Champions of Prose and Poetry Praise
the "Bloomington Experience"

Talk with students and alumni about creative writing at Indiana University and a composite picture emerges: gifted poets and fiction writers drawn to IU's perennially prominent English department and its well-positioned Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program known for its uniquely supportive, stimulating, interactive environment. From prize-winning novelists such as Jay Neugeboren, who began turning out captivating prose at IU in the early 1960s--two decades before the M.F.A. program was begun in 1980--to rising stars such as Emily McMillon, a Lilly Fellowship student from St. Louis who braved a reading of her poetry last September, past and present IU students rave about "the Bloomington experience" and the creative opportunities offered.

Because creative writing is such a "difficult and personal task"--in the words of third-year student Paul Pfeiffer, whose short story "Meter Man" won first prize last year from New York–based Poets and Writers, Inc.—it requires confidence building, exploration, and experimentation. In such a process, mentorship is critical. Students in all disciplines seek out motivating teachers, but for budding creative writers, the student-teacher relationship is critical to their growth and discovery. Almost without exception, IU alumni and students, in describing their graduate school experiences, sing the praises of specific faculty members who in most cases were a deciding factor in their selection of IU and who often remain lifelong confidants and friends. The diversity of individual faculty members is frequently cited as the trump card in this "name-brand recognition" in which the voice, personality, and mentoring qualities play greater roles than any brochure or syllabus. In describing their graduate-school experiences, current students and alumni often embark upon a litany of current faculty members they admire and respect: Roger Mitchell, director of the program, Maura Stanton, David Wojahn, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Scott Russell Sanders. Frequently, these faculty members are seen as strongly complementing one another.

Alison Joseph, assistant professor of English at Southern Illinois University and a 1992 M.F.A. graduate, says she found the diversity of faculty members as writers particularly attractive. She characterizes Stanton as quiet, shy, and skilled in the technical aspects of writing; Wojahn as clever, witty, and concerned with a writers' overall effect; and Komunyakaa as generous and hands-on oriented, someone who edits students' papers word by word. Likewise, Jim Harms, assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, who received his M.F.A. from IU in 1988, remembers the creative writing faculty as "diverse and strongly committed." After applying to ten graduate programs, including those at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, and the University of Arizona, his selection of IU "came down to the faculty and the opportunity to teach," he says.

While alumni and students most frequently cite faculty credentials, they also mention a variety of other factors in IU's favor: generous funding, which enables most graduate students to teach, particularly creative writing courses; a three-year creative writing program, instead of the customary two-year program, which provides more time for cultivating one's writing; the fact that the program is kept a manageable size; exposure to great authors through a literature requirement, the Indiana University Writers' Conference, the Indiana Review (a literary journal published by M.F.A. in creative writing students at IU), and cultural experiences; Bloomington's activist, creative tradition; and, a tightly knit, gregarious "writers' community" that often meets in students' and faculty members' homes, as well as in Bloomington restaurants and coffeehouses to share verses and stories, insights, feedback, support, and all the stuff of friendship. To writers striving to find themselves professionally and their own voice, this is, indeed, an appealing combination.

The calibre of IU's program is reflected in the application process. Chris Green, a third-year Ph.D. student, recalls being required to submit twenty pages of poetry—ten to twelve pages is common in most other programs, he says—in addition to statements about teaching and about entering the program when he applied two years ago. This, plus the literature requirement, makes IU's program, in Green's opinion, "one of the most rigorous and thorough of M.F.A. programs."

Students and alumni say there are definite advantages to a mid-size program—IU's currently has thirty-two graduate students in creative writing—compared to larger programs, such as the University of Iowa's Writing Workshop in which one hundred students are currently enrolled. Both Harms and Erin McGraw, an assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, stress the fact that IU's program is smaller than that of other major universities. McGraw treasuresd the opportunity to work on the Indiana Review, to read others students' works, and as a budding published writer, "to get back up on that horse and ride." Reading twenty manuscripts a day was just the exposure the 1992 M.F.A. graduate says she needed to become a short-story author for Atlantic Monthly and an upcoming author for an anthology to be released in 1996 by Chronicle Books.

IU enjoys a long mentorship tradition. Neugeboren, author of ten books, including two prize-winning novels, and a highly acclaimed screenplay, "The Hollow Boy," prefaces any remarks about his "wonderful time" at IU with mention of his mentor, the late William E. Wilson, whom he remembers in three words: writer, teacher, friend. Although Bloomington offered "so much more air and space" than his native Brooklyn, providing some of the tranquility he sought when he matriculated in 1959, it was his relationship with Wilson that proved most enduring. Neugeboren recalls that Wilson noticed "something new in my work," and with his encouragement, the ember caught fire. Today the writer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts, Neugeboren is grateful he went west to do master's work in an English department perceived at the time as "the best between the coasts" and grateful for Wilson's influence. McMillan, who entered the Creative Writing Program last fall, chose IU primarily because of "the town itself" with its eclectic, cultural attractions. She likes the "small town, cooperative spirit," that helps keep graduate school from becoming an overly competitive experience. She also likes the fact that graduate students are invited to teach creative writing courses and is impressed with the calibre of the faculty, including Wojahn, who has encouraged her to use less metaphoric language in her poetry and "get to the heart of things with an economy of words." She acknowledges, however, that her fellowship was probably the clincher in selecting IU.

Another first-year student, Tamesa Williams of Virginia, says "a big part [of her decision to come to IU] was the town," which she describes as "really laid-back, like summer camp." She says she chose IU over the University of Massachusetts because of her perception that IU is less stressful and more student centered. Having taught middle school in Virginia, she is of the opinion that graduate students can learn as much from each other as they can from lecturers. That opinion is shared by Kevin Stein, a professor of English at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, who received a Ph.D.from IU in 1984. Stein says he probably learned more outside the classroom "hanging around with my writer friends," often gathering at Nick's English Hut bar and restaurant to "pass around stories and poems . . . . Everybody was looking out for everybody else. I've not found anything like it since." Characterizing his poetic style as lyrical narrative, "telling a story by telling several at once," Stein looks forward to publication this year of a volume of his poetry, Bruised Paradise, by the University of Illinois Press, and a book of poetry criticism, Private Poets, Worldly Acts, by Ohio University Press.

Both Elizabeth Dodd, an associate professor of English at Kansas State University, and Rich Madigan, an assistant professor of English at East Stroudsburg State University in Pennsylvania, praise the fact that IU's program is offered within a strong literature context where students are required to read Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Steinbeck. Too often aspiring writers overlook the value of becoming serious readers, says Dodd, who received a Ph.D. in American literature from IU in 1989. Madigan, a Lilly Fellowship recipient who received his M.F.A. in 1990, says he found it particularly appealing that IU's Creative Writing Program was "tucked into a larger literature program," giving his M.F.A. in creative writing degree nearly the literary breadth of a regular M.A. in English. Madigan admits he was so enamored with his IU experience that he "sometimes wishes he could go back and live in Bloomington."

In contrast, Eileen Fitzgerald, a DePauw University assistant professor originally from Kansas City, and Shirley Stephenson, a current third-year student from Chicago, say they were not especially attracted to Bloomington. Despite this Stephenson, who currently edits Indiana Review, has been delighted to find a "definite sense of community" among graduate students. Fitzgerald, who received an M.F.A. in 1991, says she "grew to love" Bloomington and is particularly grateful for the opportunity to teach creative writing. She is looking forward to having a collection of her short stories, All You Can Eat, published in the fall of 1996 by St. Martin's Press. Fitzgerald shares the one-year DePauw appointment with her husband J. D. Scrimgeour, who received an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from IU in 1994. Scrimgeour, who was the assistant director of the Indiana University Writers' Conference for four years, calls IU's faculty "remarkably supportive" and says he was strongly influenced by Komunyakaa and Wojahn. Scrimgeour, who has had twenty poems published in literary magazines, has fond memories of weekly meetings with fellow poets at the Runcible Spoon restaurant. "Very quickly you get on a first-name basis as a graduate student," he says. That sense of community is important to a developing writer. "When you're a writer, you're not so much in pursuit of a course of study as a way of life," points out Clint McCown, an associate professor of English at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. McCown, who received his M.F.A. in 1985, was so impressed with IU's program that he recommended the program to current students Peter Thomas and Tenaya Darlington.

Jim Brock, a visiting assistant professor of English at Idaho State University, casts his IU experience in romantic terms and credits his motivation and confidence to the exposure he received in IU's program in the early 1980s when the M.F.A. in the Creative Writing Program was in its formative years. Among the first graduates to receive an M.F.A. (1984), Brock says there were aspects of being a pioneer in new territory. "We felt powerful . . . [that] we were forming something, creating something new . . . . It was the first time in my life that I was a part of a community of writers, not always having to explain what I was doing." Brock, who went on to receive a Ph.D. in American literature in 1992, says his IU experience "solidified a number of things" in his life as a writer, particularly the ins and outs of publishing. He is grateful to Mitchell, who challenged him to consider the "larger questions" of his poetry. Taking four small poems about the 1972 Sunshine mine accident in his native Idaho—the central focus of his work at IU—he reworked them and combined them with book reviews, letters, and excerpts from diaries to produce The Sunshine Mine Disaster, published last fall by the University of Idaho Press. The work is something of a political statement about past and present forces in Idaho.

While most alumni and students dote on the "big-name visitors and world class culture" they find in Bloomington, in the words of Jeff Gundy, a professor of English at Bluffton College in Ohio (M.A., 1978, Ph.D., 1983), others thrive on the multicultural experience. Dan Bourne, an associate professor of English at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, finds it hard to separate his graduate school experiences at IU Bloomington from his ventures into foreign-language study. Having been an exchange student and Fulbright Scholar in Poland, he has enjoyed the cross-fetilization process and the opportunity to perfect his grasp of English while translating Polish. A 1987 M.F.A. graduate, he has also enjoyed editing a literary journal, Artful Dodge, which he started in 1979 while at IU and took with him to Wooster. Last year a volume of his poetry, The Household Gods, was published by Cleveland State University. In like manner, Omar Castaneda, a native Guatemalan who received his M.F.A. in 1983, has enjoyed considerable success as a fiction writer for the adult, young adult, and children's markets, particularly on Hispanic issues, racism, and social issues. A 1993 winner of the Nylon Award in Minority Fiction, the associate professor of English at Western Washington University enjoys writing in irreal modes and using "unreliable" narrators.

Many people consider the ability to craft stanzas and stories a true gift. But after waxing philosophical for three hours last fall with his roommate, Jennifer Grotz, also in the program, Chris Green concluded that IU's Creative Writing Program is itself "a real gift" to those in the program. When one stops to think that it often takes someone a year to get to know and understand someone else's writing, the prospect of three years of close supervision and guidance is a truly generous offer, he reasons. As student writers observe the self-awareness journies of others, they become compelled, he says, to pause and consider: what is this life of writing going to mean for me and how are these three years going to serve as a foundation for it?

--Bob Baird