If you've ever read a book or poem that changed your life – or provided just a little bit of wisdom – you know the impact of great authors. This week public schools across the state are participating in the annual "Celebrate Literacy Week, Florida!" to promote the importance of literacy and inspire students to read from an early age. As we grow up, literature remains a crucial source of inspiration.
Through their works, writers can make a long-lasting impact on the world, says Les Standiford, director and founder of FIU’s creative writing program and a New York Times bestselling author. Standiford himself is proof.
Last year, when Brightline debuted its high-speed train connecting Miami to Orlando, the company's founder Wes Edens stood on stage at the launch celebration and shared that this major undertaking – more than 10 years in the making – was inspired by a book. It was after reading Standiford's “Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean,” that Edens' ideas for Brightline were born.
"It’s pretty thrilling that a savvy businessman was motivated to undertake this clean, mass transit project because he was inspired by a book," Standiford says. "Books do make important things happen. We’re not just amusing ourselves and others to death. We write things that make an impact on the world. It would be a sorry, sorry place if we didn’t have books."
For over three decades, FIU has been doing its part to make sure Panther writers continue producing high-quality works that breathe literary life into society. The graduate creative writing program, housed within the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, has trained generations of authors and poets who have published more than 200 books collectively and whose works have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies.
Wildly successful alumni include luminaries like author, screenwriter and producer Dennis Lehane MFA '01, who has written 14 novels, including acclaimed mystery and crime thrillers like “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island,” both of which were adapted into major motion pictures; Miami-Dade Poet Laureate Richard Blanco '91, MFA '97, who read his original poem at the 2013 presidential inauguration and in 2023 was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Joe Biden from the National Endowment for the Humanities; Patricia Engel MFA '07, New York Times bestselling author of “Infinite Country” (a Reese’s Book Club selection) and awardee of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and winner of the Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana (Colombia's national prize in literature); and Jonathan Escoffery '10, whose debut novel, “If I Survive You,” in 2022 received numerous accolades and was a New York Times and Booklist Editor’s Choice.
"What I remember most about FIU was the familial warmth of the faculty," says Lehane, whose acclaimed novels have been translated into more than 30 languages and have become international bestsellers. "Les threw a party for us creative writing grad students the first week, John [Dufresne] had an open door policy at his apartment for us to drop in anytime to voice our concerns and insecurities and aspirations. We felt welcomed and seen and supported, and you need that when you're trying to do something as insane as becoming a writer. I'll always feel total gratitude to the school and its faculty for that."
The creative formula
In 2020, FIU’s MFA was ranked a top program by CreativeWritingMFA.info, which ranks programs based on the number of alumni publications in literary journals. With its impressive track record of alumni publishing success, FIU has made a name for itself as a leader in creative writing education.
Standiford says what makes FIU unique is its “down in the trenches” approach that has professors teaching students not only the theory but the technical aspects of writing (plot, dialogue, genre writing, etc.), and the business of finding the right audience for their genre, discovering a path to publication, learning how to submit their work to literary journals and more.
“We take on talented people and, almost like a professional athletics team, we try to help them hone that talent so they can compete at a professional level in publication,” Standiford says. “We help them answer, ‘How can you take this material and make it reach speculative fiction fans or mystery fans or general literary readers? How do you sharpen these skills up?’ We’re not giving somebody something as much as shaping the talent they have.”
FIU Trivia: You know you've made it when you've got the spine of your book displayed as part of the "Ideal Bookshelf" on one of the tote bags on sale at Barnes & Noble bookstores. Creative writing alumna Patricia Engel's "Infinite Country" appears on this tote (see the third book in the top image, a close up of the tote). Her novel stands among books by the likes of Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Esquival on this handy bag.
The program utilizes a combination of teaching, critique workshops, access to visiting writers and mentorship from a star-studded group of faculty authors and poets, which includes alumni such as Blanco and Ana Menendez, both Cuban-Americans who have reached critical acclaim for their works.
Students and alumni alike praise the program for its supportive faculty and focus on crime and mystery writing. They also applaud the program's inter-genre approach, which encourages students to gain experience writing in fiction, poetry and nonfiction.
Michael Rojas ’22, a current student in the MFA program, says this approach has helped him grow as a writer and find a new voice as a poet.
“I hadn’t explored my writing ability in poetry," says Rojas, who loves writing fiction. He adds that many other MFA programs require students to stay in their particular genre track. But FIU’s approach opened his eyes to new possibilities. “I’ve really discovered that I like [poetry]. You get that when you have professors and peers who are passionate about the subject matter. You go into something like poetry not feeling very comfortable, and now, I’ve written 30 or 40 works that I feel are strong.”
As a key part of the MFA program, students produce a book-length creative thesis that must be of publishable quality – something any of the faculty members would proudly share with their own agents, Standiford explains. A number of alumni have gone on to successfully publish their theses, among them Blanco and Lehane. The string of successes has spanned decades since the program’s beginnings.
Vicki Hendricks MFA ‘92, who carved a name for herself as one of the only women writing noir novels in the 90s, was part of the program’s inaugural graduating class in 1992. She landed a publishing deal soon afterwards, and by 1995, her first novel, “Miami Purity,” was already in print. The book was later translated into more than a dozen languages and sold throughout the world in countries such as Germany, England, Japan and Portugal. The novel became one of Hendricks’ most iconic works.
“It was beyond my fantasies,” she says. As she reflects on more than two decades of “living the writer life,” she credits FIU and its faculty for helping her get there and considers her time at FIU unforgettable.
Before starting the program, Hendricks had created a collection of post-it notes with her ideas for novels. She didn’t know what to do next – until she began taking courses at the university.
“What I realized is that I needed technique and where to go with an idea,” she says. “You get the first chapter done, and then it’s ‘Well, now what?’ I had to realize that the person has to make a plan. I would never have written anything if it weren’t for FIU.”
Almost 30 years later, recent alumnus David Sangiao-Parga MFA ’21 says he had a similar experience in the program and cites the same faculty that were instrumental in Hendricks’ own trajectory – a testament to FIU’s tried-and-true program. Like Hendricks, Sangiao-Parga’s thesis became his first published book. “Blood in the Holler” was published only a year after he graduated from the university. It received a glowing review from Kirkus Reviews (considered a rare achievement by many in the industry) and won first place badges in two categories at the BookFest Awards.
“My novel was the backbone of what I was doing in the program,” Sangiao-Parga recalls. “It would not be anywhere near where it is now if I would not have taken Lynne Barret’s plot class. It was instrumental in helping me lay it all out and make it flow properly. I still remember sitting over the novel with my wife, cutting paragraphs with scissors and putting them together to see how best to arrange it.”
Likewise, he says the mentorship of faculty like Standiford and John Dufresne helped him fine-tune his novel and build his network. “They really understand the commercial aspect, the industry aspect of it,” he says. “When I’m looking for agents or academics or editors, they connect me.”
It’s all part of the magic of FIU’s creative writing program.
Meet three Panthers who are part of the next generation of authors and poets getting their literary start at the university's creative writing program.