Creative Writing at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts has a way of spurring kudos from students, parents, and numerous others who have had contact with the program. Let us do some name dropping, shall we?
Dave Eggers, 2011, author and co-found of 826 Valencia
“I’ve been teaching weekly high school classes at 826 Valencia for about ten years now, and the high school most often represented in these classes is the School of the Arts. When 826 Valencia opened its doors in 2002, SOTA kids started flooding in for evening workshops, weekend activities, and our summer writing and publishing intensive. And it became clear from the start that SOTA students were uniformly hard-working, self-possessed, knowledgeable and sophisticated about their place in the world, and very serious about pursuing careers in the arts. So serious, in fact, that even after the schoolday was done, they were hungry for more. That means that SOTA is doing something — maybe everything — right. The educators at SOTA are lighting a fire within these young people, making them passionate and insatiable makers and students of the arts. Without a doubt, if I had grown up in San Francisco, I would have fought like hell to attend the School of the Arts.
The entire city owes a great debt to Ruth Asawa for her vision and persistence in making SOTA a reality, and it’s only fitting that the school’s new marquee gives her her due.
I don’t know what 826 Valencia would do without partners like SOTA, and without gifted educators like Heather Woodward.
Every year, when I’m putting together the roster for my class, which produces the anthology The Best American Nonrequired Reading, the very first thing I do is email Heather Woodward, the extraordinary creative writing head at SOTA, and say, “Send me your best and brightest.” I’m looking for young people who want to spend every Tuesday night reading contemporary literature, from the Paris Review to Granta to Mother Jones, and then break down and debate what we read. I need serious young people who can and want to read at a college level, and have no fear of hard work and of articulating their ideas among a stellar group of high schoolers from all over the Bay Area.
And invariably, Heather sends me three or four phenomenal young people who thrive and make SOTA proud. Just last week, we had our first class of the year, and there were four new SOTA students in attendance, all of them hugely impressive. It’s something I treasure every year, seeing the newest group of SOTA kids come through the door, hearing their stories, seeing them thrive.
I’ve been to a number of arts high schools around the country, and SOTA is among the very best. And this is borne out in how well SOTA students do in college. I write recommendations for the students in my classes, and SOTA students have gone onto a very impressive array of colleges all over the nation. I fully expect them to become major cultural contributors as adults — not just because they’re talented artists, but because SOTA instills in them a sense of art’s crucial role in social change….”
Matt Williams, editor, Two-Bit Magazine
I am the editor of Two-Bit Magazine, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of poems and stories from your students…. I’m truly impressed at the quality of work coming out of your program, even from your younger students. They are always competitive with other submissions. It’s a blessing to see that such an [arts-focused] school as yours exists…. clearly, you’re doing something right.
ALY ROBALINO, STUDENT, ’12
Four years. Four years is a long time to be in one place. The Creative Writing department has been my work and my home, fused into a mishy-mash of community and love. Through plays, poetry, fiction, I’ve become familiar with sounds and the sense words make. First entering this department, much like my style of writing, which was immature, brash, and striving to be mature for the wrong reasons, I was too young and inexperienced. However, as the years progressed, my work underwent extensive, yet tender change. I myself grew with it, and thankfully, out of the yoga pants stage too.
I was safe where I was. Creative Writing is a haven of support and love. That said, it isn’t for the weak of heart. This department challenges your compassion, views, perception of art, and your ability to work together under any circumstance. In my experience, the department has been incredibly patient with me, something for which I am grateful for. Heather, our department head, watches out for us, protects us, but also plays with us. I have never met another mentor who has played with their students as much as Heather does. Work and play have always been two important things, but it’s also been clear that play is equally crucial as work. How is one supposed to form bonds without play?
I’d like to think that’s why we’re closer than other departments. Our play is reflected through our spirit. Growing up as a creative writer in the Creative Writing department is an honor. Not every one can endure it, for better or for worse, but for those who transfer into Creative Writing or stay the full four years reap the benefit of finding new resources, friends for life, and the realization that you—yes, you—can write an entire book. I did not think, approaching my senior year, that I would be able to complete my very own book. It’s an odd sensation to realize, holding your bound copy of your own thesis: a complete work.
The problem with writing this, writing this reflection, is that fact that this enumeration, this entire write-up, I’m supposed to come up with something that encompasses the entire experience I’ve had at Creative Writing. Truly, and forgive my crassness, the only thing I can say that may fully sum up my experience, is that Creative Writing is fucking awesome.
VANESSA CABRERA, STUDENT, ’12
The best thing Creative Writing could have given me was exposure. As a freshman I was helping create lesson plans for middle school students and was given the opportunity to actually teach. As a sophomore, I was a poetry editor, working on the publication of the school’s literary journal, umläut. I would continue on the umläut staff through senior year, becoming co-editor-in-chief.
My exposure was not just experiences, but exposure to literature, film, and culture. As a freshman I came in with tunnel vision, my eyes set on becoming a fiction writer, the only writing I found to be enjoyable. Poetry was never my thing, in fact I kind of disliked it. Eighth grade covered structured poetry, from haikus to sonnets, all written by people I found boring. Ironically I now identify as “poet.” Given the choice between writing fiction or poetry, my obvious answer is POETRY! Weirdly enough my thoughts and way I perceive the world around me is through poetry, it makes sense and “flows.” Creative Writing poetry did not just cover the standard Shakespearean sonnet; in fact I don’t think I’ve ever written a sonnet that truly adheres to the rules.
One of the best moments with Creative Writing was going to an Iranian poetry reading; it was beautiful, the poets read in their native Farsi. And though I didn’t understand, it made sense and I could appreciate it. Looking on the page of those poets poetry, there was no apparent structure, Ziba Karbassi’s “Love is Lemony” was not a sonnet, yet it was still an incredible poem. I began to find a new definition of “poetry,” wider than haikus or limericks. I was enthralled by the possibilities of the poem and sought out more poets; poets that incorporate slang, symbol, use narrative, or like me, use another language. Over time I became a “poet,” and now I jump with excitement at the idea of writing a poem, knowing it’ll go however I choose.
REBECCA STRAZNICKAS, STUDENT, ’12
Creative Writing has been a paradoxical place. An example would be one’s feeling of safety—while I myself felt like the department was a safe environment for me to share my work, however cruddy it might be, I also felt I could venture away from that safety into new territory, in the process expanding my work and myself. I think this is true for most of the C-Dubs (code for Creative Writing students), and it is evident in the evolution of their work from freshman year on.
To anybody considering applying, I would ask the following questions: Are you a reader? Do you have thoughts that burn your skull’s innards, thoughts that seem to beg for a presence in the literal, literate world? Perhaps it’s worth it to apply to this place, this Creative Writing department, where those thoughts can develop into full-blown ideas.
Creative Writing has been a second home, with family members constantly graduating, some leaving half-way through, but a select few keeping with me the entire way. Like a home, there is a mother in Heather (though she strives to remain professional, she simply cannot help her maternal ways, and we love her for it). And like a home, sometimes you have an urge to run away. But most like a home, once you have been welcomed into it, you are intrinsically a part of it, and it is always yours.
Alex Pollack, STUDENT, ’12
This close to my graduation, it’s hard to write an objective summation of my experience in the Creative Writing Department. As many of my friends and peers celebrate the end of high school, my emotions are much more conflicted. While most first days of summer feel like the freest days of the year, I can tell that the next few days are going to be weighted by loss as well.
But don’t get the impression that Creative Writing just makes me sad! I love the department with my whole heart, and feel that the program has greatly helped me to mature as a person as well as as a writer. Going through high school in such a close-knit, loving, accepting community has been an incredibly positive experience. In addition to giving me all this emotional support, it’s been a delight to be taught by some wonderful writers, poets, and teachers. Artists in residence whom I have found particularly awesome are Isaiah, Robert Reese, Dana Teen Lomax, Saria, Jeff Mooney, and Maia (although her longer units can be grueling), and Sunny Taylor, the painter whose studio we visited in Oakland. I recently ran into her on Bartand found out that she writes as well—and is currently finishing up her first book! There is very little that I would want to change about Creative Writing; even those artists in residence whom I have found less sympathetic have taught me something.
I think that SOTA is the best school in San Francisco, private or public, and that CW is the best department (sure, I’m biased, but who can blame me?) It really feels like a second family, a home away from home—and I feel that that is as valuable as the incredible writing education I have received.
HANNAH SHR, STUDENT, ’08
In summary, we are a bunch of crazy, loud, funny, goofy, and dedicated people who are here to re-write the world.
John Chiang, father of Sam Chiang, ’07
The Creative Writing Department at SOTA is the sparkle on a hidden jewel of the San Francisco public school system….Heather nurtures each student passionately and personally, and hopes that they will return to visit as successful adults.
Nicholas Sanz-Gould, student, ’07
CW constantly stretches one’s limits by introducing the student to new methods and ideas….This is the best school experience I have ever had.
Christina Oettel-Flaherty, alumnus, ’06
In the first month alone, just being in the same room with so many amazing people with such a broad spectrum of writing styles made my writing improve exponentially.
DINAH STROE, MOTHER OF SARAH STROE, ’05
Heather skillfully, thoughtfully and insightfully has crafted a Creative Writing program for high school students that lights them up. She invites them to dive into San Francisco’s creative community through playwriting workshops, poetry slams, community service experiences and so much more. They work shoulder to shoulder with professional writers. She cheers their every accomplishment and carefully cultivates this very special community of young writers.
REUBEN POLING, CW ALUMNUS, CLASS OF ’04
I walked into the Creative Writing program as a short, skinny kid in a speed metal t-shirt and jeans with few social skills, no writing discipline, and no clue what I was going to do with my life. I walked out two years later as a short, skinny kid in a speed metal t-shirt and jeans with an easy smile, a portfolio full of work, and the knowledge that I could do just about anything with my life as long as I kept writing. CW didn’t just teach me how to write an interesting story — it taught me how to LIVE one.
Sarah Gadye, teacher, Hoover Middle School
They [SOTA CW interns} have been amazing. Yes, the students love them. But I have been most impressed by the professionalism of these two SOTA students in their interactions with me and their organized approach to teaching poetry. No just skating by for them. From their responses to the students’ writing to their regular lesson plans, they have been consistent and effective. This one class, in particular, benefits from high school role models. Alex and Shanna have provided outstanding role models for my sixth graders, in addition to providing outstanding poetry teaching!