- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

Maren Michel is turning her reality into fiction. As a graduate student in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she is working on short stories and a novel, most of which are inspired by personal experiences.

“I have a historical novel in process,” Ms. Michel says. “It’s based in part on my family’s history of immigration. It’s an immigrant story.”

To try to improve their writing skills, some scribes opt to earn specialized degrees in creative writing, while others take classes as part of a nondegree program. The instruction usually is tailored to fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

An education in writing can help a student sift through various processes for writing and decide which methods will work best, Ms. Michel says.

“You can feel divine inspiration, but there are times when you don’t feel divine inspiration,” Ms. Michel says. “You learn craft so you have tools.”

A blend of literature courses and writing workshops makes up the curriculum for a master’s degree in creative writing, says Jean McGarry, professor and chairwoman of the writing seminars department at Johns Hopkins University.

During workshops, students’ work is critiqued by the professor and other class members, Ms. McGarry says. Students often go through many drafts until their work is complete.

“The whole philosophy of the workshop method is where everybody’s view is important, even within levels of competence,” Ms. McGarry says. “There are often differences in point of view.”

Topics such as story structure, point of view, verb tense, span of time, pacing and characterization usually are mentioned during critiques, says Kermit Moyer, creative writing professor at American University in Northwest. He has a doctorate in American literature.

“Some writers begin with plot,” Mr. Moyer says. “Many other writers feel that it’s an artificial way to form a story. The story can unfold from the situation that you may imagine, rather than following the outline of a predetermined scenario.”

Instead of teaching a specific process for writing, Mr. Moyer focuses more on the quality of the finished product.

In addition to the workshops, American University students take courses in literature, translation, journalism and how to teach writing. Pupils also undergo internships.

Although not all writers want to be professors, 25-year-old Sandra Beasley of Northwest wanted that option available upon graduation. As a December 2004 graduate of American University with a master’s degree, she will be able to teach.

A poet, she primarily writes free verse. She recently wrote a sonnet sequence on Medea from Greek mythology.

“I looked at what other poets had done with the character,” Miss Beasley says. “There is no point in regurgitating what’s already out there. You want to find a new insight.”

A former reporter, Glen Finland, 52, of McLean, put her interest in writing on the back burner when she had children.

Once she raised her children, she decided to pursue creative writing. She is to graduate from American University next spring. She is revising a novel and is working on a collection of short stories for her thesis.

“The workshops have been terrific,” Ms. Finland says. “It’s peer collaboration. It’s terrific to have back-and-forth constructive criticism.”

In addition to her writing, Ms. Finland takes time to make sure she is inspired by other authors, including Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston.

“Good writers are dedicated readers,” Ms. Finland says. “The best way to become a better writer is to read everything you can get your hands on.”

Although many famous authors never earned degrees in the field, they had the discipline to finish their manuscripts, says Alex MacLennan, 33, of Northwest. He graduated from American University with a master’s degree in early May. His thesis project, the book “The Gorilla’s Guide to Life,” is being published by Alyson Books in Los Angeles.

“As an unpublished writer, no one is asking for the story,” Mr. MacLennan says. “You totally have to drive yourself. You totally have to do it for yourself. Really, no one cares. I do it because I need to do it and because I love to do it.”

Those people who write in a professional setting — without the freedom for creativity — may be inspired by poetry and fiction classes, says Sunil Freeman, assistant director of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda (www.writer.org).

For a fee, the organization offers nondegree classes in topics such as fiction, genre writing, nonfiction, novels, poetry, stage and screenwriting, and writing for children.

“Students like the deadline pressure of taking a workshop to keep them writing,” Mr. Freeman says. “You can get so busy that you let things slide.”

Writing is a field where you learn by doing, says David McAleavey, professor of English and director of creative writing at George Washington University in Northwest. He holds a doctorate in English.

“Everyone is responsible for their own education,” Mr. McAleavey says. “Someone can teach it to you, but you have to learn it for yourself.”

Pursuing an education in writing sharpens natural talent, says Ron Kuka, program coordinator for creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

It’s like an incubator for the imagination, he says. Students in his classes must write five to 10 pages of fiction per week.

“You don’t learn anything at a university about writing that you couldn’t learn by yourself,” Mr. Kuka says. “It speeds up the process. You have a certain sensitivity to language. Without input from other writers, you might find yourself making terrible mistakes and never know it.”

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