Creative writing program a launchpad for UI students’ literary voices

Some artists have a variety of easels, rollers, frames and brushes, but the three things a writer needs is a pen, paper, and — most importantly — a story.

Unlike other majors, there is no special formula to writing, according to the faculty and graduates of the University’s creative writing program. It is something students must cultivate and work on. Whether they’re aspiring novelists or just trying to improve their writing, the department offers courses for anyone that wants

to study the craft.

“Story writing and narrative is something that we all do,” said John Rubins, creative writing professor. “We all have notions of who we are and where we’ve come from and where we’re going and what kind of person we are — that’s a narrative. It’s innate; it’s instinct. So studying writing really just comes from that innate instinct that we have to give meaning to why we exist.”

The program’s classes are structured in a workshop format; about 16 or fewer students share their creative writing pieces, discuss each other’s work and offer constructive criticism. Classes are led by professors and lecturers, most of whom are published authors and editors of literary magazines.

Rubins was an architecture major at Washington University before deciding to pursue a MFA in creative writing at Emerson College. He was published in several national literary magazines and currently teaches three sections of narrative writing on campus.

“I like the idea of helping students find their own voices,” Rubins said. “If people are writing well, and they’re actually exploring what they think about people and how they view the world, then we’re doing some really good things. We’re learning a lot. We may not be learning facts so much, but we’re learning more about our place in the world, and that’s really cool.”

Recent graduates from the program, like Katya Cummins, found these workshop classes to be beneficial.

“After a writer graduates, it’s difficult to find a captive audience,” Cummins said. “(With workshops), you have people who have the time and inclination to read your work and give any sort of feedback.”

Cummins is the editor-in-chief and founder of Niche, an online literary magazine based in the Champaign-Urbana community. For her current issue she’s been sifting through more than 90 stories from writers across the country in hopes of finding that literary piece that’s worth publishing.

“I don’t know how you spot it, but it’s easy to know when someone’s writing from a place of truth and when they’re not,” Cummins said.

“Once they start writing from a place of emotional truth and honesty, then that’s when I know they’re capable of being a writer, that the story is capable of achieving (what) it’s supposed to.”

Some students can evolve into their own literary voice by the time they graduate, but for most, according to the creative writing program’s Associate Director Steve Davenport, it takes years of persistence and hard work.

“So many writers will bloom later,” Davenport said. “(As an undergraduate), I had some initial talent, but I was pretty sloppy … Some teachers would recognize my skills and some wouldn’t see it at all, because I had some very typical failings as a young writer … but I needed to develop on my own schedule.”

Davenport began to send out his poems to literary magazines during his early 20s, and he said that it wasn’t until 15 years later that he grew into his own voice as a writer. He is now a published poet, nonfiction and fiction writer and has been published in dozens of literary magazines nation-wide. He recently stepped down as the nonfiction editor of the University’s literary magazine, Ninth Letter, and is currently teaching an introductory-level workshop on narrative writing.

“When I see young students writing,” Davenport said, “I just try to find some manifestation of talent, and encourage in that area … and help them maybe add something else.”

Davenport said that while workshops can encourage young writers in the right direction, students will have to be their own critic and instructor when they graduate and set out on that long, lonely path as an aspiring writer.

“If they think that a sequence of three or four classes is going to equip them for life, they’re investing their money and time badly,” Davenport said. “What they need to understand is that they’re in those spaces to fill their pockets with everything they can gather, that they can take forward, to become their own teacher. Some people will be fine; you’ll hear writers at 22 being stars. But for most folks, they come into their voice and content later.”