Faculty, alumni mark first 50 years of SU’s creative writing program
Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from a forthcoming article in the Stone Canoe arts journal (Syracuse University, 2013). The article is intended to raise awareness of and support for the Raymond Carver Reading Series and for the creative writing program, in general. Please click here if you would like to support the Carver Series or Creative Writing or both. Thank you.
Raymond Carver said that the secret of good writing wasn’t talent—there’s plenty of that around, he added—but a person’s ability to put his signature on everything he does.
“A writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time,” he said.
Surely this ethos was alive and well in the early Eighties, when Carver taught in the creative writing program in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Since then, his commitment to capturing the world “according to one’s specifications” has become an inspiration to poets and authors everywhere.
It’s no secret that SU’s creative writing program is one of the nation’s best. Nary a year goes by in which some faculty member doesn’t bring home a major award or honor, such as a Guggenheim, MacArthur “Genius” Grant, or National Book Award nomination. Further validation comes from Poets & Writers magazine, which ranks SU’s program the fifth best in the country. Michael Goode, chair of SU’s English department, says the distinction confirms what everybody in the field already knows—“our M.F.A. program is among the best out there.”
Ever since Margaret Habrect G’65 was the first student to enroll in the program 50 years ago, Creative Writing has been launching the careers of authors, poets, scholars, and teachers. Every year, hundreds of applicants from around the world—approximately 500 fiction writers and 150 poets--vie for a mere dozen openings. Part of the allure is the faculty, which is front-loaded with talent. Mary Karr, George Saunders G’88 (below left), Dana Spiotta, and Bruce Smith are just some of the professors one might bump into in the Hall of Languages or Tolley Humanities Building.
Former faculty members include Tobias Wolff, Mary Gaitskill, Douglas Unger, Tess Gallagher, and Junot Díaz (who, at the time of this writing, is a MacArthur Grant recipient and an NBA finalist), as well as the dearly departed crew of Carver, Philip Booth, Donald Justice, Hayden Carruth, W.D. Snodgrass, and Delmore Schwartz.
If proof of a successful creative writing program is turning out one notable writer per decade (a metric often used with the Writer’s Workshop at The University of Iowa), SU is well ahead of the pack. A snapshot of former students and alumni might include M.T. Anderson G’98; Stephen Dunn G’70; Phil LaMarche G’03; Jay McInerney G’86; Claire Messud (who attended in 1989-90); Iain Pollock G’07; Tom Perrotta G’88; and Cheryl Strayed G’02, who is enjoying national celebrity with her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012).
Director Christopher Kennedy G’88 attributes the program’s success to its star faculty, many of whom have been hired before hitting it big. “I mean, we get Raymond Carver before he becomes Raymond Carver, Toby Wolff before he’s Toby Wolff, George before he’s George Saunders. And Dana Spiotta—she’s everywhere you look,” he says during a recent office meeting. “Syracuse hires people who want to teach, and who are good at managing their time between teaching and writing.”
For a program that got a late start compared to, say, Iowa’s or Stanford’s, SU’s prides itself on selectivity and personalized attention. Creative Writing is composed of 36 students in two divisions (fiction and poetry), who are taught by eight full-time faculty members. Each professor is not only a consummate writer, but also a dedicated teacher, closely involved with the inner workings of the program and with the intellectual lives of his or her students. That each student receives a full scholarship, in addition to an annual stipend, gives the program added value.
“We don’t want our students to worry about money while they’re here,” says Kennedy. “We want them to hone their craft and nothing else. It keeps the process pure.”
Karr agrees. “We get writers who are slightly older and understand the wisdom of not needing to work four part-time jobs or to go into thousands of dollars of debt. … It’s important that we invest in our students."
A WRITER'S DREAM
SU’s creative writing program unofficially began in 1891 at the Delta Upsilon house, where Stephen Crane penned fiction in his upstairs bedroom. He wasn’t much of a student, completing only one course in a single year at two different colleges, but his desire to report on what couldn’t be taught in the classroom (e.g., prostitution) made him a gritty author. Crane’s coming-out party was the 1895 novella The Red Badge of Courage, which did wonders for his career and the area’s reputation. Years later, other notable writers, including Lillian Hellman, Toni Morrison, and David Foster Wallace, would find their way to the Salt City.
What’s not to like about Syracuse? The combination of long winters, cheap housing, and the close proximity to New York City (the publishing capital of the world) is all a writer needs. Arts and Sciences alumni Shirley Jackson ’40, John A. Williams ’50, and Joyce Carol Oates ’60, H’00 thought so. They were already best-selling authors by the time the creative writing program roared out of the gate in 1963. Other undergraduates who went on to shape the program (or to be influenced by it) were William Safire ’51, H’78; Alice Sebold ’84; Koren Zailckas ’02; and Steve Sheinkin ’90, another 2012 NBA finalist.
Many writers chalk up SU’s allure to a certain mystique or romanticism. For example, one would be hard-pressed to talk about Creative Writing without mentioning Delmore Schwartz, who famously mentored Lou Reed ‘64. “I will always love Syracuse for giving me the opportunity to study with him,” the gravel-voiced rocker told a packed room in Manhattan, several years ago. “Delmore inspired me to write, and, to this day, I draw inspiration from his stories, poems, and essays. His titles, alone, were a writer’s dream.”
As SU’s program gained traction, so did its students. Novelists Mary Gordon G’73 and Jay McInerney succeeded by dint of hard work and helped usher the program into a kind of golden age. At the center of it all were Carver and Wolff (below), soon to become the best fiction writers of their generation.
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Carver achieved critical success in 1976 with the short-story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (McGraw-Hill). Other volumes followed, many of which drew on his experiences as the child of a small-town sawmill operator. Carver quickly amassed a large following, as well as his share of imitators, before dying of lung cancer at the age of 50.
“Anybody who knew Ray knew what a serious artist he was,” says Karr. “He had enormous enthusiasm for other people’s work. I remember Ray reading my poems and stories when I was in my twenties, and him being very encouraging.”
Karr recalls an article Wolff published in Esquire, shortly after Carver’s death in 1988. “The piece Toby wrote spoke of a kind of tribal connection he had with Ray,” she says. “Here were two sincere writers who didn’t care about making millions of dollars or getting their faces plastered on billboards. They were simply devoted to the art of writing. It’s almost religious, if you think about it.”
Perhaps no one benefited more from Carver’s insight than McInerney, who shot to fame as a student with Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage, 1984). The renowned novelist and wine columnist has credited both Carver and Wolff for teaching him “a hell of a lot about writing, about the basic craft … that has to be mastered before you can do original work.”
When McInerney (left) arrived on campus in 1981, the jet-setting student had already been married and worked for The New Yorker and for TIME-LIFE Books in Japan. It didn’t take long for him to publish his first short story in The Paris Review or to polish off the initial draft of Bright Lights, Big City, notable for its use of second-person narrative and explicit drug references. By the time he graduated, McInerney was a bona fide star, with a second novel under his belt and a film adaptation on the way.
McInerney also credits Carver and Wolff for “helping him to find his way.” “Their styles were completely different,” he tells me during a recent airline layover. “Carver treated his work like a living thing, and was not bound to it. He’d nurse it along. Toby was more methodical, and viewed writing like a watch, which could be taken apart and reconstructed. He was also very objective with his teaching.”
Like Carver, Wolff was a product of the Pacific Northwest and a consummate storyteller. Yet as a writer and teacher, the latter’s style was vastly different.
A member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces in Vietnam, Wolff has channeled many of his wartime experiences into sharply etched stories and longer works, including his novel The Barracks Thief (Ecco, 1984) and his memoir In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War (Vintage, 1995). Wolff’s collection of short stories includes In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Ecco, 1981). Another memoir, This Boy’s Life (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989), was made into a film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.
George Saunders was one of many writers fortunate enough to study under Wolff. “He was as good a teaching mentor as he was a writing mentor,” says Saunders. “Plus, it was a pretty big time in the life of the program. Ray Carver was here, as was [poet] Hayden Carruth, and Jay McInerney had just published ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ and was the most famous writer in America.”
Tom Perrotta G’88 was a classmate of Saunders’ who also learned from Wolff. “I recall Toby reading an excerpt from ‘This Boy’s Life,” says Perrotta. “The book was still in progress at the time, and the excerpt he was reading was amazing—funny and mortifying and deeply moving. It was one of those great moments when you realize you are in the presence of something special.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Cheryl Strayed remembers it like yesterday—new student orientation for the creative writing program. “Brooks Haxton stood up and told us that we were all there to be writers,” she says. “Nobody had ever said that to me before. I knew it was a tremendous gift then, and I know it even more now.”
Despite enormous changes in the field (e.g., the proliferation of e-publishing, low-residency programs, and online courses), SU has remained loyal to fostering creativity and strong writing skills. Strayed (below left) is the latest example of alumna-done-good. She is currently the proud owner of two New York Times bestsellers, including Wild, which was the inaugural selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 and has been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon's production company.
"What hasn't changed is the fact that becoming a good fiction writer requires years of dedication, learning, and growth,” says Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, which has published pieces by George Saunders, Mary Karr, Dana Spiotta, and other SU writers. “The best thing a writing class can do is save the writer some time—both by requiring him or her to produce a lot of work in a short amount of time and by forcing him or her to experiment and actively develop his or her voice.”
Fostering collegiality is also important, says Karr. “The secret of our program is not just the students, but the openness of and connection among the faculty,” she says, with a hint of emotion. “I see my students go into SU, and come out with this exceptional shift in knowledge.”
Spiotta (left), author of the award-winning novel Stone Arabia (Scribner, 2011), knows what Karr is talking about. She and other female writers at SU, for example, have made strong contributions toward issues of gender, literary credibility, and critical acceptance in the industry.
“We have wonderful women in our program who are ambitious and brilliant,” says Spiotta, known for her sometimes difficult and complex female characters. “In 10 years, the literary world will probably be quite different, when it comes to how women writers are perceived. I like to think that our students will be the vanguard of a movement of fierce writers who happen to be women.”
Probably more than anyone, poets Brooks Haxton G’81 and Michael Burkard exemplify the dramatic range of the program’s faculty. Haxton exhibits all the outstanding traits of a Southern gentleman, as well as a flair for classical languages. Students and alumni repeatedly cite him as one of their most favorite professors. “I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the tutelage of Brooks Haxton,” says Iain Pollock, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. “I’m particularly thankful for being exposed to the plain-spoken school of poetry, which helped to assuage some of my florid and long-winded predilections (which you may be noticing right now).”
Strayed is equally appreciative of Burkard. “I will always be indebted to him for all the wisdom he shared with me about writing and for his kindness and support,” she says. “Michael made me feel like there was something real happening at SU.”
Haxton and Burkard quickly deflect such praise onto their colleagues. “From the formal invention and virtuosity of Donald Justice and W.D. Snodgrass to the passionate empathy and urgency of Hayden Carruth and the experimental freedom of Michael Burkard, Syracuse has always had various aesthetic approaches,” says Haxton. “As a student, I had the great luck of studying with Hayden, who was a dazzlingly intelligent, learned, and imaginative writer. He was also probably the best teacher I ever had. And Ray Carver—many people don’t know that he was a first-rate poet. His practice as a teacher, like his writing, was highly intuitive.”
With his shock of gray hair and perennial five o’clock shadow, Burkard is probably about as close as one gets to the starving-artist stereotype. But appearances can be misleading; the oft-disheveled Burkard is not only an accomplished poet, but also a sought-after teacher of community writing.
“Arthur Flowers’ reading-performances—his invocations and musicality, the tonality with his work—well, I could see them again and again and again,” says Burkard. “Bruce Smith is the same way. His latest book, ‘Devotions,’ is like a big jazz solo. It’s very rhythmic and musical. I just love it.”
A self-described “unorthodox minority voice,” Flowers says he was hired in the mid-Nineties to give the program some color. (No pun intended.) Since then, he has arguably done more than anyone on faculty to expand the modalities of storytelling. His presentations often include singing and drumming, and have taken him all over the world, from bohemian dives in Greenwich Village, to the Lotus Stage in Bali (Indonesia), to the Hotel Diggi Palace in Rajasthan (India).
Flowers (left) is particularly excited about transmedia publishing—a passion instilled in him by his students. “We are constantly influenced by the young guns we bring into the program,” Flowers says on the phone from Syracuse. “During my first class at SU, I had one student, Jeff Parker [G’99], who introduced me to the concept of hypertext fiction. Since then, I’ve been trying to build a digital persona that’s as lasting as my print one.”
As the creative writing program prepares to usher in the next 50 years, it’s a given that some things will change—such as how technology is utilized in the classroom—and others will not. “Thank the Muses we have no common aesthetic or teaching style,” Smith says. “Or maybe there is one: care and scrupulous attention and commitment to developing writers.”
Perhaps Carver was on to something when he said that the writer gets the final word, in so far as the word is ever final. His death may have cut short a career, but it certainly didn’t diminish his legacy—and the impact he has had on the possibilities of creative writing.
“That's all we have, finally, the words,” Carver prophetically said before his death, “and they had better be the right ones.”
Read the entire article in Stone Canoe: A Journal of Arts, Literature, and Social Commentary, No. 7 (Syracuse University, 2013).
To support the creative writing program, visit thecollege.syr.edu, and click on Giving under Alumni & Friends.