Zell Writers' Program gives talented writers invaluable opportunities

By Adam DePollo, Online Arts Editor
Published April 2, 2014

One lesson to be learned from the success of the most recent Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis” is that the image of the starving artist remains as popular and compelling today as ever. As almost all of those starving artists would attest, however, it’s neither as glamorous nor as full of spontaneous singing as “Rent” or “Moulin Rouge!” would have you believe. Writing the next Great American Novel suddenly seems much less important when you default on your electricity bill.

Fortunately, for a handful of the most talented young poets and fiction writers in America each year, the University of Michigan offers a way to leave the “starving” moniker behind and just be artists.

The Helen Zell Writers’ Program — named after University alumna Helen Zell, who, along with her family’s foundation, donated $50 million to fund the program into perpetuity — is the current incarnation of the University’s creative writing MFA program, which first began in 1982. The gift was the largest in the history of the college of LSA. Megan Levad, an alumna of the program and its current Assistant Director, explained that creative writing at the University has an impressive pedigree.

“Nicholas Delbanco, who is now the Robert Frost Distinguished Professor of English Language & Literature, came to Ann Arbor and was the director (of the MFA program) for several years,” Levad said. “And even before that there was Robert Hayden on the faculty, Robert Frost was here, W.H. Auden was here. The University of Michigan has a really long, rich history, especially with the poets.”

Thanks to its generous funding and the number of exceptional writers among the University’s faculty, admittance to the writers’ program is highly competitive. As Levad explained, over a thousand writers apply for the program’s 22 spots — 10 for poetry and 12 for fiction.

For the lucky and talented few who do get in, the Zell Writers’ Program offers a series of invaluable assets to aspiring writers in addition to three years of the funding necessary to live and write in Ann Arbor without needing a full- or part-time job to make ends meet.

The program’s first and second year students attend workshops each semester in which they discuss and critique their own and their colleagues’ work, guided by an English Department professor. Poet J.D. Duval, one of the program’s first year students, described these workshops as an important opportunity to grow as a writer.

“(My favorite aspect of the program has been) just working with a group of people who are all serious about poetry, and also, surprisingly for me, the range of aesthetics,” he said, “Some of which I didn’t think that I liked at first, and didn’t really know how to talk about. But in workshops, as we figure out ways to talk about each other’s work, you really learn to appreciate different things, and learn how to incorporate things into your work that you didn’t think were important before, or weren’t thinking about.”

Writers in the program also take on some academic responsibilities. First and second year students typically take three graduate-level English courses and one graduate-level course outside of the department in addition to preparing a thesis for the end of their second year. Each writer is also assigned to teach two undergraduate courses — one in composition and one in creative writing — in their second year in the program. The students-turned-teacher develop their own syllabi and generally have little faculty supervision.

After earning their MFA at the end of the second year the students are guaranteed placement in a postgraduate fellowship to spend time writing without academic responsibilities.

“The third year is really when we don’t have any responsibilities, don’t have any teaching or workshops, so we really have the time to get something publishable out there and really complete what we’re working on,” Duval said.

Another important aspect of the program is the Zell Visiting Writers Series, which brings a different writer to the University every Thursday to perform a public reading of their work at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and conduct small workshops with the program’s MFA students. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley was on campus on April 1st as a part of the series, and past visitors include poets Eduardo C. Corral, Edward Hirsch and Marianne Boruch. Duval got the opportunity to work one-on-one with Boruch when she came to the University in February.

“She was really fantastic, really sweet,” he said. “She gave me some great advice on some poems that I thought were close to being finished, and also she gave me a miniature notebook ‘to record images in,’ she said. Like when you’re on the bus, conversations you hear, that kind of thing, it was really nice.”

The goal of the Zell Writers’ Program is not, however, to simply provide students with an MFA and send them on their way. The workshops, one-on-one time with established writers and consultation with faculty are aimed at providing some of the best young voices in poetry and fiction with a point of departure into a life of writing and publication.

“Work ethic is really emphasized here — our students are expected to handle quite a lot, which I think will serve them well for rest of their lives," Levad said. "As a writer, you have to be so self-disciplined and so able to manage your time. But I think that we are also particularly tuned in on talking about craft and being really transparent about how talking about poems and stories and novels and essays are put together. If you learn how to read for craft, that’s going to be so instrumental for you in the rest of your writing life.”

For the three years that they’re here, however, the program provides its writers with a community of fellow artists and mentors devoted to their craft that would be hard to recreate anywhere else.

“It’ll be great to know that there’s a group of people out there who I spent my time with, who I’m comfortable with sharing my work with and who are serious about it,” Duval said.“To always be able to have that even if poetry turns into more of a hobby than a career.”