An Interview with David Wagoner
“Every bit of knowledge that you acquire will prove beneficial to you as a writer, because it will expand your world. For instance, I took a class in mechanical engineering in college. I learned how to build bridges, which I would not have thought applicable to writing. But now, I feel as though I am a spy holding uncommon knowledge in that area. It made me quite different as a writer.”
David Wagoner is a Professor of English Emeritus who specialized in teaching creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. Prior to becoming an English professor in 1954, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Pennsylvania State University, where he studied under renowned poet Theodore Roethke. He also holds a Master of Arts in English from Indiana University.
David is an accomplished poet and novelist who has been writing since age 10. He served as editor for Poetry Northwest magazine for decades and guest-edited The Best American Poetry 2009. His work has been recognized by numerous literary and poetry associations.
In your own words, what is creative writing?
Creative writing is an exceptionally broad discipline that includes the writing of fiction, poetry, plays and more. It teaches students the value of self-expression and enhances their understanding of the English language.
What classes do you teach in creative writing?
In recent decades, I have chiefly taught the writing of poetry, the writing of fiction and playwriting, although I have taught a wide variety of classes over the years. Of those classes, I am most prepared and trained in writing and understanding poetry.
One of the challenges of teaching poetry to undergraduates is that many college students are not well acquainted with contemporary poetry. Generally speaking, high-school English textbooks tend to concentrate on the poetry of the distant past. When students enter my creative writing classes, they are often encountering contemporary poetry for the first time. More than that, the contemporary poetry that they begin to hear is most often written by students close to their own age, such as those authors featured in a magazine that I edited for many years called Poetry Northwest. Those contemporary poems equip students to articulate their own ideas and instill a deeper sense of understanding the poetic language that is used today, which helps them to overcome the challenge of unfamiliarity.
How long have you been a professor of creative writing?
I have been an English professor since 1954. I knew that I wanted to be a college professor early on and I aimed my education that way. In my senior year of college, I had the good fortune to be a student of a very fine living poet named Theodore Roethke who also was a professor. Suddenly, I had a role model. In fact, he is still a prominent American poet and I wanted to be like him.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying creative writing,” what would your response be?
If a student expressed interest in studying creative writing or English in general, I would congratulate them on their choice. There are many avenues that a person with an English degree can pursue other than teaching. Having an understanding of our language and having the ability to express yourself clearly will improve your standing in every other area of study or work. In my opinion, there are not enough doctors who can write or engineers who can understand what they are reading. English skills are applicable everywhere.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a creative writing program have?
A common hurdle facing creative writing students is that many of them are not familiar with the rewards of learning how to express themselves freely. In a creative writing program, students learn to be a little less obedient to the conventional rules of English than most students feel they need to be.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a writer and what traits would hinder success?
A trait that will help a writer succeed professionally is the ability to determine what kind of writing is corny. You have to be able to assess what does not work and to maintain an original voice, which can be a daunting task. It calls for all of the skills that a young writer can offer.
On the other hand, the trait that will most hinder a writer’s success is laziness. If a writer will not take the time to develop good reading habits and to find out what has already been written, he will not be able to add anything meaningful to literature.
What courses in creative writing are most important for a student to take?
I can’t tell a student which classes are most important to take because it depends on the individual. Most students of creative writing will have a specialized area of interest and they should take classes that help develop it.
Outside of creative writing, what courses would you recommend to a student?
I recommend that a student take every class he or she can outside of creative writing. Every bit of knowledge that you acquire will prove beneficial to you as a writer, because it will expand your world. For instance, I took a class in mechanical engineering in college. I learned how to build bridges, which I would not have thought applicable to writing. But now, I feel as though I am a spy holding uncommon knowledge in that area. It made me quite different as a writer, so you can’t go wrong when it comes to the courses you choose to take outside of the English department.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying creative writing?
Students of creative writing can expect to gain skills in self-expression, understanding of language and effective writing. With each writing class or English class that a student takes, his or her knowledge of language, which is the basis for all communication, will deepen. In the work world and in all of life, nothing is more vital than being understood and understanding others.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a creative writing student succeed?
The best study tip that I can offer a student of creative writing is not to fall behind. Turning in late work makes students appear lazy and disorganized. Professors disapprove of late work more than students realize.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in creative writing?
Students of creative writing will find that the ability to use language well will enhance their job skills across all categories of employment. For instance, Richard Hugo is among the best poets in the Pacific Northwest. Yet he was a technical writer for Boeing for many years. In his role as technical writer, Hugo improved the speech of engineers and made descriptive writing understandable. With his writing ability, he improved a major industry in the world of science. Anybody who can write well or improve the writing of other people is valuable to any industry.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying creative writing at the graduate level?
Creative writing students will not be accepted into the graduate department without having very good grades in English and a demonstrated ability to write well. They will be in competition with students from all over the country, as well as from other countries, who are often already published. You must prepare yourself for graduate school by becoming a diligent worker with excellent grades.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying creative writing?
I advise prospective creative writing students to learn to rewrite and then rewrite again. They need to become comfortable with the idea that a piece of writing is constantly in progress. That means they must learn how to clearly organize their thoughts on a page and to improve what they have already written by finding their own ways of saying what they want to say.