IU's Creative Writing Program: Past, Present, and Future

When Indiana University established the second creative writing program in the nation in 1948, it set a precedent that has been followed by nearly every other creative writing program established since that time: it developed its program within the English department. "Although the University of Iowa had already established its program in the '30s," Roger Mitchell, a poet and professor of English on the Bloomington campus who has taught in IU's writing program since 1975, explains, "Iowa from the outset established its creative writing program separate from an English department. There is only one other department that I know of in the country since that time that has followed that lead, and that is Johns Hopkins. Every other program in the country has followed the lead of IU."

Two factors may have prompted IU to begin offering an Master of Arts in creative writing in the late 1940s. The university had been hosting a writers conference since 1940, which perhaps sparked interest in creative writing among IU's English professors. In addition, "it was right after the war, and this was the beginning of a transformation of American universities," Mitchell notes. "The student body changed; there were new interests out there."

brochure A young fiction writer named Peter Taylor, who was associated with a group of scholars called the New Critics, was brought to the Bloomington campus to found the program. Initially, the M.A. in creative writing was merely a modified M.A. in literature. Two of the seminars required for the literature degree were replaced with creative writing workshops, and a creative rather than critical or literary thesis was required. The program produced its first graduate, poet David Wagoner, in 1949. Taylor, who remained at IU only a few years, was succeeded by fiction writer William Wilson and poet Samuel Yellen, who both taught creative writing until the early 1970s.

By the time Mitchell arrived on campus in 1975, IU was beginning to have trouble attracting top creative writing students because it did not offer a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, a degree that had begun to be offered at other universities in the 1950s and ‘60s. By adding the M.F.A. in creative writing in 1980, "We opened ourselves up to a larger group of students," Mitchell explains. The addition of the M.F.A. was also an impetus for the department to add more faculty. Today, although there are more applicants in fiction (students must choose either fiction or poetry when applying), the Bloomington faculty has finally achieved a balance. Of the eight professors in the Creative Writing Program, four are poets and four are fiction writers (the fourth just joined the faculty this fall). One of the fiction writers also writes nonfiction.

brochure While there is no M.F.A. program at IU for nonfiction writers, Mitchell says the nonfiction writing course offered within the Creative Writing Program is very popular. "There has been an interest for some time in blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, fiction and poetry," he says, suggesting that creative writing is perhaps best defined not by a narrow focus on fact or fiction, but by the nature of the "authorial presence." Creative writing is "powerfully driven by the author, by an authorial presence, and that's what probably can spill into nonfiction and make that kind of thing creative rather than critical," Mitchell says.

Over nine hundred students take a creative writing course at IU each year, but no more than twelve graduate students are admitted to the Creative Writing Program annually. Most of the students who pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing at IU want to teach at the university level, but "there are noticeable numbers who go off willingly into other areas such as editing," Mitchell notes. For Mitchell, combining teaching with writing has been rewarding. "Being able to teach English has continuously fed my writing," he says. "I have sometimes written poems in response to some of my students' poems, and I respond all the time to the literature I read to teach."

brochure For M.F.A. in creative writing candidates at IU who do wish to teach, receiving their degree from a program that exists within an English department may stand them in good stead. "We require our students to take sixteen hours of graduate literature courses," Mitchell says. "Because of this heavy literature component, a graduate can present himself or herself as someone who could teach literature courses at an undergraduate level." He also notes that creative writing graduate students at IU have the opportunity to teach creative writing as well as composition. In many programs, graduate students teach only composition courses. This breadth of experience prepares graduates of the IU program "for life in a real English department where creative writing teaching opportunities might be limited," Mitchell says.

Creative writing students at IU also benefit from the presence of the Indiana University Writers' Conference on the Bloomington campus each summer. The five-day conference, which has been described by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as "the most respectable writers' conference I know," attracts nationally known writers to teach classes, lead workshops, and give readings and talks. Mitchell, who directed the conference for ten years, says, "What writers' conferences have done and perhaps still do is to charge people's batteries. The spark is fading, or they've been too long in wherever it is, some little town somewhere, and all of a sudden they throw themselves into a place where there are 100 or 150 other people like themselves. It is one of the most energizing experiences you can have."

Other experiences that can stimulate students are attending and giving readings. For the past three years, the Students' Choice Readings series has brought acclaimed poets and fiction writers to IU Bloomington to read. Writers including John Ashberry, T. C. Boyle, Charles Simic, James Tate, and Jamaica Kincaid have given readings at IU as part of this series. Graduate students in creative writing also give their own readings. Each of the well-attended readings usually pairs a poet and a fiction writer. IU's M.F.A. in creative writing candidates further immerse themselves in the world of contemporary writing by editing Indiana Review, a nationally recognized literary journal. The journal, which prints poems, short stories, author interviews, and book reviews, has been published for more than fifteen years. The editor and associate editor of the journal are always graduate students in creative writing—one in poetry, the other in fiction.

brochure Reflecting on how teaching creative writing has evolved over the twenty years he has been at IU, Mitchell says, "The biggest change is that creative writing as I knew it when I started teaching back in the early ‘60s was something that you did only if you wanted to." Now, however, some students, such as education majors preparing to teach English, must take a creative writing course to fulfill degree requirements. This has caused Mitchell and other creative writing professors at IU to rethink their teaching strategies. "The way I learned creative writing, the original mechanism, was the workshop," Mitchell says. In a workshop, each participant submits a piece of writing and it is critiqued by the group. The effectiveness of this method for teaching beginners has been questioned in recent years, according to Mitchell. Less critical methods such as free writing and "sharing," in which students read their work to the class and peers make only positive comments, are being used more often in introductory creative writing courses. For more advanced writers, however, the workshop is still considered useful, but Mitchell points out that it has its limitations. "You could put Paradise Lost in front of a workshop and any good workshop would find ways to criticize it. Also, as much as peer evaluation is useful and instructive, the best teachers are and always will be the great writers that a writer cares for." Looking ahead, Mitchell believes that the teaching of creative writing in universities "has or will shortly reach some limit, defined I suppose by there being less and less of a job market for graduates with M.F.A.'s, unless creative writing evolves and develops in directions I think it is already moving in, namely in the direction of becoming a version of composition or way of doing composition, or in the direction of being a tool of self-expression or something like therapy." He notes that he has seen at least one university advertising an M.F.A. in "professional writing." This new twist on the M.F.A. is designed to "teach you how to write commercially or make money with your writing," Mitchell says.

A booming job market and the opportunity to make a lot of money probably are not, however, the primary reasons students chose to pursue M.F.A.'s in creative writing. "People want help with their writing, and they also want a writing community. I think that has been a real draw of creative writing programs," Mitchell says. "Many writers that we know or who are making names for themselves now have been through an M.F.A. program or something like it." While some critics claim that M.F.A. programs have become conventional and traditional and that they may tend to homogenize creative work by giving all writers similar experiences and outlooks, Mitchell asserts that M.F.A. programs are simply part of the current cultural mechanism for producing writers. "Shakespeare didn't get an M.F.A., but if Shakespeare were alive today, you can be sure he would get an M.F.A. Shakespeare did what was culturally available to him at the time, which was writing plays for the very popular Elizabethan theater," Mitchell says. Although he believes pursuing an M.F.A. is a useful mechanism for becoming a writer, Mitchell readily acknowledges its limitations. "I find myself saying to students, you don't need an M.F.A. to write. If you've got some other way to do it, then you ought to explore that option. An M.F.A. isn't a license to write, and it doesn't guarantee you are going to write, but if you are looking for personal help and encouragement for your writing, there is nothing better."

--Heather Shupp