From muse to manuscript
Creative writing programs blossom as colleges cater to growing numbers of would-be O'Connors
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Ruddy-cheeked and only 21, an unknown writer at a small Southern college is publishing his first novella, "When You Fall." But it's not a major publisher picking up his prose: His own school is sending the manuscript off to be pressed into 2,000 copies.
Meanwhile, at Georgia College & State University in the rural town of Milledgeville, where author Flannery O'Connor grew up, a new master of fine arts degree in creative writing has become the talk of the campus as big-name authors wend their way into the Southern outback to tell their tales.
And at the University of Texas, Austin, author James Michener has set up the school's first creative writing MFA.
As book sales hit an all-time high, more students are in pursuit of the perfect paragraph at colleges across the United States. Schools are raising the stakes and even staking their reputations on grooming great writers Â- and fine-tuning their degrees to cater to the growing numbers of would-be Faulkners and O'Connors entering their gates.
But they're not doing it by beefing up traditional English classes. Instead, they're starting creative writing programs, which were once unknown at all but a few schools such as the University of Iowa and the University of New Hampshire. Today, more than 320 colleges and universities feature in-depth creative writing classes, and about 240 have established creative writing MFA programs, up from half a dozen such programs in the early 1980s.
Intense demand is driving the phenomenon. At the University of Iowa, for example, 600 aspiring fiction writers applied last year for 25 slots in the writing program. At Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., enrollment in creative writing classes has gone from a handful of students to more than 50 in fewer than five years; next year, the number of creative writing students there is expected to surpass the number of literature students.
People who sign up for these programs edit in peer review groups, write 30 pages a week in "novel classes," dig deep for personal essays, and listen to professional writers expound on "how to get published."
It's a distinct departure from classical English and there's been "blood in the hallways" over whether students should be discussing the intricacies of Charlotte Brontë and John Donne or eyeing one another's half-baked prose. But such canonical controversies haven't stemmed the creative flow of ink.
"A lot of English majors became disaffected with deconstructionism and various other scholarly fads that were in vogue," says author Frank Conroy, who heads the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "They said, 'I don't want to do that; I want to write.' And the thing has just ballooned. These days, we don't talk about theory very much, because nobody's particularly interested. We talk about books."
But not everyone is thrilled with the sudden rush to pen a masterpiece. Too much self-indulgent prose, they argue, is unwisely being treated as if it were important.
Mr. Conroy concedes that lots of writing being done on campus is unpalatable. "Let's say there are 250 workshops in which poetry is part of the deal," Conroy says. "Well, three-quarters of them are completely unproductive. There are a lot of people teaching [creative writing] who are not really qualified to teach."
Here at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., students are enrolling for the September launch of the new concentration in creative writing. But since 1995, the college has offered the Benjamin Wofford Prize to an outstanding student writer, publishing and distributing copies of his or her "thesis" as a publishing company would.
Increasingly, creative writing master's programs are also offering perks such as scholarships, publishing opportunities, or inside access to literary agents. And students like the approaches they find in class. "This is the one place at college where a professor will say to a student, 'Write what you know,' " says John Lane, an English professor at Wofford.
Of course, most of these college scribes "disappear" after graduation. For many, it's hard to explain to mom and dad that they'll be spending their lives pitching off-the-wall story ideas to men's magazines. Indeed, while writing gigs abound, many of these programs are just a break from the rigors of soil science or chaos theory.
"To me, writing is not a vocation, but an avocation," says Laurin Manning, a Wofford student who has just enrolled for the new program and is writing a novel about her time as a high-schooler at South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics. "It's a 'Bridget Jones's Diary' kind of thing," she says.
While many grads never intend to become professional writers, some writing "coaches" see a definite return to idealism by a student corps that recently seemed more intent on making millions than mastering meaning. One study found that about 15 percent of college students say that pursuing the writing craft is a worthwhile endeavor.
Many of the students who took classes with Susan Hubbard at the University of Central Florida are now driving taxis or working in restaurants. But they call to tell her about sending stories off to The Paris Review.
"It goes against what most university administrators preach, but you cannot equate career success with salary," says Ms. Hubbard, an associate professor of English at the Orlando school. "There are millions of Americans making plenty of money but who are not happy with themselves. But you can never take away from a writer the feeling of accomplishment that comes from having crafted a solid story, novel, or poem. The pride in creation, to me, is the real reason why students are gravitating toward this field."
And bemusing as it may be to weary working writers, the young fantasize that, with a Hemingway-esque flourish, writing will bring them eminence.
In a "fireside chat" with about 50 Wofford students last week, even New Hampshire poet Donald Hall acknowledged that "getting chicks" was a factor (albeit a minor one) in his desire, as a 14-year-old, to "grow up to become Edgar Allan Poe."
"The cynical side of me says that everybody wants to be famous, and writing is the way to do it," says Ryan Grover, the editor of The Journal, Wofford's literary rag.
In many English departments, literature professors have squared off against their "soft writing" colleagues.
"English departments, as you can imagine, can be very volatile places," says Mr. Lane, the Wofford professor.
Mr. Hall, a frequent visitor and mentor for writing students, says he understands why some professors worry about a decline in "classical education" and its deleterious effects on the quality of writing today.
He even goes so far as to say he doesn't read today's young poets. Why? Because they "seem to think that poetry began with 'The Wasteland,' " he says. "The best century for poetry is, in fact, the 17th century."
Even neoformalism, or the return of meter to poetry, is a misguided idea, he told the group, because the rules are constantly broken. One student wrote a line of a sonnet with too many syllables; his defense was that he needed the extra "foot" to say what he wanted. "That's not the answer Yeats would have given!" Hall thundered.
Aware of these concerns, many creative writing programs are incorporating more classical texts Â- mining the great books for, as Hubbard puts it, "craft-plagiarism."
Students on the creative writing track are often exposed to a broader, though less thematically ordered, range of great works than in the standard English curriculum, Mr. Grover says.
Those who come with a notion that writing is easy are quickly rebuffed. In Wofford's class on the novel, there are weekly deadlines. In the personal-essay class, students are more "coached" than "taught," as they strive to transform rough texts into publishable manuscripts.
"Typically, they don't fawn over each other's work. Typically, they tear each other to ribbons," Conroy says, referring to the critique process.
All this creative energy is indeed turning out some good writing, and renewing interest in literary clubs and small presses such as the nonprofit "Hub City" press here in Spartanburg.
Beyond publishing novels or poetry collections, students can use their skills of argument, exposition, and description in such arenas as healthcare and the courts. If nothing else, Hubbard says, writing is a way for just about anyone to achieve deeper self-understanding.
As last year's Wofford Prize winner, Josh Hudson, puts it in his story "We rest. We rise": "It was a small notebook, but big enough to pour my soul into."
The growth of creative writing classes, teachers say, comes from that impulse to shackle words together to make poetry out of life.
Of course, a budding writer doesn't necessarily need four years of school to figure out some secrets of success. One tip, courtesy of poet Hall: "Find a personal gesture and stick with it."