The New York Times Magazine recently published an article by a creative writing professor named Steve Almond, who for the past 10 years has been noticing specific trends in his students’ writing. These trends led him to believe that young writers were attempting to tell stories in fundamentally different ways. When he inquired as to what their influences were, student after student referenced Christopher Nolan’s film Memento—a movie about a protagonist who suffers from perpetual short-term memory loss. The film unfolds in a nonlinear way, meant to mirror the chaotic mind state of the main character.
Intrigued by the Times’ attempt to get a bead on college creative writing culture, SFR turned to Dana Levin, co-chair of the creative writing department at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, to ask her if she too had noticed specific trends in her students writing.
“Love and death and sex and damage,” Levin says when asked what her students like to write about.
Levin sits on a leather couch at her house while a cat sleeps on a pillow beside her. It’s a warm winter afternoon and fresh air is coming through the balcony doorway.
Levin pauses to pet her sleeping cat and adds to the list.
“Drugs, alienation—you know, some of it is: what does a soul go through when they’re in their 20s?”
Levin confesses that she has not read the Times story, but says she’s noticed similar trends in her students’ work.
“There is much more interest in telling stories in fragments, and working in shorter forms, and poems too—working in chunks and less wedded-ness to longer narrative,” she says.
In high school, students tend to write short stories and poetry in a linear, straightforward fashion, Levin explains. However, once many of them reach college, they acquire new tools.
“There are alternative methods for writing a story,” she says. “It can be very helpful to reference film tech. So I’ll say things like, ‘Now what we’re seeing is a real close-up; before there was this kind of pan back; and now we’re doing this kind of zoom in.’”
Following in the vein of using film as a means to describe certain techniques in writing, Levin says montage also plays a role in her students’ writing.
“They understand it like that, because we are an increasingly visual culture, and a lot of our students, as freshmen, come into the program having learned about narrative through television and movies—and movies in particular, now, also don’t necessarily adhere to linear storytelling,” she says. “There’s flashbacks, there’s flash forwards—you know, a thing like Memento, or like Inception—where you’re kind of like, ‘What reality am I in?’ This definitely affects them, and some of them want to figure out how to render that. It’s hard!”
Although Levin agrees that her students approach writing from new angles, she believes that they are still preoccupied with the same issues that have concerned human beings for thousands of years.
“Fairness, justice, honesty, how people treat each other, healing and sickness,” she cites as examples of themes her students explore in their work.
But to Levin, what’s more important than recognizing trends in her students’ writing is seeing them fight actively against cynicism.
“They haven’t totally figured out how; they know they’re cynical, and it bothers them,” she explains. “That’s what’s different. The cynicism bothers them, and they’re not comfortable resting there. So what kind of a literature will that produce? I don’t know.”
In one of Levin’s recent classes, students bantered and cracked jokes with one another until Levin caught their attention with a profound observation: that trends affecting each student are part of a much bigger societal shift.
“A collective community can go through the same phases an individual goes through,” she said.
The students fell silent and the class began from there.