Students in creative writing MFA programs primarily—if not exclusively—represent their imagined worlds on paper, using words. They stare at computer screens, type on keyboards, scribble in notebooks, and print out stories and essays and poems. They mark up pages. They consider things like form and content and rhythm and voice. They are not often—or ever—called upon to think about physical spaces or build, gather, and assemble physical objects in a way that will help them generate narrative. They have words for that. And words suit them just fine.
So what happens when you ask writers to move beyond the page? That’s what I wondered when Brian Mathews—the associate dean of Learning and Outreach here at Virginia Tech’s University Libraries who also happens to be my neighbor—asked me if I wanted to participate in the Course Exhibition Initiative. It sounded cool, so I agreed. I hadn’t taught creative nonfiction at the graduate level, but I knew that I wanted each student to choose a subject that they would write about over the course of the semester and that I wanted them to approach this subject—basketball, 80s rock, cycling, percussion instruments, shamanism, the cast of The Cosby Show, American religions, college mascots, particular regions of the world, molecular gastronomy, exotic animals, whatever—from a variety of perspectives. I knew that I wanted them to write essays in a variety of different forms. I knew that I wanted them to interrogate notions of self and subject, asking questions like “what am I obsessed with?” and “What am I afraid of?” and “How do the ways in which we think about boundaries shape how we think about experience and art?” and “What does it mean to write? To be a writer? To make art?” And I knew, too, that I wanted them to make something physical that would help them tell some of the stories they would discover in class.
For the final project, I asked them to design and construct physical, interactive exhibits that deployed narratives about the subjects they were investigating. So they brainstormed. They drew up blueprints. They revised. They built things. They tracked down artifacts. They incorporated various physical and digital media into a representational experiment to create—through text and object—exhibits that would, when a visitor interacted with them, come alive with story.
The results are now before you. Go ahead and explore them. They are meant to be seen and touched. Follow their instructions—or let your intuition be your guide. This is important. You’re the next step in these narratives. You’re building, too.
Director, Undergraduate Creative Writing Program
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