Workshop: A Revolution of Sensibility

Jane Ciabattari

Oberlin College, with a current enrollment of 3,000, was founded in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1833 as a unique combination: an undergraduate college of arts and sciences paired with the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, still one of the country’s leading music schools. Today the college offers an undergraduate creative writing major that is a magnet for students.

“We have students who come here just for the creative writing major, including a recent transfer student from Harvard,” says Martha Collins, a poet and translator, who directs the creative writing program there. “The arts are central to Oberlin,” she adds. “And of course, the conservatory is a major part of that. Oberlin is also a school with a history of commitment to social change and to the arts. Our art museum has an inscription: ‘The cause of art is the cause of the people.’ That says a great deal about Oberlin.”

Founded by Stuart Friebert, who was originally in the German department, and David Young of the English department, Oberlin’s creative writing program began informally in the early 1960s, and became a full-fledged major in 1978. The program is in some ways modeled on the conservatory. It offers introductory classes of 25, smaller workshops of 12, and one-on-one independent work for advanced students. Most graduating seniors give a reading, much as conservatory seniors give a recital. Graduates include the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Franz Wright, MacArthur grant–winning poet Thylias Moss, Thisbe Nissen, who won Iowa’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award, and Flannery O’Connor Award–winner Wendy Brenner.

Many Oberlin students, including the majority of creative writing students, complete two majors, and some earn double degrees from the liberal arts college and the conservatory. It is common to have double majors in creative writing and English, and creative writing and visual arts, theater, environmental science, or even neuroscience. Creative writing majors who select the playwriting concentration work closely with the theater department. Two recent double majors incorporated art into their senior readings and poetry into their art projects.

Oberlin’s creative writing majors are expected to take three workshops, to be chosen from six genres—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation, playwriting, and screenwriting. There are a number of undergraduate literary journals, including Enchiridion, the Plum Creek Review (recently relaunched as an anthology of writing by seniors), As I Am (the Asian American literary magazine), and Nommo (the African-American student magazine).

On a pragmatic level, Oberlin offers a senior colloquium with a wide variety of topics about careers and literary life after graduation. A “practicum” allows some students to teach poetry in the local public schools or to intern at FIELD, Oberlin’s noted poetry magazine, and at the Oberlin College Press, which publishes poetry, including translations.

Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York, has emphasized writing since its beginning in 1924. In 2000 Time magazine, in conjunction with the Princeton Review, named Sarah Lawrence—with an enrollment of about 1,200—the number one small liberal arts college in the country, honoring its emphasis on “writing across the curriculum.”

“This, more than anything, was because we value writing at the college,” said Mary LaChapelle, who directs the graduate fiction writing program there. “We value individual inquiry and articulation rather than mass regurgitation. Writing, rather than tests or exams, is the measure, no matter what a student studies here.

“I’ve always thought of writing as active thoughtfulness,” she adds, “thinking taken to a physical level, thinking made manifest on paper, where the thinker is able to account for his thoughts, reflect on them, question them, revise them, and, ultimately, communicate those thoughts to others.”

Students can’t evade this discipline at Sarah Lawrence. All students there sit in small seminars of 12 to 15 students every week and learn to articulate their observation and comprehension of what they have read. Many of them are expected to prepare thought pieces on the week’s reading, and to post responses on their online discussion boards. They meet one-on-one with professors, usually weekly, to develop individual writing projects. The creative writing students fit right into this intensive approach.

The Sarah Lawrence undergraduate creative writing program began in 1950, when the poet Jane Cooper began teaching writing courses. Cooper and Grace Paley, who was hired in 1966, are often referred to as the “founding mothers” of the creative writing program. Now retired, they continue to be honored; this past spring Paley was commencement speaker, and Cooper was celebrated by colleagues and former students. Over the years, the faculty has included E. L. Doctorow, Russell Banks, Vivian Gornick, Joan Silber, and the poets Mark Doty, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Thomas Lux, Muriel Rukeyser, and Jean Valentine. Graduates include Ann Patchett, Alice Walker, Lucy Grealy, and Allan Gurganus.

A respect for the arts as a means of higher learning, expressed by the college’s conviction to hire and tenure artists on equal footing with their colleagues in more traditional fields, has brought strong leadership by artists at Sarah Lawrence, says LaChapelle. Proximity to New York City is another plus for the writers at Sarah Lawrence. Last year LaChapelle and her first-year seminar group attended a symposium on Salman Rushdie’s writing at nearby Columbia University. The poet Marie Howe enlisted many of her first-year and her graduate students to create an exhibit for the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. Juniors and seniors are able to intern at magazines and publishing houses like the New Yorker and HarperCollins.

Sarah Lawrence also encourages interdisciplinary study. “The writing program values and reflects this organic diversity in approach,” LaChapelle says. Recently, for instance, Ernesto Mestre, a novelist, combined the study of many of Shakespeare’s plays with his first-year students in a fiction writing class. His classes studied magical realism extensively in another course. Brooke Stevens, who is a novelist as well as a screenwriter, has incorporated the study of film in his fiction workshops. And one of LaChapelle’s students wrote as her senior thesis a book-length memoir related to her mother’s recent death. The student finished and revised the draft, and over the year was able to submit each portion of the manuscript in a workshop. Her thesis advisers were LaChapelle, her history professor, and Vijay Seshadri, who directs the graduate nonfiction program. “How many undergraduates have the opportunity to study individually with three different professors from three different fields on one project, two of them directors of a graduate writing program?” says LaChapelle.

Undergraduate creative writing programs, which take students from wet-behind-the-ears late teens into early adulthood, are intense, requiring gifted teachers willing to spend lots of time with each student. Knox College’s Robin Metz could be speaking for the other program directors when he says this is time well spent. “Ultimately we are working to create a wellspring, so people can experience the flow of feeling, imagination, the power of analogy, and use these throughout their adult lives.”

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire. Her book reviews appear in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Ms., and Kirkus Reviews. She experienced the Knox College creative writing program firsthand this fall as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence and visiting professor of English.