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Where writers thrive


Southwest Texas program builds its reputation by cultivating literary talent both inside and outside the classroom

American-Statesman (05/09/2003)

By Sharyn Wizda Vane

SAN MARCOS — You have three years to learn the writing life at Southwest Texas State University, and on this sunny spring afternoon more than two dozen students have crammed into a tiny room to learn it from National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien.

Computer printouts of the short story up for class critique are extracted from satchels and backpacks, and the comments start ricocheting.

“ I think this is one of the two or three best stories I’ve read in workshop since I’ve been here,” one student says. “I just found myself reading it like a magazine.”

“ I would like it to be a little weirder. I want a little bit more weirdo action in here,” another offers.

“ I felt like things began to go wrong around Page 15,” a third suggests.

Finally, O’Brien has his say -- for the record, he also thought it was one of the best stories he’d read since arriving at SWT as a professor four years ago -- but it doesn’t stop the debate. The discussions are respectful, with none of the psyche-bruising competitive jabs that are endemic at some schools’ workshops, yet no student leaves without reams of comments to consider. The literary chatter easily spills over into after-class hours, when O’Brien and most of the writers-in-training pile into cars and caravan to the River Pub & Grill, kicking around the appeal of the program, more tips for works in progress, and yes, the writing life.

Writers getting their master’s of fine arts at SWT may not graduate with the instant imprimatur of a degree from nationally renowned programs like the University of Iowa’s -- yet. (For a writer, graduating from Iowa is like snagging a degree from Harvard for the rest of us.) But this is the place that’s training the writers whose books you’re likely to see on shelves in the years to come, a master’s program at a school once known best for its party atmosphere that over the past few years has quietly sharpened and expanded its creative-writing faculty, increased its size and, most importantly, gained respect.

Southwest Texas’ program was ranked in the top 20 nationally in 1997 by U.S. News and World Report. The Virginia-based professional organization Associated Writing Programs doesn’t rank programs, but the group had just one major gripe during its last site visit in 1996 -- the increasingly popular program needed more faculty to keep from collapsing under its own weight. Program head Tom Grimes hired two professors the next year

“ We’re hitting a critical mass right now,” Grimes says. “More people are saying, `Yeah, I’m coming.’ ”

That may be because of the strong record at SWT. In the past four years, six graduates have sold novels and several more have published poetry collections. Current students have had stories published in journals from the Alaska Quarterly Review to the Massachusetts Review to the Hawaii Review.

Grimes acknowledges that such successes play a role in the ultimate success of the program, drawing a comparison to the University of Texas’ basketball team: “In some ways it’s no different than what Rick Barnes and T.J. (Ford) did for the Horns in two years. People all over the country saw us in the Final Four, kids saw us, eighth-graders saw us,” he said. At SWT, second-year student Anya Robyak recently won a fiction contest and will have a story in the literary journal Glimmertrain. Graduate Scott Blackwood’s short-story collection, “In the Shadow of Our House,” was reviewed favorably in the New York Times.

“ People will look at that and see that they were students at Southwest Texas State,” Grimes says. “It tells people what to expect from us.”

Yet what students and faculty say is most crucial about the program is building a writers’ community -- one that sustains the craft of literature in a culture that values SUVs and designer labels. SWT students say the support from their professor and fellow students helps them choose a life in which (at least for a while) their day jobs of teaching pay for their after-hours love of matching words to stories.

“ If it was the ’20s, I’d go to Paris,” says Lee Norment, 24, a South Carolina native who’s just finished his first year in the program. “It seems the community has shifted into university settings. The best writers are found at universities now, and it just seems to be the best environment for writing. To see real writers like (SWT visiting lecturer and Pulitzer nominee) Barry Hannah and Tim O’Brien -- you couldn’t do that outside this setting.”

O’Brien, whose newest is last year’s “July, July,” is far from the only “real writer” in the program. Grimes has published five novels, including “Will@epicqwest,” new this month. Fiction professor Dagoberto Gilb’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker; his “Magic of Blood” was named a New York Times Notable book. “Gritos,” Gilb’s collection of essays spanning 20 years, publishes later this month. Cyrus Cassells, a National Poetry Series award-winner, will publish his fourth book next fall.

Such a record helped convince Owen Egerton, 30, that Southwest Texas was the right program.

“ At one point I was trying to decide between Notre Dame and Southwest Texas, and Notre Dame was offering me a better financial deal,” says Egerton, who had already published a novel by the time he was applying to schools. “Finally I went to different bookstores and I looked for books by the faculty, and the thing that is so cool about Southwest Texas is the faculty all are writing, all publishing. They’re right there, in the same struggle -- they’re working writers.”

Building faculty was important to Grimes. He hired Cassells and Gilb in 1997 after the AWP noted that the number of students was growing beyond the limits of the faculty, which also includes fiction writer Debra Monroe (“Newfangled”) and poets Steve Wilson, a Fulbright winner, and Kathleen Peirce (“The Oval Hour”). But there were also more practical considerations. Grimes was happy to take advantage, for example, of the cost of living in San Marcos (crucially low, since he hated the idea of asking students to go into debt to further their education). And he wanted to demystify what was necessary to get an agent or to submit a story for publication, and create a world in which the support necessary for writing -- simply writing, and enjoying it -- was enough.

“ It’s like, you spend three years to write a lottery ticket. You either hit it big, or it comes out and it kind of goes nowhere . . . It’s your life. What do you need to stay enthusiastic and alive as a writer?” Grimes says of the program’s mission.

Part of that is the after-hours element (remember those beers at the River Pub?) that helps students bond both with other fledgling writers and their teachers in a low-stress setting.

“ It’s nice in the sense that these are people who think this is something worth doing,” says Robyak, who notes that her classmates’ support for the writing life is a boon. “This has given me what I’ve come for -- a lot of time to focus on writing.”

“ I had a (prospective) student go off to a big prestigious school in the East because of a member of the faculty,” remembers Grimes (no, gossip hounds, he’s not going to identify the place). “Yeah, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, but he’s 72. He never goes out with students after class.”

That’s not the case at SWT. Grimes and O’Brien are happy to spend time with their students over a burger or beer. Even the formal classes sometimes have a relaxed air that helps fuel discussion: For Gilb’s lively literature survey class that focuses on debut novels, students gather at a classmate’s home, settling onto couches, chairs or simply the floor to talk about their impressions of the assigned book. Think the smartest book-club meeting you’ve ever been to. When class is over, students don’t leave, and neither does Gilb; the conversation simply continues outside over cigarettes and cold beer. Monroe held her final workshop of the year as a potluck at her house out in Wimberley.

Yet for all the fun, the faculty is quite serious about improving their students’ work and preparing them for challenges. Monroe, for one, notes that while it’s important to establish a respectful atmosphere in workshop, it’s also important for students to learn to deal with criticism.

“ There’s going to be a lot of rejection in your career, from not just publications but in book reviews,” she says. “One of the things you get from these three years is to find out do you really have a thick enough skin? Do you want to write or do you really want more of a nice hobby?”

For Cassells, the push is to encourage his students to look inward, rather than to the professor for the right answer. He’s careful not to comment in workshop until the entire class has had a chance to speak, for fear of influencing the discussion.

“ It’s about giving yourself permission to speak,” he says. “We live in a culture that’s not exactly balanced. It’s important to go to a place where artists are encouraged and valued, where you feel a support system for what you’re trying to do.”

Such a nuanced approach bears witness to how far the program has come. Monroe remembers going to the famed writer’s colony Bread Loaf in 1994, the same year that an aspiring free-lance writer she met there wrote a piece for the New York Times Book Review about her disillusioning experience.

“ It was something like, `You think you’re going to meet these famous writers and then instead you meet some woman who teaches at Southwest Texas State University,’ ” Monroe laughs, remembering the not-so-subtle slight at the perceived hick quality of her employer.

“ Nobody talks that way about Southwest Texas anymore.”