Catcher in the Writing Class

It’s the first Thursday afternoon of shopping period, and every seat in LC 104 is occupied. Students squeeze two to a chair, perch on every available ledge and sit cross-legged on the floor.

But for what?

The dozens of students in the room have turned out for the information session for Anne Fadiman’s “Advanced Nonfiction Writing: At Home in America,” one of the English Department’s three creative nonfiction writing classes offered this semester.

But of the 50 students who will eventually apply for the course, only 12 will get in.

Each semester, the English Department is deluged with applications for its handful of creative writing classes, which span fiction, poetry, nonfiction, play and screenwriting. Residential college seminars on writing are similarly popular. Aspiring writers crave the intimacy and intense attention from a professor that the classes offer. But to keep the classes small — and therefore useful — many interested, talented Yalies must be turned away.

In the meantime, those writers must look elsewhere on campus for writing opportunities. The obvious outlet is Yale’s crowded publications scene, including newspapers like The Herald and offbeat magazines like The Misfit.

But if the stack of student-generated periodicals outside of every college dining hall is any indication, Yale’s writing scene is largely skewed in favor of news publications. The chances to publish nonfiction writing far exceed those for imaginative writing like fiction, poetry or plays.

But amid the pressure to fill pages and meet deadline, can student editors provide anything akin to the close attention of a writing workshop? Or does writing training require the rigid structure and discipline of a Yale course? And what becomes of those students who can’t find a forum for developing their writing skills?

The Admissions Catch-22

The linchpin of the writing-class experience is the workshop. Each week, students present a piece of work to their classmates to be discussed and critiqued at length. The goal, according to fiction instructor Amy Bloom, is to focus on the craft of writing: “The word, the sentence, the paragraph and the page.”

“It’s a craft class, not an ‘I like this, I don’t like this’ class,” she said. “I expect people to be collegial and good editors and good listeners, as well as the best writers they are capable of being.”

Russell Brandom ’07, a former writing concentrator who is now working as a writer in New York, said his writing classes gave him nuggets of wisdom that he still refers to in his work. In a workshop, Bloom told his class: “Every sentence needs to advance the plot and build character. And if every sentence you write doesn’t do both of those things, you need to really think about why you have it there.”

That advice is something he still thinks about nearly every time he sits down to write.

“It’s one of those things that probably would have taken me years to come to on my own,” he said.

Carina Schorske ’09, who has taken three courses with poet Louise Gluck as well as one with Fadiman, said in writing classes, “you treat the writing of your peers with the same seriousness that you would treat writing that you encounter in a literature class.”

And at Yale, who knows — the guy sitting in the corner of the room in “Journalism” may turn out to be the next Tom Wolfe.

According to Fadiman, the best part of teaching writing at Yale is that the students who make it into the writing classrooms are so talented that they motivate everyone else in the room.

“If you want to run a faster marathon, you want to have somebody who is a little bit faster than you on your left and on your right,” she said.

The Catch-22 is that admission rests on the strength of students’ writing samples, which — paradoxically — often depends on having taken an earlier writing course. With just a handful of courses offered in any given genre each year — and only one introductory course each in poetry and fiction — it can be difficult for fledgling writers to break into the curriculum.

“I don’t give preference to English majors,” Fadiman said. “But usually, people don’t have enough interesting writing samples unless they’ve taken other writing classes.”

And even those students who have writing class experience expressed frustration at the difficulty of getting into classes outside their genre of focus.

“I don’t have two short stories; I want to learn how to write them,” Schorske said with exasperation.

The English Department’s two introductory courses are limited to freshmen and sophomores, so older students hoping to try something new can be left out in the cold. Acceptance to the writing concentration, which requires that students take at least one class outside their primary genre, gives about fifteen students a boost. But the vast majority have to cross their fingers and hope they can entice the professor with a sample from another genre.

Lawrence Manley, the director of undergraduate studies for the English Department, said the writing program has grown over the years in response to student demand, and will continue to do so. In particular, he pointed to the introductory courses, which were offered for the first time a few years ago, and relatively new classes in nonfiction and playwriting.

“We always wish we could accommodate more students than we can,” he said.

The dearth of writing teachers — and of the resources to hire more — is the obvious constraint on the size of Yale’s writing program. Adding a spring term “Journalism” course was only made possible by the Yale Journalism Initiative, created in 2006 with a $1 million donation from Steve Brill ’72 LAW ’75.

But experience shows that when it is a priority, the University can dramatically increase its offerings in high-demand subjects. For instance, the number of classes in Chinese and Arabic has skyrocketed as those languages have become more popular in recent years.

“When you decide to take Russian, Yale doesn’t say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have room for you,’” Fadiman said.

And they certainly don’t send students to the Russian Club to try to pick up the basics.

Get it Right (Sometimes)

At the Yale Daily News Magazine, a general-interest magazine with a separate staff from the daily newspaper, editor in chief Veronique Greenwood ’08 is making a conscious effort to model the editing process on a writing class. Her writers not only discuss their own work but also study the work of professionals, just as students do in Fadiman’s “Advanced Nonfiction” course.

“I want it to be sort of a writing seminar that puts out a monthly publication,” she said.

Greenwood took Fadiman’s class in fall 2006, and her professor now serves as an informal adviser to the magazine. The personal connection she forged in the classroom is now indirectly helping to educate even more writers who may not be able to take Fadiman’s course themselves.

For aspiring nonfiction writers, there are plenty of opportunities to practice the craft outside the classroom. With a plethora of campus publications to choose from, even the most novice writer can pick up an assignment somewhere, and many of the newspapers and magazines see education as a fundamental part of their mission.

Of course, not all of the new magazines that crop up each semester have the experienced staff and outside resources needed to maximize the teaching experience. But many of the larger publications on campus boast editors who have taken writing classes and then try to pass those lessons on to newer, younger writers.

At The New Journal, a general-interest magazine about Yale and New Haven, the focus is on guiding writers through a piece from when they begin reporting until submission. Every writer is assigned to work one-on-one with a specific editor, and the entire staff meets weekly to discuss the projects in progress.

Once drafts are turned in, the writer works closely with his or her assigned editor to improve the piece. Then, it is subjected to further rounds of edits by up to 12 other writers and editors from the magazine.

Like Greenwood, New Journal editor in chief Jonny Dach ’08 compared the writing and editing process to a writing workshop, where students not only hear their own pieces discussed but also grapple with how to improve others’ writing.

“It offers the opportunity not only to see your own piece improved … but also to submit your own changes and see which of these are accepted,” said Dach, who is an alumnus of professor Fred Strebeigh’s “Nonfiction Writing: Voice and Structure” seminar.

But commitment can be a problem when writing is a solely extracurricular pursuit, Greenwood said.

The selectivity of the writing classes means that the vast majority of students take the work seriously. Working for the magazine, there is no single authority figure to hold writers responsible. And as a result, quality can suffer.

“[In class] you get it right every time, because you get a lot of guidance,” Greenwood said. “One person’s concern about you individually is hard to replicate in a student publication.”

The Lit or Bust?

When it comes to publishing fiction or imaginative prose on campus, the Yale Literary Magazine — “The Lit” — is basically the only game in town. The Yale Daily News Magazine publishes some fiction and poetry each month, but is largely devoted to nonfiction, and residential college literary magazines tend to come and go.

The Lit is published twice each year and chooses its pieces through a competitive selection that takes place in the fall and in the spring. As a result, the collaborative work that goes into shaping a piece at the New Journal or the YDN Magazine is not part of the process for getting a piece into the Lit.

But the magazine does run occasional workshops in fiction and poetry, which subject students’ work to the same critical attention offered by a class. Literary editor Adam Gardner ’09 said the workshops, which this year will likely begin in December, are geared in part toward freshmen and sophomores who are interested in submitting to the Lit but have not yet taken a writing class.

In seeking to democratize the workshop experience, the Lit has one major obstacle to overcome: its own reputation for exclusivity. While the magazine invites the entire Yale community to participate in selecting its content, the meetings are inevitably attended mostly by people formally affiliated with the magazine, Gardner said.

“I think there’s a sense outside the Lit that it’s not welcoming,” said Eleanor Liu ’08, a writing concentrator planning a final project in fiction.

Liu looked outside the network of publications in her search for a writing community outside the classroom. As a sophomore, she e-mailed her writing class as well as the entire English Department panlist to recruit members for an informal writing “seminar.”

“I wanted to have a group that would meet once or twice a month and operate on vaguely the same principle that the class did,” she said. “A couple of people would agree ahead of time to submit work for the meeting, and everyone would read it before and come in and talk.”

But after one organizational meeting, the group only managed to convene once before the summer to actually discuss one another’s work. Then Liu went abroad for her junior year, and the group disintegrated.

Without a class or extracurricular group demanding new material, creative writing can languish as students prioritize other pursuits.

“I have to write, but I would not write if people were not telling me to,” Schorske said.

When he was in college, Brandom said, his academic workload made it difficult to devote steady attention to creative projects outside of class. But there was always something “in the drawer.”

“Every time there was an ebb, there was always something I’d go back to,” he said.

Gardner said he was able to write a handful of poems during the spring of his sophomore year when he was not enrolled in a writing class. Later, he had an informal conference with Gluck to discuss them. Still, he worries that after graduation, “without the sin of weekly assignments, my writing won’t be produced as quickly or as well.”

And Brandom and Gardner are both members of Yale’s writing elite, each having taken several writing classes beginning early in their college careers.

For those students denied a seat at the seminar table, it is an even bigger challenge to keep up the creative momentum — or develop it at all.

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