Tricks of the Trade

Faculty; Photo: © Sigrid Estrada>An authority on Marcel Proust, the literature of seventeenth-century France, and a host of other subjects, André Aciman believes in the importance of teaching and has always enjoyed his work as a professor in The Graduate Center’s Comparative Literature and French Programs. Yet in the course of this work, he noticed something. While his students could write in a manner appropriate to a scholarly journal, most seemed at a loss when trying to communicate with a mainstream audience that did not share their particular expertise. And the problem was not limited to budding scholars, but rather seemed commonplace among aspiring writers who wanted to connect with a broad readership of a quarter million or more. Aciman began to think about forming a program that would address this problem and, as a first step, he looked around at what was already available. He saw that most workshops with a similar purpose were led by writers—often famous, revered writers whom young students dreamt of having as mentors. Given his own experience as an author of pieces for major periodicals and newspapers such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic (and critically acclaimed books such as Out of Egypt: A Memoir and False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory), Aciman questioned the value of this format.

“Writers tend to be very impressionistic,” Aciman says. “You ask them ‘What do you think I should do with this paragraph?’ and they say, ‘Maybe you should develop this or that a bit more.’ That’s not good enough. An editor will tell you right off the bat, ‘cut this paragraph’ or ‘reduce it to one sentence’ or ‘move it to the end.’ This kind of surgical approach to writing is what an editor does all day long. An editor can look at a piece that is almost moribund and bring it back to life. He or she can take something that is cluttered and heavy and make it lithe and supple, and ultimately turn it into something that is enchanting.”

So Aciman decided that in his new workshop, editors would do the teaching. After recruiting some of the best in the business – including Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of The New York Times Book Review, and Dorothy Wickenden, Executive Editor of The New Yorker—he launched the Writers’ Institute at The Graduate Center. Now entering its third year, the Institute acquaints talented (and, for the most part, published) writers with the rigorous editorial process that submissions undergo at the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers. The goal is to make them better, more successful professional writers.

Tuition for the program is $13,500, a figure that represents students’ willingness to “bank on themselves,” as Aciman puts it. Applications must include pieces that have been published; in rare cases, a work that is in “very solid” manuscript form is considered. No more than fifteen individuals are admitted each year. They participate in four workshops (two each semester), each meeting for twelve two-hour sessions, each led by a well-regarded and highly placed professional editor. Aciman gives the editors great latitude in how they choose to run their workshops, but he does ask them to do most of the talking. Most often, in the course of a session, an editor will take something written by a student and go through it line by line. Aciman explains, “Usually editors want to salvage a piece because editors love to salvage.”

Aciman emphasizes that the editors he signs on are all decent, diplomatic individuals, who strive not only to raise the level of students’ work, but to maintain its integrity. “Editors are the most humble people,” he says. “They want to maintain the voice that goes with your name. They want you to stay in your voice. Many writers lose the voice halfway through the piece and then find it at the end, or maybe they never find it. The editor who was charmed by the piece wants to make that voice come totally alive. That’s very generous.” But he quickly adds that he has structured the program in a way that assumes students already possess a high level of skill and independence. Some of the editors agree to accept e-mails and notes from students, but they do not hold office hours and there is, as Aciman puts it, “no hand holding.”

The students who have taken the program over the past two years are a diverse group. While they all share a serious approach to writing, some are young adults working single-mindedly to establish careers as professional writers; some have demanding full-time jobs (one student was a lawyer); and this year’s group includes a retired man in his sixties. They express themselves in feature essays, personal essays, opinion pieces, reportage, book reviews, and travel essays – any form that falls under the heading of “creative non-fiction.” While Aciman understands that all these forms have “a fact-based essence,” the Writers’ Institute is about a type of writing that, he says, “allows one to ponder things out in a way that uses imaginative and meditative skills.”

Students’ interests also run the gamut, from politics and memoir to entertainment and reviewing. Aciman acknowledges that everyone “by the age of 28 or 29” has a preference for a certain subject; however, at the Writers’ Institute they are encouraged to branch out, if only as a means of forging connections with more editors and publishing more work. He tells students that, as professional writers, they should be able to write anything (a book review, a travel piece, an opinion piece, or any other form), and that they should seek out and accept opportunities to write on topics unrelated to their areas of specialty. “You don’t have to be a food writer to write about food,” he says. “If someone asks you to write about soufflé, then research soufflé. Find out a few things about soufflé that you never knew. Just dig and reach.”

Most students have published pieces written while attending the Institute; one young man has published every piece he wrote in the program, and more. This, according to Aciman, has as much to do with drive and perseverance as it does with talent or skill. Trying to define the difference between those who ultimately see their work in print and those who do not, he states simply, “It’s about the hunger.”

If return engagements mean anything, then the Writers’ Institute appears to be a success for the editors as well as the students. Two who participated in the inaugural year—Tanenhaus and Wickenden – will be returning for the 2009/2010 academic year. They will be joined by Patricia Towers, Features Director of O, the Oprah Magazine, and Klara Glowczewska, Editor-in-Chief of Condé Nast Traveler. Pondering how he is able to recruit editors of this caliber, Aciman points out that The Graduate Center is located in midtown Manhattan, just a short walk from the offices of many nationally renowned publications. But, he adds, convenience alone would not be enough to enlist editors with so many demands on their time; clearly, there is a more powerful motivation at work.

“These are all highly learned people who are writers in their own right, but they don’t get to teach,” says Aciman. “We (in academe) tend to forget it because we practice it all the time, but teaching is a wonderful profession. It’s wonderful to have a group of people come to hear what you know. In the Institute, these editors are teaching what they know and what they do all day long to people who are dying to learn the tricks of the trade that elude so many aspiring and talented writers.”

—Gail Goldberg (published on Folio Spring 2009)

Submitted on: JAN 15, 2013

Category: The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center