Academics & Research / Summer 2018

Creative writers learn to ‘fail better’ in DU’s acclaimed PhD program

Creative writing student Mona Awad won a 2017 Colorado Book Award for literary fiction for her debut novel, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.” Photo: Wayne Armstrong

An Army veteran and a child of the hardscrabble rust belt, Samuel Clare Knights (PhD ’14) came to the University of Denver’s top-ranked doctoral program in creative writing seeking what might be called a safe space.

No, not the kind of “safe space” associated with like-minded thinking. Rather, Knights says, he wanted space to push and blur boundaries, a space to put the avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett’s famous words into practice: “Fail better.”

And fail he did. So much better, in fact, that after endless rewriting, rethinking and restructuring, he placed a short story with Fence, a publication dedicated to experimental literature. Extracted from his yet-to-be-published novel of the same name, “The Manual Alphabet” was drawn from his life as the hearing son of two deaf parents.

Publication in Fence was exciting enough, but even better news soon arrived by email: Congratulations! “The Manual Alphabet” has been selected for inclusion in “PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017,” the inaugural edition of an anthology of stellar new fiction from the world’s best literary magazines.

The honor, of course, testified to Knights’ talent and persistence. But he’s quick to credit the creative writing program with teaching him how to be “a writer in the world,” someone who works within a tradition of deep thinking, rigorous reading and courageous writing.

“The thing about this program is it taught me things about writing that I had not previously received from any of my other academic experiences,” Knights explains, noting that he came to DU with an MFA in creative writing from a well-respected program. “The things I really, truly needed were imparted to me here at DU.”


A setting for success

For more than 70 years, the creative writing doctoral program at DU has prepared students to accomplish what associate professor Selah Saterstrom calls “their most pressing work.” Throughout those decades, the program has been celebrated for the caliber of its faculty and for the quality and quantity of work produced. In 2012, its reputation was sealed when Poets & Writers magazine ranked it the No. 1 doctoral program in the nation.

That No. 1 ranking has stuck, thanks in part to the successes of students like Knights — not to mention Mona Awad, who, while still a student, won a 2017 Colorado Book Award for literary fiction for her debut novel, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl,” and Emily Culliton, whose first novel, “The Misfortune of Marion Palm,” was reviewed favorably by no less an authority than the New York Times.

Successes like these, the program’s champions agree, grow out of a special something that can’t be found anywhere else in academia. Just what is that special something? The answers, not surprisingly, range from the concrete to the abstract — but all share poetic flair.

“It is this attitude of creative work as revolutionary work — it’s where we have dreams on behalf of culture, to cultivate deep and evolved culture,” Saterstrom says.

Brian Kiteley, who served as program director until the end of the 2017–18 academic year, is just as adamant, but he is inclined to emphasize the program’s scholarly cast — its commitment to exploring literature through a critical and theoretical lens. “We are intellectually adventurous,” he says, “and we seek out students — and they seek us out as well — who are willing to read philosophy, literary theory and literature and think kind of hard about them.”

The prospect of all that evolved culture, pressing work and hard thinking clearly has its appeal. In any given year, as many as 200 writers want to be part of the action, submitting applications for no more than eight slots in the program’s two tracks, one in fiction and one in poetry.

“I came to the program … because some of the writers I most admired had been through the program or taught in the program,” says Joanna Ruocco (PhD ’12), now on the creative writing faculty at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

With her eye on works by the likes of Laird Hunt, an award-winning novelist who recently departed the DU program, Ruocco wanted to tap into a culture that sustained so much creativity. “How did they get where they are?” she asked of her idols. “How did they write those sentences?”


Literary approach

While writers come to the program eager to advance their artistic progress, they expect to do so by immersing themselves in the works of others, taking twice as many literary studies courses as writing workshops. And that’s a key way in which the program differs from its counterparts at other universities. As Kiteley is quick to emphasize, the PhD program is not simply an extension of an MFA in creative writing. It’s not about what Kiteley calls “the simple tactical problems of writing” or “the process of making a short story or writing a lyric poem. It’s not [solely] a studio or workshop-oriented experience. … It’s more of a literary studies-type degree.”

Want to write a groundbreaking poem, short story or novel? First, Kiteley says, take a look at the “exotic and strange” works of 19th-century American literature: Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson. Henry James. “One of the greats,” Kiteley says. “James renovated the novel.”

Want to capture emotions? Happiness, perhaps? Well, Kiteley says, begin with some philosophers on the topic, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a Tolstoy novella and Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man,” a hardboiled detective novel centered around a happily married, quick-quipping couple. “My point is that it’s hard to write about happiness,” he explains. “It’s hard to write about love. It’s hard to write about something that works. Let’s think about that.”

Thinking is, in fact, key. As Bin Ramke, an award-winning poet who has taught at DU since 1985, sees it, the program aims to erase longstanding barriers between the academic and the creative. “There has often been a kind of divide and conflict between academic programs and creative writing programs,” he explains. “I don’t know exactly how that began, but I have found over the years that that divide has lessened — practically disappeared — here. [This program] really is about both the making of your own work and [undertaking] critical work with literature.”


The risk of experimentation

And that’s how student and queer poet Alicia Mountain likes it. “This program is asking us to really be rooted in scholarship and in the existing literature,” she says. “That allows us to then do work that somehow challenges or redefines or chews up and spits back out the work that we’ve seen and read.”

Ruocco seconds that. Co-editor of the fiction journal Birkensnake, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize and the 2013 Pushcart Prize, she has several experimental stories and novels to her credit, not to mention a handful of romance tales penned under a nom de plume. Looking back on her time at DU, she considers the emphasis on rigorous reading to be the foundation for innovation.

“Some of that will show up in your creative work,” she says, noting that her scholarly explorations of monstrosity, femininity and female subjectivity influenced the fabulation that characterizes some of her fiction.

None of this is to suggest that writing workshops aren’t valuable. The program has its own philosophy about this critical component of the creative writing experience. Saterstrom describes that philosophy this way: “Rather than seeing the workshop as a zone of production primarily, [this program sees] the workshop as an alchemical space where students risk experimentation on behalf of their best work. That involves creating a space where students can have a relationship with uncertainty — where they can ask questions. Rather than being focused on success and productivity, it [is] focused on process and integrity. And that is actually quite rare in creative writing programs.”

Ramke, too, sees the DU approach as conducive to highly original work. “That sort of work — the kind of writing that is exploratory, that is interested in not responding primarily to market pressure but to intellectual and emotional pressure, is the kind of work that can most readily thrive in this kind of setting,” he says.


Language arts

The workshop setting proved liberating for poet Jennifer Elise Foerster, a 2018 graduate of the program with two books in circulation. “I came to the program with a more strict sense of what a poem is supposed to be,” she recalls. “DU helped me loosen up a little, loosen up structure and syntax and allow dailyness to be part of the poem.”

She’s not alone. It was in various workshops that Knights experimented with the composition that became “The Manual Alphabet,” blurring what had been a poem written when he was an undergraduate into a hybrid creation that conveys the emotions and day-to-day reality of his childhood.

For Knights, drawn as a reader to works that “had no regard for identity, [for] fixed identity,” “blur” became the operative word.

“I came from a blurred language experience, where everything was sign language inside the house, and outside the house, it was the hearing world,” he recalls. To convey that experience, he needed to practice the blur.

It took a long conversation with Saterstrom to free him from shackles of his own making. “Because part of my own problem is constantly thinking about structure, every time I’d think about the structure of a project, I’d be beholden to that structure,” he remembers. “And she could tell this was getting in the way.”

None of this happened, of course, without spectacular missteps, without consigning draft after draft to the trash bin. From the poem he began with, Knights retained a few syllables. “I had the title; the title survived. And I think there was one full line from that first effort that made it: ‘The house was a dull psalm.’ That was the only line.”

And that’s what failing better looks like: The piles of discarded drafts. The close encounters with other writers, other texts. The hours spent circling an image, an idea. The pillaging of memory for context.

The email that begins: “Congratulations!”

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