Above all else, you must have a love of the story.
That was the advice Leanna James Blackwell offered when talking recently about the nascent MFA at Bay Path College. She is the director of the program. While some may think such a focused writing program exists for the classically-trained wordsmith, her advice spoke to that misconception: while you can be taught the fundamentals of writing structure, you need to have the desire to express a narrative.
“You must also have the passion to seek out that inner story,” Blackwell added. “This is much more important than any formal background.”
Her own back story started out in the theater, where she was a professional actor for many years. “I had a whole life before going into my MFA,” she said. But of her transition to writing, she said that it was a natural progression. “In theater, you start with the language. I started to explore my own voice, and it was an interesting segue when I became more interested in writing, particularly documentary plays.”
Blackwell’s most recent play, The Wendy Chronicles, is based on the life and writings of Wendy Wasserstein, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and writer. Weaving passages from letters, speeches, diary entries, and published work, this play is an example of the documentary theater in which she found her initial voice.
When her own MFA work was underway, Blackwell said that she began to hone her voice. “I found a whole different way of being in the world through writing,” she said. As she is one of the principal guiding forces for the creation of the MFA coursework, this legacy will benefit those budding writers who are at similar points of their own lives.
“This MFA is designed to meet you wherever you are at whatever stage of your life,” she explained. “I went through that myself—I know what the students are looking for and I know the kinds of questions they have.”
“I especially know what it is to find that personal story that belongs to you,” she added. “Both your story and your voice, as you’re sharing that with the world—that became what my writing journey was about.”
Early upon first setting out on the path of the writer, Blackwell was given some excellent feedback. As an MFA student at Mills College in California, she won the prestigious Ardella Mills Prize for Literary Composition. “Here I was in a class with people who all their lives had known they wanted to be writers,” she remembered. “It was a shock to me that I won!”
This nontraditional back story makes for a unique perspective on others envisioning MFA studies of their own. “There is no other program that I know of that is crafted expressly with such a level of personal attention and this focus on the personal story,” she said. “The reason that this was created as creative nonfiction is that it is dedicated to your own personal story. What you have to say, what you have experienced.”
“This program was designed to bend to the shape of the students’ lives,” she added.
While the workload will be significant—Blackwell offered a 20 hour per week estimate of her incoming students—the structure of the classes, both online and in person, offer each student the opportunity to work within their circumstances.
Her incoming faculty all have their own unique perspectives on writing as both an art and a business. There are “tracks” to guide students into teaching and publishing, and the faculty hand-picked for these areas of interest are all proven masters of the field. (Read more about the MFA program here: graduate.baypath.edu/graduate-programs/programs-online/mfa-program/creative-nonfiction)
As she looked out her office window at the campus outside, Blackwell reaffirmed how excited she is to be at the helm of the launch of the College’s graduate writing program. “One of the reasons I’m so excited about this program is that I imagine that a lot of the women and men who are going to be drawn to do this will be at a similar point in their lives as I was. It’s been an interesting journey.”
Sounds like the start of a good story, don’t you think?