UNO Professor builds creative writing program for over 40 years
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 19:09
It’s the hidden gem nestled in the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at UNO. The Department of the Writer’s Workshop is a multi-faceted program that helps sculpt students who are interested in majoring or minoring in creative writing into established talented graduates.
The Writer’s Workshop was the first undergraduate program in the country to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in writing, but few students know of the program and its opportunities. Students may choose an emphasis in fiction, poetry or nonfiction when pursuing a degree in creative writing. But it hasn’t always been this way.
The program started with one man, Richard Duggin. Before Duggin became a leader in developing a creative writing program at UNO, he spent his days in bed. At six and eight years old Duggin suffered from severe bouts of Rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a disease that usually occurs after a strep throat infection. Duggin was forced to spend months in bed due to the disease so his parents purchased him a portable typewriter to help keep him occupied.
“I was going to be a journalist like Ernie Pyle,” Duggin said. “He was a war correspondent during World War II. He would tell stories about the troops and what they were doing during combat and report it back to American newspapers. So I started by writing accounts of my neighborhood, well I had no idea what was actually going on in my neighborhood because I was in bed so I just invented stuff up.”
Duggin would then type his invented accounts into columns and make his newspaper. He first knew he wanted to become a writer at age eight, he said.
“I had also always been read to as a child, I was very much taken with the sound of the idea of voice and storytelling because I had it told to me by my mother who read to us faithfully every night so I just got a love for the language,” Duggin said.
Duggin spent his undergraduate years at the University of New Hampshire where he graduated with a degree in English Literature with an emphasis in creative writing. He then attended the University of Iowa for the Writer’s Workshop program and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 1963.
After he left Iowa in 1963, he spent a few years in New York at a teaching job at a two-year college.
“I wasn’t particularily happy there because there was no major in writing or English,” Duggin said. “But I had a friend that I met at University of Iowa who came on here to Omaha in the art department as a faculty member and he called me one night and asked how I was doing and I said ‘I’m kind of miserable out here’ and he said there’s an opening with the English department here, why don’t you apply for it?”
So he did and they hired him in the English Department. He started by teaching freshman composition classes, one literature course and a narrative writing course that he eventually turned into a fiction-writing course. The class was so popular he spent the next 10 years trying to convince the English Department that there was enough interest to start a creative writing program.
“As an undergrad I was only able to take three classes and I felt that I could have learned a hell of a lot more, and my experience at Iowa was so intense and students were coming from all over the country for that experience," Duggin said. "So if I had an opportunity ever to do something in creative writing in teaching it, I would try to build a program that gave that intense experience to undergrads..
But the chair at the time told Duggin there wasn’t enough funds or resources for such a program. Luckily for Duggin, there was a movement going on in the College of Arts and Sciences where Duggin resided. The Theatre Department, which was part of the Speech Department, and the Music and Art Departments wanted to form a College of Fine Arts within the College of Arts and Sciences because the creative departments felt funds weren’t being allocated fairly, Duggin said.
These creative departments approached Duggin and asked him to help them write a perspective to present to the dean. He agreed only if they included creative writing as an art form under the new school. Eventually it was approved.
“The English Department said farewell to me and gave me $300 out of their budget for an operating budget for this new program we were starting,” Duggin said. “I went immediately looking for a place to set up and I found an old carriage house behind this big mansion that sat right in between where the library is and the science building.”
The first official group of creative writers enrolled in the UNO’s Community Writers Workshop program in 1963.
“It was a struggle to build the program,” Duggin said. “We needed faculty and only had a $300 budget to work with so we started by building night courses. People from the community started coming in to take writing courses, and among our first graduates were people who were not undergrads but already had a degree and were out there and coming back to get this program.”