New MFA program aims for renewal of literary craft rooted in robust Catholic tradition and imagination

An interview with Joshua Hren and James Matthew Wilson, co-founders of a new Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Joshua Hren (left) and James Matthew Wilson are founders of a new program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston focused on the "renewal of the craft of literature within the cosmic scope, long memory, and expansive vision of the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition." (Images: www.stthom.edu)

The University of St. Thomas in Houston, founded by the Basilian Fathers in 1947 and home to over 3,000 students, has established a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program that promises to be unique among the more than 200 MFA programs in the United States. Co-founded by Joshua Hren and James Matthew Wilson, the new program 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.” Wilson, in a tweet announcing the program, reiterated that goal, stating, “Our aim is nothing less than the renewal of serious craft and spiritual and intellectual depth in contemporary letters”.

Hren is the founder and publisher of Wiseblood Books, and the author of a forthcoming novel, two collections of short stories, and a book on J.R.R. Tolkien and political philosophy. His introduction to Catholic letters, titled How to Read (and Write) like a Catholic, will appear shortly from TAN Books. Wilson is the author of ten books, including four collections of poems, is Poet-in-Residence of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, poetry editor of Modern Age magazine, and series editor of Colosseum Books. Both have contributed to CWR in recent years.

Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, corresponded earlier today with Hren and Wilson about the new MFA program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

CWR: How did this program come about? Why do you think there is a need for such a program?

Joshua Hren: God told me to go to Nineveh and I immediately boarded a boat headed for Texas. While delivering a series of talks, seminars, and fiction readings I met some folks connected to the University of St. Thomas. Over a long, leisurely meal filled with a feast of good humor and good people, I suggested—enthusiastically but unassumingly—that what we really need, for the furtherance of the Catholic literary tradition, is an educational endeavor that will add institutional firmness to the flurry of conferences and connections we’ve gained since Paul Elie and Greg Wolfe and Dana Gioia started stimulating this present revival in contemporary Catholic letters through their national debate.

To this day I remain stunned that this proposal was received with earnest excitement from the start. On a Tuesday evening I started designing a curriculum and reaching for a vision, and over the last year—with help from many gracious supporters at the University of St. Thomas, as well as counsel from a range of generous Catholic writers—that proposal has moved from the paper dream of a “city in speech” to a substantial degree that will gather master writers and novices around the same blessed table. In the States we have a long tradition supporting talk of “self-evident truths.” It was a self-evident truth that James Matthew Wilson should be director of such a program.

James Matthew Wilson: When Joshua mentioned the possibility of this program to me I could hardly believe my ears. This is what I’ve been mulling and dreaming about for almost twenty years. Writers know writing itself can be a lonely occupation. Catholic writers in our day often feel outcasts. But why? We want art and literature to do what art and literature have always done: to shake you, to grab you by the shoulders and proclaim that there is more to the world than mere appearances. There is, at least, the drama that runs like an undercurrent beneath the surface of everyone’s life.

But that’s not all there is. There are the movements of grace, and the heights of heaven, and the depths of hell. Why then does it seem so much contemporary literature extends no further than the topsoil in one’s front yard?

Hren: Or the cage of ideology. Regardless of which ideology might be all the rage, these frameworks that promise to explain reality end up giving us a radically reductive vision, whereas literature not beholden to the idols of the day puts out “into the deep”—into the glorious and harrowing gift of existence.

Wilson: I have been waiting for the chance to help writers who really see the depths of human life and of creation to find a way to express their vision. I’ve also been waiting for a chance to help those who love art as a craft, as a kind of work done for the sake of making something good, to discipline themselves and grow.

This is what people want, what readers want, what writers want, but who’s giving it to them? Sometimes the world looks like a spiritual desert. We want at least to establish one good place where people can fall in love with the art of writing and have that love respected.

CWR: The program’s website highlights that this MFA is unique as it is the “only one 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…” Can you expand on the nature of this renewal and some of the particular aspects of the program?

Wilson: Our program, it’s worth stating, is open to everyone who cares about the power and the beauty of literature. But the Catholic Church has been for much of its history the steward of the genius of classical culture and it has completed that culture, extended it, in ways only the Holy Spirit could have imagined. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you read Dante, you’ll be left in awe. Our program is one where the Church’s tradition and inheritance will help writers to expand their conception of the possible, to dare to create a kind of literature that might otherwise seem impossible in our day.

Hren: Another angle to this is that we are daring to envision and taking the time to patiently craft and perfect narratives that both accurately render the contests of the human spirit and shape stories whose arcs are marked by the splendor of truth and the tenacity of hope. Alasdair MacIntyre argues that often when someone complains that life is meaningless what he really means is that “the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement towards a climax or a telos.” We need well-made stories that make the fullest counters of human life intelligible—tangible, definite—for readers. We need stories that reach into our moment through a contemporary idiom, but bring to bear the glorious weight of the Catholic literary tradition to bear on these new creations. Flannery O’Connor warns would-be fiction writers that “is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”

In the incubator of our MFA, we’ll teach writers technique, how to “get dusty” without losing sight of the cosmos. We’ll work passionately to recognize and actualize each of our student’s distinctive talents and bents. With so many great writers—Catholic and otherwise—as our windows into what Henry James called the “house of fiction,” we’ll also teach them how to pass through humble details into grand questions, how to poeticize dirt into stardust—how to see the unseen in the seen.

Wilson: All MFA programs exist primarily to serve the writers who enroll in them. Ours is no exception. Students will take three workshops and complete a thesis, all with the close guidance of a faculty mentor but also with the companionship of their classmates and fellow writers. Most MFA programs require a certain number of free electives to ensure the writers are at least familiar with some patchwork aspects of the literary tradition. We want to go much further. Our seminars will introduce students to a wide range of writers, but with the aim of helping students see the literary tradition that flows through Virgil, Augustine, and on to Paul Claudel and Flannery O’Connor. They will ground writers in the major works of the philosophy and art and beauty that help, however incompletely, to understand how the fine arts work and what beauty is. We want them to master it; to make it theirs; and then to develop it in new and previously unimagined directions.

CWR: Faculty and guest lecturers include a number of noted authors and scholars. How did you go about forming the faculty? What do you think this group of writers and teachers offers that students might not readily find in other programs?

Wilson: We aim to have every writer doing important work in our day to help enrich this program. We want our students to get to know, and to learn from, a wide range of authors who are making the best of contemporary literature.

Hren: A number of our guest lecturers are cultural critics or otherwise inhabit a sphere beyond the confines of the creative writing world. Sohrab Ahmari, say, or Robert Royal. Or Rod Dreher. One weakness that can plague MFAs is their insularity—writers learning from writers writing for writers. We wish to make way for fateful intersections that point our students toward the larger whole of contemporary culture.

Wilson: They will support us in a number of ways. Some will teach entire courses. Others will teach shorter master classes on a given topic. Others still will be visiting lecturers for both the online courses and the residential seminar, or our summer writers’ institute. If we succeed, our students will leave the program with a clear understanding of the craft that only meaningful and substantial contact with great writers can help them achieve.

Hren: Not a few significant writers of the past knew one another, broke bread and ate salt together, and this cross-pollination stimulated so many beginning writers’ innate abilities, inviting them into greatness. I think of the gatherings at Flaubert’s apartment in France—Maupassant and Turgenev in attendance—or the correspondence between Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett. Or, to bring it close to home, the colony of Catholic intellectuals and poets and painters who met at the home of French Catholic novelist Leon Bloy, the incredible “master class” the Catholic novelist Caroline Gordon offered Flannery O’Connor through their friendship in letters. Where would these writers have been without the good company of their fellow-travelers?

CWR: What are the nuts-and-bolts of the program? How will it work for on-campus and on-line students?

Wilson: We want every person serious about literature to feel welcome in our program, and we will work to arrange a course and a pace of study that works for students individually. The courses will all be offered online and the whole degree can be completed online. We will have at least two residency opportunities every year, however. One will be a short, intense seminar that earns credit toward the degree. I want to work in-person with students and also to help them come together to enjoy the fruits of literary and intellectual community. I want them to meet my favorite scholars, like Jessica Hooten Wilson, and my favorite writers, like Christopher Beha, Abigail Favale, Ryan Wilson, and Dana Gioia, face-to-face.

Hren: To see that passing strand of cigarette smoke curling, catlike, from the crowd to Gioia as he recites, from memory, a poem by W.H. Auden, his bass voice reverberating the room. To have to turn away from Christopher Beha’s or Ryan Wilson’s eyes, not out of aversion but because they beam forth the vision of a contemplative realism. To let the gatherings trickle out onto the patio, where Abby Favale retells her conversion story, and weaves in a few parts she left out of her memoir, punctuating the account with laughter.

Wilson: But most people have lives and commitments. We want to be a program that does not make you drop everything, but rather one that helps you carve out time to accomplish a major writing project. Nobody has to move to enroll in our program. Nobody has to give up their careers—unless they want to. Writers almost never work exclusively as writers, no matter how successful they are. Our program will work around the commitments of our students.

CWR: What else would you like readers to know about the program?

Wilson: After 2020, I think everyone feels with great sorrow that ours is a day of decline. It is hard work preserving old things; many good things, and some bad things, seem to be falling away. It’s tempting just to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. But I keep thinking of Isaiah proclaiming, “See, I am doing something new!” That’s one of my favorite verses from the prophet. Hope overcomes despair, new growth in time obscures the ruins in its prolific greenery.

We—all of us, but Catholics in particular who have such a great responsibility placed on us by our baptism—we all need to realize that we can preserve good, old things only if we live in hope and set about building something new. I am praying that writers will hear the call of this program and say, “At last. What I’ve always been looking for, but never expected to find.” I want people who care about the Church and about western culture and its glorious artistic traditions to say, “Here’s a little glimmer of dawn.” I hope those people will join us, whether at the many public readings and lectures we plan to host in the coming years, or by their support, as we try to build up programming that will reach people in Houston and across the country at every age level.

Hren: Amen.


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About Carl E. Olson 1153 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

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