First-Year Studies: The Source of Stories: Writing from Your Own Experience

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Where do our stories come from? Do they come from what happens to us? From what we read in the newspapers? From what we make up in our heads? Or from all the above? The novelist John Berger once said that writers draw their material from three sources: experience, witness, and imagination. The goal of this mixed-genre workshop—which will focus on the short story, personal essay, and memoir—is for the emerging writer to find and develop his or her own subject matter. Students will be asked to explore the raw material of their lives, adding the mix of witness (what we have seen or been told) and what we invent. We begin with an assignment based on Joe Brainard’s book I Remember. Students make their own lists of memories of childhood and adolescence. We will turn these lists into anecdotes and scenes and eventually into stories. Students will also begin a list called “I Imagine”; and in this assignment, we will explore family lore, stories students have heard from others, or perhaps even stories drawn from newspaper accounts. We will look at writers who have delved into their own subject matter in both fiction and nonfiction, such as James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Tim O’Brien, Virginia Woolf, Paul Auster, and Lorrie Moore, and discuss the various issues posed in each form. Students will be given assignments intended to evoke subject matter in both genres. For example, a piece of family lore might become a short essay or a work of fiction. Students will write short stories, essays, and memoir and learn to move freely from one genre to the next, attempting to reimagine their material in different forms. The emphasis will be on voice and narrative, both of which are essential for good fiction or nonfiction. We will also spend a good deal of time learning what it means to write a scene. This is a course for any student who wants to explore the material that will become the source of his or her stories.