Imagination can be supported. Hands can be guided, and craft can be improved. The workshop can reveal the best a writer has to offer.

Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships in 1946. (Image credit: Mary Stegner)

These beliefs have been the guiding principles of the Stegner Fellows program since its inception in 1946. To date, more than 600 writers have come to Stanford as Stegner Fellows to become better writers, and their influence on literary culture has never been more pronounced. For example, Samantha Chang, Stegner ’95, is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Tracy K. Smith, Stegner ’99, is the U. S. Poet Laureate; and Kevin Young ’94, is the recently appointed poetry editor at The New Yorker.

Additionally, some of the most prestigious writing awards over the last five years have gone to Stegner fellows. Adam Johnson, Stegner ’01 and current professor of English at Stanford, won the 2015 National Book Award and the  2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Jesmyn Ward, Stegner ’10, was a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient in 2017; Ernest Gaines, Stegner ’59, and Tobias Wolff, Stegner ’78, were recently awarded the National Medal of the Arts.

“From its very beginnings the Stegner program at Stanford has supported emerging writers so they can find their voices and finish their books,” said Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities and director of the Creative Writing Program. “Over the years this has grown into an extraordinary conversation both in and beyond Stanford. The faculty, lecturers, Stegners and undergraduates share their values and their experiences and enrich one another every single day in this program. We’re proud of our past and very confident this conversation will continue into the future.”

Stegners have used their fiction, poetry and essays to illuminate weighty issues and push for change. Today they are writing about violence against black men, the opioid crisis and illegal immigration. Early fellows took on class and gender issues and the negative impact of corporate farming.

Stegner fellows are also teaching and mentoring the next generation of writers in academic posts at Stanford and at universities across the nation.

Writers of the day

Stegner fellows tackling issues of their time include Ward, associate professor of English at Tulane University, who addresses the death of her brother and the epidemic of violence among young black men in her memoir, Men We Reaped. Her novel Salvage the Bones takes place in the days leading up to and just after Hurricane Katrina.

“Poetry, perhaps the great art form of experience … seems particularly well-suited to assist in that rethinking by capturing the immensely intimate and personal realities of a large-scale [drug addiction] crisis.”

—William Brewer

Poet and Stegner Fellow

Poet William Brewer, from the current Stegner cohort, wrote a collection of poems called I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2017) about the opioid crisis in his home state of West Virginia. The volume won the National Poetry Series. Speaking out on the crisis and the power of poetry, he said, “It seems that if we hope to tackle the opiate epidemic in any substantive way, then we need to treat it as the national health crisis that it is, which means that we, as a culture, are going to have to firmly reconfigure how we think about drug addiction and abuse. Poetry, perhaps the great art form of experience, to quote Professor Eavan Boland, seems particularly well-suited to assist in that rethinking by capturing the immensely intimate and personal realities of a large-scale crisis.”

Another current fellow, Javier Zamora, published the chapbook Nueve Años Inmigrantes in 2011 and his first full-length volume, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press), was published in 2017. Both are about his experiences traveling on foot across borders, alone, from San Salvador to the U.S. and being undocumented.

“The Stegner program has helped me cope with the current political climate. Having a space where I can bring poems about my immigrant experience, and that these poems are discussed by my peers without a hint of xenophobia, gives me hope for the future of this country,” Zamora said. “The program has also really helped me by providing the time and the space writing about a traumatic experience demands. The content of my first book is very personal. The program helped me revise the manuscript before the world got to see it. It was a stressful time. The locality of Stanford also put me back in close proximity with my family. After El Salvador, we moved to San Rafael. Being physically close to them was a fundamental part of completing the book because showing my family members the poems that are specifically about them is part of my revision process.”

In the early days of the Stegner program, writer and activist Tillie Olsen, Stegner ’56, used her own working-class background to create fiction exploring themes of race, class and gender and then published a collection of essays titled Silences about the many ways that writers are silenced.

Wendell Berry, Stegner ’59, was a fellow in Wallace’s mold in that Berry was a writer and environmental activist. In his novels, poetry and essays, Berry championed rural life and organic farming and railed against big agribusiness.

Knowledge and craft

The celebrated writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships in 1946, the year after teaching his first writing class at Stanford. Stegner arrived at Stanford from Harvard University with the aim of providing young, talented writers the guidance, encouragement and funding to further their writing knowledge and craft.

In the first few years, the Creative Writing Program provided space for a handful of master’s degree students as well as three Writing Fellows. Soon, five fellowships became six and the stipend was raised.

In 1973, the fellowships were named for Wallace Stegner and a year later John L’Heureux, then the Creative Writing Program director and now professor emeritus, expanded the number of fellowships to 10 each in fiction and poetry. Of the fellowships L’Heureux has noted, “We were doing something no other university had attempted: we offered time and counsel and money, no strings attached. We invited gifted young writers the opportunity to study with peers under the direction of distinguished poets and fiction writers while we provided time, financial support, and the aid and comfort of a place where everybody had in mind a single goal – to become a better writer.”

Most Stegners today participate in the Levinthal tutorials during their two-year fellowship. These five-unit independent studies pair current fellows with undergraduates working on a fiction, nonfiction or poetry project. Stanford Jones Lecturer Tom Kealey says of the one-on-one tutorials, “Over the years we’ve found that for both Stegner Fellows and Levinthal students, the tutorial is one of the most memorable and influential experiences they have while at Stanford.”

Upon finishing the fellowship, Stegners have the opportunity to apply for a two-year lectureship to teach fiction or poetry to Stanford undergraduates. All of Stanford’s Creative Writing lecturers are current or former Stegner fellows.

Of the 23 former fellows currently lecturing at Stanford, there are two National Book Award 5 Under 35 in Fiction honorees, Molly Antopol and NoViolet Bulawayo, and a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, Solmaz Sharif.

Thousands of undergraduates have been taught, mentored and encouraged by Stegner lecturers, included the Stegners who were appointed to faculty positions.

Professor Kenneth Fields, Stegner ’65 and author of several volumes of poetry and a novel, teaches the Stegner poetry workshop as well as courses on the Beat writers, the American songbook and Native American mythology and lore. Johnson teaches the Stegner fiction workshop as well as courses on narrative theory and trauma narrative.

Outside of Stanford, Stegners are also publishing and teaching in universities across the United States, including four more 5 Under 35 honorees: Kirsten Valdez Quade at Princeton University; ZZ Packer at Harvard University; Justin Torres at University of California, Los Angeles; and Jennifer duBois at Texas State University.