Most aspiring writers hone their skills through workshops, classes or bouncing ideas off friends. But at the School of the Arts' writing division, students have the opportunity to have an apprenticeship with distinguished New York writers in addition to learning from faculty. Each year through the Hertog Research Assistantship Program, six students spend one semester working 10 hours a week for writers and receive a fellowship along with two hours of mentoring per week. The Hertog Program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is funded by Susan Hertog, SOA'93, and her husband, Roger.
The fellowships are one of the writing division's most coveted honors, with applications outnumbering fellowships six to one. The popularity of the program is not surprising given the literary Who's Who of participants that has included Deirdre Bair, Peter Carey, Ron Chernow, Nelson George, Daniel Okrent, John Philip Santos and Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff. In 2002, Diane McWhorter won a Pulitzer Prize for Carry Me Home, an epic look at her hometown, Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Era, which Hertog Fellow Kendra Hurley helped research.
"As far as we know, the Hertog apprenticeships are unique to Columbia's M.F.A. in writing," says Patricia O'Toole, an SOA writing professor who has run the program for most of its 10 years. "Because New York City is so rich in authors and because our students have such a wide range of talent and experience, we saw that we had an extraordinary opportunity to create a distinctive addition to the traditional M.F.A. coursework. Many of the writer-student relationships continue well beyond the fellowship semester, and writers who have taken part in the Hertog program have often helped our students get their work into print."
Research assignments vary considerably by writer. Fellows may find themselves searching birth records or immigration records, or conducting interviews or database searches.
For fellows like second-year M.F.A. student Rebecca DiLiberto, assignments have extended far beyond the archives. In assisting biographer Marion Meade, Journalism'56, with her latest work on satirist and novelist Nathanael West, DiLiberto has visited the former Kenmore Hotel that West managed (now a single-room occupancy building) and his gravesite in Queens, where Meade sent her with pruning shears to spruce up the unkempt plot and take photographs.
"Many students get library assignments, but I've asked Rebecca to go out into the field and do things I usually do myself," says Meade. "I have been very pleased that she is willing to do a lot of things -- go out into the field, make cold calls and get people to talk to her."
Beside the research experience, DiLiberto says the mentoring is an exceptional aspect of Columbia's M.F.A. program. "The mentoring for me is watching Marion work, letting her methods sink in through osmosis. Apprenticeship in any field is important. In workshop situations, you are always learning from your peers, but through the Hertog program, you learn from a professional with experience."
Classmate Rosemary Newnham agrees: "It has been most helpful to have [cultural commentator Terry Teachout] look at my writing with the eye of someone who is a working writer. It [also] means a lot that alumni like Susan Hertog remember their student-writer days and support our work and education."