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History of the Stanford Creative Writing Program

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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.” 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).

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.” Stegner writes that it was Eugene Burdick’s short story entitled “Rest Camp on Maui” (published in Harper’s Magazine and winner of the second prize in the O. Henry volume for 1946) which was “the beginning of everything.”

It was after Stegner’s first writing class in 1945 that he conceived of the idea to offer five fellowships in fiction, poetry, and playwriting. The Jones brothers were key players in the creation and growth of the Stegner Program. Richard Foster Jones, the chair of the Stanford English Department at the time Stegner was beginning to conceive of the fellowships, crucially showed Stegner’s plans for the fellowship to his brother, Dr. E. H. Jones. The latter, a lover of literature and fairly well off, having made his fortune in the Texas oil fields, agreed to fund the fellowship for five years, as an experiment.

After the five years were up, E.H. Jones renewed his support, and, two years later, began a permanent endowment for the fellowship which members of the Jones family kept funding even after his death. This endowment provided much of the resources for the fellowships and programs over the next 30 years. Soon, five fellowships became six, the stipend was raised, and Stanford established a two-year fellowship with the University of Melbourne to support an Australian writer in residence.

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.”