Prestigious Fellowship Brings Top Writers to Stanford

The Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford is one of the most competitive creative writing programs in the country. The fellowship, offered to two ten outstanding writers each year, provides a stipend of $26,000 to each fellow per academic year and covers tuition and health insurance. The program allows writers to hone their skills while receiving guidance from Stanford’s distinguished creative writing faculty.

Wallace Stegner originally came to Stanford in the 1940s as an American fiction writer and environmentalist. Eavan Boland, the director of the Stegner Fellowship, said, “One of the things that he set out to do was to create an environment where young writers could find the time to find themselves and so the Stegner Fellowship began.”

Anyone may apply to the Stegner Fellowship, regardless of age, education, or experience. Admission is based solely on quality of writing samples. This year, there were almost 2,000 applications for the ten total spots – five in fiction and five in poetry – meaning that the acceptance rate hovered at .5%. (For comparison, Stanford Law School’s acceptance rate is approximately 9%.) The Stegner fellows for 2011-2013 were announced on April 7.

Unlike a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program, the Stegner Fellowship offers no degree. However, Boland said, “We choose people who are by now pretty well published and probably will either leave the program with a book and a contract or with a finished book. That’s what we expect. Many of the people who come here have already been in writing programs, already have their MFAs.”

Boland said she believes that the Stegner Fellowship is probably the last set of workshops a Stegner fellow will ever take.

Throughout their time as “Stegners,” writers participate in three quarter-long writing workshops each year. Each workshop meets once a week and is taught by one of the faculty in their field.

The fiction faculty includes Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Tallent and Adam Johnson, and the poetry faculty consists of Eavan Boland, Ken Fields and Simone di Piero. Boland said the Stegner fellowship offers its participants the luxury of time to write.

Dana Kletter, a professional musician and current first-year fiction fellow in the Stegner Fellowship, has an MFA from the University of Michigan. She said that the amount of free time is one of the biggest benefits – and challenges – to being a Stegner fellow.

“You really have to be self-directed. Aside from the workshop where you bring in two pieces of writing a quarter, you don’t have a schedule,” said Kletter. “Having all this free time is this amazing gift, but you have to be able to use it well. So I think that’s a big challenge.”

Boland said that another important part of the Stegner Fellowship is the interaction between the fellows.

“It’s a really sophisticated discussion of work, because of who the Stegners are, because of their experience, because they are excellent leaders, writers and critical thinkers,” Kletter said. “We all love writing and we all love reading, so we’ll all talk about it for a really long time.”

Stegner fellows must also find a way to productively spend the summer between their two years at Stanford. Fellows are expected to write and complete a novel or book of poetry, said Boland. Financial support is therefore crucial.

Kletter’s plans for the summer so far include researching background on her novel, writing a full draft, and spending a little time on a music project.

“We get to live a little magical life for a couple years in which we get to focus solely on our writing,” Kletter said. “It’s a fabulous gift.”

Stegner Fellows also interact with the undergraduate student body. They teach Levinthal Tutorials, in which undergraduates can apply to work one-on-one with a Stegner Fellow to develop their writing during winter or spring quarter. Fellows can also become involved in Stanford’s Writer’s Studio or Poetry House, resources that undergraduates use for writing help.

Molly McCully Brown ’12, an English major, completed a Levinthal Tutorial in poetry during winter quarter. Her application consisted of ten poems and a statement of purpose. Brown met with her Stegner fellow each week in a coffee shop and talked about books that they read, her writing, and their lives in general.

“I got a lot of writing done; it was great,” Brown said. “I got to meet someone really cool and talk about work that I loved and what I wanted to do.”

At the end of their time as Stegners Fellow, a few writers are chosen to serve two-year appointments as Jones Lecturers, who teach creative writing classes at Stanford.

“They’re young writers who are in the process of publishing their books, thinking about craft, fascinated by fiction and poetry. Andthey bring that into the classroom,” Boland said. She added, “That’s a very exciting conversation for undergraduates.”

Boland said she thinks that the Stegner Fellowship has a large effect not only on the undergraduate population at Stanford, but on the nation as well.

“For over 60 years the program has come to have a hand in making American writing,” Boland said. “An enormous number of poets and fiction writers from Tobias Wolff to Tillie Olsen to Ken Kesey have come here and gone through this program.”

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