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Ink and Paper: Creative Writing at Harvard

Graphic Novels
Students read “Nat Turner,” a graphic novel by Kyle Baker during class with special guest lecturer Professor James Peterson.
The website of Harvard’s creative writing program features a list of frequently asked questions, most of which follow a common theme: anxious students asking,“How many courses should I apply to? What is the creative writing faculty looking for in an application? What happens if I don’t get accepted into any of the courses I apply for?” The selection process is indeed notoriously competitive, and relatively few students will be granted admission. But those lucky and skilled enough to earn a slot have a rich world of academic and personal growth to look forward to. Students across a wide variety of concentrations and experience levels hone their craft with renowned professors, learning about the nuances of screenplays, poetry, fiction, and more.

Each course involves a slightly different structure: Some classes ask students to write something for every class, while others require only occasional written pieces. Some classes provide specific, regular assignments, while others are much more open-ended. Format aside, the workshops share a philosophical commitment to positive individual artistic growth. “I think the role of every teacher... is to be the ideal advocate for the student work,” says Senior Lecturer Bret A. Johnston, the director of the program. “I want to create an environment both within the workshop and within the lives of the individual writers… where they feel invited to take risks, where they feel invited to challenge what they thought was possible.

Often, student feedback plays a key role in the creation of such an environment; most classes regularly have students respond to one another’s work. This process, while productive and well-intentioned, may not always be easy. “It’s kind of like birthing a child and holding it up for everyone to criticize…. [But] you slowly start to realize that everyone hates their own poems just as much as you hate yours,” says Ben D. Grimm ’18, member of a class on devotional poetry.

Besides offering helpful new perspectives, the feedback-giving process also creates a close community. Students describe their groups as fairly intimate, bonded by their investment in each other’s work. “It’s a pretty casual atmosphere. Lots of laughter,” says John P. Finnegan ’16, former associate business manager at The Crimson, of his fiction writing workshop.

Consistently small class sizes facilitate this closeness: Most workshops have around 12 students, a number that allows for plenty of rapport and attention. Still, some students express regret over the selectivity that such sizes mandate. The excellent experience of a workshop, some say, should be available to as many people as possible. But the logistical issues prove intractable: Large class sizes could weaken the trust between participants, limit individual attention, and give each student less room to participate. Furthermore, the student could confuse the feedback itself. “If it was a class of 20, you wouldn’t be able to put your work out there as often. There would also be just too many voices in the room. Even with just 12 other people, people have very differing opinions…. Trying to sort through that is a challenge itself,” Finnegan says.

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Grimm expounded on the problem of varying tastes and large numbers. “Every now and then, you’ll get a poem back and four people have underlined the same line and one of them will say ‘I don’t understand this,’ one will say ‘this is the best line ever,’ and two will say, ‘I hate this, get rid of it,” Grimm says. According to Johnston, there are no plans to change class sizes, and in fact, the program is larger and more open than it has ever been.

And the classes remain available to students of all kinds, not merely English concentrators interested in becoming professional writers. The courses contain pre-med students, religion concentrators, and so on, in addition to a handful of graduate students and cross-registered students. Such diversity can be valuable for creating an interesting community, and it also allows students to balance their interests and schedules. “Taking [an intermediate poetry workshop] as a pre-med has been really valuable to me because it is so different from my science-heavy load…. it’s a great change of pace and a great way to connect with other side of myself,” Rory R. Sullivan ’16 says.

Furthermore, the different programs can interact in complex and useful ways. “I write a lot about… health and medicine and the body. They’re really personal things and cool things to write about. And being a good doctor—-there’s a lot of communication and empathy that goes into it,” says Sophia M. Emmons-Bell ’18, who concentrates in human developmental and regenerative biology.

Sometimes these intersections can even lead to important personal realizations. Working on a nonfiction essay about his need to take photographs, writer Will Li ’19 noticed his own tendency to worry about forgetting certain memories and even traced his feelings back to the passing of his mother. He said that the workshops might offer their most valuable product in these instances of understanding. “That’s why I love writing so much,” he says. “Those realizations are possible.”

—Staff writer Charlotte L.R. Anrig can be reached at charlotte.anrig@thecrimson.com.

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