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The Habit of Art


The Habit of Art

"The Habit of Art: New Anthology Celebrates First 25 Years of Graduate Creative Writing Program," by Ryan Piurek.
Copyright © 2006 by Indiana University Office of Media Relations,
February 20, 2006.

Flannery O'Connor had grown weary of the questions she continued to field from aspiring fiction writers: Should I use a pencil, a pen or a typewriter? Is morning or evening the best time to write? When writing, should I sip coffee or tea?

As O'Connor noted, the serious writer isn't as concerned with external habits, such as writing schedules and daily routines, as he or she is with the internal process of writing -- or what she referred to as the "habit of art." The habit of art, she explained in her essay "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," concerns a "certain quality or virtue of the mind," which combined with a writer's talent, could heighten writing to a point nearing perfection.

For the past twenty-five years, the graduate creative writing program at Indiana University Bloomington has aspired to instill in each of its writers a lifetime habit of art. Evidence of the program's success is on display in a new 25th anniversary anthology of short stories written by its graduates, The Habit of Art: Best Stories from the Indiana University Fiction Workshop.

"It seems to me that the true purpose of a creative writing program is not to focus on a product the students would create, but rather to nurture and instill in them an ongoing process of being a writer," said Tony Ardizzone, former director of the Creative Writing Program, who edited and wrote the introduction to the anthology. "We want to develop in each of our students a habit of writing. This is very important. If there's too much focus on the product, writers tend to become very results-oriented."

"The 'habit of art' also reflects my own philosophy of teaching," Ardizzone added. "While I'm concerned with the techniques my students are learning, I'm ultimately concerned with their process of becoming a writer and the way I can nurture and help instill that process."

Ardizzone, the author of seven books of fiction and winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, said he hopes creative writing instructors find the anthology to be a viable teaching tool and of interest to readers of contemporary fiction. The collection of stories, published by Indiana University Press, showcases the writing talents of twenty-one of the nation's most talented, prize-winning authors. The stories represent a variety of narrative perspectives, including works written by first-, second- and third-person narrators. The collection also displays a wide range of subject matter, styles, settings and themes, as well as a highly diverse array of characters.

The last point mirrors one of the distinguishing characteristics of the graduate creative writing program: more than a third of its students and faculty are writers of color, making it the most successfully diversified creative writing programs in the nation.

"This work is designed to be approachable and stimulating and to make for good discussion. It will also be of real interest to readers of literary fiction. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to showcase these writers nationally," Ardizzone said.

Several of the stories included in the anthology have received additional national awards and citations, among them inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops and The Year's Best: New Stories from the South.

Ardizzone chose stories for the anthology from works written by more than seventy graduates of the creative writing program, which boasts a long and illustrious history. The study of creative writing at Indiana University Bloomington began in the early 1940s when a host of distinguished writers, including Robert Frost, author and Indiana native Marguerite Young, poet Robert P. T. Coffin, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren, and critic and poet John Crowe Ransom, were teaching courses in poetry and fiction-writing at IU. A few years later, short-story writer Peter Taylor developed within the Department of English a Master of Arts in Creative Writing program, making IU one of the first North American universities to offer the graduate degree. IU awarded its first graduate creative writing degree in 1949 to poet and novelist David Wagoner.

In recent years, the graduate program has become increasingly selective, currently accepting twelve new students each year (six in fiction, six in poetry) from more than three hundred applications, Ardizzone said. Additionally, the program has been energized by the arrival on staff of several of the nation's top emerging writers, including Nepali-born Samrat Upadhyay, whose book The Guru of Love was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003 and who was a finalist for the 2004 Kiriyama Prize, and Kevin Young, a National Book Award finalist in 2003 for his collection of blues-based poems Jelly Roll: A Blues.

"The reputation of our program has grown during a time of greater national competition among programs. We've succeeded because of the strength of our faculty and because we have a long, historic commitment to diversity initiatives," Ardizzone said. "Our graduates are really the best ambassadors of our program. They're the proof of what we do and evidence that we do a really fine job."

The contributors to the anthology range from critical favorites, such as Brian Leung, winner of the 2005 Asian American Literary Award for World Famous Love Acts; Dana Johnson, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction for her collection of stories Break Any Woman Down; and Renée Manfredi, whose first novel Above the Thunder earned her widespread acclaim, to first-time published authors Seamus Boshell and Crystal S. Thomas.

Publication of the anthology was made possible by the support of the Indiana University Bloomington Creative Writing Program, the Department of English, Indiana University Press, the College of Arts and Humanities Institute, and the Office of the Vice President for Research. Ardizzone has declined all payments and royalties from the sale of the book.

He said, "I'm pleased to be among such a distinguished company of writers. That's my reward."

THE HABIT OF ART: BEST STORIES FROM THE INDIANA UNIVERSITY FICTION WORKSHOP
Indiana University Press Hardcover * November 2005 * ISBN 0-253-34666-5
Indiana University Press Paperback * November 2005 * ISBN 0-253-21807-0


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