The write stuff

“You can’t teach people how to be brilliant and creative, but classes can nurture what’s already there.”

— Lori Horvitz, UNCA/Great Smokies Writing Program instructor

When it comes to creative writing classes, Western North Carolina has an embarrassment of riches. From obvious treasure troves such as UNCA, Warren Wilson College and The Writers’ Workshop to the more obscure gems such as Malaprop’s Bookstore and Pack Memorial Library, the area clearly has a lot to offer writers of almost any definition or ambition.

UNCA has courses in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Those who want to go to the trouble of matriculating can major in English with a creative-writing emphasis. And for the past two years, UNCA and local writers have joined forces to provide writing courses geared toward people in the community.

Known as the Great Smokies Writing Program, this consortium also presents a free reading series at Malaprop’s that features local writers, explains Executive Director Tommy Hays, a novelist who teaches fiction courses through the program. The reading series, called Writers At Home, presents two readers per month, and Hayes says the programs have been well-attended.

Long before there was a Great Smokies Writing Program, however, The Writers’ Workshop was already active in the community, offering courses and support to local writers in church fellowship halls and community centers. “We started out in 1985,” says Karen Ackerson, president of the nonprofit organization. “And there was nothing like this in Western Carolina.”

Offering courses in short fiction, poetry, magazine-article writing, children’s writing, creative nonfiction and more, Ackerson says The Writers’ Workshop tries to give its students what they want. “We take suggestions from people who’ve taken our classes before, we get feedback from our members and others; and also, sometimes people might see something listed in the paper and call us and say, ‘I teach this, I could teach a class in this,'” she explains.

All Writers’ Workshop teachers are published writers, stresses Ackerson. She also reveals that the nonprifit’s “most popular classes over the years have been nonfiction classes. It seems to be both a practical and approachable [topic].” However, she emphasizes, “We try to offer a variety of courses, workshops and contests — including [some] for children and for the incarcerated.”

People pursue writing for a huge range of reasons, from the dream of penning an award-winning screenplay to the simple goal of keeping a better journal. Ackerson says most Writers’ Workshop classes are geared toward relative newcomers who haven’t published yet (or not much).

While these classes focus on the craft of writing, instructors also give a lot of attention to the business end of things, particularly in the magazine-article-writing classes. “People can learn the basics about writing for magazines and the media — what stories sell, how to write the query letter, how to market your work,” says Ackerson.

“With novel writing and poetry, it’s different, of course,” she adds. Here, the focus is primarily on craft, rather than selling the finished product. As the craft improves, so does the product’s marketability — or at least, that’s the hope.

Both The Writers’ Workshop and the Great Smokies Writing Program offer classes year-round in various community locations. “The object is to not meet on campus, but to meet around town and be accessible,” says Hays.

Ackerson agrees. “We have one-day workshops on Saturdays, as well as ongoing workshops,” she says. “Some are in the daytime, some are in the evening to fit people’s schedules.”

For the writer or aspiring writer who’s willing and able to commit a much larger chunk of time and life to the craft, there’s Warren Wilson College’s Master of Fine Arts program. It’s one of the most respected — and hardest to get into — writing programs in the country.

And no wonder: Just this year, two program staffers scored Pulitzer Prizes — Richard Russo won the fiction prize for his novel Empire Falls, and Carl Dennis won the Pulitzer in poetry for his collection Practical Gods. That’s the caliber of teachers with whom Warren Wilson’s M.F.A. students are paired.

Recent graduate Kathryn Schwille describes the program as being “structured on the old-fashioned mentorship that used to exist between writers.” The program spans four six-month semesters; each begins with a 10-day residency at WWC, where students interact directly with one another and with faculty and staff during meetings and workshops. Then, each student is paired with a professor in a kind of apprenticeship relationship. Together, they select the authors the student will study for the semester.

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