Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 22, 1997

Fifty Years Of
Devotion To Writing

Leslie Rice
News and Information
Some famous and very probably soon-to-be-famous friends of The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars will arrive in Baltimore next weekend to celebrate the venerable department's golden anniversary. Columnist and Hopkins graduate Russell Baker and Writing Seminars graduates poet Molly Peacock, professor and novelist John Barth and actor John Astin are among the dozens of writers who will participate in a series of readings from Thursday, Sept. 25, through Saturday, Sept. 27, to mark the occasion.

Russell Baker

The country's second-oldest university creative writing program, The Writing Seminars was founded in 1946 by poet and Hopkins English Professor Elliott Coleman as the Department of Writing, Speech and Drama.

In 1987, New York Times humorist and Masterpiece Theatre host Russell Baker told the Evening Sun his recollections of the first Writing Seminars classes led by Coleman in the 1940s, when they were taught in the science building, not yet having proven themselves serious enough to join the other humanities courses in Gilman Hall.

"I wrote like Hemingway," Baker says. "An awful lot of us wrote like Hemingway. All of our stories were set in bars and were about embittered old men."

Baker told the Evening Sun reporter that Coleman would offer to his students polite criticism until he could take it no more and finally pronounced the decree: "Hemingway's swell, but he's out."

It was then that Baker found his own voice, one that would later earn him a Pulitzer Prize.

Mark Strand

At first, The Writing Seminars experienced some bumpy times, but since the 1970s, it has been considered one of the "big four" in writing programs, rivaling University of Iowa, Columbia University and Stanford University. In its intense, one-year master's program, some 200 applicants vie for 27 to 30 slots.

Stephen Dixon

What makes it stand out is the fact that Hopkins has attracted to its full-time faculty some of the most respected writers in the country like former poet laureate Mark Strand and National Book Award nominee Stephen Dixon and visiting writers like John Coetzee and British novelist Julian Barnes.

Jean McGarry

"But names alone do not make a great program," says department chair and author Jean McGarry. "It is in the faculty's devotion to writing as an art. This idealistic spirit--doing the thing for the thing itself--intrigues the students very much."

Bill U'Ren (M.A. '94), a San Diego writer who has published about 30 short stories and is now writing a screenplay for a production company, says that being taught by accomplished writers had a profound effect on his writing.

"When you take a course from Stephen Dixon you can't help but be affected by it," he says. "Here is a man who writes around 20 stories a year. He's like a Chekhov. We were all amazed at how he does it. He's on fire with a work ethic so extreme that it trickled down to us. It made us look at ourselves and the way we write, and we tried to pattern ourselves after him as much as we could."

Matt Gross (B.A. '96), who has just started the master's program this fall, remembers being an undergrad in author and emeritus Professor John Barth's last class before the beloved professor's retirement.

"John Barth has the greatest vision of what fiction can or should be," Gross says. "And he doesn't impose that on you, you just kind of pick it up because he's so sincere about it. His class was a real highlight of my college career because he speaks exactly the way he writes, and the way he writes is amazing. Everyone felt that way about him. There are always hopeful rumors floating about that he's going to come back and teach a class."

U'Ren, who will give a reading on Friday, says that probably what helped his writing the most was the program's intense focus on writing technique.

"One class, called Landscape and Setting, completely changed my writing style," U'Ren says. "My best publications came after that class."

It was this apprentice approach to learning that makes Hopkins' writing program stand out, says U'Ren. After earning his master's in the Hopkins program, U'Ren went to "the other No. 2 program"--University of Houston, which tied with Hopkins for second in this year's U.S. News & World Report's rankings of writing programs in the country.

"Houston was a big disappointment to me," he says. "Maybe because it is affiliated with the English Department, its focus is on theory, not technique, and I didn't find that helpful at all."

He also didn't make the connections with other writing students at Houston that he couldn't help but make at Hopkins. The Hopkins program is one demanding, pressure-cooker of a year, and with only about 30 students in each class, its graduate students tend to form lasting friendships.

"It's such an intense year and since it's just your class, there are no other classes ahead or behind you, we were all drawn together," U'ren says. "One of the reasons why I'm going to this reunion is just to see people from my class. It's funny because when I was there I remember thinking how the people I'm studying with are great, I'm getting so much from my classes, Baltimore's a nice setting for all this. But it wasn't until after I finished and moved on that I realized that year at Hopkins was one of the best of my life."

The Writing Seminars' 50th Anniversary: Writers and Readings

Following is a schedule of events, all open to the public. For information about attending events, call the Homewood Alumnae Program Office at (410) 516-8722.

Thursday, Sept, 25, 8 p.m., Shriver Hall Auditorium. Free.
Opening Event Readings. Russell Baker, B.A. '47, New York Times columnist and host of Masterpiece Theater.
John Barth, B.A. '51, M.A. '52, Writing Seminars professor emeritus whose recent books include On With The Story, The Tidewater Tales and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.
Molly Peacock, M.A. '77, poet and former president of Poetry Society of America

Friday, Sept. 26, 10 to 11:30 a.m., Garrett Room, Milton S. Eisenhower Library. Free.
"Writers and Their Teachers." Readings from graduates of the Writing Seminars with introductions by the faculty.
James Boylan, M.A. '86, author of Remind Me to Murder You Later, The Planets and The Constellations. Introduced by John Irwin.
Barbara Fischer, B.A. '93, published poems in Western Humanities Review and Paris Review. Introduced by Stephen Dixon.
David Greenberg, M.A. '95, published poems in The New Republic. Introduced by Mark Strand.
Bill U'Ren, M.A. '94, published stories in Pequod, Chicago Review and Cutbank. Introduced by Jean McGarry.

Friday, Sept, 26, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Garrett Room, Milton S. Eisenhower Library, $10, advance reservation required, for tickets, call (410) 516-8722.
Luncheon Theater with John Astin, B.A., '52.
John Astin, veteran stage, film and television performer, is, of course, best known as Gomez Addams, television's slightly crazed patriarch of the original Addams Family series. Astin is currently performing in Chicago a new, one-person play, Edgar Allan Poe - Once Upon a Midnight. He will read selections from Poe's essay, The Poetic Principle.

Saturday, Sept. 27, 9 - 10:30 a.m. Gilman Hall Lobby, Free.
"Readings for a Saturday Morning."
John Gregory Brown, M.A. '88, has published two novels, Decoration in a Ruined Cemetery and The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur. Rosanna Warren, M.A. '80, has published three volumes of poetry, Snow Day, Each Leaf Shines Separate and Stained Glass. Greg Williamson, MA '89, has published his first books of poems, The Silent Partners.

Saturday, Sept. 27, 11 a.m. - 12:30 p.m., Glass Pavilion, Levering Hall. Free.
"The Fate of The Literary Book:" a panel discussion.
Stephen Dixon, novelist and Writing Seminars professor
John Hollander, poet and editor of the poetry series at Princeton University Press
John Irwin, Writing Seminars chairman emeritus and editor of the fiction and poetry series, Johns Hopkins University Press
Alice Quinn, poetry editor, The New Yorker
Brian Weese, owner, Bibelot Bookstores Inc.

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