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The 10 Best Colleges for Creative Writers

By Kieran Dahl November 6th, 2014

While the majority of our readers are likely beyond college age, it’s still fun to wistfully remember your experimental undergraduate years—or whatever they were. That’s why I’ve written a list of the 10 best colleges for creative writers (i.e., the best undergraduate programs), based on my own highly idiosyncratic metrics: accomplished professors, famous alumni, environments conducive to writing, bizarre course selections, and, best of all, any random facts that might add to the writerly collegiate experience.

Emory University

What? One of a handful of schools to offer a Creative Writing major, Emory was recently named America’s best college for aspiring writers by USA Today.

Where? Atlanta, Georgia, also home to Ludacris, the wordsmith responsible for such poetic firestorms as “Now tell me who’s your housekeeper / and what you keep in your house?”

Who? Salman Rushdie joined Emory’s faculty in 2007, and in the same year the university also acquired his extensive archive, which includes the private journal he used to chronicle life under the fatwa.

Sample courses? “Fictions of Human Desire,” for the Tinder generation; “Surviving America,” for the zombie apocalypse; “Nonhumans,” for aliens; “Criticism,” for critics.

Anything else? Floors four, five, and eight in Robert W. Woodruff Library are totally silent. There goes your “I literally can’t even with this noise” excuse.

Hamilton College

What? Simultaneously the country’s fourth-most wired college—no, not weirdwired, as in technologically connected—and one of its most literary, Hamilton has a Creative Writing major and a renowned writing center.

Where? Clinton, New York, a quaint village within walking distance of the original half-moon cookie (invented at Hemstrought’s Bakery) and driving distance of four ski resorts and the Adirondacks.

Who? Alumni include Nat Faxon, an actor and screenwriter who won an Academy Award for The Descendants, and Ezra Pound, a seminal figure in early modernist poetry.

Sample courses? “Adirondack Literature,” for dudes kayaking; “Dream/Life,” for dudes who don’t wake up in time to get to class; “Family Matters,” for dudes who know the class is different than the TV show.

Anything else? Hamilton has an open curriculum, so beyond passing a swim test and three gym classes, you can almost take whatever you want.

Johns Hopkins University

What? Despite being so well known for the sciences that going there is, in most people’s minds, equivalent to wanting to become a doctor, JHU also offers a prestigious, uniquely titled major: The Writing Seminars.

Where? Baltimore, Maryland, sometimes referred to as Bodymore, Murderland. Ouch.

Who? Mary Jo Salter, co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, teaches there, as does Alice McDermott, author of the New York Times-praised novel Someone. Gertrude Stein attended the medical school, but, y’know, she wasn’t famous for her surgery skills. And director Wes Craven, creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street, is an alumnus, as is novelist John Barth. Brad Rutter, the all-time money winner on Jeopardy!, was an English major before dropping out. See, studying English can pay off—sort of.

Sample courses? “Writing Healthy Baltimore,” “Becoming a Science Journalist,” and “Healing: Politics and Poetics” say all you need to know about JHU’s science-with-a-side-of-humanities bent.

Anything else? In Baltimore with a laptop and inspiration? See where Johns Hopkins writers do their work.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What? Known for its brilliant techiness, MIT boasts a Comparative Media Studies/Writing department, an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum that combines the study of virtual worlds, digital media, film, television, and creative writing. As far as writing-oriented programs of study go, its practicality is unprecedented in today’s media landscape.

Where? Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River from Boston proper. Also home to a small, undistinguished school called Harvard, Cambridge is indisputably the book-smart capital of America.

Who? Junot Díaz has taught classes on world-building and advanced fiction. For the curious, Salon posted his syllabi.

Sample courses? “Writing for Video Games,” “Digital Poetry,” “Science Writing and New Media,” all of which fit the bill for tech-themed writing courses. Díaz teaches “Writing and Reading Short Stories”—good luck getting a spot in that one.

Anything else? MIT awards a pirate certificate to students who complete physical education courses in pistol, archery, sailing, and fencing.

New York University

What? The biggest university in the cultural center of the U.S., NYU offers an English major and a Creative Writing minor.

Where? The heart of Greenwich Village, near all things literary: the publishing industry; some of the best bookstores anywhere (including The Strand, McNally Jackson, and St. Mark’s Bookshop); and the historic center of the Beat Generation.

Who? It seems like everyone with a book deal and an MFA has taught, or currently teaches, at NYU: Jo Ann Beard, E.L. Doctorow, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, and—many moons ago—Ralph Waldo Ellison. Literary NYU graduates include Carson McCullers; Joseph Heller; Danielle Steel, the bestselling author alive; and that decrier of big fat phonies, J.D. Salinger.

Sample courses? Cue the cynics proclaiming the uselessness of a liberal arts education. “Hydropoetics: Art, Activism, Water,” “What Is Memory?” and “Palliative Poetics: The Art of Caring,” are all NYU writing courses.

Anything else? Live the writer’s life in the summertime via one of NYU’s three writing programs in Florence, Paris, or—for those lacking wanderlust—New York City. NYU students can also obtain academic credit for internships at literary agencies, publishing houses, and more.

Oberlin College

What? A quirky, artsy, intellectual haven of socially, politically, and environmentally conscious students, Oberlin offers a Creative Writing major.

Where? Thirty-five miles southwest of Cleveland on a rural 440-acre campus surrounded by farmland. In other words, how outsiders imagine the Midwest. When surrounded by cows and rolling hills, what else is there to do but write?

Who? Mark Boal (screenwriter of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), Adam Moss (editor of New York magazine), Gary Shteyngart, and Lena Dunham are alumni.

Sample courses? “The Writer in the World,” or in a small, poorly lit apartment in Brooklyn; “Form and Flexibility,” quite possibly also a ballet class; and “Hopeful Monsters: (Mixed-)Media Studies,” which isn’t a joke and just confuses me.

Anything else? The Science Center atrium, apparently a good place to write, may or may not smell like monkeys.

Princeton University

What? The Ivy League school with arguably the country’s best creative writing program and the worst marching-band uniforms.

Where? Princeton, New Jersey, a preppy, wealthy suburb equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia. Princeton’s campus is largely neo-Gothic, and its historic center, Nassau Street, is a major thoroughfare in town.

Who? A better question is “Who not?” Princeton’s professors include Jeffrey Eugenides, Joyce Carol Oates, and John McPhee, a pioneer of the genre of creative nonfiction. It counts F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, David Remnick, Jodi Picoult, Walter Kirn, and Jonathan Safran Foer among its graduates.

Sample courses? “Notes on Color” is taught by Dr. Roy G. Biv. (Kidding.) “How to Write a Novel in Twelve Weeks (or at Least Make a Start)” is alternatively titled “Lessons in Overambition.” (Also kidding.) In “Action, Being, Doing, and Making,” you’ll “observe people’s behaviors in restaurants and on the street.” (Not kidding.)

Anything else? All undergraduates take a Writing Seminar freshman year.

Sarah Lawrence College

What? A notably hipster liberal arts college whose massive presence in pop culture belies its tiny student body of 1,300 undergraduates.

Where? Suburban Yonkers, New York, half an hour north of Manhattan.

Who? Essayist Jo Ann Beard and novelist Alexander Chee are professors, while screenwriter J.J. Abrams and writers Ann Patchett and Alice Walker are alumni. So, too, is Joe Lazauskas, Contently’s editor-in-chief. (Holla.)

Sample courses? Perhaps indicative of the school’s artsy stereotype, Sarah Lawrence is very, uh, creative with its course titles: “I’m Not Making This Up: Writing Creative Nonfiction,” “The Jeweled Lyric,” “Writing the Dark Side,” “Creative Bootcamp: No, Really, Where Do Ideas Come From?”

Anything else? The SLC Poetry Festival is the largest free poetry festival in New York state. And poetry professor Jeffrey McDaniel once moved half the contents of the campus bookstore to the roof of the MacCracken residence hall. True story.

Sewanee: The University of the South

What? The Tennessee school with a remarkable influence on Southern letters, Sewanee boasts America’s oldest continuously published literary quarterly (The Sewanee Review, founded in 1892), a famous writers’ conference, and the prize for most obnoxious university name. A colon? Really?

Where? Sewanee, Tennessee, whose one and only attraction, according to TripAdvisor, is the university itself. Huh.

Who? Jon Meacham, former editor-in-chief of Newsweek and current executive editor of Random House, is an alumnus.

Sample courses? “Shakespeare I,” “Shakespeare II,” “Playing Shakespeare I: Shakespeare from School to Stage,” “The Shakespeare Project.” Seeing a trend here?

Anything else? Well, Sewanee… offers a minor in Shakespeare Studies.

Yale University

What? Bulldog, bulldog, bow, wow, wow.

[Editor’s note: Kieran went to Yale. Therefore, take his value judgments in this section with a bulldog-sized bucket of salt. Wait, you’re telling me he quoted Ludacris in a list about the best creative writing colleges? And hasn’t been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship yet? I apologize, please proceed.]

Where? New Haven, Connecticut, formerly of crime-here-crime-there-crime-everywhere fame, now of restaurants-and-culture-and-90-minutes-from-New-York fame.

Who? Current professors include Harold Bloom, the foremost literary critic in the world; Louise Glück, the former U.S. poet laureate; Anne Fadiman, an accomplished writer in her own right but also the mentor of Marina Keegan, whose collection The Opposite of Loneliness received widespread attention after her tragic death just days after graduation; and Fred Strebeigh, a damn good teacher. Notable literary graduates include Paul Krugman, Sinclair Lewis, John Hersey, Thornton Wilder, Tom Wolfe, and George W. and George H.W. Bush. Wait, no, scratch those last two.

Sample courses? Yale’s most iconic writing courses are “Daily Themes,” for which students write a 300-word mini-essay five days a week, and “Writing About Oneself,” a nearly three-hour seminar as emotionally intense as it is writing-intensive.

Libraries? Yale’s 12 residential colleges libraries are open 24 hours a day, Sterling Library looks like a Gothic cathedral, Bass Library is underground (cool!) and hosts a naked run during finals, and beautiful Beinecke Library is one of the world’s largest buildings devoted solely to rare books and manuscripts.

Anything else? Superlatives on superlatives: The Yale Review is the nation’s oldest literary quarterly, The Yale Daily News is (allegedly) the oldest college daily newspaper, and more Yale submissions have been honored in the Norman Mailer Writing Competition and the Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest than those from any other school.

Image by Jessica Hill
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