The UCLA English department is doubling-down on the right-brain mentality of undergrads.
Starting in Fall 2016, non-English majors will for the first time be able to enroll in a creative writing course — specifically a general education introductory class — currently under construction and to be taught by UCLA professor and acclaimed novelist Mona Simpson, and newly hired head of creative writing, Fred D’Aguiar.
“Exposure to the art of writing — or rather, arts, there are many forms of writing — increases our ability to empathize,” said D’Aguiar, an award-winning poet and novelist who joined the faculty last spring and began teaching two classes this fall. “That act of feeling connected to the narrative fate of a character on a flat page, if you can empathize with that, it can wake up a dormant ability to empathize with others in the world around you, even when they look, behave or believe differently from you.”
Given the potential for polarized rhetoric in modern society, especially around political campaigns, civil unrest, and diversity issues, as well as our technological ability to build walls around information that doesn’t match up with pre-existing opinions, investing in empathy, critical thinking and creative expression can have a positive ripple effect into the culture at large, D’Aguiar said.
D’Aguiar sees the study of creative writing as valuable for students, whether they are bound for mathematics, medical school, the technology industry, publishing or academia. A former psychiatric nurse, D’Aguiar’s own creative practice and teaching aesthetic are deeply imbued with a commitment to empathy. He’s fervent in the belief that creativity and higher education fuel students’ empathetic nature.
There’s also a precious humility factor inherent in a creative writing course, he pointed out. Students learn not only how to flex their more creative-thinking muscles, but how to be critiqued, edited, even humbled, he said. They learn how to recognize what is good — and what maybe isn’t, and how to let go.
This is extremely useful in workplaces from Google to Disney, where innovation and creativity rule and are often driven by brainstorming, D’Aguiar said.
“In a creative writing course, students learn how to present an idea, when to promote it, when to let go and when to compromise,” he said.
D’Aguiar was hired to head the creative writing program as senior faculty member alongside a new assistant professor, Justin Torres, who arrives in January. Torres graduated from the top writing program in the country, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
These additions help round out the department’s creative writing faculty. Ali Behdad, professor and chair of the English department said the hope is that the program will eventually evolve into a minor open to all undergrads, meeting the existing demand for creative writing classes. Currently only English majors may enroll in creative writing courses, and then only as a “concentration,” not an official minor, With 900 English majors alone, the department turns far more interested students away than it’s able to include.
“We know a creative writing minor and G.E. class is going to be popular,” Behdad said. “The focus is going to be on building a program that is appropriate for UCLA as a public university in the context of Los Angeles as a huge, global and creative city. We were impressed by professor D’Aguiar’s genuine enthusiasm and experience teaching various writing formats and his open interest in the work being done here at UCLA, and are proud to have him at the head of this effort.”
D’Aguiar has written more than a dozen books of fiction and poetry, which have been translated into a dozen languages. His first novel, “The Longest Memory,” won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was made into a film for British television. His essays and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Guardian, Best American Essays and more. His play, “A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death,” was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Continental Shelf, a U.K. Poetry Book Society Choice, was shortlisted for the UK’s T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009. His latest poetry collection is The Rose of Toulouse. His latest novel, Children of Paradise, was inspired by the events at Jonestown.
D’Aguiar sings the praises of his fellow faculty newcomer, Torres, who has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, Tin House, The Washington Post, Glimmer Train, Flaunt, and other publications, as well as nonfiction pieces in publications such as The Guardian and The Advocate. The National Book Foundation named him one of 2012’s “5 Under 35.” His first novel, “We the Animals,” was a critical hit and bestseller in 2011.
It’s also a feat of compact writing to maximum effect, D’Aguiar says.
“It’s haunting and memorable and makes you want to write,” he said. “I can’t wait for him to get here and show students how to leave things out,” he joked.
As the department garners further funding for creative writing, other expansions are also in the works, Behdad said. The next step is to build a roster of visiting authors, preferably high-profile writers and poets the modern publishing sphere. Also on the wish list, Behdad added, is to develop an MFA program.
Behdad said, especially given the location of UCLA, many students are eager to study creative writing in hopes of launching into the entertainment industry.
D’Aguiar and Simpson see great potential in an introductory class that closely examines the evolution of a book to film, inviting opportunities for students to learn basic skills in the formulas of fiction, drama and poetry as related to the film industry.
This is just one idea for the course D’Aguiar and Simpson are considering, which they’re hoping will be a large-scale survey course, potentially accommodating several hundred students. Under the current campus model, the largest creative writing classes can hold only 40-45 students. And seminar classes are limited to a dozen or fewer.
“I’m hoping the diversity of our student population will be reflected in and feed the work that comes out of the class,” D’Aguiar said. “I’m excited about the diverse demographic mix of Los Angeles, how it looks as a visual map of culture. If a course at UCLA can resemble that map, it’s very exciting. “