation letters. You will also need to complete an application for graduate study with the UT Office of Graduate Admissions, either by mail (address below), or online at http://www.utexas.edu/student/giac.

Deadline: Jan. 15; admission is for fall semester only.

Address: UT Michener Center for Writers, 702 E. Dean Keeton Street, Austin, TX 78705 Address of Graduate Admissions: Office of Graduate Admissions, PO Box 7608, UT, Austin, TX 78713-7608

Number of students: 30

Average age: 28

Contact: 471-1601; bsnider@mail.utexas.edu; fax, 471-9997

Web site: under construction

Note: The Michener Center utilizes the permanent faculty of the departments of English, Theatre, and Radio-Television-Film at UT, and also bring in visiting professors to supplement the curriculum. Those affiliated departments also offer their own master's-level degrees in creative writing, and applicants who wish to concentrate in one genre only -- for example, playwriting and playwriting alone -- should apply to the appropriate department, since the Michener Center stresses an interdisciplinary education.

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