Creative writing program celebrates
The program schools students in the beauty and business of writing
Visiting author Jonathan Lethem (left) talks with Seth Pauley, a first-year student in the graduate creative writing program.
Meera Nair refers to it as an “immersion in a community of writers.” Adrian Khactu calls it “a shared interest in each student becoming the best writer possible.” To Divya Victor, it’s “refreshing to know that we’re all in it together.”
Ask students past and present, and the consensus is that acceptance into Temple’s graduate program in creative writing, which this fall is celebrating 20 years at the University, seems more like a welcome into a writer’s support group than an invitation to a buttoned-up academic program. All the ingredients are evident: how-to advice from top names in poetry and fiction who’ve triumphed over the vagaries of the publishing industry, unflinching guidance and support from faculty, and a committed group of student peers to commiserate and celebrate with at each mile marker in the writing process.
“Writing is such a solitary practice, with a great deal of rejection, so the attention paid to our work by professors and other students helps us to deal with the human and emotional side of writing,” said Khactu, a second-year fiction student who attended Stanford University. “Of all the places I looked, including the usual suspects like Cornell, Brown and Iowa, Temple’s program was really surprising to me because of the passion that its teachers have for helping each of us. We’re not a number in a mindless crowd.”
That level of care is most evident when students are schooled in the business of writing and start to learn about the publishing industry, agents and appropriate markets for their work — a piece of Temple’s program that has proved as crucial as the academics.
“Professor Joan Mellen introduced me to my agent,” said Nair, a 1999 graduate of the program whose first book, Video: Stories, was named one of the best books of 2002 by The Washington Post. “To this day, I’m still in touch with her and others I’ve met through the program. It was especially helpful to me, coming directly to Temple from India, because I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. I had a very positive experience at Temple, and it definitely broadened the professional side of my life.”
Mellen said Nair’s experience is representative of the level of commitment the creative writing faculty strives for with each student.
“One of the things about the creative writing program is that we help our students forever — as long as they need us. It could be 20 years,” said Mellen, who won a Great Teacher Award in the spring for her dedication to student learning. “We have students from the first year of the program, and we’re still helping them with their work, helping them get agents, helping them with publishers, even reading manuscripts.
“The creative writing program is very different from any other academic program,” Mellen continued. “It’s true that professors in other departments keep in touch over the years, but this is different. This is professional help. This is a kind of unwritten contract with students saying that you’re in this program, and we’re responsible for helping you with your career ever after.”
As useful as it is for students, professional support is not enough, however. Temple’s program shines because the personal care is grounded in a rigorous curriculum that incorporates literary theory, the history of the novel, seminars of contemporary poetics and discussions of various writing forms. During the course of their two years, students must take a minimum of four literature courses, four workshops, which are forums for students to receive feedback on their work from professors and students, and two tutorials, which are one-on-one sessions with a professor designed to polish the student manuscripts that double as graduate theses.
“I’m proud of how our program combines a creative emphasis with an academic one,” says Jena Osman, director of the creative writing program. “Many programs in creative writing are structured with a ‘fine arts’ model, where attention is paid primarily to craft and workshop feedback. We offer this, but we pair that kind of attention with critical learning. At the same time as we give students the opportunity to write toward publication, we’re also giving them knowledge and skills, which are essential to teaching. This combination makes Temple’s creative writing program unique.”
The result is that Temple’s program confers on its graduates a master of arts, rather than a master of fine arts, as a reflection of the curriculum’s equal emphasis on writing workshops and literary study. Graduates are then prepared to enter the marketplace as writers, pursue a doctorate in literature or English or teach writing courses at the college level.
In-class instruction is buttressed by a steady stream of prominent poets and writers who visit campus for readings and guest lectures. Additionally, a visiting writer spends a week at campus each term to provide greater insight into the writing process and face-to-face feedback for students. The program has attracted heavyweights in the fields of fiction and poetry, including Susan Sontag, C.D. Wright, Russell Banks, Robert Creeley, John Hawkes, Alice Notley, Donald Barthelme and, most recently, Jonathan Lethem.
“We’ll make any effort that we can to get students together with writers,” says Mellen, the only Temple professor who remains from the program’s inception in 1984. “We’ve had the absolute best in American and international writers here. It’s another chance for a tutorial, a way for students to get feedback from somebody who’s very successful.”
What ultimately sets the creative writing program apart is the special breed of students it attracts. Unlike a typical graduate school that pulls in students immediately from undergraduate study, Temple’s program draws writers with a mix of life experiences that can’t be quantified by a GRE score or college transcript.
The most recent incoming class boasts a native of Nepal studying at Temple on a Fulbright Award, a 55-year-old reporter and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer with a wife and three kids, a 21-year-old Singaporean who completed her English degree at Towson University (Md.) this summer and students with degrees from Smith College (Mass.), the University of California–Berkeley and Oberlin College (Ohio).
Among current second-year students, Sonia Vora took her M.B.A. from Georgetown and worked on Wall Street before entering the program, Shinelle Espaillat toggled between her stories and work as a legal secretary in Manhattan before enrolling, and Khactu taught English and literature in Vietnam for two years after he graduated from Stanford.
“We don’t all come from the same space in life,” says Khactu, who also was a graphic designer for several years during a sojourn from his undergraduate studies. “This program not only reflects diversity in ages and ethnic backgrounds but of life experiences. Several of us have lived in different countries and worked in backgrounds completely foreign to creative writing. Our writings and engagements with one another’s work, therefore, are just as compelling as the lives we’ve led.”
- By Ted Boscia