Essays Fiction Issue

Where Great Writers are Made

Assessing America’s top graduate writing programs

Though one student has complained of being “paralyzed” by the demands of the tip sheet, Epstein says he wants to “give students something to react to.” He might have a point. In speaking to many creative-writing graduates, I frequently found a kind of buyer’s remorse: They’d come to bemoan the lack of specific criticism or guidance. But this lack appears to have come about by design. In most cases, the professors and program directors characterize their programs as places where writers can find some sanctuary from judgment. Cunningham says that at Brooklyn, “unless you simply don’t give a shit, you’ll get your A.”

“As a writer, you will be harshly evaluated for the rest of your life, by agents, publishers, critics, and readers,” says Columbia’s Marcus. “In a writing program, you want to have your work grow without a lot of hostility to work around.”

Many faculties characterize themselves as mentors and supporters of a writer’s progress. New York University’s program director, Chuck Wachtel, says, “I see it as not so much ‘teaching students’ as ‘helping them learn.’”

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Faraway Voices" (June 14, 2004)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler talks about tapping into different points of view and writing "from the place where you dream."

But the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, who teaches at Florida State, differs. He and his colleague Mark Wine­gardner, the director of the program, have big, energetic personalities and have no problem saying that good teaching leads to good writing. “You can’t teach every piano player to be Thelonious Monk,” Winegardner says, “but no piano teacher seems tortured by the question of whether piano can be taught.”

Butler is devoted to something he loosely calls “method writing.” He believes that too many writers intellectualize their writing but never tap the deep emotions that create great art, and that the practice has led to an abundance of polished, bloodless prose. “Creative-writing students, who are typically trained almost exclusively in craft and technique, come to me knowing the second through the tenth things about being an artist,” Butler says. “But they don’t know the first thing about it.” In his workshop, students first struggle to find what Butler says is a primary element of a story: the yearning of the character. “Many don’t get it by the end of the workshop. Some will get it later. But some will never get it,” he says. “Not everyone is destined to be an artist.”

“Every program devotes 50 percent of its time to the workshop,” Tilghman says, “but the question may be what you’re doing with the other 50 percent.” Brooklyn, rather than requiring its students to take English classes, conducts its own “craft classes,” including one called “Time Management,” a semester- long look at how writers attend to the passage of time in their works.

Master classes are another way of connecting young writers with more-accomplished ones. For a day or a week, students can attend mini-classes or lectures given by a prominent writer. “Not every writer is a great workshop leader, or likes the informality typical of a workshop,” Tilghman says. “I suspect if Nabokov were alive, you wouldn’t find him and the students sitting around a table with someone saying, ‘Hey, Vlad, what do you think?’ He’d be doing a master class, and lecturing about writing.”

Surrounding events also have much to do with a program’s value. When I was at Iowa, guest speakers at the Workshop in a week’s time included the novelist Charles Baxter, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Minnesota, Kiran Desai, and the poet Richard Kenney. Many lesser programs would build an entire semester around such events.

Some programs have taken more-definable approaches in their efforts to distinguish themselves. The University of Oregon’s program, which the poet Garrett Hongo revived by using what a former director called a “dojo” model, requires stringent graduate exams. In Pittsburgh, Chatham University offers an M.F.A. that focuses on nature, the environment, and travel. Indiana University’s prestigious three-year M.F.A. program is one of the few to offer a course in teaching creative writing. Wine­gardner says Florida State’s program will now partner with the university’s film school. The University of Arkansas has a highly regarded program in literary translation to go along with its four-year M.F.A. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas emphasizes global literature, and it funds fellowships from a donation by Glenn Schaeffer, the 1977 Iowa M.F.A. grad turned casino mogul and literary benefactor (for whom the Iowa Writers’ Workshop library is named). And one of the most exciting programs has yet to commence: The Rutgers-Newark Real Lives, Real Stories M.F.A. program begins this fall and will be led by the novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. The 36 writers entering the program range in age from 24 to 60; one-third are students of color, many are raising families, and some have ongoing careers in other fields.

Some programs, such as Mississippi’s and Brooklyn’s, seem to form around a dynamic teacher—Barry Hannah and Cunningham, respectively. The Hopkins program, once known for being led by the encyclopedic John Barth, is still identifiable as a place hospitable to metafiction and linguistic innovation (although the faculty also includes National Book Award winner Alice McDermott, who writes in a realist vein). Surrounded as it is by doctors and scientists who often don’t see the point of made-up stories, the Hopkins program has something of a bunker mentality and a feeling that it must constantly prove its seriousness. It prizes both rigor and inventiveness of language, says program director Jean McGarry. “If workshops are only about self-expression, then you have literary bums floating in and out,” she says.

Brown University’s Literary Arts Program may be the most unusual of all, a program that is habitually innovative. At 75, Robert Coover teaches “Cavewriting” in the Literary Hyper­media sequence. “Brown has the reputation of trying to reinvent the alphabet,” says Columbia’s Marcus, a graduate of Brown’s program. “I’d like to think a good program works against consensus.”

Ph.D.s and Low-Residency M.F.A.s

The emergence of Ph.D. programs in creative writing seems at times confounding. Is a Ph.D. something different, or more of the same? With more universities demanding doctorates for all tenure-track teaching positions, says Florida State’s Butler, “the Ph.D. is the new M.F.A., and the M.F.A. is the new M.A.” With only about 100 tenure-track faculty jobs in creative writing becoming available each year, and more than 2,000 graduate students emerging with new degrees in creative writing, the Ph.D. in creative writing may become more common.

Programs vary, but they all attempt to subject students to the same level of rigor as other Ph.D. candidates. The one at the University of Southern California, like many others, has its students take the same comprehensive exams as other doctoral students in English.

Another fast-growing segment of the market is the “low-residency” M.F.A. program. First developed at Goddard College in Vermont, the low-residency model appeals to people with careers. Students typically attend intensive 7-to-10-day residency periods in winter and summer, which emphasize workshops and offer direct contact with faculty members. With such a schedule, programs such as Bennington’s and Warren Wilson’s can attract star faculty members who are based elsewhere. Bennington’s faculty includes Amy Hempel, who also teaches in the M.F.A. program at Sarah Lawrence; Jill McCorkle, now at North Carolina State; and Sven Birkerts, who teaches at Harvard. Warren Wilson’s complement includes the novelist Robert Boswell, who teaches at New Mexico State; and the poet Tony Hoagland, at the University of Houston.

The low-residency programs distinguish themselves by working with generally older students. Many emphasize close, directed readings of as many as 30 books per semester. At a recent Goddard commencement, one graduating fiction writer referred to the event as “the moment we’ve all been annotating for.”

As the low-residencies have multiplied from a core of four programs two decades ago to nearly 30 now, some have found innovative ways to build identity. A couple of the newest are at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, which is converting its three-decade-old residential M.F.A. program to a low- residency model, and at Hamline University, which is adding a low-residency M.F.A. focused on writing for children and young adults to its residential M.F.A. program. Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania, offers an M.A. in popular fiction, focusing on mystery, romance, sci-fi, and horror; the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. includes in its program young-adult and popular fiction and offers a residency in Ireland. Lesley University’s program includes a concentration in “writing for young people.” Antioch University at Los Angeles focuses on “literature and the pursuit of social justice.”

Not so long ago, graduate programs in creative writing were considered oddities; now it seems odd for an institution not to have such a program. And at least one consequence is that more good work is now in circulation than in the past. Canin says that when he began teaching at Iowa, “about half the stories I got were quite bad. Now hardly any are.” Highly regarded programs such as those at the universities of Montana, Alabama, and Indiana are seeing droves of graduates publish soon after finishing their M.F.A. or even while working on it. David Fenza, director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, says he sees a landscape changing in the way that television did when it shifted from three networks to more and smaller channels. “I think a lot of good work will be out there, much of it published by smaller presses.” The poet Chase Twichell, an Iowa grad who runs the nonprofit Ausable Press, says she gets about 600 submissions a year, “and the majority read like M.F.A. theses.”

But even in that formalization of the art through degrees and curriculum, the factors that make for a good program are an alchemy of the measurable and unmeasurable. And many still believe that the real writers, rather like the truth, will out, regardless of the pedigree of their program.

“Does any program really improve anybody, as much as simply identifying them?” asks Chang-rae Lee. “And, after identifying them, not ruining them?”

Edward J. Delaney, who has received a PEN-Winship Award in fiction and whose work has appeared in the anthologies The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories, teaches at Roger Williams University. His documentary film about the short-story writer Andre Dubus premieres in August.
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