Looking Forward: Creative Writing at Interlochen Arts Academy

I first found my home in the creative writing department at Interlochen as a high school sophomore, nearly two decades ago. The department has seen many changes since then: in 2002, thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor, the department found a beautiful new home, moving from Mott Rotunda to the Writing House, the only building in the country dedicated to the craft of writing on the high school level. Jack Driscoll, Michael Delp, Nick Bozanic and Terry Caszatt, the teachers who helped generations of writing students discover our voices, have since retired or moved on, and a new faculty of writers and teachers now seeks to inspire and empower students, teaching them not simply how to write but how to see more deeply. Becoming director of the program that transformed me and shaped the course of my life has been an incredible honor, and it is important to me to uphold the tradition of individual mentorship and teaching excellence established by these dedicated instructors.

We continue to give our students access to internationally renowned visiting writers who provide students with fresh perspectives on the writing craft. Recent visitors include National Book Award winning authors Jaimy Gordon and Peter Matthiessen, poet and 2012 Guggenheim fellow Kwame Dawes and fiction writer Antonya Nelson, who was recently named by the “New Yorker” as one of “twenty young fiction writers for the new millennium,” among many others. The Writer-in-Residence program, which founding faculty member Jack Driscoll created, brings in a new faculty member each semester to teach a fiction workshop and a one-of-a-kind elective that explores cutting edge literary topics and encourages students to produce fresh, memorable work in a variety of genres. Recent and upcoming Writer-in-Residence electives explore a diverse range of topics including “Writing about War,” “Writing the Fantastic,” “Subgenres of Nonfiction” and “Writing the Now.”

In addition, our permanent faculty now offers the widest range of genres in the department’s history, including innovative offerings like Anne-Marie Oomen’s “Writing from Art: Ekphrastic Writing,” Chris Dombrowski’s “Hybrid Genres,” and Lesley Tye’s screenwriting courses, which approach the craft of screenwriting as a literary genre, not simply as a means to sell a script. Many of these genres are current topics of discussion and exploration in the nation’s leading MFA programs and at national conferences like the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, which we attended as a department this past spring as part of our IAA 50th Anniversary tour. Instilling our students with a sense of adventurousness and openness to discovery as they explore a variety of genres empowers them, giving them greater versatility, and enables them to become the next generation of literary innovators and inventors.

Workshop, now a two-hour block class that includes one hour of group critiques and discussion and one hour devoted to independent writing time and individual tutorial sessions, remains at the heart of our program. Students generally alternate between fiction and poetry workshop each semester, rotating between instructors so they experience a variety of pedagogical methods. Just as MFA programs nationwide are asking how they can take new and innovative approaches to workshop, our instructors are continually exploring new formats for engaging students in critical discussion, from blog posts to comic strips to imitation exercises. The flexibility of this two-hour block also allows us to offer more generative workshops and activities to our entire department, encouraging students to take artistic risks and discover new influences and inspirations.

In an era of ever-increasing digital and online publications, the department, like many programs on the undergraduate and graduate level, faces the challenge of redefining the role of print publications within our curriculum. This past spring the Literary Publications class launched our first-ever interactive online literary journal, “The Interlochen Review” (www.interlochenreview.org), featuring student writing and interviews with audio links as well as a stunning slideshow of artwork from students in the visual arts department. This endeavor gives our students the skills they will need to become the future editors and designers of online journals. The online journal also expands the visibility of our department, reaching thousands more readers than we were able to with the print version. The department has not abandoned print completely, however, and students continue to produce our quarterly literary magazine, “The Red Wheelbarrow” as well as our annual festival chapbook in print. We will explore technology and how the written word is shared in a panel on “The Future of the Book,” at our upcoming symposium on the future of the arts in October. Creating student awareness about the rapidly changing face of the publishing world will better prepare them for future work as writers, editors and publishers.

The flexibility of the new schedule at the Academy now gives writing students the opportunity to collaborate more freely with other arts areas, and we are excited to be working on collaborations with the composition and opera workshop students, with dance, band and singer-songwriter students and with the theatre department this coming year. The electric exchange of ideas that these collaborations inspire is a vital aspect of the Interlochen experience. Writers have always been part of the larger artistic community, but there is sometimes a misperception that they must live a life of relative isolation, holed up with their manuscripts in some forgotten office. Finding ways to cultivate interdisciplinary exploration and dialogue is crucial to preparing students for a world in which the arts are becoming more interconnected and multifaceted than ever before.

As we open another Academy year, I am thrilled to welcome a new group of young writers from across the country and around the world to the Writing House. I am eager to watch them discover the stories that only they can tell, and to help them develop the patience and compassion for themselves that will enable them to see their writing through countless drafts. By year’s end, they will have honed a kaleidoscope of fresh and powerful visions, carrying on the tradition of deep seeing that is at the heart of Interlochen’s creative writing department.