Andromeda: A Short History of AWP plus Milestones in Creative Writing

A text from a friend, across the country, yesterday: “Ah, standing in line w/ our WEIRD tribe in Boston.”

That tribe is the tribe of writers — including writers who teach writing — now attending the enormous and wonderful word-nerd fest that is the AWP, or the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which changes locations each year. (Next year: Seattle–even closer for Alaskans thinking of attending.)

Our own Linda Ketchum, plus many other featured bloggers, writers, and teachers from our Alaska community, are at this moment among the more than ten thousand writers attending the continent’s largest literary conference and sprawling bookfair, which runs through the weekend. Perhaps they’re attending the lecture/panel Please Complete Me, Please Don’t Make Me Gag: Love Stories for a Cynical Age, or Epistolophilia: Using Letters and Diaries in Creative Nonfiction. I just started browsing the schedule and felt pangs of non-attendee’s remorse. So many panels I wish I could be attending, right at this very minute! (And if you, dear Alaskan, want to tell us about what you attended or saw or heard at AWP, please do send us a report.)

But I’m not blogging about this today to make you (or myself) jealous. Instead, I’m recalling that just four years ago, I had no idea what this “AWP” thing was, and only discovered the conference while seeking institutional mentors to help lift 49 Writers off the ground. Our 49 Alaska Writing Center got a big boost from other writing centers at the national writing conference in 2010. But that’s just a little piece of our history, a mere footnote in a much larger tome.

A little history then, in honor of this weekend’s mega-gathering:

From AWP’s own website: “AWP was established as a nonprofit organization in 1967 by fifteen writers representing thirteen creative writing programs. The new association sought to support the growing presence of literary writers in higher education. At that time, Departments of English were mainly conservatories of the great literature of the past, and scholars fiercely resisted the establishment of creative writing programs. AWP was created to overcome this resistance, to encourage and advocate for new programs, and to provide publishing opportunities for young writers.

(on the subject of writers who teach writing)

In schools of political science, economics, medicine, architecture, engineering, and business, the most respected teachers were the practitioners of those disciplines—those professors who divide their time between theory and practice, between speculation and pragmatism, between work in academe and work in “the real world.” Oddly, English departments included few living practitioners of the art of making literature, although they included many practitioners of criticism and scholarship. The founders of AWP argued that the understanding and appreciation of literature could be enhanced by having practitioners of that art teach that art. It was a radical notion at some institutions, and positions for writers in many departments were hard-won.”

Much more at AWP’s own website, of course. But to underline a key point: Creative writing as a discipline is new, and though its growth has been explosive (from about 52 graduate programs in 1975 to over 300 in 2012) it’s had to fight to find a place at the academic table.


Does the history of creative writing interest you? Check out The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 by D.G. Myers, in which you’ll discover what I consider to be mind-blowing facts (but yes, I’m a member of the WEIRD tribe that is interested in these sorts of things):

~The study of English — literature or composition — was not part of American higher education until after the Civil War. Instead of English texts, Greek and Roman literature were studied, and only a little. According to Myers, a student in the 1850s complained “English literature was never alluded to, and the general impression among us was that nothing good had been written since Homer and Virgil.” Scraps from the ancient classics were mostly used as material for vocabulary and grammar drills.

~In the 1870s and 1880s when English departments were first being set up, they focused mostly on the language (studied and dissected as a science), and given the “ancient and impressive name of philology.”

~When the study of English literature was finally added, it tended to stop at Shakespeare and Milton.

~In America, early literature classes tended to be about literature (hard dry facts, historical dates, and so on), without requiring the actual reading of literature–and certainly no enjoyment of it! Actual reading was considered an extracurricular activity.

~Myers traces the first official use of the term “creative writing” to a speech by Emerson in 1837, though it was “not immediately clear” what Emerson meant by the phrase. Scholarship in the 1800s was focused on sanctifying past achievements, not creating anything new.

~English composition, a dedicated attempt to offer instruction in writing, preceded creative writing and took hold in universities in the last quarter of the 19th century. At Harvard, Adams Sherman Hill put a stop to the assigning of predetermined themes — one of the first strategies attempted in early composition classes– and boldly asserted a teacher’s job is to “interest his pupils in what they are writing so deeply that they put their best selves into their work.” Radical words for their time–and sometimes for own time as well. 

~Hill later hired Barrett Wendell, who required students to do a page of writing every day, based on something they had personally observed. He likened these as “sketches to final paintings.” Journaling had found its patron. Later Harvard composition professors took inspiration from the great newspaper reporting of their day, encouraging students to “get out and see life” and incorporate it into their work.

~Many decades ahead of the first MFA programs and the founding of the AWP, some pioneers were agitated for a more constructivist, writing-intensive focus. Consider this bold  proposal in 1907, published in The Atlantic Monthly, by a newspaperman and publisher named Walter Hines Page. He drafted a recommendation for a graduate program that would be staffed by writers (the idea of writers as teachers still being new at this time, of course), in which students would actually be made to write — and not just the occasional theme. Page suggested that if students were made to write 1,000 words a day, six days a week, they’d gain the practice of writing three books in three years, and nine books by program’s end, in three years. His explanations of how students should be critiqued — in writing workshops of a “personal and friendly and intimate” nature — was years ahead of its time.

~As for critical reception to this bold plan? Myers reports that critics reacted with alarm to the notion of professional schools for writers. Princeton professor Henry Van Dyke scoffed, “In the first place, the world would not support them; in the second place, the flood of books with which our intellectual integrity is [already] somewhat threatened would be increased vastly, horribly; and in the third place, the magazine editors would be driven either into an early grave or into a sanitarium.”

A century later, we do indeed have schools for writers — with more of them opening every day. Alas, we don’t require MFA students to write three books in a year, and certainly not nine in three years. Perhaps we still seek the easy path, underestimating how much writing one must do to become proficient. But at least we no longer think of literature as something that has all been written–long, long, ago.

1 thought on “Andromeda: A Short History of AWP plus Milestones in Creative Writing”

  1. What an interesting historical perspective. Immediately brought to mind the (now) amusing opinion of Ken Olson (Digital Equipment Corp.) who said, circa 1977: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Hail progress!

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