Letter to the Editor: The Many Strengths of SU’s Creative Writing Program

This letter was written in response to the article “Starving Artists: How Seattle U Could Be Failing Its Creative Community.”

We are writing in response to Caroline Ferguson’s article “Seattle U Could be Failing its Creative Community.” Ferguson presents a surprisingly narrow perspective of the work of the Creative Writing Program, its faculty and students. What could have been an opportunity to reflect on the role of the arts at SU, what works and what needs to be improved, turned into a one-sided and misleading piece. We are writing to correct several inaccuracies and misperceptions and to add points that were omitted:

  • The article lacks balance. Ferguson quotes a total of four creative writing students, whereas our program is home to over 90 majors and more than 300 alumni. The opinions cited in the article represent fewer than 5% of our current students and none of our alumni, many who are now publishing writers, MFA and PhD graduates, and creative writing teachers in their own right.
  • The article lacks completeness. Three out of the four students quoted have approached Creative Writing faculty to clarify that they had made both positive and critical statements to Ferguson, but the positive comments were not mentioned in the article.
  • The article ignores obvious sources. Dr. Susan Meyers, a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program, gave Ferguson a half hour tape-recorded interview for this article describing several initiatives that expand students’ professional training and connect them with local and national arts resources. None of this information was included. Furthermore, neither Dr. Sharon Cumberland, Director of the Creative Writing Program, nor Dr. María Bullón Fernández, Chair of the English Department were interviewed. Ferguson showed no real interest in the Creative Writing Program, its history and goals, or its vision and strategies for growth.
  • The article makes invalid assumptions. Because Ferguson never asked what the English/Creative Writing major is about, she accepted the misrepresentation of this degree as a “Creative Writing major” instead of an English degree with a creative writing emphasis. This program offers a comprehensive curriculum that includes reading and analysis alongside applied craft classes. This approach is specific and intentional, and it necessarily differs from that of other kinds of institutions, such as arts-based colleges that offer BFA degrees. We do not offer simply a “Creative Writing degree,” and our breadth is one of the strengths of our program.
  • The article lacks context. Ferguson refers to the Creative Writing faculty as “a meager staff of two full-time faculty and a sprinkling of adjuncts.” What she doesn’t mention is that the two full-time faculty are both prize-winning, publishing writers, and that the “sprinkling of adjuncts” are world-class professionals including two former Poets Laureate of Washington, Sam Green and Kathleen Flenniken, internationally famous graphic novelist Peter Bagge, Seattle Slam master and national slam winner Daemond Arrindell—and a long list of others that we would have provided if Ferguson had asked. No other undergraduate program in the region offers our variety of courses and our range of professional experts who come both as teaching faculty and as guest speakers for individual class sessions.
  • The article lacks accuracy on how the writing profession works. The vast majority of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing are housed at traditional academic institutions, as opposed to arts schools. The best preparation for admission to graduate programs is an undergraduate major that includes writing, analysis, and applied learning focused on professional training. Our program incorporates these components so that students may, if they choose, go on to the graduate level in either literature or creative writing, which is the traditional and prevailing context for developing book-length manuscripts in any genre. Furthermore, students in creative writing classes practice writing in professional genres such as query letters, book synopsis, and submission letters for literary journals.
  • The article makes ignorant claims about learning outcomes for creative writers. In the arts, the term “portfolio” refers to a collection of representative sample works. Such portfolios are typically self-managed and accrue and change throughout an artist’s or writer’s life. For writers, the most important form of representative work is the writing sample: a brief document, usually around ten pages, that is used for applications to grants, awards, and graduate programs. By the end of their undergraduate training, SU students in creative writing have developed a range of writing samples in at least three genres. Based on their individual needs, these students may consult individually with faculty in order to revise a given sample for a specific purpose, such as a graduate school application. It is not the job of creative writing faculty to make sure students are generating work for their portfolios. We know that students who want to be writers are writing and revising all the time. If a student has to be told to write, or if they only write what they are assigned, they are unlikely to meet with professional success following graduation and therefore may be in the wrong major.
  • The article maligns students and faculty who have worked hard to start new programs. Students’ direct requests for additional support in the area of professional development resulted in the new PEP Talks series, which launched this year. PEP Talks feature presentations by editors, agents, writers, and other members of the industry. Creative Writing faculty supported this initiative by locating speakers, organizing space on campus, and providing financial backing. The first two events in fall 2013 were well attended (e.g. 30+ students per event). Thereafter, those students who had requested this speaking series were invited to shepherd it forward. Some students did a great job, but recently attendance has declined, though faculty continue to finance, attend, and support the events. We are surprised to hear complaints from students who originally requested and are now organizing the events, and who do not acknowledge the efforts of fellow students as well as faculty. We are surprised that Ferguson would publish these claims without checking the facts.
  • The article does not acknowledge the active Creative Writing community. Despite complaints of a few students, Ferguson seems unaware of the many students in the Creative Writing Program who are involved in a variety of initiatives that add value to the program and to the campus including AXIS, a new online literary journal, Fragments Literary Journal, SU’s literary magazine now in its 56th year, a poetry slam, a literature crawl, a series of open mic events hosted in students’ homes, E2 readings at Elliot Bay Books, participation in national events such as Nanowrimo, and April is Poetry Month. Students’ interests rise and fall, but there have always been a rich variety of organizations for students to form community around, and events for interested students to engage in. In our experience, creative writing students are not the “apathetic” or “dismal” people Ferguson and the few people she quotes describe. Writers tend to be solitary. We don’t expect them to wave pennants and rally crowds. We do see many of them making friends and forming groups around editing journals, organizing talks and readings, and getting into writing groups.
  • The article ignores the professional support of the College for Creative Writing Students. Finally, 2014 marked a landmark moment—a generous grant from the Dean of Arts & Sciences as well as contributions from the regular (and small) operating budgets of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program that helped us fund more than 40 students’ participation in the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference (AWP), which took place in downtown Seattle at the end of February. AWP is the largest literary festival in North America, and it gathers together the leading academic and publishing professionals in the nation. The $5000 that was invested—above and beyond the budget regularly allotted for creative writing—allowed all interested creative writing majors to attend this professional conference, attend speaking events, peruse the 650+ exhibitor book fair, and make contracts in the writing world—both locally and nationally.
  • To conclude, we are very surprised that The Spectator allowed Caroline Ferguson to publish an article that was not subjected to the professional standards of trustworthy journalism such as fact-checking, balanced interviewing, accuracy, and completeness. Had program faculty and a more representative group of our students and alumni been consulted for this article, The Spectator might have engaged the SU community in a useful and (dare we say) creative discussion of the role of the creative arts in a complete Jesuit education. We hope that in the future The Spectator will recognize the integrity and full offerings of our program and any other program at Seattle University, and will hold its reporters to professional, ethical journalistic standards.

    Sincerely,

    The Department of English & the Creative Writing Program
    Seattle University

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