Workshop: A Revolution of Sensibility

Jane Ciabattari

Few creative writers held college-level faculty positions in 1967, the year that the author R.V. Cassill of Brown University and 14 other writers founded the Associated Writing Programs (AWP). At that time, hiring contemporary writers to teach undergraduates was a radical notion. The study of literature tended to be confined to works of the past (and more often than not, works written by men). Writers were considered eccentrics who might not bring the proper discipline to the study of literature.

Today more than 353 colleges and universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada are part of a growing trend of institutions offering undergraduate creative writing degrees.

Never mind the fact that practicing writers understood the creative process empirically. Or that in the classical past, the study of Greek, Latin, rhetoric, and composition emphasized the creative act, with students made to write stories and poems in the language of the ancients. The founders of AWP and other pioneers in the field presented the creative writing major as an equal partner to the study of literary criticism. And they made a broader argument, too, suggesting that a creative writing degree could give a student better preparation for adulthood than certain pragmatic, career-focused curricula, such as business or pre-law. Through effective creative writing programs, they argued, students can attain lifelong skills of critical thinking, empathy for others, and an understanding of the creative process, the key to all innovation. By writing, students learn to engage the world; they learn, in Philip K. Dick’s phrase, to build “a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later.”

Over time, these approaches—to the study of literature as a living art and to the study of writing as a willed discipline through which students learn to shape and order their perceptions of an ever more complicated world around them—have gained currency on college campuses. Today more than 353 colleges and universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada—more than 10 times the number of schools 30 years ago—are part of a growing trend of institutions offering undergraduate creative writing degrees. The three schools featured in this article—Knox College, Oberlin, and Sarah Lawrence—have been working to make these degrees a hallmark of their respective institutions for some time now.

Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, is a tiny school of 1,200. Founded in 1837, Knox has offered creative writing since the 1920s, when Proctor Sherwin taught courses and launched an undergraduate magazine, which has published continuously since 1926, first as the Siwasher, then as Catch. The name change came in the late 1960s, when the creative writing major began, under the guidance of the poet Samuel Moon.

The magazine, a student-produced, cross-disciplinary, undergraduate publication containing only the work of Knox undergraduates, has won a record number of National Collegiate Championships for literary magazines—three awards, in 1983, 1985, and 2003—this, in competition with the undergraduate-produced magazines of Ivy League schools, and powerhouses like the University of Iowa and Stanford. Knox also won the 2004 Pacemaker Award for Best Collegiate Magazine from the Associated Collegiate Press in international competition. And Knox has dominated the Nick Adams Short Story Contest, sponsored annually by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. Knox has had 30 finalists in 32 years, including 8 winners.

The current program at Knox is not so much about the nuts and bolts of craft as about emphasizing a philosophy that permeates the department’s workshops and tutorials. “We are a college committed to the idea that writing and the arts are central to the human experience,” says Robin Metz, the poet and fiction writer who has directed the program since 1984. “Knox is a place where writing matters; the attitude toward excellence in writing permeates the whole campus.”

Metz is passionate in his belief in writing and the arts. “Storytelling is as old as life in the caves; the ancients didn’t tell stories for entertainment, they did it to learn about the nature of human experience, the external and internal worlds,” he says. “Those stories told the community fundamental things they needed to know to survive.”

Contemporary culture tends to marginalize the stories writers have to tell us, Metz says. Everything is reduced to mere entertainment.

Resisting this tendency, Knox challenges its undergraduate writers to value creativity as a means of enhancing self-expression, developing the ability to solve problems, and to value imagination. “Our contention is that empathy and compassion are rooted in the imagination. Creative writing is not just an expression for the self, but a way of giving voice to the other,” Metz says.

Knox’s writing program is a powerful asset. This past fall’s incoming class of 400 first-year and transfer students is the largest in recent years; nearly 150 of these students have stated as a primary interest creative writing or the chance to work on Catch. The program regularly sends graduates to MFA programs at the University of Iowa, Stanford, Brown, Michigan, the University of Texas, and Alabama.

“In some creative writing programs,” Metz says, “the goal is to write a published story. At Knox we open the doors into other kinds of influences. In fact, a Martin Buber I-Thou relationship with the self. Writing is about the self engaged dynamically with ‘otherness,’—the natural world, your parents, people of a different culture, different artistic values.”

Majors in the arts, particularly those in creative writing, are inherently interdisciplinary, says Metz. “Writers have to know a lot about a lot of things and be open and curious to exploring the world around them. Writers at Knox need to know about the natural world, the workings of society, and other arts.” Creative writing majors are all required to take courses in other art fields—in the making of other art forms. “The creative process itself is the core value we are teaching,” says Metz. “To have the experience of engaging your own creative process in another medium—dance, sculpture, photography, theater—informs you even more deeply about the function of your creative process. Those other arts are metaphors for what you are doing in language.

“What we are doing is nothing less than generating a revolution of the sensibilities,” says Metz, who with his wife, theater professor and director Elizabeth Carlin-Metz, founded the Vitalist Theatre Company of Chicago, giving Knox students the opportunity to take part in professional productions before and after graduation. “We have a ‘creative ecosystem’ that integrates the arts,” says Metz. “Students in all the arts are learning from one another.” Playwrights work with painters, poets work with filmmakers. What is generated is not unlike the ferment experienced by writers, visual artists, composers, and playwrights thrown together at artists colonies like MacDowell and Yaddo, often inspiring each other and collaborating in unexpected ways. “We are here in the prairies but wanting to engage the world,” Metz says.