I invited Stephanie Vanderslice to either write a guest post, or to allow me to interview her here on the blog about newest book, Rethinking Creative Writing: Programs and Practices that Work. I loved opening my email a few days later, and finding this:
In appreciation for Lisa Romeo’s generous invitation, and after getting acquainted with her incredibly resource-rich blog, Stephanie decided to cut this obviously crazy-busy writer some slack and interview herself.
Stephanie Vanderslice: So why this book? Why now?
SV: Rethinking Creative Writing is actually the culmination of about ten years of work examining and writing about creative writing programs in higher education. In 2001 I worked with the author Tracy Chevalier, who was speaking at our university, the University of Central Arkansas and discovered Chevalier, an American, had done her graduate work in writing at the University of East Anglia, the UK equivalent, in stature, to the University of Iowa.
After talking with Chevalier, I became curious about how creative writing was taught in other English-speaking countries. The web was just emerging at that point and it dovetailed with my interests beautifully. I spent the next five years forging ties with colleagues abroad and learning everything I could about the history of creative writing in the UK, how and why its path had diverged from ours. This culminated in 2006 with a one month study tour in the UK, visiting other flagship programs such as Bath Spa University. Seeing these programs in action made me realize that creative writing programs in the US could learn a great deal from them.
Stephanie Vanderslice: So why isn’t this book titled, Why Can’t We Be More Like the British?
SV: Well, as I started writing it, I realized that the book just sounded like an anglophile (which I am) scolding American programs and, besides being one-dimensional, that wasn’t going to go over too well here in the US. Also, looking closely at the programs in the UK made me realize that I really needed to get to know the creative writing program landscape in the US better.
I got an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University in the early nineties and went on to get a Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. I knew a lot of people from other programs (Iowa, Maryland, Emerson, American University) but I only had their perspective on those programs. So I began to really study creative writing teaching in America as well, via the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference and publications, several books and program histories and of course, what was available online. I was looking for “best practices” at American programs that I could also talk about in my book. And I found them.
Stephanie Vanderslice: So does creative writing in higher education really need to be rethought?
SV: Creative writing in higher education in the US was stagnant for a long time, almost defiantly so. There was this feeling that getting together a few writers and students to form a community, to lead intense workshops toward a degree—which was how Iowa had started the whole movement—was enough (Mark McGurl writes about this history brilliantly his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing).
In the early years, perhaps it was enough. My book argues that it’s not anymore, not with the sea changes in publishing in the last ten years, not with the exponential growth of MFA programs themselves, flooding the market with aspiring writers. Programs need to be more proactive about how they’re teaching students to make lives for themselves as working artists in the twenty-first century. They need to think about the world they’re graduating their students into and reflect on how to address that reality that in their courses. They need to go beyond the workshop.
I identified many programs in the US and in the UK that are making these changes, such as the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Bath Spa University. I told their stories in my book in the hopes of inspiring other programs to take a closer look at the writing educations they were providing their own students.
Stephanie Vanderslice: So who should read this book?
SV: If you’re thinking about getting an MFA in creative writing, this book can help you think about what to look for in a program, how to ask the right kind of questions in finding a program to suit your individual needs. If you teach creative writing or help to guide one of the hundreds of creative writing programs in the US and abroad, this book will show you a number of innovative programs and practices that will hopefully help you to think more creatively about your own.
For example, UNC-Wilmington’s publishing lab is something many programs could aspire to and the program anthologies that creative writing programs in the UK publish and send to agents and editors (often leading to representation) is definitely an idea ripe for replicating in the US.
Stephanie is also the author of Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates, with Kelly Ritter and editor of Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, also with Ritter. Her essays on teaching creative writing are published in many journals and anthologies, nationally and internationally in journals such as College English and New Writing: An International Journal of Creative Writing Theory and Practice. Stephanie publishes creative nonfiction and fiction, is finishing a novel, The Lost Son, and is working on a memoir, Malls of America, about growing up along with this American consumer icon in the seventies and eighties.
Notes from Lisa: If you have a question for Stephanie, leave it in comments, and she will check back here a few times over the next couple of days to answer. We're also giving away one signed copy of Stephanie's book, to a blog reader. To enter, leave a comment by Feb. 28. (Must have a U.S. postal address.)