San Francisco State Creative Writing

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The cultural transformations of the 1960s spurred the beginnings of a writing education renaissance, and, since 1975, the number of creative writing masters of fine arts programs has increased 800 percent.

(By the late 1980s, so many colleges and universities were instituting graduate-level creative-writing programs, in fact, that Stanford University dumped its venerated master's degree, and threw its resources behind what is now the highly sought after Stegner Fellowship, a two-year program that awards 10 participants each year a handsome stipend to study with writers like Tobias Wolff and Eavan Boland, but confers no degree.) By 2004, there were 109 programs that conferred the master of fine arts in creative writing -- and nearly half of those started in the last 10 years.

A program that promised students they would graduate with a book-length work. Patrick forgot all about her belly button, and jumped.

Two years later, she had her masters of fine arts, and her book -- or at least half a book ("There's a difference," Patrick said she discovered, "between a 'book-length work' and a book").

When someone writes a bad book, people complain about all those gosh-darn MFA programs." Whether good or bad for literature, culture or humanity, MFA writing programs are undeniably popular.

For decades, starting in the 1930s, Iowa University, Stanford University and a handful of others had a lock on graduate creative-writing programs.

"I call it my MFA in poverty," said Teresa Walsh of the poetry MFA she got from California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2002.

That doesn't mean the school's 5-year-old program is begging for applicants, added Walsh, who is manager of the writing program.

At the mishmash of relatives who would share space under the tombstone -- people who, in life, loved one another fiercely, while reneging on deals, stealing money, holding grudges, hoarding secrets.

"This," she said to her husband, pointing her finger at the names already etched into the dark stone marking the grave, a sea of monuments stretching beyond, "would make a great book." Patrick promptly dismissed her spark of inspiration, caught up in parenting and her career as a marketing consultant and private investigator.

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