Wanted: New Writers

The banner on the top of the webpage says it all: "The Writers' Institute. Where Talented New Writers Meet Today's Top Editors."The CUNY Writers' Institute, headquartered at The Graduate Center in Manhattan, is a one-year, $11,000 certificate program for students who want to penetrate mainstream publishing venues and are ready to meet and learn from the best New York City editors. In this program, it's those editors, not professors or other writers, who are the teachers. Hence the institute's moniker: "The Un-MFA Writing Program." Students take four intense workshops, two a semester - usually held in the evenings.

André Aciman, the program's director and a CUNY distinguished professor, emphasizes that "new writers" doesn't necessarily mean young, and typically he doesn't look for students right out of college. He prefers to admit those who may have been out in the real world for a while and who may already be working. He does, he says, have a number of students in their late 20s and early 30s.

A typical student might be a psychiatrist who has many stories to tell but has only written for medical journals and would like to write a novel or a piece of creative nonfiction about his or her experiences. Nathan Thrall, who now edits at The New York Review of Books, is a graduate as is another individual who was a writer but wanted more support in writing within her area of expertise: adoption. For more information see http://writersinstitute.gc.cuny.edu/

"It's for people who are trying to get a feel for what The New York Times or The New Yorker or The Wall Street Journal is looking for," says Aciman, who is also a nonfiction author, novelist and chair of The Graduate Center's doctoral program in Comparative Literature. This is his ideal student: "You have experience. You know a lot. But you also know you have to tweak your style so as to reach the maximum number of readers."

The list of faculty and guest speakers reads like a who's who of New York literary life. Teachers, for example, include Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, Jonathan Landman, culture editor of The New York Times and John Freeman, editor of Granta. Speakers have included Philip Gourevitch, former editor of the Paris Review and longtime New Yorker staff writer, and more recently, David Denby, New Yorker staff writer and film critic.

"I've got the greatest editors in the U.S.," Aciman says. "And in class, they do what they do all day. They read and edit. The word I like is ‘surgical.' If something needs to be cut they cut it, and try not to argue, please."