On the most blustery of days, I ventured deep into South Campus. Tucked beneath the looming shadow of the Big House was Wolverine Press. After wandering through a maze of office cubicles, I was immediately transported back into an early 20th-century factory workshop. Though the area was austere in nature, Fritz Swanson was quite the opposite. A man with an orange beard that matched his neon T-shirt, he introduced me to the facility that houses the traditional letterpress print company that serves the Helen Zell Writers’ Program.

The Helen Zell Writers’ Program is a top-ranked two-year Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, with cohorts in fiction and poetry. In the program, students work on their respective creative writing pieces while also serving as Graduate Student Instructors. At the end of the program, they essentially have completed a full body of work, and they proceed to embark on a third-year fellowship, with goals of publication.

Swanson, a graduate of the MFA program and now the publishing company’s director, takes on five “Printer’s Devils” from the MFA program each year as apprentices to the art of printing. As the Devils toiled beside us, Swanson gave me a tour of the composing room, where tiny, silver type letters were scattered on the desk in compartmentalized categorizations. For each piece printed, they must set each individual letter in place, tighten them into a “chase” frame and then cast the entirety in metal. This can be an extremely tedious and arduous process over the course of many months.

He shows me a recently printed poem — an inauguration gift for the new University President Mark Schlissel — beautifully inked in a sophisticated maize-and-blue script. The finished product exudes effortlessness at first glance, but the complexity behind the aesthetic accentuates the intellect on the page.

A printing enthusiast since middle school, Swanson started the press a year ago in an effort to salvage materials from a closing print shop in Muskegon. His initial intention was to revive the classic craft — but his lofty aims to bring back an archaic method of printing have reasons beyond historical preservation.

“I wanted this shop to be not just to make pretty things, but to be a place where all of that history lives and we can talk about it, not in the abstract,” Swanson said. “You sit down and set type, especially at the speed that we set at, and you can spend several minutes with a word. You contemplate the language at such a different speed, it changes the way you write, it changes the way you think about words, it changes the way you think about letters … (It’s an) opportunity for a writer to see writing from a truly novel perspective.”

As I marvel, he tells me the stories of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, literary legends who both started their careers as printing devils. Swanson hopes to offer the same humble rooting to MFA students who also aspire to become revered writers in the future. He has the crucial responsibility of fostering and furthering their love for the language and their relationship with words. He certainly supplements their graduate experience, because behind the press lies a vibrant program of passionate individuals.

I met up with two of these students — a tall man with a trapper hat that covers his eyes and a dainty young woman with a colorful dress and an even brighter personality. As we sat down, they offered me a cookie and a half-gallon of chocolate milk.

They certainly did not have the high-strung, uptight personas of some graduate students drowning in their work, especially for students in the second-highest-ranked creative writing master’s program in the country. They sarcastically taunted each other, but amid the teasing, it was clear they held a deep respect for each other’s works.

Menachem Kaiser graduated from Columbia University with degrees in economics and philosophy, and has since published his work at sites such as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Slate and the New Yorker. Christin Lee, who started as a studio arts major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, balances Kaiser’s eccentric nature with her own quirky personality. Both are first-year students pursuing fiction writing.

As we began to talk about their experiences in Helen Zell, they very quickly corrected a silly misconception of mine: not everyone in the MFA has roots in an English or writing major. The program allows opportunities for people from eclectic backgrounds, all bonded simply by their passion for writing.

Lee intends to produce a collection of fiction short stories, and Kaiser, a novel following themes that speak to his Jewish identity. However, beyond those simple descriptors, they confessed that they did not have much of a direction. Though initially surprised, my qualms were assuaged as I realized that I was not the only one still figuring my life out. Even as master’s students, their intentions were simply to absorb all they could and to refine their craft, all alongside a cohort who were in the same boat of exploration and experimentation.

For the writers, the crux of the program culminates in exclusive, closed workshops. The MFA program has only 22 students — 12 in fiction and 10 in poetry. Though they only spend two years together, the students foster very close connections with each other, their professors and other faculty members. In their regular workshops, each of their peers dedicates a week to revising each other’s work and then advising each other on their progress.

“In the real world, it’s very hard to find someone who’s willing to sit down and read and discuss your 6000 words,” Kaiser said. “It’s a weird family experience in a lot of ways. But there’s something just really special just having 11 other people, just in your corner, who are really going to give the time and attention.”

I met up with Douglas Trevor, associate professor of English and Creative Writing at the University, later that afternoon. While at Princeton for his undergraduate degree, he studied comparative literature and creative writing with acclaimed writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. His work has received wide laudation as well, including the Balcones Fiction Prize for his most recent novel, “Girls I Know.” Though he was not a University MFA graduate, he is certainly one of the most popular professors in the English Department among both graduate and undergraduate students. Trevor, like the students who now look up to him, started with modest roots — a story written at age six about a caveman named “Cow-Wow-Bow-Wow,” sparking his fascination with storytelling.

“(The MFA community) is very close,” Trevor said. “The groups of students who come, they get to know each other very well. They spend a lot of time with each other. We have dinners with the writers, we spend a lot of time with the students and we spend a lot of time with each other as faculty members. The best thing about the program is the opportunity to get to know each other.”

The MFA program is a chain reaction: the students are fueled by their professors who are directed by their administrators — it’s all one beautifully functioning system that buttresses everyone’s efforts.

I met with Michael Byers and Megan Levad, the director and assistant director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, respectively, in the most stereotypical of writer’s offices — a rainbow array of books on every single wall, a mobile standing desk and little Lego figurines on the coffee table. Levad, a poet and lyricist, and Byers, a novelist with three published books, consider themselves not only esteemed writers but also dual professors and administrators.

In many ways, they seemed to resemble older, matured versions of Kaiser and Lee — Byers, whose gray eyes stared into space while he joked about his MMA fighter alter ego, and Levad, donned in a llama-print shawl and spoke with a soft, but enthused, tone.

Most people don’t think of writers as “famous” unless they have a blockbuster franchise movie to accompany their novels. But in writing and higher academia, Trevor, Byers and Levad are most admired for their work. Unlike in Hollywood, they are not “untouchable” figures of brilliance, aloof from the aspirants in the field; rather, they are eager to assist budding writers.

Though Levad has her undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa, and Byers has his from Oberlin College, both are alumni of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program who have returned now as administrators. They both spoke to the program as a community, rather than a hierarchy of faculty over students. Everyone is closely knit, and all their work is pertinent to each other’s. Byers and Levad note how their administrative job is threefold, but ancillary to their roles as teachers and writers.

“I would not be a good teacher of young writers if I was not a writer first,” Byers said. “There were a lot of people that I liked and admired here. My experience was productive and crucial to my career, and I thought (Michigan) was not only an opportunity to come back and work with people who I knew were expert at what they did, but also a chance to return a little of the investment that they made in me to others.”

“Because I went through this program and because I also teach, I think that as an administrator, I can see how what we do in administration can best serve students,” Levad adds. “Everything we do in administration should be aimed at what’s happening in student learning and in faculty research and writing.”

It’s clear that the MFA is a rigorous program, but it is one with a liberating freedom of expression that the faculty encourages. When I asked Kaiser and Lee about their dissertations, they recoiled at the wording. Not a dissertation, not a thesis, but rather a creative project. There isn’t a harsh formality to the program that requires the austere terminology of “dissertation,” which could imply a mandated, toilsome, daunting concept. The MFA program is about creating passion projects — works of pride to be relished, shared and enjoyed. The program may be demanding, but the faculty structure the experience to afford liberties other fields may not.

“When I was here, I felt like my experience mattered to more people than just me,” Byers said. “I felt as though my professors were attentive to the experience that I was having. I assumed that was the model for how an MFA program was supposed to be run — student-centered with attention to what the experience actually is, a sense of a need for a balance between the individual experience being as important as the experience of the group as a whole.”

“Once (our students) get here, they have their talent nurtured,” Levad adds. “But they also make wonderful connections with their classmates, entering the literary community is a real source of sustenance for people because if you see that the folks around you are continuing to write and are getting their work out there, then it makes it feel much more possible that you can do the same.”

Each individual in the program, whether a student, professor or administrator, is in on a collective effort to keep their art form alive and appreciated. They are a most vibrant support system, and beyond their personal endeavors, the community’s goals become their own, their success a shared one for the literary world. This world, unfortunately, is one that popular media enjoys critiquing for being archaic, one that some scholars lament for “dying.” But Kaiser sees something different in this literary world, one teeming with emotion.

“It’s all the things you relate to in the world, and to other people that’s beyond facts and data and numbers and figures,” Kaiser said. “Stuff like words, stuff like empathy and sympathy, love and heartbreak and tragic and loss and relation. Those are the things you learn through literature.”

He pauses a moment. “Man, I’ve been in parts of my life where I just didn’t have exposure to any of this stuff, and it’s an emptier place.”

Lee continues, “Identity, nation-states — the whole thing is narrative. Religion, history — it’s all narrative. The desire to master that on some level is a desire to just understand the world.”

“Our toolboxes as thinkers are really, really enriched when we try to think about subjects and texts that don’t reveal themselves,” Trevor said. “We have to remind those who are adverse to the humanities, or those who don’t know entirely what we do, that our projects are primarily about sharpening analytical skills. (They’re) also a larger project about theorizing what it means to empathize and to think about the world from other people’s points of view. I can’t think of anything more valuable than that.”

Levad adds, “It seems to me that people are more engaged with literature. I know we like to bemoan the loss of the book, but there’s always more exciting new books coming out and independent presses are still continuing to publish great work.”

Together, their literary world seeks answers to human nature and the key to empathy. It seems as if every process is interconnected — the independent presses Levad speaks of, the writers and teachers alike. I wrapped up each interview by asking for words of advice for aspiring writers, and their primary responses were the same: simply, to read and to write.

As Trevor puts it, “Read widely, and spend time thinking about how to revise one’s own work. Become accustomed to reading your own work, as well as the work of other people. And think about writing as a cerebral exercise, something you have to do every day to be in good shape.”

“Read voraciously, and broadly. And write as often as you can,” Levad adds. “Try out different things. Think about the way language works. Think about syntax and grammar — where do those conventions come from? Think about etymology. Language is the material of our art form — it’s our medium — so learn all you can about language.”

After a week of following the MFA program from the roots up, from the words at the printing press, to the words the students write, to the professors who inspire the students and finally, to the administrators who point the program in the right direction, I know that they embody an effervescent community that tells the stories of all of our lives.

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