Bret Anthony Johnston, a best-selling fiction writer and 11-year director of creative writing at Harvard University, was announced as the director of the Michener Center for Writers this month.
Best-known for his works “Remember Me Like This” and “Corpus Christi: Stories,” Johnston graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and is a native Texan. He started writing at a young age but did not consider it as a career option until his college and graduate school years, he said.
“That’s kind of how it got started as a career, is that I had teachers who took me aside and said, ‘This is worth pursuing,’ and then all these years later here we are,” he said. “I’m surrounded by the best students in the world and the best faculty in the world. What more could you want besides it being in Texas?”
A prestigious MFA program
Offering a three-year Master of Fine Arts program totaling 54 hours, the Michener Center has one of the most competitive programs in the world, Johnston said, admitting only 12 students each year from a pool of close to 1000 applicants.
“The Michener Center has this long tradition of success, so it’s attracting the absolute best writers in the world,” Johnston said. “I think this is the one job in the world that could have pulled me away [from Harvard].”
Fellows generally take three classes and at least one workshop a semester and write a thesis in their main concentration.
“I think [the Michener Center for Writers] is absolutely one of the top, most highly regarded MFA programs in the nation,” said Lois Kim, executive director of the Texas Book Festival. “It’s a generous program and it’s always been prestigious. It’s great to have a Texan coming back from being in the northeast to run a program here.”
An interdisciplinary focus
Students at the Michener Center can select two concentrations from four genres of writing: poetry, fiction, screenwriting and playwriting, Johnston said. Less than 1 percent of fiction applicants are admitted and less than 3 percent of applicants in the other three genres are admitted, according to the website.
“Most MFA programs will bring in a student writer and just ask him or her to focus on one genre,” Johnston said. “What the Michener Center tries to do, and the idea on which it was founded, is writers have the capacity to write in different genres and make contributions to those genres in meaningful ways. We don’t put our writers in as solid a box as most other programs do.”
Billy Fatzinger, the graduate coordinator at the Michener Center for Writers, said in an email the center is the only top-ranked MFA program offering an interdisciplinary focus.
A historic program
Established in 1993, the Michener Center for Writers got its name from the late James A. Michener, the center’s benefactor and source of the Michener Fellowship, which waives all tuition and fees and includes a $27,500 stipend per academic year for all admitted students. Historically, students have hailed from the U.S. as well as from Australia, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, England and Canada.
The MFA program at Michener was ranked in the top 10 graduate programs in creative writing by The Atlantic, and ranked 15 on the College Choice list of 25 Best MFA Degrees for 2017.
The center aims at helping writers to develop their skills, produce the ideal form of their art and continue being writers, Johnston said. Professionals in each genre make up the faculty and classes run more like a dialogue than a lecture, he said. A big focus of the program is helping students succeed at “writing what only they can write,” he said. At the same time the center creates opportunities for students to make the professional connections they need to flourish in the industry, he said.
“The vision that Mr. Michener set out when he pledged such incredible resources to the center … was he wanted to make writers, he wanted to set up a place that would make writers,” Johnston said. “We want to give them every reason to continue calling themselves writers, because what they are doing matters.”