FIU’s graduate program in creative writing is turning out award-winning writers who are gracing the world with their words and stories.
As evidenced by alumni (think “Mystic River” author Dennis Lehane, “Infinite Country” author Patricia Engel and Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco), today’s students are tomorrow’s bestselling writers.
“Every year at our Student Literary Awards, I always tell people they are going to get a glimpse of the literary future,” says Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program, which is housed under the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. “The proof of that comes every fall semester. MFA graduates read from their thesis or from their first published work at an event at Books & Books. They show us that the literary future is now.”
To celebrate FIU’s contributions to literature and introduce you to some of FIU’s budding writers (you’ll thank us when they’re famous and you have signed copies of their books on hand), we introduce you to three creative writing students who share why they chose to follow their dreams at the university and how FIU is setting them up for success.
Emily Chaffins ’23 was looking for one thing when searching for a university: an undergraduate program that focused on her dream field – creative writing. She found it at FIU. Thanks to a revamp of degree offerings several years ago, English majors can earn their degrees with an area of specialization, one of which is creative writing.
“It intrigued me,” Chaffins recalls. “FIU has a specific creative writing track. A lot of English programs don't have that option.” She was also happy to see that FIU offers a mystery and suspense class, something none of the other universities she had applied to offered. “I was really excited about that [class] since it’s one of the areas I’m interested in pursuing. That was a dream for me.”
She became a Panther and never looked back. Today, Chaffins is a graduate student in FIU’s MFA in creative writing, and she’s taking hold of every opportunity to grow as a writer. Last semester, she took a literary journalism course that allowed her and her peers to cover the renowned Miami Book Fair as bloggers and journalists. This semester, she’s taking another set of courses, including a graduate level mystery and suspense class that she loves.
Even before beginning the MFA, she found stellar mentors among the program’s acclaimed faculty (most creative writing faculty teach both graduate and undergraduate classes). She says the quality of the faculty and their dedication to helping undergraduate students is what propelled her to apply to the grad program.
“Every single one of my professors made me feel so welcome and so wanted,” she says. “That’s why I really wanted to go to FIU for the MFA, too.”
While taking an undergraduate course with Professor Debra Dean, Chaffins wrote a short story that caught Dean’s attention. “At the time, I wasn’t even sure the short story was any good,” Chaffins says. But Dean saw something in the story. “She really encouraged me and gave me advice.”
Chaffins submitted her short story to FIU’s Student Literary Awards, a contest judged by writers outside of the university. The result? She won first place in undergraduate fiction. “Winning that award really boosted my confidence and showed me I was on the right path,” Chaffins says.
Chaffins is interested in writing mysteries and historical fiction. In the future, she plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing.
For Michael Rojas ’22, writing is a deeply personal act. And yet, it is also embedded in community – in humanity.
“The human condition goes beyond our ability to measure and map out,” says Rojas, a current MFA student and an English alumnus. “You need to experience it. Creative writing, for me, offers avenues for readers and writers to see the world and understand what it is to be human.”
He says he chose to pursue his MFA at FIU because the close-knit network of faculty and students within the program makes the university a writing haven. Rojas can even list the names of peers and recent alumni he’s learned from and with whom he regularly talks about the craft of writing.
“Even when we are not in classes with each other, we kind of workshop pieces at any time,” he says. “Especially if you’re a new writer, you’re always second guessing yourself. It’s good to show your peers your stories and get their feedback.”
He adds that learning from the program’s successful faculty is the greatest opportunity. “The professors are a big part of why I chose FIU and what makes the community we have here great,” he says. “We have amazing faculty on hand.” Before beginning the program, he recalls reading Dean's “The Madonnas of Leningrad” (the novel was a national bestseller and winner of awards such as the American Library Association’s Notable Book of the Year). “I was blown away by the level of expertise and craft,” he says. Now, he's learning from her and a group of top-notch faculty members.
Rojas—a diehard fiction writer—has also discovered a newfound love for poetry thanks to FIU’s holistic creative writing curriculum, which requires students to engage in writing across genres. “I’ve really discovered that I like [poetry]. With poetry, I find that I tend to be honest about my family life. You have memories sitting in your mind. I find myself allowing these real experiences to bleed into my poetry. And it’s cathartic. You see a lot of my authentic voice and my real life coming into the words.”
In 2022, Rojas was awarded a CASE Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship, which provides two years of financial support for selected fellows. That same year, he earned the runner-up honor for one of his poems in the FIU Student Literary Awards.
Becoming an author has always been Rebecca Wallwork’s dream.
“I just loved telling stories,” she says. “I was a kid with my head in the clouds. But growing up, I didn’t think I could be a novelist. It didn’t seem accessible to me.”
Wallwork felt journalism offered a more stable career path. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Western Sydney and worked as a journalist in her native Australia, New York City and, eventually, Miami.
When COVID hit more than two decades later, Wallwork found she had some extra time on her hands — time to follow her passion. She says FIU’s program “sounded like the perfect kind of place for me to be.” One of the big reasons: students in the program learn how to hone their writing skills and how to teach creative writing at the university level.
“Not all MFA programs have classes for teaching composition and creative writing,” she says. “FIU does. Those classes are really great selling points. We get the theory behind how creative writing is taught. As a [Teaching Assistant], I’ve taught a class, and I really enjoy it.”
She also praises the faculty’s willingness to discuss practical matters (how to submit to literary magazines, how to make a living as a writer, etc.). She particularly appreciates the program’s bringing poets and authors to campus during the Writers on the Bay Reading events. During Q and A sessions at these literary readings, students can ask questions about the craft of writing – and about the business of being a writer.
Thanks to FIU, Wallwork is about to launch her new career. She plans to write novels and become a creative writing professor. She has her sights set on returning to FIU for the latter job. “It would be a dream to teach in this program,” she says.
In 2022, Wallwork won first place in graduate fiction and was the runner-up in graduate poetry at the Student Literary Awards. Last year, she earned the runner-up honor for her fiction. She will be graduating from FIU this spring. She plans to find an agent and start submitting her thesis, a novel, to publishers.
If alumni success predicts a little bit of the future, we’ll soon see Wallwork’s name on the cover of a published book.
Learn more about how the creative writing program is turning out alumni authors and poets who are sharing their acclaimed storytelling talents with the world.
Mark your calendars for Thursday, Feb. 1, to attend readings by visiting poets Vievee Francis and Matthew Olzmann, as part of the Writers on the Bay Reading Series. The event will take place at the BBC bookstore at 8 p.m.