Creative Writing Program Rankings

“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.

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Richard Ford, an early product of the University of California at Irvine writing program, eventually won a Pulitzer for his novel Independence Day. This measure often seems more meaningful when a newly minted writer has a quick success that seems directly related to having been in a particular program.

But Ford didn’t really break through as a writer until he published The Sportswriter in 1986, some 16 years after getting his M. (Chabon won the 2001 Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.) Alice Sebold’s memoir about being raped, Lucky, began as a 10-page writing assignment in an Irvine class.

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Over the past few decades, these programs have produced some of America's best-known and best-loved authors, and continue to train the next generation of American literary figures.

While every writer has his or her own favorite when it comes to these prestigious writers' workshops, here are a few we think are the biggest and the best in the U.

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.

Across the continent, Boston University’s program director, Leslie Epstein, speaks of a particular group that has cemented BU’s reputation. One shorter-term measure might be the annual Best New American Voices anthology, which publishes student work from graduate writing programs as well as from a host of non-degree-granting conferences and fellowships.

It includes Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Peter Ho Davies, all of whom were quickly and resoundingly acclaimed after graduation. Each program nominates two stories a year, and each entry is read blind by the final editor. program at Columbia; her win was duly celebrated by proud announcements from both programs. In the simplest matrix for judging creative-writing programs, the first question is: Which well-known authors attended?


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