NEW HAVEN, Conn. >> Some credit the rise of social media. Others attribute it to a flourishing culture of self-expression. Whatever the reason, colleges across the United States are seeing a boom in demand for courses on creative writing.
Colleges are adding writing programs to accommodate interest in what has become the rarest of fields in the humanities — a sector that is growing, rather than losing students to science and technology.
The number of schools offering bachelor’s degrees in creative writing has risen from three in 1975 to 733 today, according to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, an industry group based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
So what will these students do after graduating?
“Most of them are aware that this probably is not going to be their career. At least, I hope they’re aware,” said David Galef, director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “They’re interested in doing something they feel is creative.”
While some will become professional writers, others will find work in fields such as public relations, advertising or something completely unrelated. Instructors say some students see their focus on writing as a way to understand themselves, make use of a liberal education and enrich their lives.
One Montclair State undergraduate, Gil Moreno, 46, enrolled years after completing another bachelor’s degree, in business management, and dreams of becoming a writer. Even if he can’t do it professionally, he’ll keep it up on the side.
“I’m looking to get away from the business world,” he said. “I’m kind of looking to live in my own separate world.”
The number of creative writing bachelor’s programs has grown steadily, but spiked from 161 in 2008 to 592 in 2013, according to the AWP . English departments elsewhere have offered new concentrations or minors in writing, and still more major programs are planned, including one beginning next fall at the University of Chicago.
In some English departments, the boom has created tension between creative writing and those who emphasize instruction of literature.
At Yale University’s English department, which is reviewing admissions procedures for the writing concentration amid a surge in applications, professors say their writing program is unusual in requiring that all courses include reading in contemporary work of the chosen genre.
“All over the country students are more interested in writing about themselves than they are in reading other people,” said English professor Leslie Brisman, who has taught at Yale since 1969. “We are in favor of creativity. We are not in favor of ignorance.”
The number of course offerings in creative writing has roughly doubled over the last five years at Yale, where the creative writing director, Richard Deming, suspects the interest can be credited, at least partly, to social media.
“This act of expressing one’s voice in a public way — some people feel that they want to add craft, they want to hone those skills and take it to a place of more intensity,” he said. “It just builds from there.”
Another explanation for the boom, according to David Fenza, director of the AWP, is a cultural disconnect between longstanding staples of English departments and college students who come from increasingly diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“They want to see literature about their diaspora, not the diaspora of others,” he said. “They want literature about them and their families and their ancestors and not the ancestors of white, European, English-speaking peoples.”
Erica Wachs, a Yale junior specializing in creative writing, arrived at the Ivy League school thinking she would study either English or global affairs. Her first writing classes included some of the most exciting moments of her freshman year, including sessions with writers discussing their craft. She now is planning a career writing for the entertainment industry.
“I hope writing is what I will spend the rest of my life doing,” she said.