Wordplay - Creative writing track creates connections for undergraduate writers inside the classroom and out

Kelsey Kramer (above) was among the first students to enroll in The University of Iowa’s new creative writing track for undergraduate English majors in spring 2009.

This December, the aspiring fiction writer, editor, and teacher also became its first graduate.

“Writing has always come naturally to me, but it seemed like an impossible field,” says Kramer, who hails from Johnston, Iowa, and plans to pursue a master’s degree in literary studies. “I think everyone has a better handle on what their gifts as a writer are after they come out of this track, and now I consider creative writing more of a career option because I’ve seen how training can help you, and I’ve been introduced to different MFA programs, writing fellowships, jobs, and publication options.”

Iowa gained its reputation as the “Writing University” thanks to outstanding graduate programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the International Writing Program. The reputation drew plenty of aspiring undergraduates to campus, too, but those intensive writing classes weren’t open to them. Undergrads had other options, of course: the English department offers entry-level classes in creative writing, poetry, and nonfiction writing alongside its courses on literature. But the University, and its students, wanted more.

“Iowa City is one of the best literary communities in the country, and there was really a desire from the undergraduates for a more focused writing program,” says Robyn Schiff, a 1999 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who returned to Iowa last year to become director of undergraduate creative writing. “The track is able to draw on the academic rigor that the English department already demands, and supplement it in a creative way. The idea is to help students make connections between their reading lives and their writing lives. We’re making sure they’re doing things that are going push them into an inspired place.”

Creative writing track students enroll in writers’ seminars in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or playwriting. The seminars, which are taught by postgraduate writing fellows, are small to allow students to get meaningful feedback on their writing, and to hold in-depth discussions exploring questions of craft, literary traditions, and aesthetics. Students also enroll in a large multi-genre class, the Writers’ House Seminar, where they prepare for and participate in discussions with guest authors, then respond creatively and analytically.

“We have an active relationship with the writers invited to campus by the various writing programs and by Prairie Lights Books,” says Schiff. “We’ll teach their writing, and bring them to class to talk with our students. What I really want to do is give the students a sense of the tradition of literature, but also show them that literature is alive and we’re lucky in Iowa City to have so many guests coming through.”

During the program’s first year, guests have included poet Tod Marshall, novelist Dan Chaon, and Michael Silverblatt, the host of a nationally syndicated radio program about books and literature.

Talking with a writer in a classroom setting is different than attending a public reading, says aspiring poet Danny Mills, a junior from Marion, Iowa.

“In the classroom, we can still ask, ‘What did you mean in this chapter?’ and ‘What’s going on here?’ but we can also talk about questions of craft—things like ‘How did you decide on this project versus that project,’ and ‘How do you build a good narrative?’ It’s a different experience.”

The writing track is selective, and open only to English majors who have junior or senior standing and have completed several prerequisites, including at least two introductory-level writing classes. To apply, students submit an essay along with a portfolio of works in their selected genre.

“The writing classes that are outside the track are great, and they’re taught by great instructors, but the student next to you might not necessarily be interested in a career in writing,” says Kramer. “It’s a lot more fun, a lot more engaging, when there are other undergraduates next to you who are also engaged and driven to be good at what they’re doing.”

The program has helped create a community of undergraduate writers, both inside the classroom and out. Undergraduate writers gather informally each week at a local restaurant, and have organized readings of their work at Public Space One, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run art, culture, and performance venue in downtown Iowa City.

It also helps bring the already-established writing community of Iowa City to new students.

“The track makes it more possible for me to step into that world,” says Mills. “We’re able to ask these authors, ‘How do you get started?’, ‘How do you make that step from unpublished undergrad to someone who has their work out in the wider world?’ It’s so beneficial to have these people who’ve gone through this to say, ‘Slow down, you’ve got plenty of time to be published,’ and explain the process step by step. And we talk about different online journals and e-publications and small presses, and how powerful those things can be.”

While the track encourages and provides the tools needed for students to pursue their passion, it also gives them a realistic look at the business of writing, which is one of the reasons that Mills chose to pick up a second major in elementary education, and pursue a career as a teacher while he writes on the side. He predicts that the discussions he’s had in his writing classes will have a big impact on his teaching style.

“I know that having a passion for poetry is something that I want to bring into whatever classroom I end up teaching in, and this experience has made me think about the way I would approach poetry and literature in an educational setting,” he says.

For more information about the undergraduate creative writing track, visit www.english.uiowa.edu/undergrad/writing.

Anne Kapler
with photo by Kirk Murray

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© The University of Iowa 2009