History of the Stanford Creative Writing Program
The celebrated writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships in 1946. At that time, the Iowa Writers Workshop was the only degree-granting institution in the country. Stegner arrived at Stanford from Harvard University with the aim of providing young, talented writers the guidance, encouragement, and funding to further their writing knowledge and craft. “Minds grow by contact with other minds,” Stegner wrote. “The bigger the better, as clouds grow toward thunder by rubbing together.”
Notably, the Writing Fellowships were particularly aimed at WWII-era returning servicemen. “I arrived at Stanford just as the GI students were flooding back,” Stegner said. “Many of them were gifted writers. They had so much to say and they had been bottled up for two or three or four years. They were clearly going to have to be handled somewhat differently from the ordinary 18-year-old undergraduate.” In the first few years the program provided space for a handful of masters degree students as well as three Writing Fellows (years later, the fellowships were named in Stegner’s honor).
Two brothers were key players in the creation and growth of the Stegner Program. Richard Foster Jones, chair of the Stanford English Department, worked with Stegner to design and initiate the early plans, and his brother Dr. E. H. Jones – who’d made his fortune in the Texas oil fields – donated the initial $500,000 to fund the program. This endowment provided much of the resources for the fellowships and programs over the next 30 years.
One of the most notable changes occurred in 1973, when director John L’Heureux expanded the number of fellowships to ten each in fiction and poetry. Of the fellowships L’Heureux has noted “We were doing something no other university could do: we were offering gifted young writers the opportunity to study with peers under the direction of distinguished poets and fiction writers while simultaneously providing time, financial support, and the aid and comfort of a place where everybody had in mind a single goal: to become a better writer.”
Ken Kesey workshopped his novel-in-progress One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest during his time at Stanford, and the fellowships have attracted many, many talented writers over its sixty-five year history. A partial list includes Raymond Carver, Phillp Levine, ZZ Packer, Samantha Chang, Wendell Berry, Tobias Wolff, Robert Pinsky, Vikram Seth, and Scott Turow.
There continued to be many changes over the years, yet under today’s leadership of Program Director Eavan Boland a number of beliefs have remained constant: that imagination can be supported, hands can be guided, craft improved, and workshop can reveal the best a writer has to offer. As Wallace Stegner said about all of the Stegner Fellows: “Most were stimulated, many were encouraged, some even seem to have been instructed… I am not in a mood to overlook anybody who took part in the enterprise. Whether they ever made it big or not, they contributed, and they remain part of its history.”