On the Write Track: MFA Student Finds New Direction in Creative Writing Program

Demaree is currently one of 12 MFA students who have the rare opportunity to develop their writing skills while receiving an annual $26,000 stipend.

By Tom McLaughlin

Joshua Demaree’s track was clear, defined, straightforward, traveling along two rails: the desires to teach and to conduct research.

“The plan was simple – go into research, earn my Ph.D., write scholarly articles, and teach,” recalls Demaree, a first-year student in the master of fine arts (MFA) program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden.

Along the way, however, the Lewiston, Pa., native increasingly felt pulled in another direction, and ultimately reached a crossroads while pursuing a master’s degree in visual and critical studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Upon handing in the first draft of his master’s thesis, Demaree was told that, while it was well-written, it was “too popular in tone.”

“I was devastated,” recalls Demaree. “After all, it was my master’s thesis; a lot was riding on it. But writing in my own voice was the only way that I knew how.”

He then sought the guidance of another advisor – a second reader on his thesis committee – who introduced him to creative nonfiction, a writing form that has gained popularity in the last several decades for its ability to tell true stories, while utilizing the full repertoire of a writer’s literary tools.

“It made me realize that I could do all the things that I wanted to, but in a different way,” recalls Demaree, who earned bachelor’s degrees in film studies, and the history of art and architecture, from the University of Pittsburgh.

demaree_headshot2Turn the page to the present day as Demaree is now fine-tuning his craft in the 39-credit MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers–Camden, one of the few creative writing programs in the region that explores a variety of both fiction and nonfiction writing forms.

“We believe that studying different genres of writing helps every kind of writer,” says novelist Lauren Grodstein, an associate professor of English and director of the MFA program at Rutgers–Camden. “Joshua is a wonderful essayist, but in our MFA program, he’ll also study fiction and poetry, and we know that when he leaves, he’ll have a more robust set of skills to draw from.”

Demaree is currently one of 12 MFA students who have the rare opportunity to develop their writing skills while receiving an annual $26,000 stipend – an almost unheard of amount. The program also offers part-time students substantial scholarship support.

“It is one of the most generous stipends in the country for students exploring a master’s degree in creative writing,” says Lisa Zeidner, a professor of English at Rutgers–Camden and a founder of the MFA program, who also is a bestselling fiction author.

For Demaree, the financial support means that, for the first time, he can pursue a higher degree without having to work a variety of part-time jobs.

Instead, he can concentrate on his writing under the mentorship of a virtual who’s who of successful writers, including poets Gregory Pardlo – a Pulitzer Prize winner – Patrick Rosal, and J.T. Barbarese; fiction writers, such as Robin Black, Lauren Grodstein, and Lisa Zeidner; and nonfiction writers, including Lise Funderburg and Paul Lisicky. The program also regularly welcomes visiting professors such as Karen Russell and Emud Mokhberi.

Demaree is now poised to tap into the inspiration and extensive writing experience he gained living and working in Philadelphia over the past three years. As he recalls, upon earning his master’s degree at The Art Institute of Chicago, he was still reeling and “burned out” from the experience. He relocated to the city and began working as a bookseller at the Penn Book Center, an independent bookstore on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

While there, he became immersed in the local arts community and became familiar with the works of talented writers in many different genres. One book that made a particular impression on him was Famous Builder (Graywolf Press, 2002), written by Paul Lisicky, a Guggenheim Fellow and an assistant professor of English at Rutgers–Camden, who is now one of his professors.

“I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Who is this person? What other books has he written? Does he teach and where?’” he recalls.

Demaree soon picked up a pen himself, writing art reviews for EXPO Chicago’s international online journal, The Seen, as well as the Los Angeles Review of Books, a literary review journal covering the national and international book scenes.

“It was the first time that I was writing outside of my studies,” recalls Demaree. “It hit me, ‘This is something that I could do all the time.’”

In fall 2013, Demaree fulfilled another longtime wish as well, teaching a critical-thinking class at Hussian College of Art, a commercial arts school in Philadelphia.

Juggling teaching, writing, and working part time at the bookstore, he began to ponder how to make his writing time – often late at night and he was exhausted from his day – his regular job.

As he considered pursuing an MFA degree, he was instantly drawn to Rutgers University–Camden for its accomplished, critically acclaimed faculty; financial support; the opportunity to teach; and close proximity to home.

“When I factored all of these things together, it was almost like my decision was made for me,” he says.

While his studies have just begun, says Demaree, he is already benefiting immeasurably by taking a nonfiction writing course with Pardlo, an assistant professor of English; a teaching practicum with expert rhetorician Bill FitzGerald, an associate professor of English; and an editing and storytelling course with Lisicky.

“Those were the three things that I really wanted to experience – teaching, editing, and publishing, and expanding my own craft as a writer, so that I can move beyond criticism and further into a space where I can utilize creative elements.”

Demaree also continues to teach, leading a Rutgers–Camden undergraduate composition course, which he says leaves him “energized” after class.

“Teaching builds me up,” he says. “That difference is how I know that this is something that I should be doing – it’s work that doesn’t exhaust you.”

Demaree anticipates graduating in spring 2018 and ultimately writing a book. First things first, he recently workshopped a personal essay for the first time and it more than lived up to its advanced billing.

“It confirmed all the hopes and fears of what a workshop is,” he says. “It’s all very new, but I’m excited for the opportunity for my classmates and me to learn from one another and take our work to the next level.”

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