Creative Writing Program offers resources, community to student-authors

Jan. 29, 2014, 1:08 a.m.

Zubair Ahmed ’11 M.S.’13 began working on his book of poetry during his sophomore year at Stanford. He found that writing allowed him to escape the rigors of his mechanical engineering work.

“[Writing is] really fun because there’s no pressure,” Ahmed said. “There’s no deadline for publishing a book. I can publish it now; I can publish it the day before I die. No deadlines, unlike with problem sets and midterms.”

Through Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, Ahmed was able to develop a mentoring relationship with former Jones lecturer Michael McGriff.

“Before I would go to bed, I would just write for an hour, an hour and a half.  I sometimes couldn’t even sleep because I was just having so much fun writing,” Ahmed said. “[McGriff] encouraged me to the point where there were weeks in which I would write 15 to 20 poems.”

McGriff later submitted Ahmed’s work to McSweeney’s Publishing, which resulted in a full-length collection of poetry, “City of Rivers,” published in 2012 and nominated for a 2013 Northern California Book Award in Poetry.

Ahmed’s venture into the publishing world is just one example of the thriving Creative Writing Program’s track record of successful student authors – among them Jesmyn Ward ’99 M.A.’00, winner of the 2011 National Book Award, and Ankit Fadia ’07, whose most recent book, “Faster: 100 Ways to Improve Your Digital Life”, made several best-seller lists.

Offering various resources

Theodore Steinkellner ’11 emphasized the importance of the mentoring relationship he developed within the English department in getting his written work published.

Professor Emeritus of English John L’Heureux helped Steinkellner obtain a Chappell-Lougee grant as a sophomore, which helped him star his middle school saga “Trash Can Days” that was picked up by Disney Hyperion Publishing shortly after his senior year.

Steinkellner is now writing his third children’s book while working as a screenwriter.

“Stanford is maybe the entire reason that I’m an author,” Steinkellner said. “Being around so many people doing big things definitely inspired me and almost peer pressured me into trying something big on my own.”

Tom Kealey, a lecturer in the Creative Writing Program, said that in addition to specific courses, the program offers advising, research and grants to student writers interested in becoming authors.

The Creative Writing Program also brings in famous authors, hold workshops on publishing and host four-minute undergraduate reading events in residence halls. There are also the Levinthal tutorials where undergraduates are matched one-on-one with Stegner Fellows.

“They get basically their own private tutor for the winter quarter,” Kealey said.

Appealing to a diverse group

Increasing resources for the Creative Writing Program have prompted an increase in the number of students enrolled in creative writing courses on campus, said Christina Ablaza, program administrator.

Kealey said that when he first joined the program in 2001, only 20 undergraduate classes were offered each year. Now there are 70 offered. Kealey believes that one of the reasons for this growth is the program’s recent appeal to students both within and outside the English major.

“The majority of our students used to be majors in English and minors in creative writing but nowadays the majority of our students are majors in other areas,” Kealey said. “That’s actually been where our growth has come from.”

Katherine Ewell ’17 is one of those students. At age 18 she is already expecting her young adult novel “Dear Killer” to be published in April through HarperCollins.

“I like the feeling of being able to create stories, places, people,” Ewell said. “Being able to bring a place to life that you only see in your mind and being able to do that by yourself is really cool.”

Despite her interest in the field and the fact that she came to Stanford specifically for the Creative Writing Program, she also plans to study biology.

Ahmed, who works as a mechanical engineer at Boeing, continues to explore his creative writing interest as he works on a second book of poetry and a novel.

Then there’s Max Doty ’04 M.A. ’04.

While at Stanford, Doty created an informal writing group with his friends and took advantage of the mentoring environment on the Farm that helped foster a creative writing culture.

“[Being at Stanford] was the first time in my life where I felt like I belonged to a community of writers,” Doty said.

Several of Doty’s friends who were in the writing group went on to complete Master’s programs in creative writing and also ended up publishing books.

Yet Doty, who had aspirations to become a novelist, now applies his writing experiences from Stanford as a writer at a startup gaming company called Pixelberry Studios.

“At the time I was at Stanford, I had tunnel vision on becoming a great literary novelist,” Doty said.

“I still hope I publish a great literary novel one day, but I have a lot of fun writing for young adults and writing for video games,” he added. “So the thing you actually do might not be the same as what you think you’re going to do.”

Contact Kylie Jue at kyliej ‘at’

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’

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