Creative writing programs in a university setting are nothing new in the US and Britain. But in Germany, the teaching of creative writing remains novel. An award-winning program in Leipzig is trying to change that.
The institute gets up to 600 applications a year
"Speaking very generally, Germans tend to think of creative writing as something that cannot be taught - a matter of genius, independent of education," said Sebastian Herrmann from the University of Leipzig.
That historical belief may be why the German Creative Writing Program (DLL) at the University of Leipzig is unique in the country. It has been guiding students through the intricacies of writing literary texts since 1995.
From poems to novels to radio plays, graduates of the institute have written it all.
And written it well - they've got the publications and awards to prove it. Leipzig alumni have been awarded the nation's top literary accolades, including the German Book Prize and the Leipzig Book Fair's Prize. The institute itself was awarded the German Critics' Prize in 2005, a symbolic award intended to draw attention to an undiscovered cultural gem.
Recent guest faculty includes Nobel Prize-winning author Herta Mueller
This reputation for excellence has likewise helped the institute draw a star faculty. Recent guest lecturers have included the Nobel Prize-winning author Herta Mueller ("The Appointment”) and best-selling author and cultural critic Iliya Troyanov ("The Collector of Worlds”), among others.
The program, according to Josef Haslinger, a professor of literary aesthetics at the DLL was "based on the personal initiative of distinguished writers who could persuade their universities to follow the American and (later) English tradition and accept Creative Writing as an academic discipline.”
As such, students do not only study literary history and theory, but also spend time in workshops, reading and editing texts of their own writing.
Roots in social realism
While the program in its current incarnation is still adolescent, the teaching of creative writing in Leipzig actually dates back to 1955, when communist East Germany established the Johannes R. Becher Institute and authors like the poet Georg Maurer began to lead "creative seminars."
Modeled originally on the Moscow-based Maxim Gorky Institute for Literature, founded in 1933, the East German institute sought to promote German literature and helped verse students in "social-realist” writing.
In addition to the obligatory study of Marxism and Leninism, the Leipzig Institute offered a wide variety of courses in arts and culture as a means of broadening the writers' horizons. To keep the writers from getting too caught up in the world of fiction and philosophy, they were regularly sent to work in the coalmines.
Today, the students no longer have to work in the coal mines
Nowadays, manual labor isn't part of the curriculum, but the demands are otherwise stiff. In addition to their coursework, Master's students are expected to turn in novel-length prose manuscripts at the end of their two years.
Students are also encouraged to take an active part in the literary community by giving public readings of their work. This publicity adds to the lively arts scene developing in the institute's host city, which is also home to the annual Leipzig Book Fair, held this year from March 18-21.
Ties to American authors
The DLL program has also helped to strengthened transatlantic ties for the university as a whole.
Separate from the DLL, the University of Leipzig's American Studies Program was awarded the Picador Guest Professorship several years ago. Since then, the program has brought in a rotating cast of English-language writers to serve as both instructors of creative writing in English and as writers-in-residence.
The idea "was to provide students with a chance to work with 'practitioners' of literature,” said Sebastian Herrmann, assistant lecturer at the American Studies Department.
Cooperation between the two institutes has allowed students in the DLL program to participate in the English-language creative writing classes as well. Catherine Chung, an American author who received the professorship in summer 2009, said she noticed at least one real difference in the classroom in Leipzig.
The program has fostered collaborations, such as one recent book co-authored by Julie Zeh and Iliya Troyanov
"In Leipzig, none of my creative writing students were taking the class for credit, and that was incredibly liberating in some ways, to remove the grading aspect from my relationship to my students," said Chung. "Without the grading, I could take for granted that the students were there to learn, and because they were genuinely interested in engaging in the readings and their own work. And while that's been true for the students I've taught in the US as well, there was something exhilarating about being able to assume that from the very first moment."
Missing the real world
As with any institution, the DLL is not without its detractors, though. Critics throughout Germany have accused the program's participants of turning out what they call "institute prose,” a consequence of studying instead of living outside the academy, where many authors find their inspiration.
"There is talk of works which are 'crafted with virtuosity but with scanty content,' works which hide their deficient experience of life behind well-oiled literary technique," said Josef Haslinger.
"That writing technique on its own doesn't equal good literature can be readily admitted," he continued. But, "we ought to be wary about prescribing what authors write about."
As Haslinger points out, even in its East German heyday, with authors toiling in the coalmines and in turn gaining "real-life” experience, the Leipzig Institute turned out a number of authors, each with his or her own writing style.
Despite all of the attention the program has received, the institute remains one-of-a-kind in Germany.
While the institute's Master's program is limited in size to just 20 students, the DLL has been receiving up to 600 applications each year. Perhaps creative writing can be taught after all.
Author: Courtney Tenz
Editor: Kate Bowen