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Masterful writing, coming to an island near you

The dream is this: Buy a $1.35 million bed and breakfast, hire several writing professors and open a master of fine arts creative writing program on South Whidbey.

After creating and building the 6-year-old Whidbey Island Writers Conference into one of the premier events on the Northwest literary calendar, Celeste Mergens is living her latest dream. From her home and office in Freeland and with the help of some generous friends, Mergens is on the verge of starting an MFA program for creative writers within view of Maxwelton Beach.

As the executive director of the writers conference, Mergens knows what it is to take on something that can seem like a hard sell, and succeed. That's how it worked with the conference, she said. And, so far, she's getting the same result as she pushes to open the Writers Institute of the Northwest.

"It never occurred to me to start small," she said. "It is the next step of our organization."

Perhaps only six months away from being certified as a masters program by Washington's Higher Education Coordinating Board and with $130,000 in donations in the bank to cover the institute's first year of operation, the "low occupancy" program is on its way to a possible opening in Sept. 2005. When the program opens its doors, it will function separate of any university or college. Designed to be a two-year course of study done primarily over the Internet and through the mail, the institute's MFA will also require students to spend seven to 10 days during that time on Whidbey Island.

At the moment, the institute has at least two faculty members signed on -- Iowa poet laureate Marvin Bell, and suspense novelist Elizabeth George. It also has a potential physical location, according to Mergens; the institute is raising money to purchase a large bed and breakfast on French Road for $1.35 million. Mergens said she and others involved with the institute are also interested in purchasing property adjacent to the bed and breakfast to connect the institute with the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure.

Since the institute building -- whether it is on French Road or elsewhere -- will not be housing writing students year round, Mergens said it will be available for retreats, writers in residence and South Whidbey Schools. The Whidbey Island Writers Association, which is the non-profit that runs the writers conference and that will operate the institute, will have its offices in the institute building.

Mergens said the institute's rush into existence has been hastened by South Whidbey resident and college professor Wayne Ude, who designed MFA creative writing programs for Colorado State University in Virginia. He did the same for South Whidbey writers institute.

Mergens said the institute will draw students, but don't take her word for it. Patricia Harrington, a writer who has attended the Whidbey Island Writers Conference and who already has a masters degree in education, said the location of the institute is attractive, as is the program itself.

"The idea of the short-term residencies with qualified professors and instructors was enticing," Harrington wrote in an email responding to questions Tuesday. "I work for a living and can't spend long periods away from home, but I could manage the length of the residencies."

At the moment, Mergens and the institute are still fundraising. But, once the institute has purchased property and is operating, Mergens said it will no longer need to solicit donors. Students attending the MFA program will foot the bill for operating expenses with an expected annual tuition of $11,000. The institute will be able to accommodate about 20 students at a time.

The masters of fine arts degree the institute will offer will be a "terminal" degree in creative writing; it will be the most advanced degree possible in the discipline. Mergens said she wants the institute to attract accomplished and learning poets, short story writers, novelists and dramatic writers. Those writers, who will be at the institute as students, will likely also serve as teachers, sharing their talent with South Whidbey school children, Mergens said.

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