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The Creative Writing Program

Creative Writing

The Creative Writing program

Literary writing has a long and distinguished history at Swarthmore College. Visiting writers on our faculty in the past have included poets W.H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Ireland’s Brendan Kennelly, South African Denis Brutus, and Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana; and such novelists as Hilma Wolitzer, Elizabeth Benedict, and Jonathan Franzen.

The Creative Writing program has grown over the past forty years from single yearly workshops in fiction, poetry, and playwriting, to more comprehensive offerings – thirteen courses in the English Department, four in other college departments, and the possibility of individual work pursued by advanced students under faculty guidance and offered regularly as a preparation in the Honors Program.

A sampling of Creative Writing courses offered by English Literature

At Swarthmore, the discipline of writing goes hand in hand with the study of literature. Each of the four English Department faculty members who comprise the core of our creative writing program specializes as well in a literary historical field – Old English and Medieval Studies, Romanticism and Eighteenth Century Studies, American and Ethnic Studies, Modern and Contemporary Poetry of England and Ireland. 

Courses that combine critical analysis with creative exercises

The literary expertise of our creative writing faculty permeates all of our creative writing workshops, and is especially evident in four specialized courses that combine critical analysis with creative exercises based in literary models. These courses are ideal for students with little prior experience in creative writing and are excellent  as well for experienced writers who wish to contextualize their creative work and hone their skills through focused exercises.

These courses are:

Grendel’s Workshop (009R) Taught by poet and Medievalist Craig Williamson—examines the ways writers throughout history have reclaimed and re-envisioned prior existing texts, from the use Shakespeare made of his sources, to John Gardner’s re-conception of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view in Grendel, and Tom Stoppard’s decentering of Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The course offers students the opportunity to devise their own poems and fictions based in culturally familiar materials. It is offered currently as a First Year Seminar.

Lyric Encounters (070E) Taught by poet, librettist, and Modernist Nathalie Anderson—explores the musical foundations of poetry through rhythm, rhyme, consonance, and formal patterning, and examines historical deployments of the lyric in expressions of love, mourning, subjective reflection, and transcendence. 

Writing Nature (070G) Taught by poet, fiction writer, and Romanticist Betsy Bolton—draws both on the historical conventions of the Sublime and the more physically grounded depictions of the natural world in biological and ecological writing to introduce students to the skills supporting poetry and non-fiction prose, and to the skills that combine the visual and the verbal in digital pieces. 

The Poetry Project (070J) Taught by Nathalie Anderson—explores avenues of research as strategies for enhancing poetic work.

Poetry and Fiction Workshops

The English Literature department offers intensive workshops in fiction and in poetry. These workshops engage students in exercises designed to develop an awareness of the multiplicitous narrative and lyric choices implicit in the writer’s craft. So more students will have the opportunity to participate, we permit individuals to take only one workshop in a single semester.

►  Playwriting is taught by the Theater department and screenwriting by Film and Media Studies.

Fiction Workshop and Poetry Workshop

These workshops are offered each spring semester.

The Fiction Workshop (070B) concentrates typically on narrative structure, point of view, and character development. The fiction workshop is led, on an alternating basis, by Betsy Bolton and visiting writers, most recently including Rachel Pastan and Gregory Frost.

The Poetry Workshop (070A) focuses on the implications of form and voice, in exercises that challenge the participants to extend their habitual approaches to their writing. The Poetry workshop is led on a rotating basis by Nathalie Anderson, Betsy Bolton, Craig Williamson, and poet and Americanist Peter Schmidt, whose interests in jazz and in spoken-word poetry infuse his classes.

By rotating responsibility for the workshops, we hope to convey, at least by implication, the variety of possible approaches to the discipline of writing. To give more students the opportunity to participate, we permit individuals to take only one of these workshops in a single semester.

Advanced Fiction Workshop and Advanced Poetry Workshop 

In alternating fall semesters, we offer advanced workshops in which students have the opportunity to extend their range and bring individual projects to polished completion. 

Building from the foundation of their earlier writing courses, students in the Advanced Fiction Workshop (070H) explore narrative styles and plot trajectories of their own devising.

Each student in the Advanced Poetry Workshop (070C) completes a sequence or collection of poems presented at the conclusion of the course to the College library in a volume of their own design. 

The advanced workshops may be taught by our resident faculty or by visiting writers, including in recent years Christopher Castellani, Rachel Pastan, Asali Solomon, and Wesley Stace in fiction, and Daisy Fried and Angela Shaw in poetry.

We’ve recently added two specialized workshops in fiction: Fantastic Genres, which explores the possibilities in speculative fiction, taught by Gregory Frost; and Novel Writing, which assists students in strategizing towards more expansive forms, taught by Rachel Pastan. Swarthmore now also offers a workshop in Journalism (Engl 005), although this course does not normally count as a Creative Writing course.

Course offerings from other departments

A number of Swarthmore faculty in departments other than English Literature are also published writers, offering students models of the literary life throughout our curriculum. Students have the opportunity to take courses in children’s writing with Donna Jo Napoli (Ling 054), in literary translation with Sibelan Forrester (Litr 070R), and in playwriting with visiting faculty in the Theater department (Thea 006 and 016). With Educational Studies, we cross-list the community-based course Creative Writing Outreach (Engl 070L/ Educ 073), a course in teaching creative writing to elementary school students, taught by visiting instructor and poet Laynie Browne.

Our students have taken courses in writing at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well, including courses in screen-writing and in non-fiction prose.

Literary Community

The Department of English Literature is frequently able to bring poets and writers to campus to read their work, judge our student writing competitions, and talk with students about their strategies as writers. Typically we tie these readings to literary courses as well, to involve a larger audience. Visitors to the campus have included Nobel Prize winners, Poet Laureates, and novelists.

In addition to the William Plumer Potter Prizes in Fiction and the Lois Morrell and John Russell Hayes Prizes in Poetry, the department also awards the Morrell-Potter Summer Stipend in Creative Writing, which enables a particularly accomplished student writer, chosen by the writing faculty, to pursue an independent project in the summer between the junior and senior years.

Students interested in creative writing are encouraged to explore the Philadelphia literary scene; to participate in workshop readings, and contribute to campus literary magazines; to engage the Spoken Word movement through the student-run, nationally-affiliated, award-winning CUPSI group, OASIS; and to support each other as informed readers of each other’s writing.

​Swarthmore’s program in creative writing has grown substantially and matured significantly over the past forty years, and we anticipate that the next decade will be similarly distinguished. Many alumni of the College have achieved prominence as fiction writers and poets.  In recent years, Swarthmore graduates have pursued advanced degrees in writing at Brooklyn, Brown, Colorado, Columbia, Cornell, Iowa, Mississippi, Oregon, San Francisco State, Syracuse, Wisconsin, and other institutions. Our offerings in creative writing, founded in scholarship and dedicated to exploration, contribute vitally to Swarthmore’s vibrant program in English Literature, and offer interested students an intriguing supplement to the English major.