Keeping Mason (and Fairfax) Creative

Miller cultivates the art of the written word for Mason’s many communities.

by Anne Reynolds

Keeping Mason (and Fairfax) Creative
Miller receives the 2016 (?) Jack Wood Award for Town Gown Relations from Jack Wood himself, the former mayor of the then-Town of Fairfax, who was a driving force for arranging a campus to be built adjacent to the town.

There is a little snag every spring during the College of Humanities and Social Sciences degree celebration ceremony.

At that event, a member of the dean’s office staff is charged with standing at the edge of the stage, organizing the happy graduates about to cross it. As the students advance, this person quickly directs them to one of two readers who will announce each graduate’s name as he or she marches across. Because the college celebrates about 2,000 graduates at each ceremony, this timing is critical.

The snag comes when William Miller, MFA ’87, is one of the readers. If a soon-to-be graduate realizes that Miller’s voice might be the one announcing their name, they are often reluctant to be directed to the other reader. Every year, the dean’s office must gently—but quickly—keep the flow moving nevertheless. This is the kind of effect that Bill Miller has on his students.

For 35 years, Miller has been part of the creative life of George Mason University. Three years after the inception of Mason’s Creative Writing Program in 1980, he enrolled, first part-time, then as a full-time student. Following his graduation in 1987 and some other duties at Mason, he became the program director in 1992. Over the course of his 26 years in this role, he has worked to ensure that the program prepares its students for a place in the world of the written word.

The program has expanded to meet demands. In the 1990s, it added a nonfiction track, to expand beyond poetry and fiction, and in 2012, the program began offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing.

“What we wanted to do was to offer at the undergrad level the kind of concentrated quality we were offering at the grad level,” says Miller. “As we’ve brought in faculty— younger, very energetic writers who are teaching in the program—we developed the ability to do more with them at the undergrad level.” Since its inception, the program has expanded to include Living Learning Communities, special programs, more graduate-level faculty working with undergraduate writers. “It’s not so much to make a pipeline to the grad program, but more for the benefit of the undergrad writers themselves,” he says.

He notes that this is in direct response to the market for writing. “It’s a very changing world in terms of publications, writing work, and what work writers do,” he says. “There’s kind of a gap now when you finish your undergrad and when you go to grad school as a writer. Lots of times students want to pay some of their debts down—unfortunately, that’s a fact of life—and they want to get some life experience before they come back. So, we thought a vocationally oriented undergrad writing degree would do a lot more for them.”

The program also has expanded in terms of the voices it includes. As faculty members have retired or left Mason, explained Miller, the program has sought to increase diversity among the faculty, a specific response to a call from University Professor and Provost Emeritus Peter Stearns to do so. Hires have included Tania James, who is from India; Courtney Brkic, originally from Croatia; Helon Habila Ngalabak, who is Nigerian.

Thanks to the generosity of Rosalind Gann, a creative writing MFA student and adjunct faculty member in the Department of English, the graduate program is similarly diversifying. Miller speaks of Gann’s recognition that the makeup of her graduate peers did not reflect the range of cultures among Mason’s undergraduate population. In response, she set up the Robert Raymond Scholarship Fund, named in honor of her late father, which is dedicated to including students in the graduate Creative Writing Program whose attendance will help diversify its student population. “The thing is, it calls attention to it,” Miller says. “We really want people with various backgrounds to come and be part of us and part of the community.”

In summer 2018, Miller will retire from Mason and hand off the responsibilities of the program to Gregg Wilhelm, who has lately been serving as the director of marketing and enrollment development for the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Wilhelm is a writer with an active career in publishing and has experience getting young writers published through working with small presses. He was also instrumental in starting CityLit Festival in Baltimore. “He’s perfect,” Miller says. “If I were to go out and look for somebody myself, he’d be the guy I’d pick. And, of course, I wasn’t part of the process at all. A three-member search committee found him and brought him in.”

Confident in the future direction of the Creative Writing Program, Miller plans to travel, but not so far that he won’t be able to return to Mason’s annual Fall for the Book, celebrating its 20th anniversary in fall 2018. He’s been a vital part of each year’s event, serving as executive director since 2003, and was instrumental in the festival from its start in 1999. He was charged by city and university leadership in 1998 to started a yearly literary festival similar to Charlottesville’s Virginia Festival for the Book. From that first two-and-a-half-day festival, Fall for the Book has put Fairfax on the literary map.

“What I find is, a lot of people love the fact that it happens. It’s a bit like knowing that a classic art museum is right there, and you could go anytime you wanted to,” he says.

Miller particularly appreciates the impact of the festival on its youngest visitors. In 2017, Fall for the Book partnered with the City of Fairfax and the Fall Festival, adding family activities on the bottom floor of Old Town Hall. It was a great addition to the event that Miller thinks families enjoyed.

“They’ll be back,” he says of those who participated. “Now they’ve watched that look on their kid’s face, they saw the value of the kid hearing a story or being able to hold a book and say, ‘I want that!’” Miller leaves Fall for the Book in the hands of Kara Oakleaf, who has worked with him the last several years and becomes its director.

Miller’s leadership of the festival led to his 2016 receipt of the Jack Wood Award for Town and Gown Relations, which honors those who foster relationships between the university and the surrounding community. The previous year, Miller was named Mason’s Faculty Member of the Year by the university’s Alumni Association, an honor he shared with his family, which includes a son who is an alumnus and a grandson who is a current BFA student graduating in May. “If you look at it, we represent the shift in Mason, and the perception of Mason,” he says.

As he wraps his distinguished tenure with Mason, Miller jokes that, just as his grandson is about to graduate, “I’m going to graduate, too, and leave.”

But it is the college’s hope that he won’t leave before reading one more group of graduates across the EagleBank Arena stage.