SWTSU's Top Twenty Triumph
Saving Literature... One Writer at a Time
According to a recent issue of Poets and Writers magazine, the number of graduate programs in creative writing has quadrupled in the past 20 years - from 50 in the late 1970s to a total of 208 last year. Critics blame the proliferation of writing programs for everything from the overuse of the word "I" to the death of literary publishing. Tom Grimes, head of the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at Southwest Texas State University for the last two years, doesn't see it that way. "Creative writing programs are the only place in our society where literature is really being discussed and explored. I think we're saving literature." The program now attracts students who also apply to such established programs as Iowa, the University of California at Irvine, and New York University. Grimes has established a young, award-winning faculty that shares a deep affection for students. He played a crucial role in saving the childhood home of Katherine Anne Porter in nearby Kyle (and laid plans for its restoration and the creation of a writer-in-residence program there), has brought SWTSU writers into San Marcos schools, and recently landed an endowed chair to bring in a nationally recognized author. Last year David Fenza, of Associated Writing Programs, a national organization that assesses college creative writing programs, said that SWTSU "definitely warrants being ranked in the top 20" programs. SWTSU's goal is to be recognized as one of the top 10 programs in the nation; adding a nationally prominent author through the Mitte-endowed chair (see "Faculty" sidebar) is one way they aim to get there.
Since Grimes has taken over at SWTSU, applications have jumped 65%. Writers as far-flung as Joanna Scott and Lorrie Moore have commented that they've heard SWTSU is hot. Rumor has it that Michael Ondaatje is coming in two years. An online magazine, Excerpt (http://www.English.swt.edu/Excerpt) has recently been established, edited by faculty and students. Jim Magnuson, director of the Michener Center for Writers at UT, known for its well-endowed fellowship program, says, "I think what they're doing at SWTSU is a great thing. They're bringing in wonderful writers, which creates a richer mix for everyone." Grimes would be the first to credit his fellow teachers and the SWTSU administration.
A New Yorker, Grimes was already in his thirties when he moved with his wife, Jody, to Iowa City so that he could attend the writing program there, the country's oldest and most famous. Before that, he had worked at various businesses in New York City while drafting plays and a novel after hours. While at Iowa, his first novel, A Stone of the Heart (1990), was published and selected by The New York Times as one of the year's most notable books. Grimes admits that in Iowa's competitive environment he was viewed by some fellow students as a "golden boy," while others thought he was stuck-up because he didn't visit the writing program's favorite bar, The Foxhead, until the last week of his first year (he was working hard on his writing). Winning a James Michener fellowship at Iowa enabled Grimes to stay on another year and finish his second novel, Season's End (1992), a meditation on baseball, life, and loss. In 1992 Grimes interviewed for various teaching posts around the country, but was attracted to SWTSU because of the commitment the dean of liberal arts, Jack Gravitt, and the English department exhibited to the program. Grimes credits the success of his own writing as well as that of the program to his obsessive nature. "To me, writing a novel is just like a three-year obsession. I think that's why in a way I'm my own worst enemy in directing the program because I always think: `Okay, what's the best way we can do this?' And I won't let it go until it's done."
Grimes' latest goal is student fellowships. "We just sent in a request to SWTSU's strategic re-allocation fund for four $12,500/year fellowships for three years which would not require teaching. It would allow people to come and really just write." Grimes admits that fellowships are necessary to attract the best students. "I also think it's a great gift to give somebody the time to create new literature."
The program's curriculum, essentially a three-year master's in English program with a creative writing specialization, is more academically rigorous than "studio"-style programs like Iowa that emphasize "workshopping" stories over literary theory. Most students in SWTSU's writing program receive teaching assistantships, and between the academic requirements and classroom experience, they emerge prepared to teach.
Unlike many writers who teach in order to earn time off to write, SWTSU's writing faculty is unabashedly in love with students. "I like teaching because I am continually learning things about writing and continuing my education in literature," Grimes explains. "It kind of completes the process for me: It's not that I just close a book and put it back up on the shelf." Grimes humbly observes of his class, "I'm a writer just as everyone in the room is. We're all equals. We're trying to write. It doesn't matter if you have a book published or not - you're still trying to write your next book which is still unfinished and flawed."
Fiction writer Debra Monroe, who also came to SWTSU in 1992, says that what she loves about teaching is constantly engaging in interesting conversations about what makes fiction good and bad. "I have a great job," she confides. "I work hard, but it's fascinating." When asked to comment on the most important thing she hopes to teach her students, Monroe offers: "That there is a connection between fiction and the social and political structures we live in." Fitting for someone teaching in such a student-oriented program, Monroe observes that the "inwardness" of mainstream fiction in the 1980s (in Ann Beattie's stories, for example) has given way to narratives with more community-oriented concerns (Carol Shields' novels), hopefully reflecting where our own society is headed.
"Right off the plane I was just smitten with this place," poet Kathleen Peirce, a native Iowan and another Iowa writing program graduate, recalls. Joining the program in 1993, Peirce has been amazed at the high caliber of students. "They're a particularly smart, kind, hungry group of people," she muses, "so I situate myself in the middle of them as often as I can."
Fiction writer Dagoberto Gilb joined the faculty last fall. He recalls that in a fit of financial desperation he faxed his vita to SWTSU, and before he got home Grimes had called. Gilb still seems to be pinching himself that he is actually teaching writing, having come to writing himself outside of any organized program. He observes that programs like SWTSU offer a lot of advantages to a young writer that he didn't have, like teaching discipline and providing necessary feedback. About instructing writing, Gilb admits, "I don't like giving judgments," though teaching seems to require it. "I'm told that I'm blunt," he adds, "but since I've never taken a writing class I don't know."
Two years ago, Grimes read an article in the local San Marcos newspaper about the high dropout rate at area schools, so he picked up the phone and offered to help. Last summer a handful of writers taught 150 eighth-graders in the district's PROJECT PASS program for "at risk" students. This year, thanks to funding from both SWTSU and the school district, five writers will work with 250 students. To complement this outreach effort, Professor Steve Wilson offers a course in teaching creative writing to the program's writers, giving them a theoretical background as well as hands-on experience in area classrooms. "Creative writing is ignored in the schools," Wilson explains. "They've got to worry about the TAAS test."
The writer/teachers have experimented with classroom approaches. Melissa Falcon, who teaches in Wimberley, challenges her 10th-graders by bringing in various objects - "such as a wax bunny, a rubber snake, and a Vanilla Ice poster" - and asking students to write about what they have in common. Elizabeth Weiser discovered that her San Antonio first-graders had no difficulty understanding the poems of Pablo Neruda and enjoyed showing off their Spanish. Ernie Tsacalis, who teaches at a Geronimo middle school, tries to teach students that "by making metaphors - saying something the way only you can say it, you own language as opposed to borrowing it."
SWTSU students find that their own work has benefited from teaching. A poet notes a renewed sense of observation that she brings to her poetry. A novelist says teaching has helped him cut through writing problems that would have gotten him bogged down before.
"Writers talking about writing is a different experience than teachers teaching a poem," says Wilson. "Maybe for some students it will rejuvenate their excitement about writing." He recalls one student who shamefully admitted that he didn't have anything to write about because he lived on a farm. Of course, he quickly discovered he was wrong.
Just a little over a year ago, Grimes and SWTSU development officer Carol Wiley went house-shopping. The property in question was the childhood home of the Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Anne Porter. The modest woodframe house with gingerbread trim located in Kyle, about 20 miles south of Austin, was admittedly a fixer-upper. Practically unchanged since Porter's grandmother lived there, the house had been operated by its owners as an informal museum since 1992, but they could no longer afford to keep it open. A group of Kyle residents, led by Bob and Wynette Barton, joined with the Hays County Preservation Associates and mobilized to save the historic property. Kyle residents donated most of the $75,000 purchase price and the home was bought this past January.
SWTSU's role has been to establish an endowment to maintain a writer-in-residence at the Porter house. Writers will work with graduate writing students at SWTSU and also in the Kyle and Austin communities. The two main rooms of the home, as well as the large front and back porches, will be open to the public and the site of readings, classes, and other gatherings. The back rooms and kitchen will provide living and writing quarters. Organizers hope that the Porter house will inspire literary discussion in this diverse rural community as well as start a revitalization of Kyle, which has not yet benefited from its location on the developing Austin-San Antonio corridor.
Given limited resources in the university environment, why should an institution such as SWTSU invest in creative writing? Grimes argues that writing is the underlying basis of all knowledge. "Storytelling is the only way we understand anything. Building anything requires a narrative. The only truth we have is the stories we imagine and realize. Telling stories is the most human thing that we do. The thing that distinguishes us as animals is speech and speech leads directly into stories." "We can go back even farther than that," Peirce adds, "to ask: Why speak?" She explains: "We write because we value the act of voice to the extent that we want to make objects out of it. The act of teaching is connected to the act of writing and the act of writing is connected to the act of language. Language comes right out of your body and identifies the world for you."
Fiction writer Robin Bradford earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brown University in 1988.