Best Creative Writing

It was published in 1999, a year after she graduated; she followed it with her best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones.

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In writing, more than in almost any other academic discipline, “the content walks through your door,” says the novelist Christopher Tilghman, who teaches at Virginia.

There and at Irvine and Michigan and Texas, to name a few, the numbers of applicants are staggering—often 500 or more.

The winner of the 2006 Booker Prize, Kiran Desai, had attended both the program at Hollins University (then a master of arts, now converted to a two-year M. (Genre writers seem rarely to have faculty positions in prestigious programs.) From Atlantic Unbound: Interviews: "Same Planet, Different Worlds" (June 15, 2006 ) Gary Shteyngart, author of the novel Absurdistan, discusses American rappers, Azerbaijani kidnappers, and what makes satire serious fiction A single faculty-member writer who’s having a notable success often seems to trump a legion of others quietly publishing work that is respected but not widely celebrated. program, once synonymous with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff (who is now at Stanford), seems known these days for the short-story writer George Saunders and the poet and nonfiction writer Mary Karr. In addition to helping students learn the craft of writing, good teachers can also be good advocates, connecting top students to agents and publishers. A., simply because it shows they’re serious about their writing.” At some programs, however, famous writers seem guilty of propagating the notion that writing can’t be taught at all. Marilynne Robinson, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, says that the Iowa teachers, in their duty to the students, “are putting aside things we could otherwise be doing, such as our own work.” But elsewhere, employing writers with large reputations but little enthusiasm for teaching leads to exactly the type of disconnected instructor many former students rue.

Columbia University’s Web site features its Nobel Prize–winning faculty member Orhan Pamuk, who began teaching last fall; Gary Shteyngart also recently joined the faculty. “Programs like Michigan, Iowa, Columbia, and Stanford put out great writers who publish strong stories and novels,” says New York agent Gail Hochman of Brandt & Hochman, “but perhaps more important than which program the student attended is which writers that student studied with. “Good faculty members don’t treat the job as if it’s a prize for writing a great book,” says Ben Marcus, the chair of the Columbia University M. “Spending your program’s money to buy a really famous person who’s just not much of a teacher isn’t a good idea,” says Eileen Pollack, an Iowa grad who directs the graduate program at Michigan.

Almost exclusively from that sample of 10 to 50 pages or so, the selectors must try to divine talent, ambition, teachability, and collegiality—the four critical elements of the ideal apprentice writer’s makeup.

Ha Jin says, “Looking at the writing samples allows you to get to a list of 30 to 40 out of the 300.

The eventual notoriety or prominence of one’s program can be made or broken in that first step.

At Virginia, the fiction faculty meets in Tilghman’s living room to hash out the choices.

Upstairs, in an unused office, are 16 large boxes of alumni books for which no shelf space is yet available.

In a wire basket, on the desk of program associate Connie Brothers, are dozens of clipped reviews of recent books.

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