Jessica Marsden’s scene cover “Catcher in the Writing Class” (11/2) drew much-needed attention to the problematic nature of Yale’s creative writing courses.
If I’m not mistaken, her article itself was written for a writing course (or closely mimicked the style of pieces produced in the writing courses) because Marsden — a former Yale Daily News managing editor — is herself a member of the “writing elite” who are able to make it through the English department’s staggeringly selective application process.
It’s no secret that the acceptance and wait lists for Fred Strebeigh, Anne Fadiman and Steven Brill’s creative nonfiction courses this semester were overwhelmed by names from the mastheads of the YDN, the YDN magazine, The New Journal and the Yale Lit.
What’s disturbing about this is not simply that it is a self-enforcing cycle, as Marsden rightly suggests, nor that these writers are categorically undeserving, which is untrue. What distresses me is that for many college students, writing is and should be a highly personal endeavor. The pieces put forth for public consumption in campus publications are not at all completely representative of the Yale student body’s capacity for creativity, and I believe it is the department’s responsibility to seek out those who consider writing to be first and foremost a private experiment in addition to those who are already ready to be published.
We are all relatively young and inexperienced writers. It is sad to think of how many talented students fall through the cracks because they are still exploring their creative possibilities instead of choosing to prematurely make a name for themselves in the high-achieving climate of Yale journalism.
As a junior who does not write for any of the above-named publications, I do not presume that all of my writing has reached a polished level. In fact, some of what I submit for writing course applications has not yet been read by anybody other than myself, which may be very obvious. Nonetheless, it was disheartening to read Marsden’s article and realize that instead of searching for whatever potential might be buried in unpublished pieces, the instructors of writing courses look for work that has made it through rounds of brainstorming and editing by campus publications and has already been smoothed of all imperfections into a homogenized final product.
I would understand this selection philosophy if we were applying to work for a national newsmagazine or submitting a nonfiction manuscript to a publishing company. But this is school, and we are still learning our craft. At the point where the tone of pieces that are “successful” at getting into Yale’s writing workshops has already been determined by existing campus publications, we will never progress as writers. It is up to the instructors of writing courses to look beyond the scope of what is currently published in the papers and magazines on campus and encourage submission of genuinely imaginative work, stuff that does not spring from a topic assigned by an editor or a desire to imitate a certain predetermined style.
As it stands, there is a clear problem in the writing course selection process, but it is one that may be remedied.
Most English majors know the English department annually awards a number of writing prizes for submissions of coursework, creative nonfiction and poetry. The difference between applying for these prizes and applying for writing courses is that the department awards must be entered and judged under a pseudonym. Perhaps it is time writing course applicants also be judged anonymously, without knowledge of a writer’s position in the hierarchy of Yale journalism, nor of the publications in which his or her writing samples previously appeared. It is the fairer way, but even this might not be a solution until we all admit that a nonfiction course should be designed to help us aim higher than our surrounding journalistic models, not conform to them.
Hannah Shearer is a junior in Calhoun College.