By Christina Collins
William Miller, known in George Mason’s English department as Bill, makes things happen. He has directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing since 1992, building it into the successful writing community it is today; he transformed the Fall for the Book Festival from an exciting idea into a living, breathing literary festival, now in its 17th year; he helped get the brand-new Stillhouse Press off the ground; he coordinates the New Leaves conference every spring; he runs the Visiting Writers Program; and he conceived the idea to create a BFA Program in Creative Writing, which launched in 2012 and is the only such program in the region.
If that’s not enough, he also teaches. This semester, he is teaching two courses in the BFA program: an advanced fiction writing workshop, and a capstone and thesis workshop.
What may be most impressive of all is that despite his busy schedule, Miller always has his door open. Literally and figuratively. “Because when I’m here at the office, I’m here,” he says. “People come by. They might have a problem or a question and say, ‘Do you have five minutes? Can we talk about this? I have an opportunity to go on a writing residency; have you got any funds to help me get there?’ You know, they just come stick their head in the door. I like being here with the open door for that reason.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Alumni Association has named Miller “Faculty Member of the Year” and will honor him at its Celebration of Distinction awards ceremony on April 23, 2015. The Alumni Association has been recognizing a distinguished Faculty Member of the Year since 1974, and nominations can be submitted by students, alumni, and the campus community. The faculty member is chosen based on his or her commitment to scholarship, teaching, and service to the Mason community. Adriane Ackley, Director of Alumni Operations, says that Miller’s selection was an easy decision, owing partly to a glowing recommendation letter from Robert Matz, Senior Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Miller’s colleagues also endorsed him for his leadership and impact on the English Department and the University in his role as director of the MFA Program and Fall for the Book. “Thanks to Bill Miller,” Ackley adds, “Mason now has the only BFA for creative writing in the region, providing a significant draw for Mason. Among his many accolades, the committee was also impressed that he is an alumnus of the MFA program himself.”
Indeed, in 1985, Miller was working as a journalist when he decided to quit his job and join the MFA program and work as a teaching assistant. “I loved it from the first day of teaching English 101,” he says. “And I have been here teaching every fall and spring since 1985. That’s a long time. I enjoy putting the courses together, picking the texts. That gets my creativity going, and then I like trying to get that creativity across to students, watching them get it. I love working with students.”
And as it turns out, students love working with him too. Third-year MFA student Emily Heiden contends, “I truly haven’t seen another professor in a position of leadership—as Bill is with the MFA program here—who’s quite so willing to work with students on meeting them where they are, like he has for me. He’s really flexible and understanding of students’ individual situations and circumstances, which shows a rare big-picture approach to education.”
It is indeed impressive what Miller has done for the MFA program, its students, and its alumni since he took it over in 1992. “Since I came to the program, it’s been really fun to try to build it up,” he says. “I’ve tried to build up our endowment base, so if a student has an opportunity to go someplace and has no money, we can say here, yes, we can support that. And when I took over you couldn’t do that. We did not have those resources, and to build that up has been great. It’s also been fun to watch people come through the program and develop as writers and go off. I think there are close to 300 books by Mason MFA alums out there. It’s terrific.”
This enthusiasm is exactly what those in the MFA community, including third-year student Merrill Sunderland, admire about Miller. “From my first day here,” Sunderland says, “Bill has expressed nothing but commitment to nourishing the MFA Program and creative writing in general. He’s been devoted to improving and building alumni relations so that we graduates have a support group of peers after we graduate, and, importantly, job prospects. Above all else, he seems most interested in forming a community of writers and readers and teachers. He’s doing work few others are doing.”
In addition to making the present moment as enriching as possible for MFA and BFA students, Miller always has an eye on the future and the best next steps for the creative writing program. “I think the publishing industry is changing,” he says, “so one of the other things I’m glad we did is start Stillhouse Press, and I’m hoping we can form stronger links between Stillhouseand our literary journals, Phoebe and So to Speak. Students need to think about what publishing is doing. Where’s it going? Culture is shifting. Where have all the bookstores gone? Well, there’s a resurgence of small bookstores, but why? Well, it’s because the readers and writers like to have events that bring them together and form community. That’s something we can build on. That’s a little footing on which we can erect a building. The biggest building in the world starts with little footings. So I like being part of that. I like trying to facilitate that and make things happen. That’s what I do. I facilitate things.”
So what is the MFA’s great facilitator up to at the moment? “Right now I’m reading applications for the MFA program in fiction,” Miller says. “I read all the fiction submissions every year and help recruit the others in poetry and nonfiction.” That’s not exactly a quick task; the MFA program receives more than 300 applications each year and admits only 38 students: 15 each in fiction and poetry, and up to 8 in nonfiction. Miller plays a pivotal role in the admissions process and in finding the next rising stars to join the MFA community—a process he finds truly rewarding.
One fun fact that many people may not know about the Miller is that he is the first of three generations to have gone or be going through George Mason. His son and daughter-in-law met there, and their eldest child, Miller’s grandson, is now a freshman in the BFA program. “So I want to invite all three generations to be represented at the Alumni Association’s award ceremony, not just myself,” he says.
Despite all his accomplishments, Miller is as modest as they come. When asked how he reacted when he heard he had received the Faculty Member of the Year award, he chuckled and said, “My first reaction was to ask how they had let the standards sink so low that I was qualified.” Once he reads this article, he will hopefully have no choice but to realize how deserving he is of this award. Congratulations, Bill, and thank you for all that you do.
To learn more about the many projects William Miller has helped facilitate, visit the Creative Writing program website.