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The Craft of an Art

by Jan Read No Comment

Selective M.F.A. program in creative writing draws attention and applicants.

Within the brick walls of Benson Hall’s top floor lies an incubator for the next generation of writers. Home to Vanderbilt’s master of fine arts program in creative writing, the fourth-floor hallways are lined with books, comfortable reading chairs, and the workplaces of renowned authors mentoring some of the campus’ best student writers.

Creative writing faculty, from left, Nancy Reisman, Mark Jarman, Sandy Solomon, Tony Earley, Kate Daniels and Lorraine López.

The College of Arts and Science launched the M.F.A. in creative writing in fall 2006. Three years later, it debuted at No. 18 in Poets & Writers magazine’s influential annual ranking of creative writing programs. Now 621 writers and poets have applied for the six spots in the fall 2010 class.

What makes Vanderbilt’s M.F.A. in creative writing so popular? It may start with Vanderbilt’s reputation. The university’s association with great writing began nearly a century ago with John Crowe Ransom’s acclaimed class described as “a practical course in writing various types of prose, including the short story.” Among Ransom’s students were Fugitive literary group writers Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren. Given that legacy, the M.F.A. program seemed both logical and overdue.

Literary life at Vanderbilt includes events such as the Gertrude Vanderbilt and Harold S. Vanderbilt Visiting Writers series. Here poet Cornelius Eady reads from his work.

Literary life at Vanderbilt includes events such as the Gertrude Vanderbilt and Harold S. Vanderbilt Visiting Writers series. Here poet Cornelius Eady reads from his work.

“Creative writing has always been highly regarded at Vanderbilt,” says poet Mark Jarman, Centennial Professor of English and director of the creative writing program. “That’s the legacy we’ve tried to keep going.”

The intimate class size is also important. Just six students are admitted each year into the two-year program, which makes the program highly selective and “extra small,” according to Poets & Writers’ ranking. “We wanted to create an esprit de corps with high morale,” Jarman says. “It was an ethical decision. We want to help our students create a community for a certain amount of time that allows them to be immersed in their writing.”

The English department’s award-winning faculty of 10, evenly split between poetry and prose, is another strong selling point for the program. All members are working writers who continue to teach.

For the program’s faculty, finding the best students is important. “We try to get it down to the best 20 applicants, and then we rank them and go after the top students,” explains novelist Tony Earley, the Samuel Milton Fleming Professor of English. “Last year, we got three of our top five. It really allows us to have a team of all-stars.”

For first-year M.F.A. student Matthew Baker, the faculty’s energy about the students was a drawing card. “The faculty pursued me and seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of me being in the program,” he says. He was also drawn to its small size. “You want to find a program that has a balance between students having a significant amount of time with the professors, but also enough students to make the workshops valuable,” he continues. “Vanderbilt seemed like the right size for me.”

Most of the creative writing students are in their 20s, although some are older. Associate Professor Lorraine López, a PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist, says she appreciates the more seasoned writers. “They bring poise, history, maturity, a longer background in literature,” the novelist and short story author says. “Writing isn’t like a professional sport, where you peak in your early 20s. Your experience and perspective and history continue to shape you. If you keep at it, you just get better as a writer.”

Jarman points out that the program’s goal is not to teach people how to write. “We’re teaching the craft of an art,” he says. “A writer has an innate gift, and we can help them with techniques. But we can’t teach the art.”

Earley wants his students to appreciate the hardness of writing. “Every piece of fiction is the result of thousands of decisions,” he says. “I tell my students to go ahead and get lost, get overwhelmed in the process. It’s the only way to succeed. You must get to that place where you’re overwhelmed and learn to negotiate within those parameters.”

In the M.F.A. program, Earley hopes that his students accelerate their learning curve and discover things they could not gain on their own. “The process is almost alchemy,” he says. “All the pieces, when taken together, become something else.”

As part of the M.F.A., creative writing students study legendary Vanderbilt writers such as Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey and the Agrarians.

For the first three semesters, the M.F.A. students take two seminars and one workshop, where the focus is class discussion of student-produced work. The final semester is devoted to their thesis—a novel, collection of short stories or collection of poems.

In addition, they work as writing consultants in the school’s Writing Studio during the first year and then in their second year, teach an introductory creative writing workshop in their genre.

The teaching helps boost the funding package for the students, which this fall will include a full tuition benefit, $10,650 stipend and $3,350 salary. Jarman says that applications tripled the year they went from partial to full funding for tuition. Now his goal is to double the stipend, bringing it more in the range of a doctoral student’s stipend.

“The stipend, of course, makes a real difference,” Baker says, who hopes to string together a few writing gigs for the summer. For now, much of his attention is directed at the spring launch of the program’s online literary magazine, The Nashville Review. The first issue focuses on areas of literature that are often overlooked.

“You’ll see graphic novels, creative nonfiction, music, and interviews with writers,” he says. “We want to look at writing that isn’t literature with a capital ‘L’.”

photo credit: John Russell, Steve Green

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