Gift frees MFA students to write during the summer

Because of Rona and David Picket ’84, MFA student and poet Liza Flum wrote an entire manuscript this summer. Fellow student and novelist Mary-Margaret Stevens started and finished a novel.

They had a summer free of bartending, waiting tables or other work thanks to the Pickets, whose gifts to the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of English and its creative writing program fund summer writing fellowships for MFA students and other initiatives in the department.

“Having the time and headspace to be totally obsessed with your project is such an amazing gift,” said Emily Oliver, another MFA student and poet. “Every summer you have to have a job. And during the year, as a teacher, you have to be dedicated to your teaching job, so writing comes when that job is done.”

The Pickets were honored Sept. 11 when the college renamed the English department offices in honor of the Picket family.

“David and Rona care deeply about writing, literature, liberal arts education and the study of the humanities,” said Gretchen Ritter, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We in the college are really proud to have the Picket name outside the English department offices and all that represents.”

David Picket, an English major at Cornell, is president of Gotham Organization and chief executive officer of Gotham Developers, a real estate development company that also owns a unionized construction company.

“I think without the humanities, without books and performances and other cultural experiences in the intellectual community … well, these are the things that make life worth living,” David Picket said. “I hope Cornell will continue to produce great writers and that this summer program gives them the time to work on their craft.”

Oliver said having an entire summer to work solely on a project is unheard of for most writers. She said it took a couple of weeks for her to find her discipline and realize she actually had all day to work on her writing.

“Then I completely dove in,” she said. “And even when I wasn’t writing, my brain was on my project all day. When I was folding my laundry, I was thinking, ‘This is how I should construct that passage’ or ‘This is how I should map that story.’”

Student Ling Ma finished two-thirds of her novel, “Chinese Bible,” during the summer.

“Being a dedicated writer is like being an athlete,” Ma said. “You’re trained to sprint, but you’re also trained to run long distances. Over the summer I really trained to run a marathon.”

An excerpt of  “Chinese Bible” was awarded the Graywolf SLS Prize this year.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts & Sciences.

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