Creative Writing Major Unleashes Student Imagination

Students are enjoying a wide array of courses in the College's newest major
Four students participate in a class discussion with their professor
Photo by: 
Jean Lachat, Photographer, UChicago News
I'm excited to be a doctor one day, and at the same time I have this idea for a novel that I simply can't ignore...
Adrienne Beck
Class of 2019

Last winter, the College announced a new major in Creative Writing—previously available only as a minor—in response to a substantial demand from students. Nearly a quarter in, students and administrators are enthusiastic about the relatively small, but mighty, major.

“When the full major came out, I signed up as a knee-jerk reaction,” said third year Angela Ma. “Aside from my thing for words and stories, I made the choice because Creative Writing at UChicago is a real gem of a department.”

The Creative Writing major allows students to fully explore their interests in poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. Through a variety of courses, the program hopes to produce well-rounded writers.

“We like to think of the major as a way for students...to get help on their writing, their creative writing projects, whether it's as a poet, as a fiction writer, or as a nonfiction writer,” said Professor Vu Tran, Director of Undergraduate Creative Writing.

The major consists of a fundamentals in creative writing course, two technical seminars, three advanced creative writing workshops, a literary genre course, three other literature courses, two research background electives, and a thesis/major projects workshop. It culminates in a BA thesis: a major work of either fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.

“The way the major has been designed is it's still going to make room for [interdisciplinary] inquiry,” said Jessi Haley, Program Manager for the University’s Creative Writing and Poetics program. “It is a University of Chicago program, so we're capitalizing on that energy and interest here.”

Much of this interdisciplinary focus comes from the research-background electives and new technical seminars. The research-background electives are two classes in any field, allowing students to structure the major around their own creative interests.

The technical seminars, new courses that accompany the major, teach creative writing through a variety of lenses. Unlike workshop classes, where students write and critique their own work, these seminars focus on situating students in the world of contemporary creative writing and encouraging them to question their own work from different perspectives. Topics of upcoming technical seminars include the possibilities of tone in nonfiction writing and units of composition in poetry.

“I really want students to take seriously how other disciplines can flesh them out as writers and inform them as thinkers,” said Tran about the new major. “I think, no matter what kind of writing you do, no matter what genre, I think you can only be a good writer if you're a good thinker.”

Other aspects of the major work to foster a community among its students. The Fundamentals of Creative Writing course includes students working in all genres, with the hope of creating a “cohort” among the students.

Students like the focus on the technical aspects of creative writing in the major, as well as how the department encourages community among its students. “I've never been exposed to or really thought about how the process of writing occurs. [The seminar] also pushes me outside my comfort zone, which is important for both writing and life,” said third year Creative Writing Major Adrienne Beck. “I really like it so far; I've never done anything quite like this.”

“The program builds much more than a writer; it also builds out a person. I truly believe the skills you pick up from this major are the most diverse at the university,” added Ma, who is double majoring in Economics. She warns, however, that the Creative Writing major can be tough.

“Don't take these classes thinking you'll make an easy A,” she said. “There have been times that creative writing's taken 500% more out of me than any econ [problem set] ever could.”

students, about ten, sitting around a wooden table, talking to their professor, who is at the head of the tablePhoto By: Jean Lachat

Many students in the Creative Writing major explore additional academic focuses. Chair of Creative Writing and Poetics, Professor John Wilkinson, said that previously, for their minor, many of their students majored in Economics or Biology. When they pitched the major to the College, he added, the biggest enthusiasm was from the science faculty.

“Whatever area of work you happen to be in, the ability to write well is going to enormously benefit you,” Wilkinson said.

Beck, who also studies pre-medicine, had another take, viewing the major as a way for her to explore her passion for writing. “I'm excited to be a doctor one day, and at the same time I have this idea for a novel that I simply can't ignore,” she said. “I would like to use the skills I learn in this major to do my idea justice and execute it as well as I can. Even though I don't see writing as a career goal, I've found that I'm too passionate about writing to stop now, and I know I would never be satisfied leaving my novel unfinished.”

For students who are interested in pursuing creative writing as a career, the new major offers a variety of supports. Every year, the department has a panel where faculty, most of whom are published poets and authors, talk to students about the process of publishing, hiring an agent, and pitching work to magazines. They also offer guidance on what to look for in MFA programs, which for many young writers have become the bridge between undergraduate creative writing and a professional career. Additionally, many professors infuse discussion of the life of a professional writer into their courses.

Students thinking about joining the major should reach out to Professor Tran and to Jessi Haley by email at vtran@uchicago.edu and jmhaley@uchicago.edu respectively for more information.

“We're really enthusiastic about it,” said Tran. “Students who are interested should know that there are a lot of other students who are [as well]. They'll have a great cohort if they do decide to major in creative writing. It'll be a good community for them.”