Two years ago, Gabrielle Myers quit her day job as a chef and dog-eared this chapter in her novel life for the pursuit of writing. She decided to invest two years in her passion for hemming poetry and enrolled in the UC Davis master’s program in creative writing.
“I wanted to work on writing,” said Myers, who will graduate from the program this spring. “I had a breaking point, and I asked myself, ‘What’s the most important part of my life?‘ Poetry, it is the most important part. So I took a jump.“
This year, approximately 100 hopeful candidates also took a dive into their passion and applied for the master’s program in creative writing at UC Davis. This fall, the faculty of the creative writing department reviewed the applicants and chose eight fiction writers and six poets – including current UC Davis undergraduates, Brian Ang and Emily Hughes.
“This is a good program to improve in,” said Ang, the winning poet in this year’s Pamela Maus contest for creative writing at UC Davis. “I have people I admire. I don’t think about my goals beyond getting better. I am going to make the most of my two years.“
Graduate students will work through two years and 36 units. They begin the program by choosing an emphasis in either fiction or poetry, the latter of which will be Hughes‘ track.
“Whenever I write fiction, they become poems,” Hughes said. “There is some fiction in my poems but I don’t know why.“
The graduate students take four workshops – three in their chosen field of study and one outside their genre. Pam Houston, who has sold over 400,000 copies of her book Cowboys are My Weakness, directs the creative writing program. She mandated this requirement to get her students to incorporate the two separate genres in their writing.
“I believe reading and writing poetry is good for the fiction writer,” Houston said. “They will think about form, word tones, rhythm and cadence. Otherwise, fiction writers would only think about plot and character in their stories. I hope it works the other way around [for the poets].“
The graduate students work extensively with the faculty staff. With only 14 enrollees heading into the program, class sizes are small, affording more attention to each student. Hughes said the close relationships that she developed as an undergraduate at UC Davis with poet and English professor Joe Wenderoth factored in her decision to stay at the university.
“He has an interesting personality,” Hughes said. “Joe told me to write what I’m afraid to write.“
During the first year, students take workshops and seminars where they will experiment with different techniques in search of discovering their style of storytelling.
“The first year is a year of experimenting – playing and finding a voice,” Houston said.
Many of the students already are accomplished writers and know the direction of their thesis. However, English professor Alan Williamson felt that there are times when some students do need a compass to navigate towards their voice.
“All the poems are discussed in the class [workshops],“ Williamson said. “I try not to chime in, but I will steer people to read poets that they are trying to do or aspiring to be. I try to respond when there is a natural inclination.“
English professor and poet Joshua Clover emphasized that the program is intended to give the students a focused environment for writing. The two years in the program are important for the writer to hone their craft, he said.
“They‘ll periodically feel busy, but compared to the next 50 years, they’ll have an unparalleled permission to pursue their writing without at the same time worrying about how to pay the rent,” Clover said in an e-mail interview. “So my feeling is that students should take the opportunity to generate as much interesting writing as they can in these two years.“
By the end of the first year, students begin to work on their thesis. Poets continue to tell their stories in stanza and lines while organizing and compiling their work, while fiction writers will draft a book-length manuscript.
“They take the workshops in their first year and get a lot of feedback to hone their writing,” Houston said. “They also take additional workshops to set [artificial] deadlines for themselves.“
The workshops are also intended for graduate students to receive critiques and support from her fellow creative writers. Myers said the community of peers helped her to improve on her writing.
“I was influenced by the writing workshop,” Myers said. “In the workshop, I am approaching the craft in a community. The community was important. It made it more exciting. I improved quicker and swifter studying [at Davis].“
As they prepare to graduate and finish their last year in the master’s program, the graduate students will submit their thesis to a panel of faculty members and present their body of work. Though it may be stressful, Houston said it is more of a celebration of the graduate student’s efforts.
Houston said that she has been working to see if a third year could be added. The extra year could allow students like Myers to finish what they started, she said.
“The second year is buckling down and writing the thesis,” Houston said. “It is just a start of a book. The third year could be for publishing.“
Myers will not have the time to wait for the program to implement the third year as her graduation looms. With two years dedicated to writing, she is not going back to the culinary world. Instead, she already has plans to add another chapter to her writing.
“My next journey is a MFA in poetry at St. Mary’s College [this fall],“ she said.
JACKSON YAN can be reached at email@example.com.XXX