|Undergraduate Writing Program at Manhattanville Brings in Some of the Best|
|Tuesday, August 23, 2011|
Restructured in 2002, the undergraduate creative writing program at Manhattanville has been slowly growing itself up into a formidable competitor to some of the area's larger writing programs. It began with bringing together a highly successful group of working writers under the direction of Jeff Bens, Director of Creative and Professional Writing. A quick look at the list of faculty will reveal names like poet Sally Bliumis-Dunn, or New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Tropper, or even former DC Comics president Paul Levitz. What is bringing such big names to a small community? The answer lies within the heart of the Manhattanville writing program: Jeff Bens' determination to recruit working writers as professors. A novelist, short story writer, and documentary filmmaker, Bens celebrates the achievements of hard work and creative freedom.
"The poets are writing poetry, the fiction writers are writing fiction - there is a real sense of continuity that you are not just taught by teachers that stand around," Jonathan Tropper said.
Tropper's fifth release, This is Where I Leave You, is being adapted into a movie for Warner Brothers. Aside from his novels, Tropper is also working on an original television concept for HBO with producer Alan Ball (True Blood).
"The teachers I've met are all really passionate about their own work in the field opposed to just the teaching aspect of it," he added. "This school is small enough that you have access to anyone you want on the faculty who you think might help you or be a source of inspiration to you. "
In addition to Bens, the Program has one more full-time professor, Van Hartmann, who teaches poetry workshops as well as literature classes and with Bens advises the student-run magazine, Graffiti. The rest are working writers hired by Bens in consultation with the English Department who come and teach one or two classes a semester, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge about the ever-changing, competitive field of publishing.
"I work every day as a published writer," Tropper said. "What I bring is a strong sense of the ability to be able to do this as your livelihood. There may be teachers who teach the craft very passionately, but don't want to get into discussions of how you make a living as a writer and is this practical? I think my whole take on it is, if you love this and want to do this, you have to be able to make a living doing it. I think that is something not every teacher stresses."
The creative writing concentration is 12 courses: six of them are literature, and the rest are reading-based writing classes. Tropper said his workshop students read a contemporary novel a week. There are four areas in the concentration that students can explore: Fiction, Poetry, Screenwriting, and Media/ Journalism. Each teacher brings their own style to the classes, and some classes can be repeated for credit with different professors.
The unique styles of the professors are a part of what makes the Manhattanville program thrive. Bens gives his professors freedom in planning their own courses, under his guidance and Department objectives. For sports writer Jeff Pearlman, who started teaching at Manhattanville in Fall 2010, that is one of the biggest perks. There is no one telling him how to teach his class, he is free to use his own style with the students.
"They give you free reign; no one is breathing down my neck telling me how to do it," Pearlman said. "They want you to bring your unique style to journalism. And that's unique to this college; most colleges are set in their ways and you have to teach in a certain way."
Pearlman is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He regularly writes for SI.com. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling book, Boys Will Be Boys, about the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s. Pearlman also acts as the faculty advisor to the student-run newspaper, Touchstone.
While the professors' careers can be inspirational for the students, the students' passion for their studies is also an inspiration for the professors.
"What impresses me is the enormous diversity of the kids at Manhattanville and the number of them that have a passion for writing," Paul Levitz said.
Levitz, who has won numerous awards for his work at DC Comics, teaches Writing for the Media, where he tries to help students understand the different approaches to writing for a variety of media, including television and film.
"We compare the needs of TV and film structurally and how you use the different media," Levitz said. "(We look at) Aaron Sorkin and how a great writer working with the same themes and some of the same characters has to build a different structure because of the needs of different media."
While Levitz, Pearlman and Tropper might be names that many people will recognize, they aren't the only notable names to found in the course listings. In recent semesters Greg Olear, Anthony Rudel, Sushma Subramanian and Kris Jansma have all taught classes.
Olear is the author of two novels, Totally Killer and Fathermucker and runs the influential website, The Nervous Breakdown. He commutes from New Paltz to teach his class. Jansma's first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, will be published by Viking/Penguin in early 2013. Elizabeth Eslami, who will teach Fiction Workshop this fall, is the author of Bone Worship and numerous short stories. Her account of growing up Iranian-American in South Carolina has received great notice. Sushma Subramanian's work is found in The New York Times, New York magazine, Self, Psychology Today and many other magazines.
"Jeff has developed a creative environment that allows those of us who write and teach writing to help our students find their true writing talent. He has brought together a group of writers each of whom brings unique skills which allows us to work creatively within the structures of the program," said Anthony Rudel, author of among other works Hello Everybody, a popular history of radio, who has taught in the program for eight years. "And what is most wonderful is that we also learn from each other. It is simply a remarkable program; an underappreciated asset of Manhattanville. "
Johanna Grea, '12, a senior in the program and co-editor of Graffiti, agrees. "Over the semesters, I gathered knowledge about my passion and gained interest in writing as a potential career. I not only matured as a writer through each professor's unique feedback, but also gradually developed my own style through the variety of courses that were available to me as an undergraduate. Due to the constant support and encouragements of the faculty, I gained confidence and pride in my work and now have the courage to pursue an MFA in Fiction."
Bens is grateful to the faculty and students for helping the program continue to grow.
"We have assembled, I feel, one of the very best undergraduate writing faculties in the country," Bens said. "The intimacy and authenticity of exchange, not to mention the hard work, between our students and faculty is inspiring and I think unusual. At our student-faculty readings, the quality of work is unmatched. It's a lot of fun to be involved in such a program."