The writing on the wall

Writing workshops are just one component of the new creative writing major. (Photography by Jean Lachat)

The writing on the wall

In which creatively inclined College students gain a major.

There’s always been creative writing at UChicago—just ask alumni who took classes with novelist Richard Stern, or fans of Susan Sontag, AB’51. The subject has long been available to College students as a minor or a concentration within the English major, and plenty write on their own time.

Now it’s a formal major as well. Both academic and experimental in orientation and demands, the new creative writing program introduced this year takes the traditional writing workshop as the barest point of departure. So far 78 students have signed on, dwarfing the 30 the faculty anticipated.

Since arriving in 2010, professor and chair John Wilkinson has worked to strengthen the creative writing minor and establish the major. Both are designed to “foster an environment where students would debate the cultural, political, and aesthetic affiliations of their writing and understand its historical antecedents,” he told the Chicago Maroon.

Poet and associate professor of English Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy is the program’s interim chair while Wilkinson is on leave. In planning the major, he says, the faculty looked at what’s worked best at other schools and built their pedagogy from the ground up, unencumbered by convention—for example, the convention of training by workshop.

Writing workshop–style classes are in the curriculum, but they’re not the only part or even the most significant. Majors must take classes in literature and in other fields they select with faculty advisers to complement their individual interests as poets, fiction writers, playwrights, essayists, or translators. Also required are two technical seminars devoted to the formal study of literary technique.

These intensive reading and writing courses “try to conceive of questions of technique as broadly and with as much conceptual openness as possible,” Reddy says. Students might focus on what constitutes a line in poetry, on uses of first-person point of view in fiction, or on something more esoteric. Poet and collegiate assistant professor Lynn Xu’s winter 2018 seminar The Poem that Forgot It Was a Poem, for example, looked at songs, films, and other art often described as “poetic” to examine evolving conceptions of the term and the form.

Novelist Vu Tran, assistant professor of practice, teaches The Love Story, a hybrid literature class/workshop. Students write and hone their own 10- to 25-page original short story in which love—in any form—plays a significant role. Along the way they read contemporary short stories by writers such as Mary Gaitskill, Junot Diaz, and Russell Banks. Some of the stories are unconventional, and so are their understandings of love. The goal is to broaden students’ reading and prompt them to think differently about their writing. “The more uncomfortable they are,” Tran says, “the more they might go in an interesting direction in their own work.”

The approach seems to be working. Third-year creative writing major Ricky Novaes says his professors “try to push the boundaries of poetry.” One of his favorite courses so far is Manifestos, Movements, Modes. Edgar Garcia, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in English Language and Literature, had students read and analyze literature alongside, for instance, visual art by Cy Twombly and Claymation videos. Some students anticipate careers in writing or publishing, but many don’t. Third-year Adrienne Beck, whose magical realist fiction seeks to expose “the weird and magical elements lying just behind the veneer of the quotidian,” wants to go into medicine.

“Writing and art help with being detail oriented and experiencing empathy, both of which are important parts of the medical field,” says Beck. If nothing else, she thinks students interested in medicine should take humanities classes “to broaden their horizons and avoid getting burnt out.”

Novaes, a double major in political science and creative writing, is pondering law school, public policy work, or what he calls his dream job—high school English teacher. Thinking about words from a poet’s perspective and stretching the boundaries of language, Novaes believes, make him a better writer in general.

Third-year Angela Ma, a double major in creative writing and economics, knew she wanted to pursue a creative writing minor before she set foot on campus. She declared the major a week after it was announced, delighted to find a “community with a similar faith in fiction” and “a place where I could not only read, but read with other writers.”

Tran, the director of undergraduate studies, calls creative writing “one of the few disciplines in academia where all the students really want to be there. Your parents are not pressuring you to take creative writing.”