WILKES-BARRE — The graduate creative writing program at Wilkes University received a major accolade in 2015 when 2006 graduate Marlon James was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” But behind this prestigious recognition exists a steady stream of graduates who, since the program’s launch in 2005, have gone beyond their educations to explore creative and ambitious endeavors.
Recent masters of fine arts graduates, Francisco Tutella and Nathan Summerlin, are using their experiences in the program to cultivate their passions. Tutella is working on finishing a novel, and Summerlin is in post production on a short film.
A Wilkes-Barre native, Tutella called the creative writing program intense.
“The first week you enter is called boot camp, and you’re writing and you’re reading 12 hours a day,” Tutella said. “It’s emotionally intense, but you really get to connect with the rest of your group, your cohort.”
Following a first semester of intensive creative and analytical work, students narrow down the genres they want to focus on and choose a mentor from a group of industry professionals, many of whom are published writers.
“There’s a big focus on what they call ‘the writing life’ and it’s how you schedule your creative pursuits around your family, friends, career,” Tutella said. “A lot of these writers have other full-time jobs, so there is a big focus on the business aspect.”
Tutella is currently working on the eighth revision of his novel, which began as the creative aspect of his MFA, and he’ll be seeking a publisher in the future. The work, as he describes it, is a speculative fiction about a love story that occurs during a partisan movement in Italy after the dissolution of the European Union and a financial takeover by Germany.
In addition to working on his novel, Tutella teaches an intensive writing course at The University of Scranton and conducts a weekly workshop at Wilkes called “Beginning the Novel.”
Dr. Michael Lennon co-founded the program with colleague Dr. Bonnie Culver, to whom he credits the idea. Lennon is currently acting as interim director while Culver, a playwright, is on sabbatical writing.
“We were both writers,” Lennon said. “We knew a lot of writers. We knew a lot of writers in New York. We had publishing contacts in New York so we drew on all of those contacts to bring in the initial faculty, many of whom are still there.”
Stressing the reality of being a professional writer, Lennon said, is a pillar of the program.
“The largest single revelation that comes to students when they get in the program is that all the faculty that are in the program have a writing routine, that they do not write when they’re inspired, that they write as often as they can on some schedule of their own devising.”
Another pillar, Lennon said, is the network of support and business acumen provided to people during and after the program. Lennon reads manuscripts and suggests leads and contacts for students.
“It’s true for the beginning students, and it’s true for old dogs like me,” Lennon said. “I rely on my colleagues in the program to give me counsel. You need a writing community.”
Seeking that community initially brought Summerlin to the program.
“I decided after years of working alone that I needed a circle, a network, of writers,” Summerlin said.
He found that network in Brian Fanelli, Rachael Goetzke and Amye Archer, all graduates of the program involved in local writer’s groups and creative projects.
“It seemed like anyone who was doing anything around here was a graduate of the program. I talked to all of them about the program, and they all referred to it enthusiastically.”
Summerlin entered the program as a fiction writer and finished as a screenwriter. Adding to his professional regiment of audio recording and web design through his company, Pocket Studios, Summerlin has recently filmed a seven-minute comedic short entitled “Catcophony.”
The short, filmed at the Wilkes University President’s House, is a nearly silent film about what happens to a generally well-balanced couple when the wife brings home a noisy cat. His script has be selected as a quarter finalist for the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition, and the finished product will be submitted to film festivals.
“I definitely learned a lot more about the particular craft of screenwriting,” Summerlin said. “I received a lot of advice about how to pursue some kind of work in that field. There’s a subtleship to having professionals look at your work.”
In addition to a favorable ratio of mentors to students, Summerlin said his cohort was stimulating intellectually and creatively, because of its diversity and the wealth of ideas generated.
“I’ve learned as much about writing from that group as I have from the classes,” Summerlin said.
Lennon, who also had a hand in creating the pharmacy program at Wilkes, said the university has many great programs, but the creative writing program is unique.
“We have people in 35 states that have been in this program and a number of foreign countries,” Lennon said. “It is the program with the greatest reach. It is a special program in that sense.”