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Oct. 8, 2007

Columbia Starts Creative Writing Major
Special from The Record

Sam Lipsyte, left, and Ben Marcus
Sam Lipsyte, left, and Ben Marcus are responsible for launching the new creative writing major at Columbia.

J.D. Salinger enrolled in a short story writing class when he studied at Columbia in 1939. Eudora Welty took odd jobs all over the city to pay for creative writing courses she took here.

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Auster, Federico García Lorca: the number of culturally significant writers who have graced Columbia over the years is staggering – yet until this fall, none of them could have majored in creative writing.

Now, for the first time, they can. This change comes in large part because of the efforts of Ben Marcus, chair of the School of the Arts MFA writing program, and Sam Lipsyte, director of undergraduate studies for the new creative writing major.

Thirty-five undergraduates have been admitted to the by-application-only major in its inaugural year, and hundreds more have enrolled in newly designed classes that teach students to approach fiction, poetry and nonfiction as crafts to be learned, as opposed to traditional English classes that teach students to approach literature as works to be interpreted. In all, 25 new courses were created for the undergraduate major.

“We always had writing workshops in which a student's work could be critiqued, but now we have workshops running alongside rigorous seminars in which they have to read a great deal and learn about literary history, but from a practitioner’s perspective,” said Marcus, who is the author of, among other works, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. “If students are only reading literature in an English class, they might not acquire that real, tactile sense of how to make a sentence.”

Six new majors have been created for Columbia undergraduates in the past five years, according to the Office of the Dean of Academic Affairs, Columbia College. While Columbia College students could take individual creative writing workshops prior to this fall—and General Studies had a creative writing major, albeit one where half the courses had to come from outside the major—this new major for both schools is as thorough and ambitious as the MFA degree on which it is modeled.

Lipsyte, the author of Home Land, Venus Drive, and The Subject Steve, said he found it exciting to create a curriculum for undergraduates that mirrored the hands-on approach taken by the MFA program in writing. The graduate students “already understand the approach of ‘reading as a writer’ that we are trying to teach,” he said. “With the undergraduates, you are explaining a new way of reading to them. And I see in their eyes when we begin that it’s something they’ve been looking for. It’s a way they have secretly connected to these texts all along. The major is giving them permission to pursue that line of inquiry.”

The courses include writing workshops in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting, craft seminars with titles such as “Exercises in Style”, “Techniques of the Short Story” and “Voices from the Edge.”

The classes are intimate, and taught by full-time faculty members who have been published and translated all over the world.

Students also have at their disposal the broader campus of New York City, literary capital of the nation. Perhaps the next J.D. Salinger or Eudora Welty is sitting in a seminar right now, honing his or her craft to carry forward the Columbia tradition of creative writing that will reach far beyond campus into the world at large.

– Written by Anne Burt. Photograph by Eileen Barroso.