Greg Alexander

The pen’s mightier than the sword

Baltimore Sun, July 2008

Although I knew I wanted to be a writer since the second grade, when I formally declared my major in newspaper journalism, it was meant with some skepticism, as friends and family feared I would be a desolate person on the street trying to sell my writing. Even today, when asked what I do for a living, the common response is, “You can make a living off that?” While journalism may be a tough field to make it in, the obstacles facing those in the creative writing and creative nonfiction world may be even greater. However, the Baltimore area is home to some of the finest undergraduate and master’s level programs in these fields, teaching students not only how to become great writers, but also published writers.

Creative freedom

Writing can be a lonely profession, one that many times requires solitude in order to achieve results. At Goucher College, writers are allowed this solitude, while also providing a nurturing environment through its master’s in fine arts in creative nonfiction program. Students in the limited-residency program meet on campus for two weeks to hone their craft before returning home to work on their manuscripts. “It’s like teaching a child to swim with a hand underneath,” explains Patsy Sims, director of the MFA program at Goucher. “You’re there to guide and support, while also allowing them to succeed on their own.”

Sims says that during the two-week residency on campus, students meet in groups of four to six with a faculty member in a workshop format. “We also bring in editors, authors and representatives from publishing houses to lecture. We try to rotate the subject matter to address all of our students’ interests, from memoirs to literary journalism and essays.” Sims says that during this period, students in the program form close bonds. “This is important so that when they go back home, they have a network to rely on.”

During the two-year program, students are assigned a faculty member to act as a mentor. “Their mentor, who they’ll work with one-on-one with during the term, changes each semester during the two-year period.” Once home, students read six to eight books and submit a packet of creative writing each month, Sims says. Students and faculty members communicate online to provide feedback and interact in discussion groups. “In late January, groups will often meet at the hometown area of their faculty mentor for a ‘mini residency,’ “ adds Sims. At the end of the program, students submit a 150-page creative nonfiction manuscript, Sims says, adding that many use this manuscript in an attempt to land a book deal.

Sims says that student makeup is very diverse, bringing different life experiences to the table. “We have students in their 20s and their 60s. Some have journalism backgrounds, while others have backgrounds in law, archaeology or psychology.”

Kathe Lison, who graduated in 2006 from Goucher’s MFA program, says that she did not know until she was 25 that she wanted to be a writer. “I’ve had a strange journey in becoming a writer,” she admits. “I was raised in a blue collar family, so just the idea of going to college was novel, but making a living as a writer was even a bigger deal. I got my bachelor’s degree in French and a master’s in literature and creative writing and thought I was going to be a fiction writer. When I heard about Goucher’s program in creative nonfiction, I wasn’t quite sure what it entailed; it’s a hard genre to define.” Lison, who lives in Utah, says the limited residency program format was perfect for her. “Where else do you get to take two weeks out of your life to talk about writing? Everyone there is so passionate, and we had powerful discussions. I loved the fact that it is the only limited residency program that focuses on only one genre – creative nonfiction.”

“While our goal is to work with students to help them become fine writers, we want them to be published writers, too,” says Sims. “We can’t promise you’ll get published, but we’ll give you the tools.” One of these tools is a voluntary trip to New York that Sims leads where eight to 10 students visit literary agencies and publishing houses, such as the New Yorker, Random House and Harper’s. “Of the 140 graduates of the program, we’ve had 34 get book deals,” says Sims. One of those is Lison, who recently landed a book deal with Crown/Random House on the history of French cheese. “It’s exciting but also intimidating. The pressure is not off just because I’ve landed a book deal. Now I have to write it.”

A great foundation

Helping define creative nonfiction is one of the goals of the undergraduate English program that allows students to concentrate on creative nonfiction at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. “When people think of nonfiction, they think of historical texts or how-to books, and others wonder if creative nonfiction is the same as literary journalism. I tell students that when they’re writing a personal essay, for example, they are not just telling people about their lives, but exploring what those experiences mean,” says Mary Beth Pope, associate professor of English at College of Notre Dame and coordinator of the creative nonfiction writing concentration. Pope says that in the course, “Techniques in Writing Creative Nonfiction,” students study the various subgenres of creative nonfiction.

“We study the differences between memoirs and personal essays, how they differ from fiction and how to draw the line between the two,” says Pope, adding that the James Frey debacle opened many people’s minds to these differences. “Students read lots of essays and theoretical pieces on essay writing. We examine what is truth and what is narrative. For example, in a narrative, is it OK to leave someone out who was in the room but did not contribute? While it may be easier, is that truly representational of what happened?”

Pope says that many of the students go onto graduate school or into editing and publishing after graduation. “We teach them how to submit their work for publication consideration, and students must submit at least one piece three different places. Getting published before graduation will really give them a leg up,” she says.

Understanding publishing first-hand

One of the toughest parts for a writer is to release your manuscript to a publishing house, not knowing what comes next in the process or what the final product will look like. Luckily, the University of Baltimore’s MFA in creative writing and publishing arts gives writers in the program the power to create their own books, allowing “the writer to know their own power, throughout the entire process of writing, from idea to publication,” says Kendra Kopelke, director of the MFA program at UB, who along with her colleagues created the program in 2003.

Kopelke says that before the creation of this program, “creative writing students in the master’s program in publications design were required to take a lot of classes in graphic design and professional writing, where the focus is primarily on analyzing audience and purpose, and consequently weren’t able to focus as deeply on their own imaginative writing. We wanted to create a separate program that would truly nurture and develop new writers.”

And since the program falls under the School of Communications Design, students also learn the publishing aspect. “The publishing arts aspect of our degree is what makes it distinctive. We are excited by the possibilities that open up when writers are empowered to create their own books, CDs and Web sites. By teaching students not only how to write but also how to publish, and what it means to publish, we can create a lot more opportunities for them. We believe that when you are designing your own book, it allows you to see your writing in all kinds of new ways and that makes you a better writer. Students take classes in bookmaking, typography and book design. They develop their own visual aesthetic as well as learn the software for making books.”

Like other MFA programs, Kopelke says, students complete a manuscript in their chosen genre. “In addition, though, they have designed and produced their books, developed a plan for distributing them and given a public reading. We also bring in editors, agents and other writers to educate students about the world of publishing. They learn how to analyze the market, how to contact editors and agents and how to send out their work. They learn to be as creative about marketing their work as they are about writing it. They learn to trust their instincts, and take risks.”

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