At 40 years old, Interlochen Creative Writing program looks to future

  • "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen"

  • Interlochen's Creative Writing director David Griffith during his opening remarks at "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen".

  • "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen"

  • Holly Wren Spaulding during "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen".

  • Doug Stanton during "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen"

  • "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen"

The 2015-16 academic year marks 40 years of creative writing at the Interlochen Arts Academy. The occasion was marked with a celebration titled "Northern Light: Celebrating 40 Years of Creative Writing At Interlochen" last Sept. 23 at The Writing House, featuring readings by students, faculty and notable graduates such as Holly Wren Spaulding and Doug Stanton.

For the first several weeks of school, Academy creative writing students spent time researching the 200 or so guest writers Interlochen has hosted since 1975, including numerous winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and three Poet Laureates. Each student drew a year out of a hat and then had to "adopt" a writer from that year. They were then responsible for selecting three excerpts from the writer's work that connected with the larger Academy’s yearlong theme of "Light." The students compiled those excerpts into a poem titled Northern Lights: 40 Years in 40 Voices.

But as the celebration looked to the past 40 years of creative writing at Interlochen, the program, under the direction of David Griffith, is looking forward—and adjusting to meet the ever-changing world of writing in the digital age.

“We're really looking at the next decade—we're looking at what trends that are out there and seeing how we can help (students) to navigate that literary landscape,” Griffith said.

And the landscape is ever-shifting, especially with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet news-on-demand culture. As Griffith put it, content is king—so how do you teach a young writer to participate in that fast-paced world?

“We walk them through a lot of those considerations. We have a class that's been on the books for quite a while called Literary Publications … it's basically a lab class for creating the online annual Interlochen Review, but in the class there's a lot of conversation about the difference between print and online,” Griffith said. “And if it is a print journal, how do you manage that online presence, and what is the purpose of the website if you've got a print publication? How do you avoid the website being redundant? How does the website attract new readers to your publication?

“So we're walking them through a lot of the big questions that people in the world of publishing and journalism are having to think about.”

Griffith said that there are some students who are already focusing on specific genres, especially up-and-coming areas like young adult, fantasy and science fiction.

“The landscape around what has up until now been called genre fiction is changing. Science fiction, fantasy, young adult—it's just so, so saleable. Whereas realistic fiction and poetry are like —it's not that they don't get attention, but they're not selling into mass audiences. ... It's the youth audiences that are really driving this demand for genre fiction.

“That's where my job comes in, and that's where the faculty's jobs come in—no matter what you choose to write, let's write it well. Let's not be part of the problem; let's be part of the solution … no matter what it is that you're writing, let’s try to bring beauty into the world.”

Toward that goal, the program offers its students a variety of classes and workshops, all focused on developing writers who write.

“I really think that the key to our program is how it's foundational,” Griffith said. “We're not restricting them, but we really focus on building that foundation.”

And graduates of the program appreciate that foundation—and the rare opportunity Interlochen gave them to be taken seriously. Alumna Brittany Cavallaro—who will be visiting Interlochen for a reading and master class in May and whose novel, A Study in Charlotte, came out March 1—said the diversity of her education at Interlochen continues to serve her well as a professional writer.

“The creative writing program gave me a grounding in a bunch of different genres—fiction workshops, poetry workshops—and now that I'm out in the world as a writer, it's been completely invaluable because I do all those things,” said Cavallaro (IAA 02-04). “I write poetry, I write fiction, I write nonfiction ... and while we were taken really seriously as young writers (at Interlochen), there was never any pressure to specialize any more so than you wanted to. And I really appreciated that.”

The foundational skills developed at Interlochen continue to be used throughout many of its graduates’ careers. Julie Buntin, whose debut novel, Marlena, was bought by publisher Henry Holt late last year, said she’s using the lessons she learned at Interlochen every day in her work.

“I think the thing that I learned at Interlochen that was really foundational was an attention to language that translates very much into how I wrote my novel,” said Buntin (IAA 03-05). “It's an attention to language on a sentence level—on the level of an image, a detail—those things are universally important no matter what form you're writing in.”

One of the key elements of building the foundation, according to Griffith, is giving young writers confidence in their work. And at Interlochen, that’s a big part of the writing program.

“What we continue to stress—and I think it's more and more important that we stress it—is self-reliance, so that they can be their own best reader and their own best editor,” Griffith said. “Because aside from public speaking, I think writing for an audience—with the understanding that someone will be reading it—can be very paralyzing. When the students come here, the vast majority of them are so insecure and lack confidence to a degree that we spend the first two years just getting them to the point where they're not apologizing for their work.”

Part of that confidence-building effort is giving students a chance to read their own work to an audience. Griffith says this performative aspect of the curriculum is something he’s particularly dedicated to emphasizing in the program at Interlochen.

“I want to make sure that the students not only get more performing opportunities, but are actually able to take courses that emphasize the performative dimension to writing. Which is just not something that you think about very much,” he said.

Because of the solitary and open nature of writing as a career, that self-reliance and confidence-building is key, Griffith said.

“Basically, writing costs nothing. If you have a laptop and an Internet connection, you've got a business,” he said. “So that self-reliance becomes really important. You're the only one who’s standing in your way. So that's why I say to students: ‘Writers write. That's it. There's no other requirement of you other than to write.’ And it's so funny—it's astonishing how many people called themselves writers but they're never writing anything.”

That may help explain why so many of Interlochen’s faculty are working writers themselves, and why Griffith says it’s important—even with a busy full-time workload as an educator and administrator—that he make time for writing.

“That's where I have to hold myself accountable as the director. It can just take a long time,” he said. Griffith recently wrote a piece for the Paris Review, which he says he pulled together over 10 evenings of writing, in between his duties as director of Creative Writing at Interlochen. But that kind of work pays off—not just for his career as a writer, but also in the lessons he can bring back to the classroom.

“Being able to go to the students and say, ‘I have a relationship with this editor, this is what it was like and this is how it works and this is what to expect’—that's worth something. You're not going to get that everywhere you go,” he said. “And I'm aware of that—that's what keeps me, and I think that's what keeps all of the faculty active as writers. In order to get up in front of students and claim to know what you're talking about, you have to get better and evolve.”

Still, even as the department looks forward, the past remains important, as well as the craft of writing—and the possibilities inherent in that work.

“Here's what it is: We don't know what's possible until someone does it. And we're all about helping students understand what's possible,” Griffith said. “Even putting something in front of them as old as Kafka's The Metamorphosis opens their eyes to something that they didn't know was possible. And it's old!” (The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915, tells the tale of a man who awakens to find himself transformed into a giant insect.)

“So we try to get that mix of helping them understand the traditional ‘what's possible’ and also understand the future that they're going to help to shape. And that's really exciting.”

One of the many ways Interlochen helps its students evolve is through a steady infusion of guest speakers and writers, many of whom are alumni who’ve gone on to make a career out of what they’ve learned at Interlochen.

“I think that's a really important part of the success of this program, being around for 40 years. We draw a lot of inspiration and energy from our former students—they teach us what’s working and what's not working, or what was valuable and what wasn't as valuable. And we listen to that,” Griffith said. “I think it's a really important feedback loop to be involved in. So the ways in which the program has changed over the years I think is in direct relationship to what the students have gone on to do, which of course is also related to what the landscape is like out there for writers.”

Cheryl Bowles, Interlochen Center for the Arts