From the novels of Myla Goldberg '93 and Gary Shteyngart '95 to the poetry of Franz Wright '77 and Bruce Beasley '80, Obie writers are remarkably successful in getting their work published.

Like many small college towns, Oberlin offers an environment suited perfectly to a writer's consciousness: periods of both solitude and spirited personal relationships, and a staunch dedication to learning. "Oberlin is a place where people spend some pretty intense times," says Thisbe Nissen '94, author of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook and the novel The Good People of New York. She and other alumni writers cherish their Oberlin experience for developing both their ideas and skills.

"In so many ways, my Oberlin workshops and my graduate workshops at the University of Iowa were very similar: a lot of gloriously geeky people sitting alone in their houses writing, then coming together to help each other out."

Poet Cathy Park Hong '98, author of Translating Mo'um, says the creative writing program gave her the motivation to engage more deeply with her writing. "The most seminal workshop I had was with Myung Mi Kim. I didn't take writing very seriously at that point, and she completely turned me around--giving me a new perspective on my approach to poetry and its importance. It was inspiring."

Alumni also praise the program's multi-genre requirement, which encourages students to explore forms of writing beyond their primary interest. Some of the fondest memories of fiction writer Michael Byers '91 involve a translation workshop in which students translated poetry written in a foreign language into modern English. "I finally felt as though I understood what poetry was for--what it could accomplish that fiction and other forms could not," he says.

"When I was doing my MFA, they were into having the genres completely separate--poets and fiction writers even went to separate bars," adds Hong. "Oberlin was terrific because of the encouragement to work in different genres."

For poet Bruce Weigl '73, whose many books include After the Others and The Unraveling Strangeness, entry to the program was a harsh welcome. "I learned that I had to bring some of my poems to the teacher's office, that it was a kind of audition. Professor Stuart Friebert read the first poem, then took out a black pen and crossed out every line except two. He then read the second poem and did the same thing. The third poem he crossed out entirely with a big X across the page. I wasn't angry, only confused, until he explained to me why the lines he'd left worked, and why the others didn't. That was all I needed to dig in."

The paths of successful Obie writers don't always wind through the writing program, however. Novelist and screenplay writer William Goldman '52, whose work includes Boys and Girls Together, The Temple of Gold, The Princess Bride, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, attended Oberlin before the program was formalized. Still, he says, the experience was a frustrating but vital part of his development.

"My Oberlin education was crucial to my life," he says. "There was only one course offered in fiction writing; my friend John Kander was in it with me." (Broadway legend Kander '51 went on to write Chicago, Cabaret, and the song "New York, New York.") "Everyone earned As and Bs except me--the only C."

Bestselling author Tracy Chevalier '84, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels, earned an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, but never took a single writing class at Oberlin. "I looked at the creative writing classes with a mixture of awe and bemusement," she says. "I didn't really understand what went on in them, and I still didn't associate school with learning to write. I was there to learn to write essays and read properly, not to learn to write short stories or novels." She does see, however, how writing workshops can help. "Classes can't give you that spark that sets the successful writer apart from the scribblers. Classes can, however, give you the time to encourage that spark to grow. They carve out time in which you are forced to practice."

Goldman agrees. "Anything that makes a young writer actually write is tremendously beneficial," he says. "You have to put in your hours and years alone in your pit, churning out whatever you can."

"Early nurturing is the most important support a writer can receive," adds Weigl. "I'm forever grateful for that."

More news about creative writing graduates appears at

Page 1 | 2 | 3 of The Writing on the Wall

back to top