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Program Gives Writers a Professional Polish

Education: Already selective to a rare degree, the classes at UC Irvine will get more so with new novels by graduates.

September 02, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"My own feeling is: If your highest aspiration is to be on the bestseller list or earn a large chunk of change, you're not going to go to a [graduate creative-writing] program," said Nicholas Delbanco, director of the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan.

In fact, the spike in applications at UC Irvine hasn't increased the quality of the pool, Wolff and Latiolais agreed.

But exposure to its graduates' books has brought talented writers to UC Irvine. "Michael Chabon is the reason I went to UCI," Benioff said. "I was living in Wyoming before I went to grad school. I loved 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.' The back of the book said he went to UCI. I had literally never heard of Irvine."

Finding out that the man in charge of the program was Wolff, author of the "Duke of Deception," the memoir of his con man father, only gave him greater encouragement to apply.

All 12 students in the program receive about $1,200 a month and teach undergraduate composition, which allows them to spend time doing what writers do. They are accepted on the basis of a work of fiction they have submitted, and that they have been out of school, trying to make it as writers.

The centerpiece of the program is the weekly three-hour workshop where students' work is evaluated by professors and the 11 others in the program.

'Writing Comes First'

Sebold, at first put on UC Irvine's wait list, had written two unpublished novels when she came to Irvine. She found its program like being in a writers colony. "To be in atmosphere where writing comes first, it reinvigorated me. It was a lovely, false world to live in for a few years."

The subject that is not discussed during the program is the business end of publishing. "We have connections for them when they're ready," said Latiolais, a novelist and graduate of the program. "But the thing that is going to make the boat float is the writing, not the connections." All this success might make people think that somehow there is a formula to success that UC Irvine has discovered. That's not true, those who have gone through it insist.

"Go to the library and ask where [creative-writing] dissertations are," Gold said. "You will find more names you don't recognize than you thought imaginable. These were good students, who did good work. It doesn't mean you've heard of them. It's a pathway and it's had increased success lately, but it's not a magic pill."

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