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So You Wanna (Pay Someone to Teach You to) Be a Writer

Which degree program is right for you?

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For a town regularly accused of having little to no literary scene, Chicago certainly offers a lot of opportunities for writers to hone their craft. In addition to private teachers and established independent workshops such as those offered by the Loft and the Guild Complex, the city's home to a host of university-affiliated graduate writing programs. Here's what to expect from the big eight, at a glance.

Chicago State University

Degree: MFA in Creative Writing

Faculty: Five full-time--director Haki Madhubuti, associate director Kelly Ellis, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and former UIC poetry prof Sterling Plumpp. The annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers' Conference brings in guest speakers from Amiri Baraka to Nikki Giovanni.

Course work: The degree's 36 credit hours include a core 15 hours of seminars and writing workshops plus two classes in publishing, three in literature, an elective, and an internship. To graduate, students must pass a comprehensive exam based on a required reading list of 100 books, deliver an oral presentation, and submit a thesis that can be 150 pages of a novel or a work of creative nonfiction, 30 poems, or five short stories. It's a two-year program, but about half the students attend part-time.

What the school says: Home to the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, CSU is one of only two MFA programs in the country to offer an Afrocentric curriculum in addition to classes covering the Western canon. Founded in 2001, the program is still pretty small--it granted three MFAs last year and five this year. "Our focus is on black writers and black literature," says CSU English department chair Jacqueline Bryant. "That and our proximity to the rich literary traditions of Chicago's south side are our strengths."

What the students say: CSU is a commuter school, and classes are geared toward older students. Second-year student Corey Hall says the campus lacks a real "college atmosphere," but adds that there's a seriousness he found lacking at Columbia College, where he got his BA, and a more sophisticated level of class discussion. "The instructors are nurturing," says poet and novelist Audrey Tolliver, who got her degree last year. "Plus I liked the African-centered program, the focus on writers that are not in everyone else's curriculum--it helped me write in my authentic voice."

Notable alums: None yet.

What's the damage?: $153 per credit hour, with 9 to 12 hours a semester being the norm; the single graduate assistantship available in the English department includes six hours of tuition and a stipend of $900 a month.

Columbia College

Degree: MFA in Creative Writing

Faculty: Ten full-time faculty, including chair Randall Albers and program grads Shawn Shiflett (Hidden Place) and Don De Grazia (American Skin), plus 30 to 35 part-timers.

Course work: Columbia's creative writing department uses the Story Workshop method developed by former chair John Schultz, who still teaches in the program. The 45 required credit hours are structured around a core set of fiction and nonfiction workshops that meet once a week. The rest of the classes are chosen from electives in everything from science-fiction writing to bibliography. Students must complete 9 to 12 hours of a "critical reading and writing" requirement and a thesis. An MFA in the teaching of writing is also available.

What the school says: "Story Workshop is process oriented rather than product oriented," says Albers. Unlike traditional workshops, in which writing is read and critiqued by the class, "we do a lot of work before pen even gets to page--work that draws on skills that virtually all people possess, like the ability to see and tell a story to an audience." Workshops are heavy on in-class writing and reading, "so that you immediately hear what's working and what's not." The unusually diverse offerings in genre writing and the attention paid to the individual voice make it distinctive, says Albers. "The teacher will never walk into the room and say, 'OK, today everybody writes something about this piece of driftwood.'"

What the students say: "To the outsider, simply because it looks so different from your typical writing workshop, the rituals involved in the Story Workshop approach seem to lend themselves to the use of the term 'cult,'" says 2003 grad and Reader staffer Todd Dills. "Which is kind of stupid in my mind, as teaching from grade one on is by nature ritualistic and methodical." Dills has high praise for the process and the faculty, lauding Albers as "the best teacher of anything I've ever had, and that's thinking all the way back to grade school." Another former student, who wants to remain anonymous, dropped out after a semester but went on to teach and publish a literary magazine. She holds Albers in similarly high esteem, but was frustrated by the codified method. "The strength and the weakness of the program for me was that it reminded me of boot camp," she says. "The format and the structure are so intense and so long and so specific, I felt like I was getting torn down so that I could be completely empty, at my base level, so that they could then teach me from this empty-vessel place how to write their way."

Notable alums: 1987 National Book Award winner Larry Heinemann, Joe Meno (see page 13), Sam Weller (see page 14), Dennis Foley, author of the recently released The Streets & San Man's Guide to Chicago Eats.

What's the damage?: $525 per credit hour. Students registered for six or more hours are eligible for loans and scholarships, including several $2,500 merit-based awards from the John Schultz and Betty Shiflett Story Workshop Fund.

DePaul University

Degree: MA in Writing

Faculty: Fifteen instructors, led by program director Craig Sirles and including Ted Anton, Richard Jones, and Michele Morano. Current visiting writers include fiction and travel writer Anne Calcagno and poet, novelist, and essayist Ana Castillo.

Course work: About half of the 130-odd students specialize in literary writing, but you can also pursue business and professional writing, writing theory, and pedagogy. According to Sirles, most students are part-timers who take one or two courses a quarter and finish their 48 credit hours in two or three years. All students must take at least two courses in language and style and two in composition and rhetoric. Electives include literature classes, teaching and publishing internships, and a thesis option.

What the school says: DePaul's program offers mostly weekend and weekday evening courses at both the Lincoln Park and Naperville campuses--although most students take at least a few courses in the city because of the greater variety there. It's geared toward working professionals who're interested in writing but aren't necessarily planning a career change. Some go into adjunct positions at local universities or tenure-track jobs at community colleges, and a smaller number enter PhD programs (though usually in academic fields like composition and rhetoric or technical writing). The core requirements give the program an academic bent that's still applicable to literary writing. "If you're a poet, you may not think that a course in linguistics would have anything to do with what you do," says Sirles. "But the course we have in the structure of modern English looks at the language as a series of consistent units in very much the same way a poet does in looking at a line."

What the students say: The program is perfect for people who want to keep their day jobs and aren't sure they want to commit to creative writing, or one genre in particular, at an MFA program. Katherine Ozment, now a senior editor at Boston magazine, praises the quality and diversity of the writing courses but says the core requirements were a drag. "I wasn't interested in those. I didn't want to be reading Plato while I was trying to develop a career as a writer. That's why it's an MA, not an MFA. Four courses is a third of your course load.... People really need to think that through when they're considering the program."

Notable alum: Bayo Ojikutu, who published his debut novel, the prize-winning 47th Street Black (excerpted in the Reader's 2002 fiction issue), last year.

What's the damage?: $407 per credit hour. After they've taken two courses, students who aren't on grants or scholarships are eligible for a 25 percent tuition waiver for the next quarter if they meet certain academic requirements. Students can also apply for a limited number of graduate assistantships--which include a tuition waiver and $6,000 stipend--at DePaul's Writing Center, in departmental Web design, or at the journal Poetry East.

Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies

Degree: MA in Creative Writing

Faculty: Draws from Northwestern's full-time English department faculty, including Reginald Gibbons and Mary Kinzie, and has brought in a star-studded array of part-timers like Aleksandar Hemon, Alex Shakar, and former UIC poetry prof Michael Anania.

Course work: The ten-course curriculum includes three workshops in fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry; one course that explores the fundamentals of all three; a course on either teaching creative writing or the publishing industry; four electives; and a thesis course leading to the completion of a 50-to-60-page work. Students must also participate in four noncredit seminars on topics like literary editing, translation, and online publishing. It's designed to take two to three years to finish on a part-time schedule.

What the school says: Northwestern has lined up an impressive roster of talent for a writing program that set up shop just last year. This fall, for example, Stanley Fish, departing dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIC, will be leading a seminar entitled "Grammar for Creative Writers." Classes are mainly at night, and associate director of academic programs Cary Nathenson describes it as a "nuts-and-bolts program, a fundamentals program." People shouldn't be scared off by the continuing-ed label, he says. "I can't emphasize enough, this is a degree from the graduate school of Northwestern University. The diploma doesn't say 'School of Continuing Studies.' There's no footnote that says you did it at night or part-time."

What the students say: "It seems that part of starting a program is accepting people they might not accept down the road in order to populate it," says student Mary Golosinski. "There's a real mix of experience levels." Lisa Grayson, who was drawn to the program because of prior experience with NU faculty members like Gibbons, has been writing for 25 years. "There are some that haven't been writing that long, but they might be good critics and editors," she says. "There are some total neophytes that might have the ability but not the critical jargon. There are some that might have both." This mix can be a boon for inexperienced writers but a source of frustration for veterans; the upside, students say, is that because the program's new, administrators are responsive to student feedback. Golosinski says the cross-genre course was set up largely in response to suggestions from students about the need to bridge the gap between writers used to the workshop process and those from journalism or nonfiction backgrounds.

Notable alums: Nobody's graduated yet.

What's the damage?: $2,055 per course. Students taking at least three classes in a given quarter are charged a flat rate of $9,880. Federal grants aren't available to part-time students, but private student loans are.

Roosevelt University

Degree: MFA in Creative Writing

Faculty: Six lecturers and one professor in addition to creative writing coordinator Janet Wondra.

Course work: Students must complete 42 semester hours, or 14 courses, including three workshops in their specialty (fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry), three elective workshops, four courses in literature and theory, an internship, an additional elective, and two courses dedicated to working on their creative thesis. Most workshops are in the evening, and about half of the 25-odd students attend part-time, finishing the degree in a little over two years.

What the school says: According to Wondra the school's strengths are its internships in teaching, magazine production, and arts administration and PR, which give graduates marketable skills they can use while continuing to write on the side, and the fact that the curriculum encourages students to explore a variety of genres. The program, launched in 1997, is trying to raise its national profile by reaching out to organizations like the Associated Writing Programs, and is starting to attract more out-of-state applicants. It's also developing a playwriting track: the program includes a playwriting workshop, and lecturer Joseph Fedorko is a playwright-in-residence at Chicago Dramatists.

What the students say: Grads praise the quality of the instruction and the commitment of the student body, which poet Eric DeVillez, now an English instructor at College of Lake County, describes as "blue-collar." Fiction writer Tim Foley (who had a story in the Reader's 2003 fiction issue) likes the wide variety of real-world experiences the students bring to the table. Most appreciate the small class sizes (6-12 students in a workshop) but also feel that the program would be better if it were bigger. "It's a growing program," says Lani Montreal, whose play Sister Outlaw was produced for a tour of midwestern universities by Pintig Cultural Group in 2001 and 2002. "It needs more students so it can hire more teachers. I would have liked to see more diversity in the faculty, but as it is it's all white. For an immigrant writer of color, it's not very welcoming."

Notable alums: Playwright Tim McCain, the program's first graduate, founded his own company, O Theater, in 2002.

What's the damage?: $662 per credit hour. Financial aid options include federal loans and work-study, a limited number of scholarships, and a pair of competitive graduate assistantships.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Degree: MFA in Writing

Faculty: Twenty-three full- and part-time faculty including program chair Calvin Forbes, novelist Carol Anshaw, novelist and poet Rosellen Brown, poker champ James McManus, playwright Beau O'Reilly, and visual artist Ellen Rothenberg.

Course work: The 60 required credit hours include a mix of writing workshops, seminars, and electives from any studio or academic department in the school and completion of a thesis. The core of the program is the Graduate Project tutorial process, in which students meet every other week with a faculty mentor to discuss their work, their course of study, and their future plans. Students are required to enroll full-time for at least a semester, but can go down to part-time after that; most complete the program in two or three years.

What the school says: SAIC's eight-year-old creative writing program exploits its art-school digs to the max, encouraging students to explore not only other genres but other media like photography or printmaking. Of the 60 current students, the majority are "traditional writers," says Forbes, "but there are other students interested in multimedia projects or different ways of exploring text." A collaboration with the Poetry Center of Chicago brings in visiting writers, and this year marked the beginning of the school's participation in Performing Arts Chicago's PAC/edge Festival.

What the students say: "The best and the worst thing about the program is that it's so completely flexible," says playwright and 2002 grad Heidi Broadhead, noting that most requirements can be waived if you're adamant enough about it. She and 2000 grad Susannah Felts (both of whom contribute to the Reader) liked the program's mentorship arrangement and the emphasis on experimentation and multimedia. It's ideal, they say, for anyone remotely interested in text-based visual art, film, or installation. "The downside," says Felts, "is that there's not much emphasis on or offering of classes focused on canonical texts. . . . It's purely a studio program, purely situated in an art school, and an art school that's known for valuing conceptually based stuff rather than classical training." If you want to write the next hot novel or get published in Harper's, says Broadhead, you'll be well served by the faculty's expertise and industry connections but may feel "out of place with the art kids."

Notable alums: Forbes thinks it's too early for graduates to have hit their stride, noting that the school's just now starting to get feedback from former students.

What's the damage?: $890 per credit hour. Standard financial aid offerings (grants, loans) are available, as are several merit scholarships.

University of Chicago

Degree: MA in Humanities, Writing Option

Faculty: The Master of Arts Program in the Humanities is directed by Candace Vogler and Jay Schleusener and draws on faculty from across the university as well as visiting lecturers such as Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Achy Obejas, and Srinkath Reddy.

Course work: The intensive one-year program (almost no one tries to do it part-time) includes a core course in "the foundations of interpretive theory" and a colloquium on professional writing, plus three academic courses from any school in the college, two workshops, and two electives. Completion of a creative writing thesis in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or drama plus a "brief critical essay" about the work rounds out the program. Each student works closely with a preceptor--an advanced-level U. of C. doctoral candidate who leads discussion sessions and helps guide the thesis project.

What the school says: Designed as a transitional, cross-disciplinary model of graduate study for students who either aren't sure whether they want to pursue a PhD, have a specific project they'd like to complete, or are considering a career change, the MAPH has been around since 1996, though the creative writing option was only formalized last year. Out of the 110 incoming MAPH students--who range from new college grads to working professionals--10 or so are writers. MAPH program coordinator Miranda Swanson (herself a graduate) says the program appeals to writers who "want to improve their writing within the context of humanistic study--they want to have the courses they take in art history or philosophy to inform their writing. The downside is that they're not getting the same level of professionalization that they'd get in an MFA program, but I think they figure they can do that later on."

What the students say: "MAPH lets you take the same kinds of creative writing workshops that are offered by MFA programs, taught by published novelists and poets, but you've also got all of the intellectual muscle of the University of Chicago's academic faculty at your disposal," says 2002 grad and Contrary magazine editor Jeff McMahon. "I took courses in philosophy of language and narrative theory, for example, that transformed my ideas of what writing is and how writing operates." Prospective students should be forewarned, however: in the hothouse environment of U. of C. academics, MAPH is sort of a redheaded stepchild--some folks regard it as a pay-to-play option for students who couldn't hack a PhD program.

Notable alums: Too soon to tell.

What's the damage?: $3,352 per course. About ten percent of all MAPH students get some sort of scholarship aid; others pay the bills through loans and work-study jobs.

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree: MA or PhD in English with a Specialization in Creative Writing

Faculty: There are just four creative writing professors: Cris Mazza, Luis Alberto Urrea, Eugene Wildman (director), and Anne Winters. Other English department faculty handle the lit classes.

Course work: For the MA, students complete at least 32 hours, or eight courses. Between 12 and 16 hours are creative writing workshops and at least 12 are in English or American lit. At the end, students must submit a manuscript for department approval. The PhD requires, in addition to daunting written and oral prelims, at least 64 hours of advanced work beyond the master's degree. The resulting "creative dissertation" can be a novel, a volume of short stories or poems, a play or group of plays, or a unified collection of essays. MA candidates usually finish in 18 months; PhDs take about six years.

What the school says: The long list of published alums and the faculty's literary cred (Mazza, Urrea, and Wildman have all published well-received books in the last year) speak for themselves. Wildman says the MA from UIC is useful for teaching at secondary schools and community colleges and for careers in journalism and public relations; the PhD is for people who are committed to teaching at the college level, and the extra literary course work, "so valuable to writers," gives both an advantage over more workshop-centric programs. In the last few years budget cuts, the loss of two poetry professors, and proposed changes to the curriculum have caused consternation. Wildman says the proposed changes would give students more freedom to take courses in other specializations; PhD candidates would have to include a 30-40 page critical paper along with their creative thesis.

What the students say: The poetry program has been the hardest hit by the budget crunch, and a recent MA graduate who wanted to remain anonymous said that with only one full-time poet (Winters) left on the faculty, the program was in its "final stage of decay." But over on the fiction side, things aren't so gloomy. Marina Lewis, a sixth-year PhD candidate, isn't too worried about the new critical-writing requirement--although, she says, "my first impulse was to mock it, and to think also that it could be self-defeating, and 'hurt the artistic process.'" Students and alums praise the course work in literature, although, says Lewis, "you've got those 20-page seminar papers, and you have the literary theory, and some writers find that very distracting and irrelevant." A common complaint is that UIC's commuter status and small faculty mean there isn't a sense of community or mentorship; some alums also mention a lack of industry connections or guidance, although Mazza has been instrumental in getting some students published at smaller and experimental presses. No one says it's easy. "The workshops at UIC aren't for the weak of heart," says Lisa Stolley, a recent PhD and an adjunct at several local schools. "Not that they're bloodbaths, but the faculty there are honest, pragmatic, and they expect you to work hard."

Notable alums: Michael D. Collins, Paul Hoover, SAIC professor James McManus (Positively Fifth Street), Alex Shakar (The Savage Girl).

What's the damage?: $3,050 per semester for Illinois residents taking 12 hours; $2,033 per semester for residents registered for 6 to 11 hours. The low cost and the teaching experience--some MA students and all PhDs are given teaching assistantships, which include a tuition waiver and a stipend--are two of the most attractive aspects of the program, even among those who don't plan on teaching careers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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