Mary Troy and John Dalton both graduated from UMSL with English degrees and now teach in the MFA in Creative Writing program.

Dreaming up fiction is usually the job of Mary Troy, professor of English at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Designing and establishing an MFA in Creative Writing program at UMSL, well, that is anything but fiction.

Troy graduated from UMSL in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

“When I was here at UMSL, a very new school, creative writing was not offered,” Troy said. “Instead I was a reader, a constant and voracious one, who believed writers were wise and talented, thus far beyond me.”

Writing is a daunting task for anyone, but for aspiring creative writers the pressure of sophisticated, clean writing on top of the business of “being discovered” and publishing can deflate a new writer fast, especially if he or she doesn’t have some thick skin.

Turns out that with a little life experience and some years behind her, Troy was up for the challenge. She went on to complete her MFA at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

And she wasn’t UMSL’s only early writing success. John Dalton, current director of the MFA program and associate professor of English at UMSL, also graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1987. By that time, creative writing courses were being offered, but UMSL had yet to establish an MFA program.

“It was a pretty thrilling time. Not only did I make a serious attempt to write short stories, but a few of those stories ended up in Litmag,” Dalton said. “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reviewed Litmag in its book section and mentioned me by name.”

The writing minds at UMSL showed promise and a need for an MFA program. Troy returned to St. Louis and was teaching at UMSL when she began to gather resources to put together a program. In the 1998-99 academic school year, she became the first director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at UMSL. She, of course, faced many hurdles.

“I was appalled to learn the program had been approved with so little funding,” Troy said. “And so I worked hard to see that the students in it got some work and thus some pay. I had never heard of a graduate program that provided no assistantships, or very little.”

She reached out to University Marketing and Communications, the Office of Research Administration and the Graduate School at UMSL, along with other community colleges, which were all happy to hire competent, strong writers. She even worked at getting tuition reimbursed to make studying creative writing financially feasible. Troy notes that Dalton, who took over as director in the summer of 2011, has continued and expanded this work. There is a never endless dig and search for placements of graduate students into assistantships on campus. It is one of the many efforts that contribute to the program’s close-knit, hard working, unpresumptuous community.

“I wanted a close writing community, for I believe that is essential in MFA programs,” Troy said. “Writers work in isolation, and the community is important, members of it serving as the first readers of workshop pieces, as comforts after workshops, as people working toward the same goal of putting shape to the chaos and telling at least a small truth, as fellows who will be honest and helpful.”

She thinks this has been successfully established.

“It is a good community, with little competition, with just the normal amount of envy.”

Dalton agrees wholeheartedly.

“At UMSL you can get quality instruction and mentorship, and you can join a dedicated community of writers,” he said. “Those are powerful advantages for new writers. It’s also worth adding that while some MFA degrees are quite expensive, you can graduate from the UMSL MFA with a reasonable amount of debt.”

Besides the nice price ticket, the structure established by Troy gives optimal writing time.

“I wanted a climate in which workshops were at the heart of the program, and in which those workshops could be honest and even harsh if needed, but would not be taken personally,” she said. “I wanted, too, good reading, and so I developed the techniques classes for fiction writers and suggested the form and theory class for poets. I made the literary journal editing class mandatory, for it is one of the things that sets us apart from many programs.”

Natural Bridge, UMSL’s literary journal for which MFA students serve as editors, is a class that helps writers determine just how finished their “finished” products are and how to present work when submitting.

The MFA in Creative Writing program at UMSL has now been nurturing writers for more than 15 years.

“I’m happy to report the program is thriving,” Dalton said. “Our MFA alums are publishing quality books – 17 so far – and UMSL’s MFA is getting better known throughout the region and also within the New York City publishing industry.”

The focus is on the students, helping birth them into the writing world, providing them a space beyond the page to write and share their passions.

“I am proud of UMSL’s MFA,” Troy said. “I believe it is one of the most worthwhile things I have done. I am as proud of it as I am of my books. I think I have thus had a say in the future of literature.”

Visit the MFA in Creative Writing website for more information on the program or call John Dalton at 314-516-5619 or email him at daltonj@umsl.edu.

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Dalton is author of two novels, “The Inverted Forest” and “Heaven Lake,” both published by Scribner. His first novel, “Heaven Lake,” won the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. and the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H.

Troy is the author of the novel, “Beauties,” winner of the USA Best Book Award and finalist for Foreword Book of the Year Award. Her previous three books are collections of short stories. “Cookie Lily” won the Devil’s Kitchen Award for best book of prose published in 2004. “The Alibi Café and Other Stories” earned a glowing review in the New York Times, and “Joe Baker Is Dead” was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story, “Do You Believe In The Chicken Hanger?” won a Nelson Algren Award.

Both Troy and Dalton will be reading from 12:15-1:15 p.m. Nov. 4 as part of UMSL’s Monday Noon Series held in room 402 of the J.C. Penney Conference Center on UMSL’s North Campus. They will be joined by two alumni of the MFA in Creative Writing program: Ron Austin (fiction) and Sally Van Doren (poetry).

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Marisol Ramirez

Marisol Ramirez

Eye on UMSL: A day in the life
Eye on UMSL: A day in the life

Students from UMSL’s College of Optometry and College of Nursing participated in a simulation designed to expose them to the complexities of poverty.

Eye on UMSL: A day in the life

Students from UMSL’s College of Optometry and College of Nursing participated in a simulation designed to expose them to the complexities of poverty.

Eye on UMSL: A day in the life

Students from UMSL’s College of Optometry and College of Nursing participated in a simulation designed to expose them to the complexities of poverty.