The Writing Tradition at Eckerd College

Winter is a season for writers at Eckerd College. For the fourth year in a row, this month brought together a wide array of fiction writers, poets, screen writers, students of creative writing, literary agents and the general public for the Writers in Paradise Conference. Moreover, Winter Term at Eckerd College is a time for independent study, travel, personal reflection, and the different kinds of narratives that arise from all three.

The confluence of these two moments – Winter term and Writers in Paradise – in the year of Eckerd's 50th Anniversary invites reflection on the extent to which Eckerd can be considered a writerly place – that is, a place that inspires a certain sort of creativity, but also, perhaps more importantly, a place that teaches the value of writing as the key to a rational, analytical, observant and compassionate mind. It is this approach that has led to a number of Eckerd alumni becoming writers. More broadly, however, it is this approach that has led to Eckerd's ability to produce graduates who are able to apply the skills of a writer to their professional and personal lives.

This notion that writing excellence can be demonstrated in a number of ways, across a number of subjects, and is at the core of Eckerd's Writing Excellence program. In 1988, in what was then a progressive move, Eckerd stopped requiring Composition courses and established a portfolio review system by which to judge the development of a student's writing over the course of his or her study at the college. According to this approach, a student must submit a portfolio of four writing samples, each of which needs to emphasize a certain style of analysis or narrative – a personal perspective, a logical and supported position paper, an analysis of others' ideas and a timed examination. Students also have the option of submitting an additional sample of their own choosing which might highlight some of their more creative or experimental writing. These portfolios are then evaluated by faculty from a wide range of disciplines.

As many Eckerd alumni went on to pursue advanced degrees and careers in academia, it is no surprise that many notable publications came from our graduates. Dr. Dwight T. Bozeman ('64), a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, has been honored as a nationally-recognized scholar in history and religion and has produced significant books on early American religious history. The late Rowland Sherrill ('64), who served as Chair of Religious Studies at Indiana University, published, among countless other manuscripts, The Prophetic Melville: Experience, Transcendence and Tragedy.

Similarly successful in the field of religious studies, Meredith Black McGuire ('64) wrote Ritual Healing in Suburban America, a study of non-medical healing among certain populations in New Jersey. A unique study, it was groundbreaking enough to lead one reviewer to note that, "McGuire's typology of the five kinds of alternative healing belief systems is one of the major contributions of this book to social scientific investigation of the non-medical healing phenomenon."

Dr. Paul E. Hoffman's ('64) contributions to the Department of History at Louisiana State University won him the William H. Kadel Medal for career achievement. He is the author of several books, including the prize-winning A New Andalucia and A Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century. He has most recently published, Florida's Frontiers, which won the Gulf South Historical Association Book Prize in 2002.

Academic writing represents just a small part of the publications from Eckerd alums. Eckerd graduates have had great success in a wide range of genres from fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, young adult literature, dramatic literature, to poetry and have, when not writing themselves, served in an editorial capacity in a number of areas. One of Eckerd's earliest literary figures, Jerry Cullum ('68), was known at FPC for contributing an FPC-specific revision of Ginsberg's "Howl," entitled "FPC Howl," to the College's 1969 yearbook. Currently, Cullum serves as Senior Editor of Art Papers magazine.

In the realm of non-fiction, Scott Deitche ('94) has written extensively on the subject of organized crime and is the author of Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld – the only book on the subject.

Crime also happens to be the focus of a number of James Hall's ('69) novels, the most recent of which, Magic City, was published in 2007.

Graduates from Eckerd's Program for Experienced Learners have also added to the pool of Eckerd alums with noteworthy writing credits. Kim Hanna's play (PEL '01) Hypoxia Zone won critical acclaim in the Tampa Bay area during its run and established her as a vibrant local artist.

It is no secret that Eckerd has also produced nationally famous writers. Dorothy Allison's ('71) novel, Bastard out of Carolina, was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, and she received the 2007 Robert Penn Warren Award for fiction. Dennis Lehane ('88) is the best-selling author of Coronado, a collection of short stories, and seven novels: A Drink Before the War; Darkness, Take My Hand; Sacred; Gone, Baby, Gone; Prayers for Rain; Mystic River; and Shutter Island. Mystic River was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Sean Penn and directed by Clint Eastwood. The film adaptation of Gone, Baby, Gone, directed by Ben Affleck was released in October 2007, and his latest novel, The Given Day, is forthcoming this fall.

One of the most recent Eckerd alums to publish is Ashley Rhodes-Courter. Named one of People Magazine's "Top 10 college women in 2007" in honor of her volunteer work with foster children, Rhodes-Courter's memoir of her own time as a foster child entitled, Three Little Words, was released in early 2008.

Of course, no mention of writers at Eckerd can be made without citing Peter Meinke and Sterling Watson ('69), two writers and educators whose names are virtually synonymous with creative writing at the College. Meinke, a professor of literature at Eckerd from 1966 to 1993 and a nationally-recognized poet and short story writer, shepherded hundreds of students through the Creative Writing Program. Watson, an Eckerd alum and acclaimed fiction-writer who has published five novels (Weep No More My Brother; The Calling; Blind Tongues; Deadly Sweet; and Sweet Dream Baby), has been teaching writing at the College as both craft and the product of hard work since 1978. Along with Dennis Lehane, Watson conceived of and established Writers in Paradise at Eckerd College – an intensive, eight-day experience of intimate workshop classes, panel discussions, readings, book signings, cocktail receptions and dinners for those who are passionate about writing.

Having attracted some of the nation's best writers, critics and agents for four years running, Writers in Paradise is yet another example of the writerly nature of a place like Eckerd. It would be impossible to demonstrate fully in a piece such as this the complicated relationship between a place of education and its influence on the way that its students end up experiencing and describing the world. Perhaps the best way to do this is to simply recommend that Eckerd writers be read. The work is out in the world.