Best Creative Writing

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Delaney discusses the country's best graduate writing programs and how to compare them.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop can be found in a quaint wooden house at the north end of the University of Iowa campus.

For all those reasons, the question of which programs are “best” has value beyond just “writer talk,” and the answers—there are many—aren’t always easy to determine.

One prominent consideration in rating these programs is, of course, reputation itself.

“Most of us are still walking around amazed we got in,” says Drew Keenan, a 34-year-old former software engineer from San Francisco who gave that life up to spend the two years in Iowa’s M. Determining which writing programs are best is an alchemy of hearsay, tenuous connectors, certain measurable facts, and one’s own predilections about the art of writing.

The number of graduate creative-writing programs has risen from about 50 three decades ago to perhaps 300 now.Upstairs, in an unused office, are 16 large boxes of alumni books for which no shelf space is yet available.In a wire basket, on the desk of program associate Connie Brothers, are dozens of clipped reviews of recent books.Almost exclusively from that sample of 10 to 50 pages or so, the selectors must try to divine talent, ambition, teachability, and collegiality—the four critical elements of the ideal apprentice writer’s makeup.Ha Jin says, “Looking at the writing samples allows you to get to a list of 30 to 40 out of the 300.The Iowa Writers’ Workshop may be the best example of a program possessing an aura that puts it high on everyone’s list: A common refrain is “Everyone applies to Iowa because it’s Iowa.” The Iowa franchise, which had a three-decade head start on just about everyone else, has become bigger than any of its measurable components. But one source of reputation is the work and the renown of a program’s graduates.Among those thousands of would-be writers who apply, many are driven by the implied example of other notable writers who have emerged from one or another program. And by the time success truly comes to pass, judging a writing program by that success can be like observing a star burning brightly in the sky after it imploded an eon ago.In the series, published by Harcourt, the submissions of Iowa students have been selected more times than those from any other degree program, though both Virginia and Florida State have consistently had strong showings. “Program hoppers,” who might study briefly at two or more programs, or even get multiple M. The other question must be: Which well-known authors teach there?(Oddly, Columbia, always considered a top program, has placed none.) A seemingly accelerating trend is that of students graduating from two or more programs. This particular scorecard celebrates the kind of fame that attends a writer who has achieved that rarest of feats: name recognition derived from writing literary fiction. Doctorow and the poets Philip Levine and Sharon Olds. “You’ll find a lot of people who run programs desperately trying to eliminate the attitude that nothing is really possible in these classes.” At Iowa, some of the faculty members work in large offices where their classes and workshops also meet, like one-room schoolhouses.In the sense that a workshop is a meeting of working artists, however, “the work of a faculty member is extraordinarily important,” Marcus says. Iowa director Lan Samantha Chang says Iowa had about 1,300 applicants for its 50 total slots.“It shows students their professor is laboring away, just as they are.” Programs such as those at Virginia, Syracuse, and UC-Irvine take as few as five or six students a year in fiction, and five or six in poetry, while Iowa takes 25 in each and Columbia takes about 35 in each. “We say we would, if we felt the quality of the pool argued for it.

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