Structures to Sustain Us: Exploring the Creative Writing Community at Tufts
ART BY PHOEBE MCMAHON
Senior Maeve Hagerty has always wanted to be an author. “That was my childhood dream,” she said. “I’ve been writing stories for fun, probably since I was 10.” Upon arriving at Tufts, Hagerty decided that she would pursue this passion by joining a writing workshop.
Writing workshops at Tufts operate on their own rhythm, differing from most other classes one would encounter as an undergraduate. In a typical workshop, no more than twelve students shuffle into class to talk about two or three of their peers’ short stories, which they’ve all carefully read ahead of time. By the first few classes, they have become accustomed to the ceremony of workshop. The writer of the day begins by reading an excerpt aloud from their piece; this is usually the last time the writer will speak for the next 45 minutes, as their classmates launch into a discussion about the style, themes, successes, and failures of the story, consulting detailed notes they’ve taken on their own copies. To Professor of the Practice and Creative Writing Director Simon Han, there is something significant about the care with which one’s work is examined in workshop. “For me, when I took workshops as an undergrad, it was the first time I felt like something I was writing was taken seriously by strangers,” Han said.
By the end of the class, the writer will have pages full of scribbled notes to bring home and consider before they present their next piece. As the semester goes on, students begin to familiarize themselves with each others’ writing styles. “[You] start to see trends in certain people’s writing, and you start to see motifs that pop up over and over again or totally different paths in a person’s writing. I find that that’s the most interesting part of the actual seminars,” Hagerty said.
Workshop classes—especially graduate MA or MFA writing programs—have a long history in academia, most of them modeled on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, founded in 1936. The Iowa Writers Workshop was the first creative writing degree program in America and has remained the most prestigious. According to its website, the purpose of its model is to encourage students and help them mature their talent. “If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write,” the website states.
According To Anna V. Q. Ross, a lecturer in the Tufts Department of English and a professor of one of the Introduction to Poetry workshops offered this semester, the environment of workshop allows for students to transform the artistic process into something collaborative. “We often think of writing as a solitary act,” Ross said. “Of course, you know, no one else is putting those words down on the page. But we write to communicate. And so it’s very important to bring that work to other people and see what they get from it. And so, in that way, writing becomes a very communal and shared process.”
It is this tight-knit community that makes workshop both sacred and vulnerable. “As a person who tends to be very perfectionist in my leanings, I always feel self-conscious going into workshop,” Hagerty said. “But you never leave workshop feeling self-conscious… You don’t feel like you’ve left with a negative experience. Because the whole idea is, you know, people have read your writing and they’re trying to help you improve.”
According to Ross, students progressively become more comfortable giving and receiving feedback as they adjust to the format of workshop. “If I’m doing my job right, I talk less and less and less as the semester goes on,” she said.
Because writing is an art form, and therefore a form of self-expression, workshops can often lead to deep and unique bonds among its members. “It becomes a space where I think you feel very protected as a writer,” Han said. “Hopefully, you feel like you can take risks and stumble, right? We all know… this is all work in progress. So the idea is that we can sort of share and be vulnerable with one another, even if we started out as strangers.”
But workshop—though important to the writers who participate—is a limited structure, and writers on campus may crave literary spaces beyond the walls of the classroom. “Once we exit that structure,” Han said, “we have to build new structures to sustain us. And so that’s part of what we try to do through the English department… to create spaces for students who are interested in writing and reading to meet one another and build their own community from there.”
One such community is Parnassus, a student-led creative writing club at Tufts. Each week, the members of Parnassus gather in Braker Hall to write alongside one another for 50 minutes. To the president of the club, Tufts senior Steph Gratiano, Parnassus is an opportunity for students to make intentional room for writing in their lives. “In a lot of ways I feel like Parnassus sort of gave me space to write back when it was sort of disappearing from my life,” she said.
Parnassus is not all about writing in silence; the club integrates icebreakers, workshops, and communal writing exercises like six-word-stories into its meetings. It also plans outings during the semester, including trips to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston. All of this has helped nurture a reliable community for Parnassus’ members. “There’s a certain amount of solidarity. Like, we’re all having fun here, or we all have writer’s block here. And it’s fine. I think that community is nice,” Gratiano said.
Parnassus is not the only club through which students can share and discuss creative writing. Future Histories, Tufts’ premier literary magazine, is focused on centering students’ creative expression and revising work collaboratively. According to their website, Future Histories hopes “to give Tufts writers and artists a megaphone in which they may yell art, an energized space to connect and collaborate, and an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the submissions process.”
In recent years, faculty and students have made many efforts to bolster the creative writing scene at Tufts. The English department has hosted open mic nights where students can read their creative work, faculty readings, and even workshops facilitated by professional writers outside of Tufts. Many of the events are organized in collaboration with the ever-growing and student-led English Society, made up of “English Majors, Minors, and Enthusiasts,” according to their Instagram. The English Society also holds its own events. Han’s dream for the future of creative writing at Tufts is that the efforts towards fostering a creative writing community on campus multiply. “My hope is that… writers on campus really feel like they can find one another and that they can depend on this regular system of support both within class and outside of class,” he said.
Creative writing at Tufts is not just meant for English majors and minors. Ross, for example, has had scientists, engineers, and other STEM majors in her workshops this semester. “I like very much that [you] don’t have to be an English major in order to take a creative writing class,” Ross said. “And I think that I often have students who come into my classes who are interested in taking a creative writing class because they see it as complementary, complementing something else that they’re working on.” Parnassus and the English Society are also open to students from any discipline. “Our last president was a computer science major, I’m a chem major,” Gratiano said. “Most people are actually STEM majors in this group.”
Whether through workshop classes, clubs, or organized events, writing creatively while in a community is—to many Tufts students and faculty—a deeply meaningful undertaking. “I find it really emotional at times,” Hagerty said of her experience in workshop. “Honestly, it’s kind of nice to know that there [are] other people out there who are also spending their time thinking about how to depict the world around them… even though it sounds kind of cliché, it is actually really a powerful experience.”