Tulsa Artist Fellows mentor TU creative writing undergraduate students

Storytelling is sharing an experience often with complete strangers. With each turn of the page, readers are transported to a new world and introduced to a broader view of humanity.

Although creative writing connects people, the act of writing can be isolating and daunting. To help undergraduate creative writing students navigate the process, TU’s Department of English Language and Literature‘s creative writing program pairs budding writers with Tulsa Artist Fellowship (TAF) fellows. With sponsorships from the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and TAF, visiting creative writing professor and TAF fellow Simon Han developed the initiative. “Students will have one-on-one mentoring sessions throughout the semester and foster a connection between a major writer,” Han explained. Together, these prose-perfecting pairs fight the nightmare of the blank page, develop effective writing practices and even try new writing styles.

Karl and Lizzy

Lizzy Young
Lizzy Young

Creative writing senior Lizzy Young has an expansive imagination. As she works on a fairy godmother detective story, her TAF mentor Karl Jones (who is also an editor at publisher Penguin Random House in New York) has helped shape her writing. “Karl has been fantastic,” Young said. “He is really good at meeting me where I am because we are all on a different writing journey.”

From offering writing tips to serving as an encouraging cheering section, Jones has acted as a soundboard for Young’s drafts. In addition, by sharing details about his own career, he has proved creativity comes in multiple formats. During his TAF fellowship, he is working on projects for Audible, writing a memoir, reading for live podcasts and writing a show for puppets.

“A few years ago, I did a show called the Karl Marx Children’s Hour in which we teach communism to kids. It’s like Pee-wee’s Playhouse meets Drunk History,” he laughed. “We made puppets of famous socialist and communist leaders.”

Karl Jones and puppets
Karl Jones and puppets

Jones’ puppet routine was the start of a series of stories told through puppets. He has a show focused on the infamous drama between figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and another performance highlights the “protofeminism of ice skater Dorothy Hamill and her hair cut,” he added.

His newest puppetry endeavor, Oklahoma II, involves telling unusual Oklahoma news stories. “When you tell people you are from Oklahoma, they usually have a limited understanding of what that means. The idea behind Oklahoma II is to help expand the narrative to discover new histories and bring truth to stories that have been told incorrectly in the past,” Jones detailed.

Jones’ talent for writing in various formats has informed Young’s own creativity, and his suggestions have help bring her story to life. “You hear that everyone has a story to tell, and I think that’s true,” Young said. “I don’t think you can tell that story unless you have the tools necessary which creative writing classes and a mentor gives you.” Luckily, Jones is never without his toolbox.

Olivia and Emma

Olivia Stephens
Olivia Stephens

Olivia Stephens is the reason her elementary school included a page limit when they asked their students to write a story: this future TAF fellow’s narrative broke the class stapler at 60 pages long. But, for Stephens, words were not enough.

“I always enjoyed writing the words, but I kept thinking, ‘It needs pictures.’ I wanted to show people what’s going on,” Stephens said. “When I was a teenager, I found comic books that really spoke to me. I thought ‘This is what it’s about words and pictures working together in an entirely different form.’”

Emma Palmer's illustration is from one of her poems from the project “The Incredulity of St Thomas.”
Emma Palmer’s illustration is from one of her poems from the project “The Incredulity of St Thomas.”

Marrying writing and illustration was also an interest of creative writing, English literature and graphic design junior Emma Palmer. “To receive a mentor, students submitted an application with a proposal for a project. In the fine print, it said it could be poetry, non-fiction, fiction stories and comics. As soon as I saw comics, I knew I wanted to pitch that,” Palmer said.

Instead of a typical comic strip, Palmer is using a unique format. Stephens described it as “a mini-comic chapbook.” (Chapbooks are short collections of poetry or other writings, and are often self-published). “We’ve taken Emma’s poetry and created a visual element to go alongside it. Not to compete with poetry but to integrate with it.”

Emma Palmer
Emma Palmer

Palmer’s desire to practice many forms of writings is part of the reason she chose to attend TU. “One of the nice things about TU is the fact it is small, and I am able to be in a lot of different fields,” she said. “Not only am I a part of this mentorship program, but I’m also a part of The Collegian which is the on-campus newspaper. I’m an editor for Stylus which is the TU literary journal, and I get to be a part of the creative writing club.”

Why creative writing?

Creative writing is a growing major at TU, and Grant Jenkins, associate professor of English, believes creative thinkers are exactly what society needs. “Exercising your creativity allows you to imagine solutions to problems that go beyond the norm,” Jenkins said. “Today’s problems demand creative solutions, as we face threats to our planet and to our democracy.”

Indeed, TAF fellow Jones has devised a list of the skills he believes emerge from studying and practicing creative writing:

  • Problem-solving
  • Improvisation
  • Pacing
  • Economies of scale
  • Empathy
  • World building
  • Data extrapolation

There are three main aspects to every creative writing class reading, writing and sharing. Neither a polished short story nor a poem comes together in just one session or even one course, Han noted. “Students shouldn’t expect to leave with a published story. It’s about gaining the tools and the language to think about literature and demystifying the process and craft of writing.”

Palmer assuaged concerns over the question “what do you do with a creative writing degree?” The truth is, she rhetorically asked, “what can’t I do? We live in a world where machines can do almost everything. But, can artificial intelligence write a novel? No. As we see these trends, the importance of craft, language and the ability to describe the human experience becomes ever more essential.”

Check out what work of literature or favorite poem inspired these TU creative writing students to pick up the pen and start writing. Don’t forget to learn more about TU’s creative writing program.