JULIE SCHUMACHER is a model of composure. The acclaimed novelist, short-story writer, and director of the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Minnesota, speaks calmly, laughs easily, and discusses her work with aplomb. But there’s one question that drives the self-possessed Schumacher to distraction: “Can creative writing be taught?”
“No one asks, ‘Can music be taught?’ or ‘Can painting be taught?’ or ‘Can dance be taught?’ ” Schumacher fumes. “No, you sign your kid up for dance lessons because it’s good for the soul.” Why should the art of writing, she wonders, be approached any differently? Still, as director of one of the nation’s rising graduate programs in creative writing, Schumacher will have more than the well-being of souls in mind: she wants to help students, as she puts it, place writing “at the center of their lives.”
In the next several months, six recent alumni of the program will publish books. In a literary landscape saturated with manuscripts in search of a publisher, this is no small feat. And if publication is one marker of literary achievement, then the fact that alumni are finding homes for their work suggests the answer to the question of whether creative writing can be taught is, at least in part, yes.
At the same time, studying writing is different, in important ways, from training to be an EMT or even a scholar of literature: there is no single manual or path one follows to create a poem. The very root of great writing—creativity—remains mysterious. On the nature of creativity, Leonard Cohen has said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.” So what does the U’s MFA program—designed to burnish and refine something that is not particularly well understood in the first place—provide so effectively?
First: guidance. The faculty includes such luminaries as poet, memoirist, and Macarthur “Genius” Award–winner Patricia Hampl and National Book Award finalist Charles Baxter, though the classroom experience described by their students has less to do with learning secrets from wise elders than being helped to understand their own work more clearly.
Brian Malloy, a 2006 graduate with two forthcoming novels (Brendan Wolf and Twelve Long Months), says Hampl and Baxter helped him expand his “tool kit” for writing fiction. “Now I understand the great middle of the novel, how to sustain tension and weave parts together,” he says. “I also have a better understanding of writing nonfiction—that sometimes the more personal the story, the more universal it becomes.”
Poet and novelist Yuko Taniguchi, who graduated in 2001, says having St. Paul poet Jim Moore as a thesis advisor helped her understand her unique strengths. The relationship didn’t begin auspiciously, however: having read her poetry manuscript, Moore told Taniguchi that he was worried when he learned they would be working together—he thought her first seven poems were no good. “I didn’t panic,” Taniguchi says, “I just listened.”
Moore then described how her eighth poem—about Taniguchi’s husband, a nurse—fizzed with a special kind of energy that could lead the reader from one poem to the next. The manuscript became the basis for her first book, Foreign Wife Elegy. (Her novel, The Ocean in the Closet, is due out this spring.) “The best lesson was watching how he taught me,” Taniguchi says. “He’d say, ‘You have to find out for yourself.’ ” And those first seven poems? “Maybe I’ll publish them someday,” Taniguchi declares with a laugh, “in a collection called Against Jim.”
While the program’s curriculum is set, students can customize their education. A novelist may take a nonfiction class. A memoirist may study poetry. Taniguchi, a poetry student, took Schumacher’s fiction class. This flexibility is central to the program, Schumacher says: “It encourages you to test your wings. The faculty, too, move across genres; we model this fluidity for students.”
Fluidity need not be limited to writing. Éireann Lorsung, a 2006 graduate whose first poetry collection will be published by Milkweed Editions this spring, studied printmaking as well as poetry. “In poetry, you get caught up with trying to make the one perfect thing; in printmaking, you get to make limitless things, so you can mess around,” she says. “Plus, the ritual activity of printmaking provided a place for the poems to germinate.” Malloy, not content to sit hunched over a desk, took classes in horseback riding and strength training in addition to studying writing. “I actually lost some body fat as part of the MFA program,” he says.
Weight loss may not have been on the minds of the MFA program’s founders 10 years ago, but you could say that the program has become more muscular since its inception. After receiving an Edelstein-Keller Endowment in 1986 to bring nationally known writers to campus, English department faculty developed the university’s first graduate-level creative writing coursework. Having studied programs at other schools—particularly the University of Iowa and Columbia University—they conceived a three-year curriculum offering close faculty attention and opportunities for cross-pollination. Many MFA programs are only two years, but, Schumacher explains, “Three years takes the edge off. It gives [students] enough time to write a book.”
Students are also now required to perform a “thesis defense”—an intense meeting in which they present their final, book-length manuscript to a faculty committee and field questions about their work. The defense gives students an opportunity to think about and situate their own work within the larger literary landscape. “They have to defend the choices they’ve made,” Schumacher says. “Students come out of the defenses really energized.” And the sessions can take many forms. Laurie Lindeen, a 2004 graduate, turned her defense into a concert—a fitting capstone for a writer whose memoir, Petal Pusher, due to be published this spring, recounts life as the front woman for the raucous Minneapolis band Zuzu’s Petals.
“What we want to offer people is time, community, and feedback,” says Schumacher. “We’re not promising jobs, and we don’t create scholars. But everyone leaves with a sense that writing is something they can incorporate into their lives.” That said, the teaching fellowships that the program provides not only offset tuition but also help some graduates find the career stability they need to continue to write. Alex Lemon, for instance, a 2004 poetry graduate whose book Mosquito generated terrific buzz ahead of its release this fall, now has students of his own as a creative writing instructor at Macalester College in St. Paul. “Without that teaching experience,” he says of his work and study at the U, “I’d never have gotten a job when I graduated.”
What the MFA program’s founding fathers and mothers could not have envisioned was the impact the students themselves would have on each other. “Without a doubt,” Lorsung says, “my best instruction came from my peers. We each read each other’s manuscripts several times. People who are good to each other—this really helps in making strong work. I felt I got really thoughtful criticism, not just, ‘Oh, you’re doing amazing work.’ ”
The energizing power of a writing community—or, as Schumacher puts it, “three years of people who don’t think you’re crazy”—cannot be overestimated. As Taniguchi emphasizes, “I felt I was allowed to grow when I was exposed to kindness and generosity from other writers.” On the other hand, Lorsung’s main advice to potential creative writing students is “You have to be willing to do your own work by yourself.” Lemon concurs: “I think the most important thing they taught me was how to be self-sufficient—and made me realize that in the end, only I can really make my writing sing.”
At the close of the day (or at the beginning, depending on one’s own creative rhythms), writing is an encounter between an individual soul and a piece of paper, a computer screen, or ketchup-stained napkin. What an MFA program—and the U’s program in particular—provides writers is the opportunity to learn how to make the most of that encounter. The process, says program coordinator Kathleen Glasgow, is thrilling to watch: “Students come into the program saying, ‘I have these six poems. Will I be able to put together a book?’ And they do. It’s amazing.”
J. D. Nordell is a Minneapolis writer.
Hey, Good Bookin’
A summary of new and forth-coming works from MFA grads of the University of Minnesota
Still Life with Husband (Knopf, February 2007). A young married woman’s bond with a coffee-shop acquaintance forces her to make dramatic choices about her other relationships.
Mosquito (Tin House/Bloomsbury, September 2006). A jagged, energetic collection of poems, the first of which instructs, “Voice, be amazing, circling the river bottom.”
Petal Pusher: The Life and Times of Zuzu’s Petals (Simon and Schuster, Spring 2007). A memoir of rockin’ ’n’ rollin’ from the former leader of the 1990s trio Zuzu’s Petals (and wife of Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg).
Music for Landing Planes By (Milkweed Editions, spring 2007). A printmaker’s poems about learning to love the world by learning to live in it.
Brendan Wolf (St. Martin’s Press, March 2007). Brendan Wolf is in love and in trouble. Posing as a grieving Christian widower, he volunteers for the annual Walk for the Unborn—with no intention to deliver the donations to the bank.
Ocean in the Closet (Coffee House Press, spring 2007). In this magical novel, a girl is hidden in a closet by her mother, the child of a Japanese woman and an American soldier. Behind the closet is the ocean, where ghosts live.