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Demand For Creative Writing Classes Reaches All-Time High

The Barker Center houses the English department.

The English Department received a record number of applications to its creative writing program this academic year, according to Darcy Frey, the program’s director.

This semester, the creative writing program is offering courses in playwriting, poetry, fiction writing, screenwriting, creative nonfiction, and journalism. The courses are generally capped at 12 people and interested students must submit an application, which typically entails providing a writing sample.

Frey wrote in an email that the program is “more popular than ever.”

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“We received more applications in Fall, 2017 and Spring, 2018 than ever before, and we enrolled more students during those terms in workshops than ever before,” Frey wrote.

Nicholas J. Watson, English department chair, said the number of applications the department received was more than double the number of available spots in the program this semester.

“There were something like 240 places and there were nearly 800 applications from nearly 500 individual students,” Watson said. “Some of our seminars elsewhere in the department have that same number of applications, but it’s rare for a whole portion of the department to do that.”

The increase in applications coincides with an increase in the program’s course offerings over the past decade. In his email, Frey wrote that 14 workshops were offered in fall 2008, compared to 20 workshops in spring 2018.

“Because we have more creative-writing faculty now than ever before, we're able to offer an even more varied set of workshops,” Frey said. “For example, Jill Abramson is here teaching journalism, Michael Pollan teaches, in addition to an essay course, one on writing about the food chain.”

According to Watson, the program 10 years ago primarily offered courses in poetry, fiction, drama, and some screenwriting. Watson said that the course selection has since been augmented with “a lot of nonfiction.”

For the English Department, the Creative Writing program is not only “the thing that’s growing fastest,” but is also the the “easiest to excite new students about in many ways,” Watson said.

Watson added that the workshops help make up the department’s “outward facing” side; students in the workshops are both English concentrators and non-English concentrators.

Claire Messud, a senior lecturer in English who teaches several fiction writing workshops, said her courses are a “mix” of students “from all over the university” including science concentrators and graduate students. Messud said that some of her students have extensive creative writing backgrounds, while others are just “picking it up for the first time.”

“Everybody comes for a different reason,” Messud said. “But, one of the great things about the creative writing classes is that everyone’s there because they want to be.”

Frey wrote that while the Creative Writing program “draws incredible student writers” from within the English Department, the program is intentionally not restricted to concentrators.

“The workshops are very deliberately open to anyone in the Harvard community because there are talented student-writers in all parts of the college and university that we hope to serve, and a mix of interests and backgrounds among students seems to make for the most productive and exciting workshops,” Frey wrote.

Ryan Y. Lee ’20, a Computer Science concentrator, is currently enrolled in a creative fiction writing workshop. Lee said he applied to the course not only because of personal interest, but also because the class would satisfy his general education requirements.

“I just wanted something a little different from the normal STEM classes I take,” Lee said. “It looked like a pretty fun, interesting class. I’ve loved it.”

Jakob L. Gilbert ’21 and Emily N. Orr ’21 both said they “love” the dramatic screenwriting course they are taking this semester.

“It’s really interesting to be in a room with so many different perspectives,” said Orr, who is an aspiring screenwriter.

Orr added that people had warned her to temper expectations when applying for the workshop.

“A lot my friends that are upperclassmen were kind of cautioning me to not be hurt if I didn’t get into the class,” Orr said.

In response to high demand, faculty members teaching workshops say they envision expanding course offerings rather than increasing class sizes. Joshua D. Bell, a senior lecturer in English who teaches several poetry workshops, said he does not favor increasing the number of students who would be in each creative writing seminar.

“To expand the size of the class is to decrease the power of it, so I think it would be less in demand if we let more people in,” Bell said. “It’s kind of nice to have that small unit so I can kind of get into the individual poems.”

Sam Marks, a senior preceptor for several playwriting workshops, said that he thinks the creative writing program will continue to grow amid its popularity.

“I know they’re trying to bring in more creative writing teachers,” Marks said. “They’re trying to grow the department to meet demand.”


—Staff writer Annie C. Doris can be reached at annie.doris@thecrimson.com.

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