Creative Writing Programs Expand at SCS
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit in front of a typewriter and open up a vein.” Such was the famous advice of Red Smith, the Shakespeare of sportswriters.
Fortunately, there is a less violent way to become a compelling writer: Enroll in a writing class at Northwestern.
Your timing could not be better. SCS has long been home to writing workshops, but in recent years opportunities for writers have expanded to include an undergraduate English major in writing, a master of arts in creative writing (MCW) program, and the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference. Joining these programs this fall will be a new master of fine arts (MFA) degree program in creative writing.
As these opportunities have grown, so have student success stories. SCS graduates are publishing novels, poems, and nonfiction, finding work as writers, and teaching others to become better writers. Writing has come of age at SCS.
In the beginning
Undergraduate writing workshops at SCS go back at least 25 years, says Peter Kaye, assistant dean of undergraduate and credit professional programs. Leading many of those classes has been Fred Shafer (see accompanying profile). “Fred is an unsung hero of the program,” says Kaye. “He has quite a track record: A number of his students have published their work and been accepted into advanced programs.” One of Shafer’s former students is writer Lisa Stolley, who went on to earn a PhD in English and fiction writing and now teaches at SCS.
“It is almost a misnomer to call these undergraduate classes,” Kaye says of Shafer’s classes on Advanced Reading and Writing Fiction. “Many of the students have completed college degrees and want to demonstrate their commitment to writing or segue into the master’s program.” But beginning writers need not be intimidated. “We can help them find a course that’s an appropriate starting point,” says Kaye.
At the undergraduate level SCS students will find plenty of choices, from à la carte classes to professional development programs with certificates in writing creative nonfiction, fiction, or poetry to the bachelor’s degree program with an English major in writing.
Taking writing to the next level
The establishment of the MCW program in 2003 heightened Northwestern’s growing reputation for writing, with the Center for the Writing Arts as its foundation. High-profile writers like MacArthur “genius” grant winners Aleksandar Hemon and Stuart Dybek have joined an already impressive roster of nationally known writers who teach at Northwestern, including John Keene, Mary Kinzie, Brian Bouldrey, and MCW codirectors Reginald Gibbons and S. L. Wisenberg. “We look for excellent writers who are also excellent teachers,” says Gibbons.
A success from the start, the MCW program has received an enthusiastic response from Chicago-area writers who want to improve their writing, increase their chances of getting published, and earn a credential for professional advancement. The program is still young, but MCW students have begun to achieve all of these goals and more.
Matt Wood, who won the MCW’s Distinguished Thesis Award last year, turns out cultural reviews and essays on sports and other topics with catchy titles like “How the Father Fixed the Motherboard” and “First Base as a Last Resort,” which won him a coveted spot in an issue of Creative Nonfiction. “Being in the program gave me the encouragement to write,” says Wood. “Getting that constant feedback and instruction kept me going and made me realize I could do it.”
Kylie Gordon says writing workshops taught her to trust “unconscious, psychological streams of thought. Reg [Gibbons] speaks about this — about treating the mind as a long corridor with lots of doorways. Creating the poem requires traveling down this hallway, opening all the doors, recording what you see inside them.” The program has opened other doors for Gordon, who landed an editorial internship at the Poetry Foundation’s online journal after seeing one of Wisenberg’s frequent job postings.
“Being in the program gave me the encouragement to write. Getting that constant feedback and instruction kept me going….”
Several students and alumni are teaching as well as writing. Sonya Arko, a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in poetry in 2007, is leading a poetry workshop at Harper College this spring. Heather Dewar, who has published fiction in ZinkZine and essays, reviews, and articles in Chicago-area magazines and newspapers, teaches writing at Columbia College and literature at the Newberry Library. “My experience in the program was instrumental in getting both of these jobs,” says Dewar. “Sandi Wisenberg’s course on teaching writing gave me the tools to find work in the field.” Essayist Cory Fosco has taught creative nonfiction at Harper College and cites what he learned at the MCW: “The dedication that the instructors have in this program is remarkable. Each has helped me become a better writer, editor, and teacher.”
Year-round opportunities for writers
The next step up for writing at Northwestern came in July 2005 with the first summer conference for writers. “The conference attracted attention from the start,” says Stephanie Teterycz, director of Summer Session and special programs, who administers the program. “There was nothing like it in Chicago.” It has since become an annual event, with writers enrolling from as far away as England. “Writers across the country look forward to it,” says Teterycz.
The conference takes place over an extended weekend and allows participants to choose from a variety of seminars and workshops designed to help writers at all levels improve their writing or generate new writing. In addition to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, topics include writing for children, screenwriting, and memoir, with master classes for advanced writers. Past conferences have featured everything from a keynote address by journalist Alex Kotlowitz to a seminar titled “Insta-React with Literary Magazine Editors” led by Other Voices editor Gina Frangello and novelist Cris Mazza.
One more piece
With all these writing programs in place, why add one more? Because, says Gibbons, the MFA, considered the terminal degree for writers, will give graduates the ultimate credential, enabling those who also go on to publish with distinction to teach in the upper levels of academia. Furthermore, Northwestern’s MFA program will have distinct advantages over MFA programs at other schools.
“There are two kinds of MFA writing programs in the United States,” says Gibbons, “and ours will combine the best features of both.” Residential programs typically require two or three years of full-time study, an expensive proposition for students who must relocate and give up jobs. Low-residency programs allow students to keep their jobs and travel to a campus at regular intervals to meet with faculty and other students, but in between sessions that community of writers disappears.
“Northwestern’s MFA will be like a low-residency program in the city,” says Gibbons. “You’ll be able to keep your job and your life. But, as in a residential program, you’ll be part of a community of writers that’s always here, with year-round faculty, ongoing courses, and writing groups.”
Both the MFA and MCW programs confer master’s degrees and draw on the same faculty. But the MFA will require more course work — 18 courses versus 10 for the MCW — as well interdisciplinary project seminars and more training in teaching.
With all these options at Northwestern, writers have no excuse: sit down in front of a typewriter — or computer — and open up an application.