Creative Writing Programs: Building Audiences and Keeping the Wolf from the Door
Sep 12, 2009
How does one learn to write? By writing, of course. But is learning to write best done that on one's own? Or is it best nurtured in a group, with a mentor, with the support of like-minded souls?
Louis Menand has a long essay on academic creative writing programs in the June 8 New Yorker which explores their signal success, and their fabulous expansion. It’s worth reading for anyone who aspires to write or who wonders how good writing is accomplished. If I understand correctly, Menand’s conclusion is that some programs have encouraged some marvelous writers:
“When Vonnegut was at Iowa, he taught a class that included John Casey, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus, and John Irving. Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”), and Tillie Olsen were all in a creative-writing workshop at Stanford at the same time. Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, and Richard Ford (a student of Doctorow, before Doctorow went to N.Y.U.) are products of the program at the University of California at Irvine. Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Tama Janowitz, and Mona Simpson all went to Columbia.”
But most of the students in these programs may never be published, and certainly many of their teachers are not well-known even to avid readers, Menand notes. One of the things the programs do, however, is to encourage the passion for writing and reading, and Menand contends that may be as important an accomplishment as turning out literary stars.
I’d add that providing an income for writers is another accomplishment of the programs that should not be underestimated. Menand says that in 1975 there were 15 creative writing programs on the master’s level in the US, but that today there are 153. I don’t have similar figures for Canada, but factor in the number of creative writing classes offered at various levels taught by writers, and you get a nice supplement to the nearly non-existent income most famous writers get from their writing. Teaching a creative writing class or two a year often makes the difference between poverty and a more-or-less middle class life.
Not that I’ve ever taught. I’ve used that other writerly strategy: team up with somebody who has a good day job! It's one or the other for those of us who haven't joined the rich and famous, it seems.
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About the reviewer
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her latest non-fiction boo, Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, has just been published by Véhicule Press. … more
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Creative Writing programs are typically available to writers from the high school level all the way through graduate school. Traditionally these programs are associated with the English departments in the respective schools, but this notion has been challenged in recent time as more creative writing programs have spun off into their own department. Most Creative Writing degrees for undergraduates in college are Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees (BFA). Some continue to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, the terminal degree in the field. At one time rare, PhD. programs are becoming more prevalent in the field, as more writers attempt to bridge the gap between academic study and artistic pursuit.
Creative writers typically decide an emphasis in either fiction or poetry, and they usually start with short stories or simple poems. They then make a schedule based on this emphasis including literature classes, education classes and workshop classes to strengthen their skills and techniques. Though they have their own programs of study in the fields of film and theatre, screenwriting and playwriting have become more popular in creative writing programs, as creative writing programs attempt to work more closely with film and theatre programs as well as English programs. Creative writing students are encouraged to get involved in extracurricular writing-based activities, such as publishing clubs, school-based literary magazines or newspapers, writing contests, writing ...