MFA program helped cultivate alumnus Dan Musgrave’s sprouting literary career
He’s excited about the change of scenery, Oklahoma to South Florida, hoping it might also bring inspiration.
The graduate of the University of Missouri–St. Louis MFA in Creative Writing Program has published stories – both nonfiction and fiction – in such publications as The Sun, The Missouri Review and Electric Literature, and he’s looking forward to getting down to work on a book-length project about the intergenerational trickling down of trauma and PTSD that veterans can bring home from foreign conflicts. He’s writing it in consultation with his father, a Vietnam War veteran.
The life of a writer remains a grind, with submissions to potential outlets rarely engendering rapid responses.
“It’s just a matter of the hurry up and wait of the literary game,” he said. “That’s part of the game. If I could give any young writers advice, I’d say, ‘Just dive in, just do it, take your lumps.’”
Little by little, Musgrave has been gaining traction. This year, he won an award to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat.
There’s no question he’s come a long way since walking out of a lab into an uncertain future seven years ago.
Following his passion
Musgrave had spent seven years conducting cognitive research on apes – earning a master’s degree in biological anthropology along the way – when he decided he really wanted to be a writer.
Truth be told, it’s what he’d always wanted.
“I was the kid in third grade who was trying to write ‘Jurassic Park’ in his journal,” Musgrave said. “It was something I’ve always really liked.”
It just never seemed like something that could ever be a career. So when he left his hometown of Baldwin City, Kansas, for Grinnell College in Iowa, he studied primatology.
From there. he found his way into the lab as a graduate student at Iowa State University, where he wrote a master’s thesis titled “A multimodal analysis of the communicative utterances of a language competent bonobo.”
Even then, there were signs he might be meant for a different path. More than once during his time as a researcher, Musgrave would be making notes about the animal behavior he’d observed when a supervisor would offer a critique.
“I was always getting reminded that my notes had a little bit too much flourish to them,” he said. “They lacked a little bit of objectivity and remove.”
He finally realized he needed to pursue his passion.
His then fiancé, now wife was also ready to move on in her academic training, so when she started applying for doctoral opportunities, he began researching MFA programs.
Finding the right fit
It was only after she got accepted at Washington University in St. Louis that Musgrave found UMSL.
“It looked good online,” he said. “They had a literary journal, Natural Bridge, which was something that I was really interested in participating in. I liked the degree requirements that I saw on there. I liked the writers that I saw on there. I decided that was going to be the one that was going to be the good fit for me in the area.”
His instinct about the program – now entering its 22nd year – turned out to be correct.
Musgrave found flexibility in scheduling his courses, variety in the work he read, and he didn’t feel constrained to write in a particular style.
“If I wanted to write sci-fi for one story, they’d be fine with it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be rejected out of hand.”
He said he pulled insight and inspiration from faculty members such as Mary Troy, John Dalton and Shane Seely along the way toward earning his degree and graduated in 2016. He also built a network of friends who continue to support his work, and he meets with them annually for informal workshops.
His experience at UMSL also helped open a door to the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, which since January of 2017 has given him a community of other artists – fiction, comic book and song writers as well as visual artists – to be a part of.
Connected to nature
Musgrave, a registered member of Osage Nation, has tended to focus his own work on animals and human-animal interaction.
He’s long felt a connection to the natural world.
It’s something that developed organically growing up in a small town because, as Musgrave said, “There wasn’t a creek in my hometown that I didn’t explore and catch frogs and snakes in.”
His grandmother also helped foster it in her work teaching biology to elementary school children.
It’s one of the reasons he ended up in the lab, which proved a source of inspiration for a later essay titled “Worry” that, among other things, details some of what he observed of bonobos in captivity. Musgrave was a finalist for the 2015 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Essay for that work.
His essay, “Eclipse,” written in the fall of 2017 and published in The Sun the following January, describes his fear for his interracial family in the face of increasing white nationalism as well as anxiety over the failing health of his beloved Chihuahua, Maynard, who brought him comfort so often in his life.
“It’s a little bit like sticking your finger down your throat,” Musgrave said of writing something so personal. “It’s like something you have to get out of you, and at the same time, it takes a lot out of you. You’re putting a really intimate piece of yourself out there to be judged and read and interpreted by other people who may not know you or give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s a gamble.
“But I think it’s things like that are what confirmed that I want to be a writer because with that piece in particular, had I not gotten that out, I think it would have really bothered me and really chewed away at me.”
Making a memoir with his father
The book he envisions could stir up feelings even more raw.
He would like to show how the emotional and psychological wounds of war can get passed down from veterans to their children. He’s seen it teaching writing to veterans and their children while working at Tulsa Community College the past two years during his fellowship.
He’s also experienced it firsthand with his own father, John Musgrave, who served 11 months and 17 days in Vietnam before being medevaced out after being permanently disabled by the third wound he suffered in the Battle of Con Thien in 1967. John Musgrave was one of the veterans featured prominently in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part documentary series, “The Vietnam War.”
“As a kid, you know the rules are different for mom and dad,” he said. “You can do certain things with mom that you can’t do with dad. It’s really pronounced in a way that I don’t think is necessarily the case with two civilian parents. The stereotypical stuff like ‘Don’t surprise dad. Don’t scare him when he’s sleeping. Don’t sneak up behind him.’ That kind of thing gets overplayed a little bit, but there are reasons why.
“As an adult, you have the power of hindsight to see where it’s less obvious that it’s trickled in. You see it in the way that you respond to frustrations, the way that you deal with feelings, the way that you conceal or reveal parts of yourself to others. Maybe ideas about service or duty – these kind of abstract concepts – you may have a different grasp on them or a more concrete idea of what they mean.”
Dan Musgrave would like to base the narrative of the memoir around the two-week trip he and his father took back to Vietnam last October.
There’s no better venue for Musgrave to share his experiences than to write them down.
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