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Creative Expression at Georgetown Still Fiction
In preparation for their arrival at Georgetown, members of last year’s incoming freshman class were required to read the novel How to Read the Air for the Marino Family International Writer’s Workshop. Grounded in the author’s Ethiopian heritage, the work’s linguistically elegant and melancholy, poetic lyricism frames the experiences of young man struggling to process his immigrant family’s troubled past.
For many students, this is the extent of formal contact with the language arts and creative writing they will encounter at Georgetown during their four years of matriculation. All of this despite the fact that the novel’s author, English professor Dinaw Mengestu (COL ‘00), is a highly acclaimed writer who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. The MacArthur Foundation awards its fellows a “Genius Grant” of $500,000 for the purpose of freeing them to pursue their creative interests uninhibited by financial restrictions.
“I show up to my writing every day, and I show up in the same way that most people show up to their jobs,” says Mengestu. “Most times I’m sitting at my desk by 9:30 in the morning and I’m working until the end of the day.”
Although creative writing remains his main focus, Mengestu has had to balance myriad responsibilities as his work has gained exposure. “You grow into a public role that you learn to fulfill. It becomes an extension of your writing career,” he said. “There’s the very private side that involves you sitting in a room with your books and your computer day after day, and there’s the very professional side that involves being able to speak about your work and actually reach out to your readers.”
Another new responsibility Mengestu shoulders is teaching creative writing on the Hilltop, which has given him new insight into the student body at Georgetown and how it has changed since he graduated. In particular, the openness to creative writing he sees on campus today was nowhere to be found during his undergraduate career.
“There weren’t really that many students trying to write fiction or poetry or whatever the case might have been … It’s something that I think has changed dramatically from when I was an undergraduate,” Mengestu said. “I’m thinking of two classes that I’m teaching now, I think that my students are incredibly talented, not that they all want to be writers, but they seem to really be serious about the act of writing.”
Despite Mengestu’s praise, Georgetown remains a relative unknown in creative writing. Despite the many acclaimed alumni in the University community—such as Jonathan Nolan (COL ‘99) who co-wrote The Dark Knight and Robert Baer (SFS ‘76) whose books inspired the film Syriana—and its location in a city with a burgeoning poetry scene, the Hoya of Letters is not a figure we often idolise. Creative writing events on campus are few and far between, rarely receiving the fanfare of sports or academic competitions, and on-campus events like Saxa Slam and the Corp’s occasional creative writing contests have a tendency to relegate creative writing to the status of a hobby, rather than a bona fide academic pursuit.
“It’s not like some universities that actually have creative writing programs and concentrations, if not majors,” said Mengestu. “[Other schools] have a large number of students that are interested in writing professionally for their careers, they have literary journals that are very … engaged with a very long tradition and history behind them.”
Despite the obscurity of the creative writing community, there are many student writers at Georgetown who share Mengestu’s love of language and say their cohort is growing, if only in fits and starts.
“In high school I wrote poetry all the time—terrible poetry,” said Kasia Clarke (COL ‘13), an editor at The Anthem, a student literary magazine. “During my 11th grade class when my grandfather was dying, and I read “Funeral Blues” by Auden, and it really spoke to me, and I thought, that’s how my grandmother must feel. “
“[Poetry] … spoke to me in a way that other art forms didn’t, and poetry has rosary words and lines that you can just take,” said Madeline Collins (COL ‘13) a senior English major. “On some very immediate level, [I write] because I love reading and I love language, and you could say that language is something vital and sacred. It’s kind of a privilege to be able to use language and to spend time on it and see what it does.”
Collins says that she has built a strong network of friends and peers to talk about creative writing, swap books, and critique each other’s writing. “People that I share my writing with and talk about writing with tend to be people who I’ve met through classes … specifically the Lannan Seminar,” she said.
The Lannan Poetry Seminar, a course taught through the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, is an intensive study of poetry and its intersections with contemporary culture through lectures, readings, and informal dinners with poets. The Lannan Center, which is affiliated with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series, as well as several other literary organizations in the D.C. area, organizes lectures and readings throughout the year along the theme of social involvement. It has brought such writers and figures such as Margaret Atwood, Charles Simic, and Dr. Cornel West to campus, and organizes an annual symposium to expose students to professional writers—the 2011 edition featured Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz.
Mengestu reflected on a similar experience during his years as a student, saying most of the people invested in creative writing were “able to all intersect at some point over those four years that we were here, and the Lannan Seminar was probably the biggest and most important part of that … we were spread across the University, people who were not necessarily English majors who had some sort of serious creative intent behind their studies.”
These comments are striking in light of the statements that were part of his speech for the Marino Workshop during the fall of 2011, where he remarked how initially unhappy he was with Georgetown. He claims the Lannan Seminar “was probably the most critical … time while in the department and being an English major that actually felt like I was being fostered as a writer.”
Mengestu does credit Georgetown with developing his writing skills. “I think I knew I wanted to be a writer before I came here,” he said, “[but] what I found here was a really great department, a lot of really great professors … who, when I was young and trying to figure out which path I was going to take, were really willing to help and encourage me and read my writing.”
Nonetheless, the support Mengestu received as a student remains a relatively weak force compared to the culture of competition and corporatist achievement on the Hilltop. David Ebenbach, a Georgetown English professor who specializes in creative writing and has published three books within the past year, acknowledged several subtle social dangers of the Georgetown academic culture.
“If you are in a highly competitive and judgmental atmosphere, you probably won’t allow yourself to do things that are risky because then you might make mistakes,” he said. The intense pressure here to devote time only to résumé-worthy pursuits is one reason Ebenbach feels cultivating a safe, creative, and collaborative space on campus is essential. “The community is so important [because] there’s a prevailing wind we’re pushing back against.”
Kelley Kidd (SFS ‘13), an avid poet and student in Professor Ebenbach’s Introduction to Creative Writing class, agreed. “I think an environment that is so driven and perfectionist is a danger [to] creativity, and I think that is something that needs a space and an opportunity to flourish here.
Kidd thinks the academic culture at Georgetown sucks in students who would not usually be predisposed to such areas of study.
“There are a lot of people who go to this school and say, ‘I really don’t want to be the traditional Georgetown major. I don’t want to be a Government major, I don’t want to be in International Politics, or maybe I do, but it’s not enough,’” she said. “And everyone thinks that they don’t belong here because they like beautiful things and they like art.” This sentiment has been echoed by students who believe, like Kidd, that their career-driven education is not enough.
In editing The Anthem, Georgetown’s only literary magazine, Clarke has been frustrated by how seemingly small and isolated the writing community is. She has submitted work to several other Georgetown artistic competitions and groups, and received a stifling response. “I asked them what they thought and they said, ‘that’s too weird for Georgetown.’”
She agrees, however, with the consensus that it is important to create a community. She’s found hers online, maintaining a daily poetry blog that now has over 2,500 regular subscribers. “Once I had people reading it,” she said, “I had to keep it up, and now I can’t just abandon these people who want poetry in their lives!”
English professor David Gewanter says there have been small but significant changes in the University’s approach to creative writing. “The Lannan program actively cultivates a student community,” he said. “The [English] Department will soon be considering whether to propose a creative writing minor.” Georgetown, he argues, fosters an environment conducive to creativity. “GU, in developing social sensitivity and responsiveness, actively supports and encourages students to explore creative forms both as personal expression and as active social tools,” he said. “To find your voice in a creative form is to articulate your engagement with the world.”
Gewanter added that creative writing provides a necessary counterpoint to today’s weary bloviating. “Washington is fairly sagging under rhetoric, underfed amidst the sound-bites and pie-charts, the recycled catch-phrases and slogans that substitute for fresh approaches to the world and our role in it,” he said. “Creative writing looks outward and inward, puts the writer on the line even as she invents new worlds.”
Despite the negative perception of the creative culture here and its apparent tendency to get lost in the chaos and competition of Georgetown academia, students recognize there is a strong creative energy in the student body—one that just needs to be tapped into. “[The creative writing community] is thriving and supportive, and it’s there if you seek it,” said Adam Greenberg (COL ‘13), a senior English major whose thesis focuses on poetry.
Many students still see a need for more systematic changes in the attitude of the University toward artistic pursuits. While Collins feels her “professors foster creativity,” she says Georgetown needs “a general encouragement of creativity, which would entail larger institutional changes.”
Mengestu echoed Collins’s sentiments. “It’s not that there aren’t a lot of students who are very creative and committed to art, it’s that there’s not such a history of it here,” he said.
Students and teachers alike recognize that creative writing and attentive reading are both skills worth fostering, ones that are essential to learning how to engage in and shape our culture. “When you’re looking at a bookshelf you’re looking at a conversation, and part of being a writer means joining the conversation, which means not just writing and talking, but also listening,” Ebenbach said.
Collins agrees a community is important for a writer’s growth. “I don’t think writing is a solitary pursuit,” she said. “Language isn’t a solitary thing. It’s inherently the opposite, so writing can’t be solitary … I know that there is so much to be gained from sharing it with people and getting feedback and taking responsibility for something by putting it out there.” Clarke added, “If you don’t discuss and you don’t read poetry, [then] you can’t write good poetry.”
Mengestu said that while his writing is done in solitude, he agrees with Collins that investing in a writing community is incredibly important for the University as a whole, regardless of one’s department or major.
“If you have a large concentration of students who are seriously engaged with the act of writing, you probably have a large concentration of students who are seriously engaged readers, and that continues to make this sort of vibrancy,” he said. “So, writing is very solitary, but I think when you’re in an undergraduate environment and you find like-minded people you begin to spark a debate and a dialogue across a broad range of literature that doesn’t end with the bell when people pass out into the halls.”
To Mengestu, interdisciplinary study and dialogue happens naturally, and those who write and read are engaging in a wider, holistic conversation that permeates nearly every discipline. In general, conversations about writing are very important to him. “I’ve had really wonderful experiences talking to people about my work, some of the best experiences I’ve had and those experience were also equally draining, quite exhausting, because you’re talking about something that’s incredibly private,” he said. “You’re also having this exchange and it’s wonderful to see your readers, and it’s wonderful to realize that this private endeavor actually has a dynamic element to it.”
Mengestu also acknowledges there are difficulties inherent in the pursuit of a career in writing, regardless of institutional encouragement. “I would probably try to dissuade [aspiring writers] as actively as I can,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t love writing … but you have to be able to see all the obstacles and still want to do it. I think you have to be very honest and clear-sighted about the challenges that come with it. So if you don’t care about it to the degree where it feels passionately necessary, it’s not going to compel you enough to make you really want to do it.”
“[Writing is] quite frustrating on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “At the same time you do have those wonderful moments when a book is actually starting to take off, or you just feel like you’ve made moments of real progress in something that’s been taking two, three years out of your life. Those are really great, beautiful moments.”
Mengestu is hopeful about the future of creative writing at Georgetown, and anticipates that intelligent, motivated students will continue to change their culture and make their own connections. He sees a future for English majors, and this network of dogged and determined writers who feel a passion for what they do, even if their job prospects seem slim. “I think part of being an English major is being engaged with the experience of being human,” he said. “You’re engaging literary texts as a way of trying to understand what you’re doing here on this Earth, and I can’t think of any more inherently natural pursuit.”