Students often ask me what makes a good writer, or if I think they can be a writer, and what they're usually asking
me is: Am I gifted enough to be a writer?
And it's true that a lot of our students have lavish gifts. They really do. But the thing that I want them to know is that your gift is about a third of what it's going to take to be a good writer. One is going to be just sitting down and doing this, day after day. You have to sustain yourself, your own energy. You have to sustain your commitment to the project for a really long time.
And then if you can do that, you have to be able to take disappointment and failure. I think those things combined are what makes a good writer.
So we teach creative writing in Amherst within the English department, and the reason we do that is because we believe that reading widely is a key part of being a writer. We have courses in fiction and poetry and then if you want to write something long and sustained in your senior year, you can do a senior thesis in English. And people do write novellas, they write collections of short stories, collections of poetry. They write memoirs, and we actually had a student who did a graphic novel for their senior thesis, and I think got summa cum laude for it well.
We have writers like myself who are tenured and who stay for a very long time. We also have a writer-in-residence who comes in for a six-year term, and also a visiting writer who has a two to three-year term. But they're here long enough to see students through the major but also short enough for it to turn over and to get people with a variety of viewpoints and skills.
Teaching creative writing is really special for a few reasons. Students are writing about things that are really important to themselves. And in fiction, they're both revealing things about themselves and they're also able to conceal certain things about themselves. So we focus on the work that they're writing but everybody knows how invested we all are in that work, so they read extremely well for each other. They read generously for each other. Their investment is so strong. They know that they're going to be read really hard and vigorously. You really get to create a community.
Creative writing is, for me, the forum where that happens incredibly beautifully.