The minutes flew by as seven students critiqued personal essays in author and professor Judy Blunt’s creative writing class at the University of Montana.
Blunt led the nonfiction workshop in the Hugo Room of the Liberal Arts Building, named after a poet and towering figure of Western literature, Richard Hugo, former head of the creative writing program at UM.
The students read selected paragraphs aloud, and the professor drew comments out of them and augmented their feedback.
That same week, one of the students’ predecessors, 1996 MFA graduate Andrew Sean Greer, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his comic novel, “Less.”
The award is prestigious, but accolades are not unusual for UM’s creative writers, both faculty and graduates. Blunt, for instance, is among three Guggenheim recipients who teach. And just a couple of years earlier, 1978 MFA alum William Finnegan took home a Pulitzer for his memoir, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.”
Last week, the students in Blunt’s class talked about the politics of public lands, the economics of selling huckleberries, the soul-crushing gray of Wisconsin, the pace of a narrative and the place in a story where a reader needs to feel an emotion versus understand a concept.
UM touts its creative writing program as the second oldest in the U.S., and students are drawn to Missoula for its muscular tradition.
Outside the state of Montana, student Andy Gritzmacher said his peers know one thing about the flagship. “They might talk about forestry or football, but writing is the No. 1 thing,” Gritzmacher said.
Today’s creative writing students are the ones who will carry on the tradition. If the pattern continues, they will tell the stories of this country for magazines such as Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, publish critically acclaimed books, and teach the next generation in their field.
“These are brilliant young writers,” Blunt said.
The writers in the class might also represent the tail end of that legacy in Montana. Budget trouble has squeezed units across UM, and campus and community members who cherish the institution of creative writing here fear its tipping point has come.
Money is drying up, faculty are heading for retirement in the face of certain attrition and the program’s leaders are seeing young writers start to look to places such as Idaho and Wyoming for an education in the craft that has long been Montana’s trademark.
Lois Welch, a UM English professor who directed the program for eight years before retiring in 2001, said the creative writing program was once ranked in the top 10 in the country, but it’s a whisper away from disappearing.
“They can kill that program dead in two years easy,” Welch said. “… If you look at the people who are left in creative writing, all you have to do is have two people retire, as they sensibly should, and it’s dead.”
In 1919, H.G. Merriam stepped off the train at the depot on the north end of Higgins Avenue and headed to campus to lead its division of humanities, said Ginny Merriam, his granddaughter and a UM alum.
At the time, Harvard University had the only creative writing program in the country, she said. But in Montana, her grandfather started seeing stories that were informed by the landscape. He identified and developed that Western voice in literature, she said, launching a magazine to showcase work and encouraging students to write from that “Western sensibility.”
“We take it for granted now, but it was an unheard of idea at the time,” Merriam said.
H.G. Merriam taught for 35 years until 1954. Merriam said the poets and novelists who spun out of his vision for Western literature, a genre where landscape is character, put Missoula on the map as a place for writers.
In the decades that followed, Western writing went from being a “regional backwash” to earning national acclaim and international notoriety, said Welch, who was married to the late novelist James Welch, author of “Winter in the Blood” and “Fool’s Crow.”
In a chapter she wrote for “All Our Stories are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature,” Welch said Montana writers gained attention in the U.S. in the 1970s, and they drew favorable recognition abroad in the 1990s. “The University of Montana creative writing program always gets a portion of that attention,” she said.
Hugo, a magnetic man from the working class, planted a flag for the program, giving readings of his poetry all around the country, Welch said. The “electric” William Kittredge started holding Western writing conferences and pulling artists to Missoula. (When Kittredge reads, she said, “he sounds a bit like God.”)
Faculty in the program signed contracts with major New York publishers, and then graduates started getting deals as well, Welch said. James Welch studied under Hugo, and the novelist’s editor and agent came out West for a conference because Montana had gained a reputation.
“It was an important place, suddenly. And the fringe lapped us up,” Welch said.
She brought 78 nationally known writers to lecture at UM. “They wanted to because there were all these interesting writers here and then all these parties and conferences. It was just the heyday,” Welch said.
Welch’s historical record of the UM creative writing program noted that U.S. News and World Report ranked it among its top 10 in 1997.
Last week, UM President Seth Bodnar noted another data point from the same decade. In a presentation to the campus, Bodnar shared the drop in state support for higher education per student over the course of 25 years. In 1992, the state picked up 76 percent of the tab for a college education; it’s picking up 38 percent in 2018.
In the 21st Century, UM’s writers continued to fare well.
Professor and creative writing director Debra Magpie Earling’s “Perma Red” was published by Putnam in 2002 and won multiple awards. Blunt’s “Breaking Clean” came out the same year, and in 2004 the UM MFA graduate won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Professor Deirdre McNamer’s “Red Rover” was released in 2007 and named a best book by The Washington Post and the L.A. Times.
Those works represent a sliver of the storytelling engendered by the creative writing program. Students landed big teaching jobs and published more books per capita than graduates of the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, McNamer said.
More than half of the undergraduates in English are drawn to UM because of its creative writing program, Blunt said, although not all of them end up graduating with a creative writing emphasis.
In 2013, the campus recognized creative writing as one of three “Programs of National Distinction.” The honor came with $150,000 a year for creative writing, and Blunt said the provost at the time told her the funds were “in perpetuity.”
The bulk of the money was used to pay for teaching assistants, and the program increased awards so UM could remain competitive nationally. But despite the promise of permanence, those dollars have since disappeared, professors said.
In the graduate program in creative writing, enrollment has fallen from a high of 98 to 66 students, according to Blunt.
Nancy Cook, an English professor and “profound supporter” of the creative writing program, said UM receives excellent applicants. But potential graduate students in liberal arts and humanities often opt to go elsewhere because they can earn significantly more as teaching assistants.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Cook said. “We’ve been really crippled, and now we’re being critiqued as if all these students decided they were no longer interested in our graduate program or our fields of study, and that’s not the case.”
Blunt said creative writing currently offers a teaching assistant $9,000, the same amount it offered in 1993, even as fees and costs increase.
English has 21.5 full-time equivalent faculty members with tenure or on a tenure track.
Last week, Bodnar released preliminary recommendations that call for a reduction of six FTEs in English — nearly a third of the department. The initial recommendations note that across benchmarks, English at UM is listed as “above cost,” or 20 percent higher than national peers over an average of five years.
In the U.S., fewer students are seeking English degrees. A study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found undergraduate degrees conferred in the humanities, including English, declined 17 percent from 2012 to 2015.
Recommendations aren’t final, and cuts aren’t targeted for creative writing faculty. But Blunt said her creative writing colleagues are nearing or beyond retirement; some have been hanging on so their positions don’t go dark.
So retirements may mean closure because the university may not be able to hire replacements, she said. The program can’t ethically recruit graduate students if it doesn’t have adequate faculty to teach them.
In the past, 10 full-time faculty taught three genres of creative writing: fiction, non-fiction and poetry. In the fall, Blunt said, just one fiction professor will teach half time, she will teach one nonfiction course and try to direct the program, and one faculty member, a poet, will teach full time.
An additional poet may teach half time, but the remaining faculty are on unpaid leave, sabbatical or semiretired.
“My question to the public is, ‘Is this what you want?”’ Blunt said. “We are touted as one of the marquee programs at the University of Montana. We are trotted out frequently in that guise. And they are starving us to death.”
This year, UM admitted four graduate students in fiction who will earn teaching assistant funds, Blunt said. In the past, she said the school would have drawn another five or six who would come unfunded, but the pipeline of students is drying. The program admitted 14 or 15 graduate students in all for the fall.
Publishing by creative writing alums has remained strong, but it won’t continue without care and feeding.
“That has never flagged, but it’s going to,” McNamer said.
Last fall, Pulitzer winner and New Yorker writer Finnegan was named a distinguished alum by UM, and Blunt and McNamer believe he paid his own room and airfare to visit UM for a craft lecture.
“Is that tawdry?” McNamer said.
The creative writing program is considered a treasure, but where do the people concerned about its imminent demise advocate?
Professors said Dean Chris Comer has been a valiant champion of the program — with his hands tied by budget realities. Bodnar has touted creative writing and lauded the liberal arts, yet his charge over the next three years is to fix UM’s $10 million budget deficit.
Beyond the campus, other forces are influencing the course of higher education, with historic increases in student debt, a U.S. Secretary of Education working to reduce her own budget and 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents viewing higher education as having a negative impact on the country, according to a Pew Research Center study from 2017.
So creative writers, like their colleagues in other departments, are swimming against a strong current.
Cook said the metrics used to inform the recommendations for reductions have some inherent biases against the liberal arts, although she said those working on the project did their best to make the process fair.
Nonetheless, she fears UM may move in the direction of a polytechnic university. The humanities are recommended for the two deepest faculty cuts; modern and classical languages and literature is slated for a 7.5 faculty FTE reduction.
“UM is in some ways the canary in the coal mine,” Cook said. “Through a perfect storm of problems, we are seeing a crisis, but the real crisis is in higher education in Montana.”
The acute problems may call for unprecedented solutions, such as a smaller subsidy for athletics and one central university in Montana, Cook said. A 2015 analysis by a local legislator and economist showed UM’s Athletics Department would run a deficit of some $8.6 million without state subsidies; a separate report also showed UM athletics supported itself more than any other school in the Big Sky Conference.
More cooperation among campuses might help, Cook said. The state could centralize processes such as purchasing, kill the rivalry between UM and Montana State University and recruit for the entire state of Montana.
“I think it would save money, and it would bring out the best in Montana,” she said.
It would certainly be controversial.
Back in the Hugo Room, LA 233, the students said the programs at UM already were bringing out the best in them.
In Blunt’s class, student Courtney Coburn said she never believed a woman from “a cow pasture” could be part of the writing community and become an artist. Incidentally, Coburn is from White Sulphur Springs, the same cow pasture Ivan Doig was from. In class, she and her peers learn under a black-and-white photograph of a formidable and inspiring Hugo.
“He gives the impression that we could all come in here with our whiskeys and sit down together and tell our stories,” Coburn said.
Literature and history allow people to imagine a world that isn’t theirs, Welch said. “If you quash the impulse to give voice to where you are and your life, you’ve lost a sense of what’s important.”
The consequences of disassembling creativity are grave, she said, not just for UM: “If you stamp that out, you will have more obedient citizens, but growth is not what you’ll have.”