Where the Word Reigns

Applications are up for USC’s fiercely competitive Ph.D. program in creative writing. Part of the attraction — a talented, prolific faculty that includes two professors nominated in the same year for the National Book Award.
By Katherine Yungmee Kim
Poet and program founder Carol Muske-Dukes and novelist T.C. Boyle are among top faculty in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences' Ph.D. program in creative writing. Both were nominated in 2003 for the prestigious National Book Award.

It’s the literary version of bringing lambs to slaughter.

In a Taper Hall classroom at USC, eight creative writing students sit in a semi-circle and critique a piece of writing - usually a poem, short story or chapter of a novel - discussing its strengths and weaknesses.

The author takes notes and squirms. Whose point of view is this? Is the dialogue believable? Are the transitions seamless? Does the cadence work? And the penultimate question: Is this interesting enough to read on?

Despite its seeming masochism, hundreds of English majors in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences are taking creative writing workshops. Fifty-nine percent of undergraduate English majors are specializing in creative writing, nearly three times as many as the number two track, British Literature.

Applications are up this year for the fiercely competitive Ph.D. program: 90 aspirants submitted their writing samples, transcripts and test scores in early January for a mere four open slots - two in fiction and two in poetry.

Part of the draw undoubtedly is the faculty. There are five full-time professors: Aimee Bender, T.C. Boyle and Percival Everett in fiction, and Carol Muske-Dukes and David St. John in poetry. All teach undergraduate and graduate workshops, while consistently producing their own highly regarded work.

“We’re fortunate to have such visible and prolific writers in this program,” said Everett, who has three books forthcoming this year. “Not a year has gone by where one of us hasn’t had a book coming out.”

Both Muske-Dukes and Boyle were nominated for the National Book Award in 2003, in poetry and fiction, respectively, making USC College the only school to boast two nominees in the same year. Students claim they want to develop their imaginative muscle.

“Everyone wants to create,” said Zach Urbina, a senior creative writing major, who has thought about the possibility of “creating something that would outshine some of the people we’re assigned to read.”

Boyle has taught workshops since 1978, when he was hired as the first creative writing teacher in the college. He considers himself to be a “coach” for students at a “conservatory,” and believes that students have a talent that is trained in class.

“I don’t want to impress any particular aesthetic value on them,” he said, “other than we want them to make the best literature they can make.”

“It’s hard to resist,” said Bender, on choosing creative writing as a major. (She herself earned a B.A. and M.F.A. in the subject). “As undergrads, students are required to take in so much information. And then to have this creative outlet, where they’re so invested in critiquing and writing. The level of discussion is high.”

In undergraduate workshops, there are serious reading requirements. The faculty believe they have an important obligation to have the students read through the centuries to grasp literature and poetry.

Muske-Dukes, founder of the Ph.D. program, calls literature a conversation. “And when students begin to read and write seriously,” she said, “they enter into that conversation.”

For many of the Ph.D. candidates, this commitment to both critical and creative expertise was a major draw of the USC program.

Bridget Hoida, a third-year doctoral student, is working on a novel and a critical dissertation on the ranch novel in California literature.

“The glory of the program is that I get to do both,” Hoida said. “The ultimate goal is for both my novel and critical work to be under contract when I finish the program.”

And that program is growing: Both a senior hire in fiction and a junior hire in poetry currently are under consideration.

“Literary talent is what draws people to study English,” Boyle said. “I think it’s great that universities are allowing them to pursue it for themselves. Just as they have done with music and art, people can now study writing with the masters.”