Washington University in St. Louis has a rich tradition with its English department and creative writing programs.
Historic writers have had their seat at the table in the hallowed halls of the university. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov was the Edward Mallincrodt Distinguished University professor of English in 1969.
Stanley Elkin, a Jewish novelist, short story writer and essayist first taught on the Hill Top in 1960 and became a full professor in 1969.
Mona Van Duyn, the first U.S. woman poet laureate, taught at the university until her death in 2004. All these great writers have earned stars on the "Walk of Fame" in The Delmar Loop.
So which young writer will develop into the next Nemerov, Elkin or Van Duyn?
Each summer, for the past 16 years some of the most highly selected students from St. Louis and around the U.S. have gained admittance into this prestigious writing program.
For the first time in 16 years, the institute was separated from the adult writing course and extended into a three-week program. The program began June 12 and concludes July 2.
Students had to find their way through some rigorous admission testing and sample writing to get in. They pay their money, and they do not receive classroom credit. In a workshop atmosphere they learn to craft fiction, poetry and nonfiction under the watchful eye of experienced lecturers while learning their way around a college campus. The program is open to high school juniors and seniors exclusively.
Each day, in Room 204 of Siegle Hall on the Danforth Campus, these students learn from their fellow peers while sharing all kinds of creative thoughts and ideas in a collegiate setting.
On a typical day, these eager, bright-eyed youngsters took apart the works of writers the likes of Elaine Magarrell who wrote about Chickens, Jesse Lee Kercheval who wrote Carpathia and Stace Budko who wrote How to Set the House on Fire. This day’s exercises dealt with microfiction in a shared give-and-take setting.
Anton DiSclafani directs this project. She’s coordinated the summer institute since earning her master's in fine arts from Washington University in 2006. During the school year, she is a lecturer in fiction, nonfiction and microfiction at Washington University.
The banter in the class is quick. The responses are rapid. Students work in teams on independent response projects.
Three local students from the Ladue-Frontenac area are part of the 12 locals in the program. Three other students are boarding on campus and come from around the U.S.
Hannah Cropf will be a junior at Ladue Horton Watkins in August. She’s thrilled to be part of this small but hardworking group.
“It’s a thrill and a lot of fun to be here. I love to write, and that’s what this program is all about. We constantly bounce ideas off of each other, and I feel like I am learning a lot in this program,” Cropf said.
Josalynn Smith will be a senior at MICDS this coming August. She writes for the school newspaper, The Voice, and is enrolled in a variety of writing courses.
“The most valuable aspect is that I get to be part of a learning environment. I’ve done work here (at Washington University) before, but I never thought about going to school here. From what I’ve learned this summer, I’ve changed my mind. I will be applying to enroll here next year,” she said.
Alexis Bolis is an incoming junior at MICDS. “As a sophomore, we were allowed to take a variety of different writing electives. Obviously, this program has been very helpful to me with my creative writing,” she said.
When Patch visited, DiSclafani and her assistant Joanna Milner were giving students a full dose of microfiction, broken down into language, repetition and plot. It was a very active sesson.
Students have a strong daily routine over the course of these three weeks. They write from 9 a.m.-noon. They break for lunch from noon-1 p.m. They do craft talk from 1-2:30 p.m. then conclude with independent writing from 3-4 p.m. Writing topics are usually the choice of conversation at the lunch table.
The local community is their laboratory. They will go to the Saint Louis Zoo for a field trip this week. They visit local coffee houses, attend poetry and fiction writing readings and discover local treasures the likes of The Loop and Six Flags St. Louis. Fun is mixed in with a heavy schedule of writing.
For certain students, this will be just one of many things to experience as part of a well rounded education. But there probably are one or two who would like to become the next Nemerov, Elkin or Van Duyn.