by Len Lear

Would you like to discover young local writers who just may be the future John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Virginia Woolf or Saul Bellow? Well, you just may be able to find that undiscovered gem Thursday, Jan. 9, 7 p.m., when graduate students from the Master of Fine Arts program at Arcadia University in Glenside read from their own works at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy.

The Arcadia creative writing graduate students have actually been doing this program at the Mt. Airy bookstore for five years. “This has become a kind of annual tradition, and it’s been fabulous each and every time, in no small part because of the bookstore’s efforts and generosity,” explained Joshua Isard, Arcadia’s creative writing program director and author of the highly acclaimed novel, “Conquistador of the Useless.”

“For contemporary writers, it’s important to be comfortable reading one’s own work in front of audiences. Readings are a big part of promoting one’s published work and of being a good literary citizen, so this is invaluable experience for our second year MFA students who, come this summer, will be making their way in the literature world.”

Do most of Isard’s students plan to become full-time writers? “Few people become full-time writers anymore,” he replied. “The economics of the industry have changed so much over the last two decades or so. I’d say many of our students are successful: they achieve the writing goals they’ve set for themselves. Many publish books, in journals, and some have even started their own publications. Some design their own games; some have writing-related podcasts; some do audio dramas — and all of these endeavors use the skills they learned as MFA students. We do, of course, have alumni who teach, but there are a variety of disciplines in which our graduates make their way and find success using their writing talents. The industry may not be as lucrative as it once was, but it’s far more diverse, and there are a lot of positives to that.

“Our students write in a variety of forms and genres, from literary fiction to fantasy to sci-fi to haiku to hybrid forms of poetry. One of the wonderful things about our students is the diversity of interests they bring to the program, which contribute to vibrant classroom discussions and an energetic environment.”

Isard, who has been at Arcadia since 2008 and is “staring down the barrel at 40 (years of age),” grew up in Fort Washington and attended Upper Dublin High School, although he now lives in Chester County with his wife, Kate, and cats, Sia and Ariel. He earned a Bachelor’s in English from Temple University, a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a Master’s in Literature from University College London. Before Arcadia he taught at Temple and Drexel Universities and Community College of Philadelphia.

In general, what tend to be the strengths and weaknesses of young would-be writers? “Young writers tend to be extremely passionate about literature and very well read. It’s interesting that you might not call them well read in the more traditional academic sense; some of them aren’t terribly familiar with the canon the way it was taught to me. However, that doesn’t mean they’re deficient in their reading or that they don’t read; quite the opposite. In fact, I’ve gotten plenty of excellent recommendations of books from my students that I’d never heard of before and probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And, of course, I hope I pass some good recommendations on to them. In this way, we’ve really been educating each other, which is great.

“As far as weaknesses, I think there’s a lack of attention to the details of language. I don’t know where this comes from — high school curricula, college, social media? For whatever reason, students tend to be well attuned to thematic issues and less in-touch with the nuances of style and grammar. It’s not as if this can’t be overcome. It frequently is, and students are in school to take their writing to the highest level. So, this isn’t a criticism, just an observation, and one of the things we’re there to teach during the MFA program.”

Who are Isard’s own favorite writers, past and/or present? “Kurt Vonnegut, Iris Murdoch, Tom Spanbauer, John LeCarre, Ali Smith, Amy Hempel, John McWhorter and Donald McRae.”

For more information, visit https://joshuaisard.com or call the bookstore at 215-844-1870. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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