Holly M. Wendt is Assistant Professor of English at Lebanon Valley College and director of the campus writers’ series, “Writing: A Life.” Recipient of fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society and Jentel Foundation, their writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, Memorious, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere. Their scholarship is included in The CEA Critic and The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist (forthcoming from punctum books). Holly can be found online at https://hollymwendt.com/ and https://twitter.com/hmwendt.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the new creative writing major you’re offering at LVC. Knowing academia, this isn’t the kind of thing that happens overnight. Can you tell us about the journey that brought this to fruition?
Holly Wendt: Thanks! It’s exciting to actually be at this stage, seeing the applicants for our first group of incoming students. I’m looking forward to seeing the first batch of portfolio submissions for our scholarship, as well. But I have to say, the process of creating the major at LVC was well-supported from the beginning, and it went more smoothly than I could have hoped for. My wonderful colleagues in the English department had already developed a curriculum that included creative writing coursework, and a prior iteration of the English major offered a concentration in creative writing. Since arriving at LVC in the fall of 2014, my role has largely been to expand those course offerings and formalize that work with the structure of a full creative writing major.
We began the journey, truly, with an expansion of our visiting writers’ series, now named “Writing: A Life,” and with the addition of some creative writing theory courses. Thereafter, we also added workshops in creative nonfiction—as well you know—and in scriptwriting. Given the positive student response to the new courses, a study by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) that highlighted the growth of creative writing programs across the nation, and the need for deft and insightful communicators across all sectors, it seemed like an ideal time to take this final step and launch a major and a minor.
CS: Can you give us a grand view of the major, its areas of concentration and what might set it apart from other programs?
HW: The major is built on a foundation of two courses—Introduction to Literature and Introduction to Creative Writing—and students’ work will branch out from there. It’s an oft-repeated mantra that writers need to read widely and well if they want to write well—for good reason!—and so Introduction to Literature not only exposes students to a wide variety of texts but also to a wide variety of ways to read and engage with those texts. Also, since Introduction to Literature is required for English majors as well—whether they’re focusing on secondary education, journalism and communications, or literature—it’s an excellent place for students to meet each other. The creative writing major is housed in the English department, and one of the hallmarks of the LVC English department is how closely the faculty works to support each other and all of our students; our creative writing major is designed with the same intention for our students.
The Introduction to Creative Writing course is multi-genre, setting students up to enter any of the four workshop courses (in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and scriptwriting), and all students will take two different workshops, in addition to our theory courses, which are also multi-genre. Then, students are encouraged to further hone their skills in an intermediary workshop (and they may take more than one, if they like), which will then culminate in the creation of a chapbook-length manuscript or, for those seeking an honors designation, a full-length manuscript to be presented to faculty and peers. Students will also take literature courses within our varied offerings, and they may pursue independent studies to deepen their knowledge and continue work on their craft. As an example, I worked with a student on an independent study-turned-honors project that investigated young adult literature through the lens of literary criticism and also included creative work on the student’s own novel manuscript.
I haven’t gone through every required course, but I do hope that what I’ve shared here speaks to the varied potential of the major. One of the first things students notice at LVC, and especially in the English department, is that if they’re excited about it, faculty members are going to help them find a way to explore it and achieve it.
The LVC creative writing major is designed to encourage students to take full advantage of all of the opportunities offered within the college experience. Students can easily schedule in study abroad or study away programs, and it’s quite possible for students to take on a second major or two minors without taking an overload, if the student plans accordingly. Faculty, of course, are always on hand to help with that planning and to share information about LVC’s study abroad options.
One of my favorite components of the major—and of the arts at LVC—got its start when we launched “Writing: A Life,” and that’s our writer-in-residence program. In addition to conducting a workshop, giving a reading, and visiting classes, as our three annual visiting writers do, the writer-in-residence spends a week on campus, holding individual meetings with students to discuss their work (which students will have submitted in advance), attending meals with students and faculty, and generally becoming part of campus life. Our inaugural writer-in-residence was Nina McConigley, author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which won the 2014 PEN Open Award.
Another component that sets our program apart is ENG 299, a course in professional development for majors in our department. This course helps students begin the encompassing work of preparing for internships, learn more about graduate school and the various types of programs available, prepare writing samples and clips of work for professional portfolios—ultimately, this course ensures our majors will be able to go confidently from LVC to the next step in their professional and intellectual lives, in a way that’s tailored to the students’ particular needs and interests. The course features field trips and guest speakers, too, and fosters connections with alumni, so that the wide range of potential professional avenues is clear, and we collaborate with LVC’s Center for Career Development, so students receive the full spectrum of potential benefits, from mock interviews to career mentorship from professionals in the field.
CS: I’m imagining a program like this will extend beyond the classroom—and probably grow into its own community. What kind of opportunities are you envisioning for students outside of the traditional lecture setting?
HW: One of the initiatives we’re working on this semester is a partnership with the Lebanon VA Hospital, exploring ways that our campus writers can work with veterans and help them tell their stories. While we’re still in the planning phase, I’m very excited about the potential of such a program.
Students are also able to apply to serve as the assistant director of “Writing: A Life” for an entire academic year. The assistant director helps coordinate advertisement for the series events, including creating materials for our social media feeds and working with our on-campus office of Marketing and Communications. Additionally, while the visiting writers are on-campus, the assistant director serves as a liaison for the writer, guiding them on campus and connecting them with other students. Even more importantly, the assistant director specifically fosters the health of the literary arts via two projects: a formal proposal of writers to invite to campus in the future to be shared with the department and a campus/community engagement project of the student’s own design. This is a key experience for students interested in arts education or arts outreach.
And you’re right about community—there is already a literary community on campus, and the students who come to LVC for our new major will find themselves not only welcomed but in a position primed to thrive. One key locus for that community is Green Blotter, our literary magazine that publishes creative writing and visual art by undergraduate writers and artists around the globe. Students may, of course, submit their work for publication, and they can also take part in the editing of the journal. Our reader board and editors are all students, under the excellent advisement of Ms. Sally Clark, and they collaborate to create a beautiful, full-color print magazine annually, with an accompanying web and social media presence. Not only is this editorial work an excellent step toward future work in editing or publishing, it’s also a clear demonstration of and engagement in literary citizenship, the weave of writers and readers and editors that is such a part of the writing life.
A lively campus writers’ group also exists, wherein students gather to produce new writing in response to prompts and also to engage in additional workshops. The writers’ group has organized write-ins and world-building workshops for National Novel Writing Month, and we have some events in the works for National Poetry Month this April, in partnership with the spring semester poetry workshop, including an open mic reading, and a collaborative reviews series with the campus library.
Further related extracurriculars include Wig and Buckle, our long-standing student theater company, and La Vie Collegienne, the student newspaper, and the whole host of student activities and clubs found at LVC. We directly encourage our students to find ways to build bridges between their interests, rather than try to silo them. In this way, students are always taking their learning beyond the classroom and bringing new learning back—to the classroom and to the page.
CS: More and more colleges are offering creative writing programs—but some students (and parents) worry about what awaits a graduate of such a program. What are the post-college opportunities that some may not be seeing for creative writing majors? And in a broader sense, what are the life-long assets one might find from this course of study?
HW: Becoming a writer isn’t only about knowing where the commas go (though that’s also important); becoming a writer is about being a keen and insightful reader of the world. Writing is about attending to detail and communicating with nuance and adapting to change and finding solutions to problems—ask anyone who’s tried to write a sestina or structure a novel with multiple points of view: writing is all about finding solutions to problems—and those are the skills the 21st century clearly requires of us.
There are careers ready-made for writers of all stripes: positions in advertising and in education, in writing for film and television, and in the ever-changing media world in everything from news and features writing to cultural criticism and sports writing. Creative writers work as editors and copywriters and literary agents and publicists; the world of publishing is much-peopled with writers who aren’t just bringing their own books into the world, but helping others do the same, in the big publishing houses and in independent and small presses. Too often we forget about careers in arts outreach organizations, community arts initiatives, and many positions in the non-profit sector; we don’t always think about how writing (and English) are good complements or precursors to the study of law and medicine because they remind us of the lives in the bodies one might be trying to defend or save. Pairing that creative writing major with another specialization—perhaps another language, or global studies, or digital communications—opens still more doors.
At its core, a creative writing program—and the liberal arts more broadly—is about developing life-long learners. A person who is, as Henry James wrote, one “on whom nothing is wasted,” can become just about anything, and a creative writing major is especially suited to finding value and applicability in all of our experiences and knowledge. Someone well-versed in nuanced writing and in the selection of detail will be able to articulate their knowledge and skills in a way that makes clear their appeal as a colleague and as an asset, rather than simply as an employee.
CS: If you could project yourself forward ten years, what would you like to be able to say about this new program?
HW: While I do want the program to grow—to flourish in its numbers, as well as in its service to our students—I want to be able to say that it still is a close-knit community, that our students know and value each other. That sense of community is a key strength of LVC and one that we’re particularly proud of in our department. Because it’s such an integral part of who we are, I don’t worry that our sense of community will diminish, but tending that community is a distinct priority. I would also like to point at the shelves of publications our students have created and contributed to and to tell you about how much I’m enjoying reading them.
CS: If someone is interested in learning more, where would you point them?
HW: First and foremost, our website has a listing of available courses and course descriptions, as well as related endeavors, like Green Blotter and La Vie. From there, too, all of the information about Lebanon Valley College is at your fingertips, if browsing is your style. However, I’m also very happy to answer any questions (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to help prospective students get in touch with current students, undertake classroom visits, and share information about our many campus initiatives and opportunities.