Our History and the Growth of Creative Writing Programs

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs fosters literary achievement, advances the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serves the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing. We support hundreds of colleges and universities, dozens of writers’ conferences and centers, and thousands of individual writers as members.

AWP was established as a nonprofit organization in 1967 by fifteen writers representing thirteen creative writing programs. The new association sought to support the growing presence of literary writers in higher education. At that time, Departments of English were mainly conservatories of the great literature of the past, and scholars fiercely resisted the establishment of creative writing programs. AWP was created to overcome this resistance, to advocate for new programs, and to provide publishing opportunities for young writers.

Originally named the Associated Writing Programs, the new association accommodated both institutional and individual members. Since institutions are empty places without the individuals to animate them, AWP’s dual membership was an asset in its vitality as an organization. Its dual membership of prestigious universities and accomplished authors persuaded academe that the study of literature should be prospective as well as retrospective—that it should include the play of creation as well as the work of conservation.

More than any other nonprofit literary organization, AWP has helped North America to develop a literature as diverse as its peoples. This, of course, is not a boast for AWP alone; it is also a boast for the virtues of higher education in the democratic countries. Our member programs have provided literary education to students and aspiring writers from all backgrounds, economic classes, races, and ethnic origins.

AWP has also supported the development of hundreds of educational programs, conferences, reading series, and literary magazines, as well as thousands of jobs for writers and new audiences for contemporary literature. Academic programs have mustered hundreds of millions of dollars to support the study, making, and enjoyment of literature. The advent of creative writing programs has created the world’s largest network of literary patronage.

Teachers Who Do What They Teach

In schools of political science, economics, medicine, architecture, engineering, and business, the most respected teachers were the practitioners of those disciplines—those professors who divide their time between theory and practice, between speculation and pragmatism, between work in academe and work in "the real world." Oddly, English departments once included few living practitioners of the art of making literature, although they included many practitioners of criticism and scholarship. The founders of AWP argued that the understanding and appreciation of literature could be enhanced by having practitioners of that art teach that art. It was a radical notion at some institutions, and positions for writers in many departments were hard-won.

Some of the most important writers of this century have attended university writing programs and worked as professors of writing and literature. Richard Bausch, T.C. Boyle, Rosellen Brown, Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove, Alan Gurganus, Pam Houston, John Irving, Charles Johnson, Terry McMillan, Lorrie Moore, Jane Smiley, and Alice Sebold are just a few of today’s popular writers who have studied or taught in writing programs. One generation has passed on to the next their understanding of the art of storytelling. At Duke, William Blackburn taught William Styron, Fred Chappell, and Reynolds Price. Price, in turn, taught Josephine Humphries and Anne Tyler. E.L. Doctorow taught Richard Ford at the University of California, Irvine. Donald Dike taught Joyce Carol Oates at Syracuse. Andrew Lytle taught Harry Crews. At Stanford, Wallace Stegner taught Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Raymond Carver, and many others. At the University of Iowa, Kurt Vonnegut once taught a class that included John Casey, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus, and John Irving among its students.

By offering classes in creative writing, academe has, ironically, reclaimed an aspect of literary study that it had divested when its humanities departments became specialized. In a classical education, students once studied Greek, Latin, rhetoric, and composition by writing stories and poems in Greek or Latin, often in imitation of past masters. Students studied the accomplishments of the past by entering personally engaging practicums that emphasized the creative act. With the acceptance of creative writing programs, departments of literature have restored their original, enabling scope: the study and practice of both the creative and critical literary acts.

Creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities. Many students feel that the world is not of their making, and not theirs to form or to reform. Writing classes often demonstrate the efficacy of the human will—that human experience can be shaped and directed for the good: aesthetically, socially, and politically. In creative writing classes, students learn about elements of literature from inside their own work, rather than from outside a text. This has motivated many to gain greater command of rhetoric and communication skills in general. In creative writing classes, students also analyze psychology and motives, the dynamics of social classes and individual, regional, and national beliefs. Students shape experiences into stories and poems. They order their lives and their world. In addition to advancing the art of literature, creative writing workshops exercise and strengthen the resourcefulness of the human will, and it is the exercise of will not over others, but for others, as stories and poems are made as gifts for readers and listeners. The making and exchange of literary talents and gifts is, of course, a highly civilized and humane act; and appropriately, academe has accepted the practice and making of the literary arts along with study and scholarship in the literary arts.

The Writer, Creativity, and the Public Sphere

At the heart of AWP’s success is our association’s respect for the individual efforts, creativity, and aspirations of emerging talents. From ambition to publication of one’s first book, and from one’s first book to a long career, a writer’s job is one of ongoing education in literature, in the art of making stories or poems, in the business of publishing, and in improving methods of teaching, if one is a teacher. A writer’s career has many chapters, and AWP is here to help a writer from the first chapter to the last.

Because AWP excelled in the teaching of writing for so long, AWP soon found itself in the position to share many fine pieces of advice and writerly analysis with anyone interested in the art of writing, regardless of whether or not one was enrolled in a program. As a result, AWP began to develop public venues for the appreciation of contemporary literature and for the study of the art of writing. AWP’s magazine, The Writers’ Chronicle, our Annual Conference & Bookfair, and this website are among the public venues by which AWP serves all individual writers, especially writers who teach. We support the individual writer, the writer’s solitary enterprise of creative work, but we also support the building of literary communities and the audience development of new generations of readers. Our conference now attracts 13,000 attendees, and our magazine has a growing circulation of tens of thousands of readers.

The writer’s place is in the public arena, and AWP, over its history, has built a bigger town square.

AWP is an influential literary organization because it is, in fact, an organization of many organizations and many individuals, as each member college, university, conference, and center—and each unaffiliated writer who chooses to do so—creates its own literary community locally while contributing to contemporary letters nationally and internationally. AWP's members teach in hospitals, prisons, elementary schools, high schools, and community centers, as well as in colleges and universities.

AWP has supported countless writers and their work. As a people, we turn to literature to confirm that we are not alone, to follow those universal themes of our shared humanity, and to gain insights into those experiences that are particular to certain nations, times, regions, neighborhoods, colors, and classes of people. We turn to literature to make our lives bigger, and AWP has made the world of literature a larger place.

Growth in Creative Writing Programs

From twelve member colleges and universities in 1967 to over 500 today, AWP's membership has grown with the expansion of creative writing programs and with AWP’s growing number of partnerships with allied literary organizations. There are now hundreds of programs, conferences, festivals, centers, and retreats for writers. These programs can be found in our Guide to Writing Programs and our Directory of Conferences and Centers.