Not long ago a friend asked me for advice for her son, who’s about to graduate from high school and is considering colleges. He’s wondering how to choose the best undergraduate program for an aspiring young writer. My initial impulse was to suggest that my friend have her son committed for inpatient treatment until he decides that he’d rather study engineering or business or one of the sciences.
But I stuffed my initial impulse and decided to try to offer some useful advice instead. I also queried a couple of my former classmates, Geri Lipschultz and Doug Unger. They’ve both been teaching creative writing for years, and are featured in We Wanted to Be Writers. Doug helped establish the creative writing program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Geri teaches in the creative writing program at Hunter College in NYC.
My first suggestion to my friend was that if her son were thinking about getting an MFA in writing after his undergrad years, he might want to steer clear of an undergrad major in creative writing. A young writer needs wide experience, I argued, so he has something to write about. And in fact, Geri and Doug were of the same mind.
“What counts at the undergrad level is knowledge of literature,” Doug says, “reading and more reading, developing a love of reading, and maybe… just maybe … one or at most two workshops. Don’t choose the school for the creative writing program as an undergrad, in other words. Aim the development of the studies toward the broadly humanistic and literary, and let the rest take care of itself.”
Geri suggests a broad-based major such as American Studies. “Or a major in science,” she adds, “for later job opportunities, and material to write about. I’ve seen writers with all sorts of degrees go into MFA programs, but if he’s a poet, he might just want to get his hands on every poet who ever wrote and read the world, and in such a case, the only thing to suggest is a school that has a wonderful English department and an MFA program, where there will invariably be good writers.”
As for a wonderful English department, I suggested that my friend warn her son to tread carefully if he’s considering a major in English. To what degree is a particular English department still infected with critical theory? Are the French deconstructionists required reading? There’s nothing like a little dose of Derrida and Foucault to put a guy off literature for good.
“Generally, look for a solid, well-rounded Liberal Arts or Humanities education in preparation for being a writer,” says Doug. “Then, if the student still wants to set himself or herself up for punishment, misery, hard work with few rewards, and all that goes with the writing biz — and if he’s obsessed with writing, can’t stop writing — then go ahead and apply to the grad MFA programs.”
My friend also asked about the importance of a program with a “name author” on the faculty. I replied that in my experience as a student, the big dogs were usually far from being the best teachers or mentors. More than a few of them were jerks. Or simply irrelevant. “Every so often you will go nuts,” writes Kurt Vonnegut in a letter to a friend, Richard Gehman, dated August 10, 1967. Vonnegut had been teaching at Iowa since 1965. Gehman was about to start teaching there. “All of a sudden the cornfields get you,” Vonnegut went on. “Fly to Chicago or New York. Cancel classes whenever you damn please. Nobody will be checking up on you.”
Exactly. The big dogs were there mostly for window dressing, to burnish the school brand with their presence. But teach? The horror.
But that was a long time ago, when big-shot writers were expected to show up to class badly hung over after a long night of debauchery, having not read the students’ stories or poems up for discussion. We’d have been disappointed if they didn’t. Maybe it’s different now. I should also note, however, that by all accounts, Vonnegut was a generous and caring mentor. He also advised Gehman not to “ball” the undergrads. “Their parents are still watching!” [Kurt Vonnegut: Letters; Dan Wakefield, ed.; Delacorte Press, Oct. 30, 2012.]
Typically, though, an undergrad will never encounter a name writer, should one happen to be around, whether any parents are watching or not. Most undergrad creative writing classes will be taught by grad students, assuming there’s a graduate program in place. (Notice that Vonnegut didn’t advise Gehman against liaisons with graduate students….)
That’s not to say that a name author, if one is handy, doesn’t have his or her uses. Or a no-name author, for that matter. Sometimes, they can open doors. “Find a faculty mentor to help refine and set a stellar application manuscript aimed at one of the better programs,” says Doug.
Then I told my friend that in my humble opinion, community is the most important thing her son should consider when thinking about an environment in which to explore his own artistic impulses. Does the school provide a supportive community for writers? Is there a thriving literary culture beyond the walls of the academy? Does the school publish a lit magazine? Better yet, is there an alternative lit mag or weekly out in the community? Writers of any age thrive in the right sort of community, but especially young writers.
“We go to workshops for community, to meet like-minded people,” Jane Smiley said in We Wanted to Be Writers. “Most writers don’t succeed if they’re just sitting in a room writing but not getting out. If you look back at the history of the novel, nearly everyone who succeeded was part of some sort of literary group. There is hardly anyone who thrives on being solitary.”
“As writers, we’re required to write alone,” Sandra Cisneros agreed. “But I like to use the metaphor of writing being like cutting your own hair; there’s only so much you can do yourself, then you need someone to help you with the back. That’s what we do at the workshop; we cover each other’s back. So you don’t walk out with a bad haircut, so someone doesn’t say, Damn, where’d you get that bad haircut? But you have to be with people you can trust.”
That’s the trick, of course, finding others you can trust. How’s a young writer to know what sort of “community,” if any, exists around a given program? A young writer should visit a school, of course. Walk around, kick the tires. Talk to the students there. Feel the vibe.
I suggested a large program was perhaps preferable to a small one. When Doug and Geri and I were at Iowa — when we were young writers, so very, very long ago — the program had a reputation for being cut-throat, but I didn’t find that to be the case, and most of those I interviewed for We Wanted to Be Writers found a thriving and supportive community there. Or communities, I should say. Iowa was and still is one of the larger writing programs, large enough that a young writer could always find at least one simpatico group to hang with. My niche was a handful of Californians and a few oddball Midwesterners, united by the fact we were looked on askance by those from the East Coast. We read each other’s work, tried to make useful, honest comments, made fun of what we thought of as “New Yorker stories,” and it was all great fun. I think we even learned something along the way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?