Yale’s Creative Writing Program: ‘A center for literature as a living art’

Susan Choi ’90 may be the author of four critically-acclaimed novels, the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, but that didn’t lessen the thrill that she felt when she was invited to return to her alma mater to teach in its Creative Writing Program.

Choi, who will be teaching four fiction writing courses in the Creative Writing Program during the academic year, is among numerous distinguished professional writers who are invited to teach in the program each year. Some of them, like Choi, are alumni who return to the university to act as contemporary role models for the students in the program.

The Creative Writing Program was established due to a growing student demand. “It was the best way to provide a structure for the faculty to be as successful and productive as possible and also to service the students in the ways that they really want and need,” says Richard Deming, director of the Creative Writing Program.

YaleNews recently spoke with Deming to discuss the “energy and insights” that these alumni bring to campus, and to Choi about why she believes that creative writing is “the most wonderful occupation” to pursue.

The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell us about the recent changes to the Creative Writing Program.

Richard Deming: In the English department, we feel that creative writing is the living element of literature. By establishing the Creative Writing Program, we were able to give a sense of the energy and enthusiasm across the institution that is and has been flowing into creative writing. It was something that we had really been moving towards for years as more and more students want to take creative writing classes — not only English majors but students from across campus. Establishing this program provides both the faculty and students with a kind of infrastructure. It is also a way of acknowledging our faculty who are beyond compare and are pillars in the field. We wanted to create a conversation across campus while still maintaining our identity within the English department.

What drew you to return to your alma mater and teach in its Creative Writing Program?

Susan Choi: I have taught creative writing for years at many other fantastic places, including Princeton, Columbia, and Beloit College in Wisconsin, and every time I’ve had a class of really engaged and passionate undergraduates it has made me think about Yale and how nice it would be to teach here, too. When Yale approached me about the possibility I was thrilled.

Why is important to have alumni come back to Yale to teach in the program?

RD: Having these distinguished writers here as part of the community helps enliven the conversations on campus and continually brings new energy and insights to our evolving program. As alumni, they already know the campus and already feel at home. They have the ability to identify with the students because they can remember and imagine themselves in the same position as the students. For students, it is a wonderful opportunity to work with these contemporary role models. They can see someone who went through the process of being a Yale undergraduate and went out into the world and became a writer — someone who didn’t just dream it, but actually achieved it.

What other campus departments or initiatives are affiliated with this program?

RD: You name it! Many students choose to balance their interests in science, say, or economics with English classes and many marry  two disciplines together. One of the most gratifying things about Yale students is that they have this sort of catholic sensibility, and they want to do lots of different things. We have had computer science majors who were fantastic writers and I can’t wait for their first book! It is one of the most exciting things about Yale, that people have this breadth of opportunity to explore.

What guidance would you give to a Yale undergraduate who is considering a career in writing?

SC: Write for the sheer pleasure of writing, write as regularly as possible — ideally, every day — and do not expect to make money. Writing is the most wonderful occupation, in my opinion, because every aspect of your experience is relevant, everything is grist for the mill. But if you come into it expecting fame and fortune — or even financial stability — you are probably in the wrong field.

How do you choose who will teach classes each year?

RD: We have a creative writing committee, and we rely on conversations with our colleagues to determine who would make a terrific teacher. While celebrity is enticing, it is really the commitment to teaching and that dynamic in the classroom that matters most.

What makes this program distinctive from similar programs at peer institutions?

RD: There are many institutions where students have to wait until they are juniors or seniors to be able to work with these professional writers. Here, students can take classes as early as freshman year and build a portfolio throughout their four years on campus. By senior year, they become English majors and undertake a writing concentration project  or, alternately, they can just take one or two classes and pursue a major in geography. You can be a freshman and take a class with some of America’s most celebrated novelists. There are not many institutions where that is the case. Students have a range of possibilities that they can draw from and not feel like they are limited to a certain aesthetic.

We designed a class called Introduction to Creative Writing (English 123), which has three sections of 15 students each, all of which meet at the same time. The class covers drama, fiction, and poetry. We wanted to give students experience with different genres. They produce a portfolio of writing samples that they can use to get into more advanced classes. To me, one of the most interesting elements of this class is that at the beginning and end of a genre all three sections come together for a visit by a practitioner. The last two years it has coincided with the Windham Campbell festival, and so two of the authors came to the class to talk about writing fiction. We also feature faculty members who come to talk to discuss their work as practitioners in the field. We want to impart to the students that to write is to be part of a community. Writing is a very solitary endeavor but one that is nurtured by community. We set up opportunities in which students can interact with one another.

What are the plans for the future for the program?

RD: We want the program to become a center for literature as a living art. We want students to feel supported in undertaking their own endeavors — such as creating a magazine or reading series — with support from the faculty. We are also exploring the possibilities of widening the spectrum of creative writing classes we offer.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,