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The next great American novel might be written by a Catholic


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John Burger - published on 05/27/21

James Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren bring spiritual dimension to creative writing program at University of St. Thomas.

About 20 years ago, James Matthew Wilson was picking up a University of Notre Dame faculty member at the airport, and as the two drove to campus, the professor asked the young graduate student what he wanted to do in life.

“I don’t know quite why I said this, but I said I think what I’d really like to do is run a distinctive Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing,” Wilson said recently. “It’s been a long time since I thought of that ambition, and I’m still surprised it’s about to come true.”

It’s about to come true in the fall semester this year. Wilson, a poet who has published 10 books, will be giving up his teaching position at Villanova University to become the inaugural director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. 

He and co-founder Joshua Hren, a fiction author and publisher of Wiseblood Books, boast that the new MFA program will be the only one out of over 200 in the United States that is “committed expressly to a renewal of the craft of literature within the cosmic scope, long memory, and expansive vision of the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition.”

Plans have been in the works for the past year, with details being hammered out with University of St. Thomas officials. The co-founders have known one another since the days when Hren was managing editor of Dappled Things, a Catholic literary magazine, and Wilson submitted poems to it. Wiseblood subsequently published Wilson’s first collection of poems. 

“I was really taken aback about a year ago, when [Hren] wrote to me asking if I’d be willing to become the director of a Master of Fine Arts program that didn’t exist,” Wilson said in an interview. “And I said, ‘Well, since all we’re doing is talking, sure, why not?’ And I never believed it was actually going to lead to the founding of a program. On the contrary, I thought this is not the time in which universities are starting new things, so I assumed nothing would come of it. It was only about a month after we announced the program that I realized this actually could work, in fact, that this really should work.”

Restoring the transcendent

Students will need 30 credits to attain the degree — doable in two years — but most of the classes and discussion of one another’s works will be conducted online. This is not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because the program’s founders realize that many writers have jobs and maybe families and it’s rather difficult to uproot oneself. There will be a “residency,” however, in which candidates for the degree can opt to spend 10 days to two weeks each year on the Houston campus in an intensive seminar. 

The important aspect of the program is its goal of restoring a sense of the transcendent to the teaching of the craft of writing and ultimately to American prose and poetry itself.

“What we hope is that our program is going to be one that, like every graduate program in creative writing, will aim to initiate aspiring writers into the craft and the discipline of making a good work,” Wilson said. “We hope also to correct some of the deficiencies that we see in other programs. The main deficiency is one that is not to be found just in grad programs of creative writing but also in contemporary literature in general — a kind of eclipse of the kinds of dimensions to works of art that have any real spiritual or intellectual breadth or depth.”

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