| From the novels of Myla
Goldberg '93 and Gary Shteyngart '95 to the poetry of Franz Wright
'77 and Bruce Beasley '80, Obie writers are remarkably successful
in getting their work published.
Like many small college towns, Oberlin offers an environment suited
perfectly to a writer's consciousness: periods of both solitude and
spirited personal relationships, and a staunch dedication to learning.
"Oberlin is a place where people spend some pretty intense times,"
says Thisbe Nissen '94, author of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook
and the novel The Good People of New York. She and other alumni
writers cherish their Oberlin experience for developing both their
ideas and skills.
"In so many ways, my Oberlin workshops and my graduate workshops at
the University of Iowa were very similar: a lot of gloriously geeky
people sitting alone in their houses writing, then coming together
to help each other out."
Poet Cathy Park Hong '98, author of Translating Mo'um, says
the creative writing program gave her the motivation to engage more
deeply with her writing. "The most seminal workshop I had was with
Myung Mi Kim. I didn't take writing very seriously at that point,
and she completely turned me around--giving me a new perspective on
my approach to poetry and its importance. It was inspiring."
Alumni also praise the program's multi-genre requirement, which encourages
students to explore forms of writing beyond their primary interest.
Some of the fondest memories of fiction writer Michael Byers '91 involve
a translation workshop in which students translated poetry written
in a foreign language into modern English. "I finally felt as though
I understood what poetry was for--what it could accomplish that fiction
and other forms could not," he says.
"When I was doing my MFA, they were into having the genres completely
separate--poets and fiction writers even went to separate bars," adds
Hong. "Oberlin was terrific because of the encouragement to work in
For poet Bruce Weigl '73, whose many books include After the Others
and The Unraveling Strangeness, entry to the program was a
harsh welcome. "I learned that I had to bring some of my poems to
the teacher's office, that it was a kind of audition. Professor Stuart
Friebert read the first poem, then took out a black pen and crossed
out every line except two. He then read the second poem and did the
same thing. The third poem he crossed out entirely with a big X across
the page. I wasn't angry, only confused, until he explained to me
why the lines he'd left worked, and why the others didn't. That was
all I needed to dig in."
The paths of successful Obie writers don't always wind through the
writing program, however. Novelist and screenplay writer William Goldman
'52, whose work includes Boys and Girls Together, The Temple
of Gold, The Princess Bride, and Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid, attended Oberlin before the program was formalized.
Still, he says, the experience was a frustrating but vital part of
"My Oberlin education was crucial to my life," he says. "There was
only one course offered in fiction writing; my friend John Kander
was in it with me." (Broadway legend Kander '51 went on to write Chicago,
Cabaret, and the song "New York, New York.") "Everyone earned
As and Bs except me--the only C."
Bestselling author Tracy Chevalier '84, author of Girl with a Pearl
Earring and Falling Angels, earned an MA in creative writing
at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, but never took
a single writing class at Oberlin. "I looked at the creative writing
classes with a mixture of awe and bemusement," she says. "I didn't
really understand what went on in them, and I still didn't associate
school with learning to write. I was there to learn to write essays
and read properly, not to learn to write short stories or novels."
She does see, however, how writing workshops can help. "Classes can't
give you that spark that sets the successful writer apart from the
scribblers. Classes can, however, give you the time to encourage that
spark to grow. They carve out time in which you are forced to practice."
Goldman agrees. "Anything that makes a young writer actually write
is tremendously beneficial," he says. "You have to put in your hours
and years alone in your pit, churning out whatever you can."
"Early nurturing is the most important support a writer can receive,"
adds Weigl. "I'm forever grateful for that."
More news about creative writing graduates appears at www.oberlin.edu/crwrite/alumni/.
| 2 | 3 of The Writing on the Wall