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Steve Kistulentz

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Nicholas Finch with his partner, Ann Marie, their 3-year-old son, Wallace, and their rescue dog.

It’s hard to cram a graduate degree program, a full-time teaching job, and caring for a little one into one schedule, but Nicholas Finch ’20 managed to do it. And along the way, he nurtured his love of writing.

The 26-year-old, originally from Whitchurch, England, credits the flexibility of Saint Leo’s low-residency creative writing program to making his educational goals possible. Finch, who enjoys a career as a teacher, lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his partner, Ann Marie, 3-year-old son, Wallace, and a rescue dog.

Educational Journey

Finch began his higher education career at the University of Tampa (FL) where he majored in English and writing. It was a former professor who convinced him to enroll with Saint Leo University.

“I had Dr. Steve Kistulentz there (UT) and volunteered in the residency program,” Finch said.

While he was accepted into a few full-residency creative writing graduate programs and even started in one of them, he just didn’t feel comfortable.

Kistulentz became director of Saint Leo’s new low-residency Master of Arts in creative writing program in 2016. “I was following Dr. Kistulentz on Facebook and knew about Saint Leo starting its new graduate degree program,” Finch said. “He encouraged me to apply.”

Finch joined Saint Leo University in the summer of 2018, enrolling in the university’s creative writing graduate degree program, choosing the fiction track.

“With the full-residency programs, you pretty much can’t work anywhere else and have to be totally committed and invested in them,” Finch said. “I also wanted to start a family, and it just wouldn’t have been practical for me to be tied down with a program like that.”

The Online Format of this Creative Writing Degree Program

At first, Finch had some trepidation about enrolling in a low-residency degree program in which the coursework is primarily conducted online.

“Before starting this program, I had never taken an online course in my life,” Finch said. “I admit I was a little hesitant because I’m not the most tech-savvy person, and the idea of an online degree program was fairly intimidating to me.”

But thanks to the availability of his professors and the summer residency aspect which enabled him to meet his instructors and classmates in person at University Campus, his concerns were quickly alleviated.

“I’d say I actually felt closer to my professors in this program than I did in traditional classroom-based programs I’ve been in,” Finch said.

The Summer Residency

Each summer, students in this program gather at University Campus for one week. During this event, several accomplished authors are on hand to read from their works and offer advice to students on their respective writing projects.

“Some of the most exciting aspects of this program included listening to these writers read from their work and the craft workshops they do,” Finch said. Hearing their stories about their life experiences as writers has been invaluable.”

Getting to meet Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson was a true thrill for Finch. “I actually shared a cheeseburger with him, which was a very interesting and unexpected experience,” Finch said. “I had led a book club on one of his books when I used to work at a bookstore.”

Connecting with his fellow students was also a big perk.

“It’s surprising how well you get to know the other students in just a week during the residency and through our online discussions,” Finch said. “You really learn so much from your classmates.”

Students must complete a book thesis project in their coursework. For Finch, he started out with a short story that he has expanded into a much longer project. The story is about two brothers in which one is left to care for the other brother’s child and the drama that ensues from this situation. It is loosely based on his personal experiences.

Career Highlights

Finch currently teaches ninth grade English and print and digital media at Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL. And when not in the classroom, his other job is his writing career. Already, Finch has had about 30 of his works—short stories and poetry—published in small literary and online journals.

Some of these print publications have included Avis MagFlash: The International Short-Short Story MagazineThe Level Crossing, and Haiku Journal.

Finch said there are three primary ways in which he comes up with the ideas for his creative writing.

“When something happens that intrigues or confuses me and I don’t have words for it, I immediately want to write about it and find the language to express it,” Finch said. “Also, any time someone tells me a story and I retell it and people take the time to sit down and listen, then I want to share it with more people in writing. Finally, I like thinking about memories I have from my own life and preserving them in writing.”

Despite his achievements as a young writer, he knows he can always get better at his craft.

“I want to keep getting better at it,” Finch said. “With creative writing, I want to craft better sentences, more nuanced characters, and find the best ways to perfect memories I already have in my mind.”

He has some advice for anyone who wants to grow as a writer:

“No matter what stage you’re at, don’t be afraid to take risks,” Finch said. “Don’t be afraid to write a story that is solely yours because people out there just might be interested in reading it. When you start writing stories with a specific audience in mind, it can hold you back from expressing yourself as far as who you are as an individual. Also, don’t be dissuaded by criticism because it’s only going to make you a better writer in the end.”


Learn More

Read one of Nicholas Finch’s works entitled, “What They Give Children” and learn more about the Master of Arts degree in creative writing.

The program emerged from community outreach done by the late Kurt Van Wilt, a longtime professor of English at Saint Leo University Campus. Dr. Wilt recognized the need for programs that supported local writers throughout Pasco County and the greater Tampa Bay area. The original program design was done by Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing, who also included a unique focus for war literature. Dr. Steve Kistulentz was hired in 2015 to be the program’s founding director and administrator and fulfill Dr. Wilt’s vision.

Inspiring-Talent-2The first cohort began in July 2016 with a weeklong inaugural residency held at University Campus. Students come to university campus for an intensive week of study each summer, then return home to do the bulk of their work. The low-residency degree requires 36 graduate credit hours taken over the course of four semesters and two summer residencies; at the third and final residency, students submit a master’s thesis, a book-length collection of creative work in their chosen genre of study. Saint Leo offers tracks of study in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

“Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s a deeply imagined one, or a family story that they would like to preserve for children and grandchildren. The low-residency model gives students the tools to tell those stories without neglecting their existing commitments to family, work, and community,” said Dr. Kistulentz.

One of the benefits of the program is the diversity of its students, an observation made by Dawn Sandoe-Henshaw, a member of the inaugural cohort, discussing a student population that ranges from recent college graduates to students well into retirement age. “We draw students from all walks of life, and from all areas of the country,” Dr. Kistulentz agreed.

Creative writing_upcoming guest author for 2018 Adam Johnson (1)The weeklong summer residencies also bring luminaries in the creative fields to University Campus for intimate workshops and discussions. The July 2018 roster of visiting writers is headed by award-winning author Adam Johnson (at right), whose book Fortune Smiles won the 2015 National Book Award; his 2012 novel The Orphan Master’s Son, a fictional account of the personal and political in North Korea, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Poet and memoirist Beth Ann Fennelly, poet Carmen Gimenez Smith, and novelist Tom Franklin also will be featured visitors.

The program design jointly examines the relationship between the knowledge of literature and its creation. Students pursue two courses each summer, one doing the intensive reading of a graduate program in literature while another focuses on the student’s own creative work in fiction, poetry, or narrative nonfiction.

Perhaps the most unique quality of the master’s program is its optional track of study in war literature, and writing by and for veterans of the armed services. The program builds on the long-standing relationship between Saint Leo and the armed services; nearly one-fifth of the students currently enrolled in the creative writing program are veterans or remain on active duty. Students learn the fundamentals of writing alongside strategies for putting their writing skills to work, regardless of their career paths. Current students in the program include Army officers, career Marines, and recently separated veterans of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Writing about their experience is not the only factor that drives those students with previous military service. Said student Jennifer Holt, who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, “I want to spend my time on something that enriches my life and allows me to explore my creative side.” Student Jennifer Harman, a Navy veteran, agreed: “Regardless of industry, good writing is a skill that not everyone possesses, so I could use my master’s in whatever path I took.”

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Faculty poet Dr. Anne Barngrover reading.


Focus on Faculty 

The year 2018 will see not only the graduation of the master’s program’s inaugural cohort, but also the release of several new books by creative writing program faculty.

Creative-Writing-photo_book-cover-1Program director Steve Kistulentz, associate professor of English and creative writing, is the author of two previous books of poetry, but this spring releases his debut novel Panorama, published in March by Little, Brown & Company. Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, calls Panorama “a remarkable literary work, rare in its ability to be both thematically complex and a compelling read. Steve Kistulentz remarkably transforms our TV culture’s participatory tragedy into a deep meditation on human connectedness. This is a stunning debut by an important new writer.”
Creative writing book cover 2Poet Anne Barngrover joined the Saint Leo faculty in 2017 and will also release a new book this spring, the poetry collection Brazen Creature, an editor’s choice selection in the University of Akron Press Series in Poetry. Erin Belieu, an award-winning poet and director of the graduate creative writing program at Florida State University, called Brazen Creature, “a terrific collection by a strong, smart, feminist voice.”
bookcoverFiction writer Patrick Crerand will have his debut collection of stories, The Paper Life They Lead, published in 2018 by Arc Pair Press. The book will collect some of Crerand’s noteworthy stories, which have previously appeared in such magazines as McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, New Orleans Review, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, and Cimarron Review.

In addition, nonfiction writer Brooke King ’12 will have her memoir Full Battle Rattle published by the Potomac Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. King has written about her experiences in combat for a number of magazines, including The Atlantic and War, Literature and the Arts.

Header photo: (Left to right) Steve Kistulentz, Anne Barngrover, Brooke King ’12, Gianna Russo, and Patrick Crerand. Russo, a published poet who teaches at the undergraduate level, designed the graduate program.