Somewhere in Crystal Castro’s mother’s attic is the first book Castro ever wrote. “It’s written in crayon and stapled together,” says Castro, a junior editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, one of the Big Five publishers based in New York City.
Castro graduated Montclair State University with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in Creative Writing in May 2022.
“My first day at the office was three weeks after my graduation date,” says Castro, who credits the Creative Writing program with helping her land her dream job. “I love it. This is probably what I’ll do for the rest of my career – happily so.”
Up until she entered the program, Castro says, she thought of writing as something she did alone in her bedroom. Then she was introduced to a writing workshop with visiting English Professor Rachel Carter. “She fostered such an incredible workshop environment, where I was reading other people’s work, they were reading my work, and we were giving each other feedback,” she recalls. “It was this incredibly collaborative experience, and I – all at once – fell in love with that.”
Montclair’s current Creative Writing program was restarted in 2008 by director and English Professor David Galef, a prolific writer, author and champion of his students, both present and former.
Galef notes that many of the students at Montclair are second-generation immigrants, often the first in their families to attend college, and English isn’t always their native language. Additionally, “They’re often holding down one or even two jobs and that’s tough,” he says. “The fact that they’re competing head-to-head with schools with higher profiles and they’ve done this well – I think it’s amazing, and they should be recognized for it.”
He would love to see the University’s writers embraced by Montclair Township, home to many creative types, and perhaps expand the program’s writing prizes. Currently, there are four creative writing awards, one each for fiction, flash fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, that come with prize money.
The 411 on Creative Writing
The creative writing workshops and a Creative Writing minor are open to all undergraduate students, regardless of discipline; however, only English majors may pursue a creative writing concentration. Galef is proud of the program and how it benefits students. “I’m often asked that age-old question, ‘Can you really teach creative writing?’” he says, laughing. “People who ask that question have probably never been to a workshop.”
The program covers 200-, 300- and 400-level courses. Students in the 200-level courses are often given writing prompts, but not in the advanced courses, Galef says. “You’ve got a semester to give us 40 pages, do what you want. We give more structure than that, but we don’t tell you what to do. You produce stories or sections from a longer work, and we workshop it,” he says, adding, “It’s pretty similar to what a student will encounter in an MFA program. In fact, a project in the advanced fiction workshop makes a very suitable writing sample, should you want to apply for an MFA program.”
Through the Creative Writing program, students can take a variety of classes. “You may think you’re God’s gift to poetry but have you tried a fiction class? How about screenwriting? How about Young Adult? We’ve got a lot of different electives,” Galef says.
Professor Mark Rotella, director of the Joseph and Elda Coccia Institute for the Italian Experience in America, teaches a mix of classes, including food, memoir and sports writing. Author and former senior editor for Publishers Weekly, Rotella loves teaching.
“I’m kind of lucky in that the students who take my class are those who are very interested in writing,” Rotella says. “They attend all the classes, and they do the work.”
In his food-writing class, that may include tasting food and writing about it or penning a restaurant review. Rotella takes a Proustian approach to food writing. “I take them into writing about food as memory and how food – like Marcel Proust’s madeleine – once you bite into something, will spark a whole barrage of memories,” he says. “I talk about food as culture; a lot of students at Montclair State come from so many different backgrounds, that food becomes a lingua franca for discussing culture.” Meanwhile, his memoir writing “allows students to really get to know each other, feel comfortable with writing about themselves and sharing it,” he says. Lastly, sports writing is not about scores reportage but long, narrative-form writing.
Ultimately, his classes provide students “the opportunity to write something that they won’t in almost every other class at a university level,” he says. “What I want them to have, at the end of the semester, is that one piece of writing that they are really proud of that they can say they accomplished. They could show their family, they could show their kids in the future but also that maybe when they apply to grad school or for a job, there’s a writing sample there. They can say, ‘I wrote this, and I’m proud of this.’”
This year, Rotella helped formalize a partnership between the Montclair Literary Festival and Montclair State University.
Nurturing Dreams of Being a Writer
Creative Writing alumnus Davon Loeb ’11 has been getting rave reviews for The In-Betweens, a Lyrical Memoir (West Virginia University Press), a coming-of-age story about his Southern Black and Long Island-Jewish heritage.
“Engagingly delivered, candid reflections on heritage and identity,” praises Kirkus Reviews. Chicago Review of Books writes: “Utterly captivating and resonant, The In-Betweens deserves a top spot on your bookshelf.”
After earning a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing, Loeb graduated with an MFA from Rutgers University-Camden in 2015, where he started his memoir. However, the New Jersey author, English teacher and online editor at The Rumpus, Loeb credits the creative writing program with making him a better writer.
“Though I did not write any of The In-Betweens while studying at Montclair State University, in many ways, the writer I eventually became, the writer I am now, has everything to do with my experiences in Montclair,” Loeb says. “Taking creative writing classes, specifically, poetry and fiction, at Montclair was really about expanding my exposure to literature, craft and workshops.”
Loeb recalls doing readings for Montclair’s literary magazine, The Normal Review. “I remember the first time I ever had a piece published, that it was there, and that I celebrated with my classmates. It felt very special,” he says.
In addition, Loeb, who is currently working on a collection of essays about parenthood and being a father, looks back fondly on learning from Montclair professors: “I remember taking poetry with Dr. Johnny Lorenz and fiction with Dr. David Galef and feeling like I learned so much about how to become a better writer – that my poetry could absolutely influence my prose, consequently, my prose could influence my poetry – that the two could equally exist in my work.”
Alyssa DiPalma ’23, who earned a BA in Film and Television, won the 2023 Johnny Muller Memorial Scholarship in Fiction with “Passaic,” a story she wrote as part of a class while working on her Creative Writing minor. She credits Galef with creating “a safe environment for other writers to share their work, to critique each other’s work, to give each other positive feedback or critical feedback but in a way where no one ever felt like it was too harsh or too critical.”
Castro says she went into the Creative Writing program, thinking that she was just going to become a better writer. “I definitely did, but I came out with my career and so much more,” she says.
Both she and Loeb strongly urge ambitious undergrads to enter the Creative Writing program.
“I would recommend students take creative writing classes in different genres, especially genres they do not regularly write in,” says Loeb.
Castro encourages anyone “who is interested in reading and writing” to participate. The program, she says, isn’t “just for people who want to be authors someday. It’s for anyone who feels like they have a story, and I’m of the opinion that that’s everyone.”
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