Essays Fiction Issue

Where Great Writers are Made

Assessing America’s top graduate writing programs
Innovators and up-and-comers

It’s Writers’ Week at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the topic is idiom. In a packed ballroom, a nonfiction writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, takes students as well as locals through some thoughts about the craft; he’s one guest in a week in which the program turns its classes over to an array of distinguished writers. UNCW has gained notice by looking to reinvent the process, at least a little bit.

“We were pretty deliberate about being different,” says Philip Gerard of the school’s three-year M.F.A. program. “We were keen on not making the mistakes others have.” Gerard is decidedly tepid on regarding the traditional workshop as the ultimate pedagogical tool. “It can be a lot of people sitting around saying, ‘I liked this but I didn’t like that,’ and it can do more harm than good by creating a lot of defensiveness—that you learn from the workshop how to plug up all the holes. What we’re trying to do here is to say that crafting and polishing is wonderful, but something ragged and wild can be very exciting to the reader.”

Students in the UNCW program do other things. They write dialogue, and then see it performed by actors in a black-box theater on campus. They watch films to learn how to build scenes better. They attend “long-narrative workshops” to try to learn how to move stories beyond short-story length. “They need to figure out how to tell a longer story that doesn’t peter out,” Gerard says. “There’s a whole generation of writers that didn’t learn to do that.”

By and large, though, creative-writing programs seem to rest on traditional pedagogy: The workshop remains, for most, the hub of the wheel. The workshop format sets creative writing apart from most other disciplines in giving peers a strong voice in the development of each other’s work. Iowa’s éminence gris, James Alan McPherson, likens it to the midwestern concept of “neighboring,” of one crossing the road to help another with a crop.

Workshops are always useful, sometimes useful, or never useful, depending on whom one is asking. Many teachers of writing agree with Brooklyn College’s director, the Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, that in less-effective workshops, “you typically show up with work in hand, and people tell you what’s wrong with it.” Another hazard, he says, is the consensus nature of the workshop process, which can lead young writers to validate work that seems similar to other, generally acclaimed work; recall “all those years of fake Raymond Carver, followed by all those years of fake Denis Johnson.” Cunningham taught at Columbia before taking over the program at Brooklyn (where students rave about how generously he gives his time and attention to their work). “To heck with the idea of the ‘workshop kind of story,’” adds Virginia’s Tilghman. “There’s also a ‘workshop kind of workshop,’ with all these particular rules and guidelines. Really, we don’t have to sit around and have all these rules.”

While “workshop rules” traditionally require that each class member have a say in the discussion of a work, what does now seem out of fashion is the no-holds-barred approach of past decades when it came to voicing comments and criticism, which could be unnecessarily bruising. Ethan Canin, an Iowa faculty member and alum of its Writers’ Workshop, says he graduated from the program thinking, “I gave writing a try, but it didn’t work.” He noted that the students’ competitiveness could be “humiliating and degrading” but also sobering in useful ways. Canin, who graduated from Harvard Medical School after getting his M.F.A., later returned to Iowa to join the faculty after having published several acclaimed books. He teaches in a way that he says is derived from the process of scientific inquiry, beginning each workshop with a discussion of structure, rather than the “this didn’t work for me” tone that many workshops can take. He says he aims to be blunt when he must, without getting nasty: “About two-thirds of my students love me, and one-third hate me.”

“The ethos of the workshop has become much more polite,” according to the poet T. R. Hummer, who directs the three-year M.F.A. program at Arizona State University’s Piper Center—but still, “a good workshop leader can … probe a basic assumption until it begins to collapse.”

At Boston University, legions of students have carried on a love-hate relationship with the program’s plainspoken director, Leslie Epstein. “BU was a pretty competitive environment—a real and helpful spur to me,” says Peter Ho Davies, now teaching at Michigan, “though I’m not sure it was an ideal environment for all.”

Christopher Castellani has published two novels with Algonquin since finishing BU’s program. He says Epstein “used to read my work aloud in funny voices.” While Castellani says such treatment “can have short-term benefits for people who respond to it,” he confesses to feeling a perverse satisfaction when Epstein’s most recent book got banged around by one reviewer. Ha Jin, whom Epstein calls “the only true genius I’ve ever known,” has helped leaven the BU program.

Epstein is famously demanding, in a landscape that’s often blandly accepting. “Almost no one here gets an A,” says Epstein, who has high and clearly defined expectations for the program: “I don’t like super-literary fiction. I still want to be moved.”

Over the years, Epstein has condensed much of his teaching philosophy into what he calls his “tip sheet”—eight pages, double-­spaced, beginning with a disquisition on punctuation, with special distaste for the ellipsis: “those three dreamy dots.” The tip sheet is a compilation of the specific—“Clowns, midgets, mimes and people wearing masks should be abjured,” he writes. “Nor am I a fan of wind chimes.” He moves on to larger perceptions about the process: “One must have in mind between sixty-eight and seventy-three percent of the ending. Any more than that percentage and the writer will be in a strait-jacket … Any less and the project will meander and find itself in danger of sinking into the swamp of indecision.”

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