Creative writing: Opportunities, writing, and reading

Hidden away in Baker Hall is a designated nook for creative writing majors: the Gladys Schmitt Creative Writing Center. Here, prose, poetry, and other forms of creative literary output roam freely as creative writing majors congregate on the sofas. Taught by accomplished (and widely published) faculty, the students are given free reign in regard to their curriculum, which allows them to explore many different styles of writing.

“There are certain classes you need to take — two surveys in different genres and four workshops — but we’re mostly free to experiment,” said Anne Marie “Boots” Rooney, a senior creative writing major with a focus in poetry. This method allows the students to decide the pace of their individual experiences with writing.

Carnegie Mellon is one of only a handful of colleges in the United States that offers a creative writing degree. The university is also set apart from other schools in that it does not offer a Masters of Fine Arts program for creative writing. This works out better for the undergraduates, however. “We don’t have [an MFA] program so the [undergraduate] creative writing program gets a lot more money,” said Zach Harris, a senior creative writing major with a concentration in poetry and non-fiction. The money that the program receives funds activities for the creative writing majors, such as a trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival (one of the largest poetry festivals in the continental U.S.) in New Jersey.

CMU also provides its undergraduate body with many opportunities on campus. Students are encouraged to write theses (unlike other undergraduate creative writing programs at other universities) and work with the Carnegie Mellon University Press to help publish books. They also have ready access to the university’s Adamson Visiting Writer Series, a series of readings featuring mostly established writers from outside of Carnegie Mellon. This year, the theme is “Alumni.”

Additionally, the students have their own reading series, organized by Harris and Rooney. On average, readings are held once a month and ideally contain an even split between prose and poetry. Each event begins with the two hosts sharing a poem by a published author. Following an introduction by either Harris or Rooney, each reading is 10 to 15 minutes long. Rows of seats replace the usual rocking chairs and tables. The small area provides a sort of intimacy that is enhanced by the intentionally dimmed lighting. “Very romantic mood lighting,” joked Harris. “It’s a very nice atmosphere.”

A reading Wednesday featured two prose writers and two poetry writers, not all of whom were creative writing students.

Adam Jaffe, a senior BHA student majoring in piano performance and creative writing, went first. Most memorable was the tone of his poetry, which, for the most part, was very light and humorous. “Sugar, you’re a synonym of sustenance,” he said, as he read from his poem “Dutchwoman Microwaves My Heart.” Another poem, called “An 11-Year-Old Boy Who Has Composed 5 Symphonies,” relates to Jaffe’s interests as a musician. Drawing on the interesting and imaginary, his poems discussed a variety of topics, in which whimsical travel fantasies, haircuts, and prescriptions danced in the limelight. Jaffe’s tone, at first the most distinct aspect of his performance, wound up a bit too casual and untailored and was difficult to invest in emotionally.

The second reader was Brad Porter, a junior double majoring in creative writing and cognitive psychology. His presentation was about introductions, and so the introduction by Rooney and Harris was foregone in favor of Porter’s prose: a 15-minute introduction of himself. His writing was deliberately stylistic: each sentence began with “Brad Porter” or “He” and offered, in the third person, some sort of personal detail.

Most interesting, however, were his reflections on the purpose of introductions. Porter demonstrated the different ways to introduce someone — as a recovering alcoholic, a man with experience in several different careers, a man with experience in several different careers only because he couldn’t keep them long enough to build; a man who overcame life-threatening injuries, coming to Carnegie Mellon at the age of 28 after having dropped out of two other colleges; as a funny, touching, honest man. He showed how simple questions such as “Where are you from?” can be difficult to answer. Full of contradictions, he was torn between expressing what a “monster” he was and trying to establish “how good” he was. In the end, he succeeded at both. Mostly, Porter displayed a clear desire for equilibrium that was sincerely affecting.

Next up was Anna Vogelzang, a senior creative music major (a self-designed major). She kicked off her show with three “winter poems,” but her most notable piece was her “Travel Poem.” In this poem (her longest), she detailed her travels across the country. For Vogelzang, each city offered new grounds for explorations of her relationships with her family and friends. Her delivery was also exceptional — sometimes people forget that readings are also performances. Vogelzang kept it all together, resulting in a stellar exhibition of her work.

The final reader was Patrick Pettibon, a junior English major. His prose seemed similar to the literary stylings of Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, with its acute attention to detail. Pettibon utilized many long, descriptive sentences that invoked very specific imagery. The narrator of Pettibon’s piece tells a story while sitting at a bar, so the audience, in turn, learns the story second hand. The story was about a man named Tom who lived a very successful life, with a good business, a religious lifestyle, and an active involvement within his community. Later, Tom’s luck changes when his home catches fire, his company burns down, and he loses almost all of his financial assets.

The story culminates with a confrontation between Tom and his oldest son, Christopher, in which they discuss the definition of success. It was clever, but the heavy amount of detail sometimes detracted from the story in that the details almost became tangential sub-stories.

As is reflected in Wednesday’s readings, those outside of the creative writing program are welcome to participate in the student reading series, by sharing or attending. The only requirement is that all readers must have achieved a B or higher in one Survey of Forms course. To participate, students should contact either Harris or Rooney. The next reading (to occur in March) is going to have a special theme in which the four performers will read each other’s works, not their own. Flyers will be put up around campus, so keep watch!