Fourteen students recently sat in a circle in a University of Mary Washington classroom, framed by the view of falling leaves outside the large window. Some students rested their hands on laptops, others opted for the traditional stacks of papers and books. A handful of reusable water bottles and half-empty coffee cups decorated the otherwise sparse table.
With the precision of scientists and the careful eye of artists, the group spent nearly an hour dissecting the original work of two students in the class.
The professor sat in the circle with the students, guiding the discussion at forks in the road, careful not to dictate the direction.
Once the critique drew to a close, applause erupted, as if to pay homage to the artistic endeavor. The scene offered a glimpse into the intricate creative writing process where tone, structure and narrative reign.
“We never get to see writers in the act of writing, the way we can with actors or musicians or dancers,” said Colin Rafferty, professor of the 400-level creative nonfiction seminar class. “The creative writing classroom is one of the rare opportunities where that does happen.”
Rafferty, assistant professor of English, is one of four full-time faculty members within the creative writing concentration in UMW’s English department. In the three years since the concentration began, all four have published work and their literary accomplishments fuel their students’ passion for the craft.
“Did you see Rafferty’s essay got published in a national magazine?” one student announced before class started. “And Claudia Emerson’s poem in The New Yorker?”
Rafferty’s essay, “Letter from Fredericksburg,” is featured in the November/December issue of Utne Reader, a monthly magazine featuring the best of the independent press from 1,500 different small publications. The essay reads as a letter from Rafferty to a high school friend, musing on the passage of time through the lens of historic Fredericksburg.
A Natural Fit
Prior to fall 2008, a creative writing concentration wasn’t officially offered by the university, though students clamored for the extra specialization.
“It arose out of the interest of students,” said Warren Rochelle, coordinator of the creative writing concentration and professor of English. “It was a natural fit for what we do here.”
To create the concentration, a committee of faculty members led by Rochelle, Emerson, and Steve Watkins, looked at creative writing courses at other institutions.
Like those in Rafferty’s seminar class, students who decide to work toward a concentration in creative writing are English majors who meet specific requirements, including the course, “Literary Journal: Professional Practice in Publishing and Editing.”
Two flyers for student literary journals hung on the classroom door, seeking submissions from the creatively minded in the community. The students behind the literary journals follow the process from submissions to publication, an experience unique to Mary Washington. Currently, 98 students are concentrating in creative writing.
Rochelle said many students use their work in the course in applications to graduate school or jobs after graduation.
Part of the draw of the concentration is undoubtedly the examples of the faculty members: Rochelle’s short fiction has been widely published, and this summer, he presented at an international creative writing conference. An expert on science fiction and fantasy, his most recent novel, The Called, a fantasy, delves into the worlds of the natural and the supernatural in the not-so-distant future.
Fellow professor Steve Watkins has written several young adult novels, including Down Sand Mountain, a novel that explores the issues of the late 1960s through the adventures of a 12-year-old boy in a Florida small town. The novel won the Golden Kite Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2009.
Perhaps the examples of professors like Emerson, Rafferty, Rochelle and Watkins inspire a number of creative writing students to pursue graduate degrees each year.
“We have done well at placing students after graduation,” Rochelle said, noting that graduates of the concentration have gone on to master of fine arts programs at prestigious institutions.
Claudia Emerson, Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, mentors many of those students. She noted that of 2011 graduates, seven creative writing students were accepted to graduate programs at schools such as Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of North Carolina.
Since Emerson joined the faculty in 1998, more than 35 students have been accepted to graduate programs across the country, most of them to study poetry. Some students even received offers for full-ride scholarships and fellowships.
One such graduate, Alison Seay, will return to Mary Washington in the spring as the Arrington Visiting Poet while Emerson is on sabbatical.
Emerson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her work of poetry, Late Wife, and was Virginia Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010. Her poem, “Catfish,” was featured in the October 24 issue of The New Yorker:
It nuzzles oblivion, confuses
itself with mud. A creature
of familiar taste, it ambushes
from its nest of ooze the pond’s
brighter fish, clears its palate
with their eggs, lumbers fat
and stagnant into winter, lulled
into dreams of light sinking until
light drowns, and all is as before.