Nurturing Creative Nonfiction in the University of South Florida’s MFA Program

Heather Sellers | March 2024

                              A group of students and/or faculty smiling for a photo.

Creative nonfiction is presented only rarely in high schools and taught far less often at the undergraduate level than poetry and the short story. Because the study of fiction dominates most writing programs, growing a healthy MFA track in nonfiction requires patience, cleverness, and steady effort.

Begun over fifteen years ago by Ira Sukrungruang (now at Kenyon College) and further developed by Julia Koets and me, the University of South Florida’s creative nonfiction track is on par with our fiction and poetry tracks. We offer the same number of courses in each genre, including craft, workshop, and special topics classes, as well as comics courses. Our nonfiction track graduates three MFA students every year, just as our two other tracks do.

We’ve managed, with extremely limited resources at our large state university, to create a lively, vibrant, and highly engaged community of nonfiction writers. Here, I want to reflect on what aspects of our program have been the most valuable for increasing the quality and visibility of our nonfiction track.

  1. All students in our program are fully funded, and each teaching assistantship requires students to teach two courses per semester. Nonfiction MFA students have the opportunity to teach introductory creative nonfiction courses to our undergraduate students, alongside their counterparts in fiction and poetry.
  2. Our popular Spoonbill Reading Series, run by Julia Koets, features one faculty member and four MFA students reading original work every month. Held at a local outdoor venue, these readings are open to the public and tend to draw about thirty people. The series welcomes work in all genres, and being part of Spoonbill is held in high regard. By making herself available to students and creating community in our program, Julia has made a space where MFAs can engage with a nonfiction faculty member in a meaningful and productive way. It’s the kind of quality literary social interaction, with nonfiction embedded in the fabric of the program, that allows us to work together across tracks so seamlessly.
  3. Nonfiction Salon is held on the first Friday of each month—in person, at a local patio café near campus. This gathering is also open to all students in the program, not just those admitted in nonfiction, and from five to fifteen students attend. For two hours on Friday afternoons, we talk about the publishing landscape, designing a successful thesis project, issues of craft, ethics in memoir, and searching for employment. Salon gives our nonfiction students a place to call home, and the cross-pollination that happens there among students in the various tracks is energizing.
  4. We seek out faculty at undergraduate creative writing programs who offer courses in creative nonfiction, and we send them video postcards, flyers, and course descriptions to share with their students. We encourage prospective nonfiction students to visit our MFA program, both in person and virtually.
  5. When nonfiction students arrive in our program, they take craft and workshop courses in their genre, as well as special topics courses designed specifically for essay and memoir writers. Examples include Writing the Body, Micro Memoir, Hybrids and Experiments, and Longform Nonfiction Essays.

                                 A group of likely both students and faculty posing in front of a sign that says: University of South Florida MFA in Creative Writing.

Last year, we received 120 applications to our program. While, as usual, over half the applications were from fiction writers, the nonfiction applications increase in number and quality each year. My colleagues in fiction and poetry treat our nonfiction discipline as an equal, and I feel really lucky to be part of this program.

Our MFA is small. We admit around nine students per year and keep an equal balance among fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Our focus is on creating community and offering supportive, positive classroom experiences. We hope in the coming year to improve our internship offerings for graduate students and to continue to help our nonfiction writers gain publishing and employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, nonfiction is thriving at the University of South Florida. We have a fantastic cohort of dedicated nonfiction writers. Award-winning author Jaquira Díaz received her MFA from us, as did Gloria Muñoz, who writes in every genre, and journalist and memoirist Carmella de los Angeles Guiol. We send all our alums a newsletter six times per year and eagerly track their careers.

In everything we do, we take care to ensure each genre—fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—receives equal treatment, equal attention, and equal resources.

I’d love to hear about the nonfiction track in your program and what kinds of offerings have been most useful to your students. Please feel free to contact me at


Heather Sellers is the director of creative writing at the University of South Florida. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, a children’s book, a collection of linked short stories, numerous essays, and a memoir, as well as two books on craft—Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter—and the textbook The Practice of Creative Writing. She teaches workshops and craft classes in poetry, memoir, and the essay.

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