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Northwestern University

An Amazing Adventure

The English Major in Writing Turns 30

The poet Joshua Weiner told a rapt audience that beginning to learn his craft at Northwestern "felt like an amazing adventure that I had embarked on." Short story writer and novelist Karen Russell said that studying the stories of Flannery O'Connor and Aleksandar Hemon in Sheila Donohue's fiction-writing class "was transformative. I remember feeling like dynamite had just exploded."

Audience members could relate to that thrill of finding literary inspiration. During a four-day celebration of the 30th anniversary of Weinberg's undergraduate creative writing program, students, alumni, faculty, guests, and fans listened closely to words of advice and inspiration. Housed in the English Department, the English Major in Writing has turned out its fair share of acclaimed writers, such as Cristina Henriquez, the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Fiction; Anne-Marie Cusac, a poet and investigative journalist who recently published Cruel and Unusual: Punishment in America; Weiner; and Russell, all of whom returned to read their work at the festival.

Presiding over the often-spirited events was the program's founder and director, Mary Kinzie, poet, English professor, and critic, and honoree at a reception that concluded the festival. Also on hand to celebrate was Reginald Gibbons, a poet, professor of English, Classics, Spanish and Portuguese, and editor of the prestigious TriQuarterly magazine from 1981 to 1997, who has helped bring the program to prominence.

The celebration included the program's visiting writers in residence—poet Frank Bidart, short story writer George Saunders, and creative nonfiction writer Jo Ann Beard—who participated in readings, master classes, and a panel discussion at the Hotel Orrington in Evanston, offering encouragement and sharing stories of their own writing process. Topics included the roles of guilt and shame in writing, how the writers supported themselves financially when starting out, how they arrived at their respective genres, and how academia can nurture or squelch the creative writing impulse. Sparks were flying, much to the audience's delight. In one exchange Beard proclaimed that academe kills art and is only interested in writers who are dead; Weinberg artist-in-residence John Bresland quickly pointed out that Beard herself was on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. In another, Saunders asserted that eventually all great writers get published, while Beard contended that she knew talented writers who gave up because they couldn't get published. Bidart said that both statements were true.

"It's really great to hear the different and sometimes conflicting perspectives," reported Andres Carrasquillo, a senior in the program's creative nonfiction track. "There are different voices saying different things, and they're all coming from a place that's true. You have to figure out what's true for you as a student. Up there I saw a microcosm of my education."

Madeline Weinstein, a senior poetry major, was impressed with the accessibility of Bidart, whose work has been emphasized in the poetry sequence. "Bidart's considerable stature in the poetry world made his down-to-earth manner and generosity of spirit all the more refreshing .... The chance to see one's work through the eyes of a great poet is an opportunity most undergraduate writers will never have. The fact that Northwestern's program gives students that chance is, in itself, a reason for celebration."

Kevin McFarland, a junior in the fiction track, added, "Having Bidart, Saunders, and Beard all in the same room answering the same questions and feeding off each other was a very special experience. Seeing George Saunders speak was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He has been a major player in short fiction for the past fifteen or so years, so it was just amazing to meet him and hear his honest advice on writing."

Among Saunders' gems: "Wherever you come from is fine. Now what you have to do is bring your experience and your gifts forward." And, "Once an editor at The New Yorker had one of my stories and kept cutting it, and I was whining, 'Why did you want the story if you keep cutting it now?' And he answered, 'I read one line and I liked it enough to read the next line.' That's become my mantra."

The alumni readings were full of lively recollections. Before reciting several recently published poems, Weiner affectionately read from Kinzie's comments on his first poems at Northwestern, particularly relishing the sharper observations. For example, "You've a bad daemon who mixes metaphors. Exorcise him," Kinzie wrote next to one poem.

"These comments were totally invigorating to me," Weiner recalled.

Later Kinzie admitted she remembered giving more praise than criticism to Weiner. "Yet it was the specificity of the negative comments that gave him direction," she mused.

"It's interesting," she continued. "The students we get are so terrific. They're great studiers. They're good at research. They know how to write a paper. But then they enter this strange territory where they have to learn the tradition of a verbal art."

The creative writing major attracts scores of applicants every year for its forty-five openings in three tracks: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Generally they enter the program in their sophomore year.

Kinzie herself attended the College of Arts and Sciences, graduating in 1967, and went on to get a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. When she returned to teach at Northwestern in 1975, she split her time between TriQuarterly and the English department, where she soon became a full-time instructor.

When the chair of the English department proposed launching a creative writing program with Kinzie at the helm, she jumped at the chance. As Kinzie pondered the new program's curriculum, she was certain of one thing: there would be no workshops."Workshops can be purely arbitrary unless you share standards about what makes a piece of writing good," she explained. "I decided early on that every course would be a combination of reading and writing, so that you would be taught about the genre that you were writing in."

Kinzie required that students begin the program with a poetry course that introduced them to reading and writing in classic forms, moving from psalms to sonnets to free verse. To communicate the basic tenets of writing and reading poetry, she eventually gathered her insights and experience into A Poet's Guide to Poetry (University of Chicago Press, 1999), which has become widely used in literature and writing classes.

"There is a foundation of language that can best be communicated by studying poetry .... It's not just learning how to play scales, it's learning about what is not entirely obvious on the surface of an art form. You can't just rhyme; you have to learn how to sing. You have to learn to be plain when that's appropriate."

As students move through the curriculum into prose, they must complete assignments in the style of accomplished writers, say, Ernest Hemingway and Toni Morrison. According to Gibbons, "It's a formal, time-honored exercise, a way of using a particular writer's tools to think about your own material. So if you write a Hemingway story, you don't write a story about going fishing. You write something of your own but with Hemingway's moves and pacing."

In upper-level courses students must also produce longer works; for instance, poets have to write a poem of at least 125 lines, fiction writers a novella of 60 to 80 pages. Longer works, said Kinzie, require a writer "to make transitions, imagine a bigger framework, discover the arc."

The goal of the creative writing major goes beyond an emphasis on publishing (although many go on to publish their works). "We're not educating people for professional tracks; we're educating them for their lives," Kinzie noted. "We present new work and old work to give them a sense of the tradition in various genres. So if they pick up Sylvia Plath, they'll be able to hear the poets she's read. They'll know that she really knows Matthew Arnold and Christina Rossetti and Shelley'The Colossus' is written in the shadow of Shelley's 'Ozymandias.'"

The program has grown and evolved over the course of thirty years. Kinzie is especially excited about the track in creative nonfiction added four years ago, because of its potential to "open new modes to the energies of poetry and fiction. There are so many exciting things happening in that genre." And instructors such as Eula Biss, winner of the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, experimental fictionist John Keene, and video essayist John Bresland have expanded the traditional boundaries of prose and poetry for their students.

When asked how the program has changed over the years, Gibbons described how incoming students are much more influenced by media, and that the level of high school education in literature and poetry is less consistent than in decades past. But he added that the creative writing major at Northwestern continues to be distinguished by "the amount of sheer attention we give to students, in the courses, in their work on honors theses, and during office hours."

The craft of teaching writing will surely evolve just as writing students themselves will. Said Gibbons, "It's good for students to see that every writer's path will be different, that they have many life choices, and that they can keep going forward." And part of the evolution, Kinzie added, is "an ever-deepening commitment to the history of the language and of verbal artforms."

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