Application DeadlineThe deadline for applications to the MFA in Writing program is January 15.
2013-2014 Writing Courses
What distinguishes great fiction—fiction that transforms the world and makes us see our lives anew—from merely good fiction? Above all, it is a sense of urgency, urgency that permeates every element of a story—voice, narrative point of view, tone, characterization, sentence construction, word choice—fusing them together into a harmonic whole. In this class, we will work together to infuse our work with a sense of urgency, write the stories that must be told, and figure out how to tell them in the best possible manner—looking at all the elements mentioned above, pressing and deepening at every turn. We will take huge risks as writers, allowing ourselves to fall off cliffs, to send characters to darker and more vulnerable places, and to make every word resonate with meaning and intent. Most reading will be assigned in conference, based on the individual student‘s needs and interests; but for class, we will look at some of the more powerful stories of recent decades from writers like Joshua Ferris, Elissa Schappell, Jennifer Egan, Aryn Kyle, and Laurie Colwin. Novels are welcome.
The job of a writer is to make the reader want to turn the page. This can be accomplished by various means; but, ultimately, what will draw the reader in and keep him there is the story. While this course will address itself to all aspects of fiction writing, including voice and character development, our focus will be on the art of storytelling. What is a story, and how does it get made? How do we move from one event to another, and what kind of causality does that movement entail? As Flannery O’Connor once said, “The end of a story must both surprise and feel inevitable.” We will look at short novels and stories that accomplish this task. Most readings, however, will be individually assigned to meet the needs of each student in conference. In workshop, we will mainly look at the work the students bring to the class and think about how well a story is being told. Might the writer make better use of any element of the story? And is there anything that stands in the way of the story being told?
We will focus on reading and writing poems with the understanding that the poem is a made object. To that end, we’ll think a lot about strategies into and through and out of poems—syntax, sentence-making, line-making and, of course, music. What is our responsibility to the poem and in the poem will be questions engaged in the workshop.
The Brief Encounter Workshop
In this class, we will focus first on close reading and then on close writing—developing small essays that encompass something very large. We will do much of our work on the micro-, as opposed to the macro-, level, distilling ideas and language into perfect sentences, one after another, until we have created tiny, beautiful works of art. We’ll study short, powerful pieces by Annie Dillard, E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, Tobias Wolff, Abigail Thoams, Joan Didion, Anne Carson, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Ian Frazier, and others. The essays will be generated through writing exercises designed with specific topics and goals in mind.
The focus of most of our discussions will stem from the students' own work. Whose story is it? What is a particular writer's intention for tone? How is the voice in keeping or in counterpoint with the subject matter? How is the story structured in time? What are you beginning to recognize as the most mysterious and promising material of the story? Which details seem spooky and informative of a larger revelation? What actions, events, and memories are beginning to form a pattern in the story, and how can these patterns be recognized and better developed? The questions, conceptions, and issues that arise in the workshop are as rich and varied as the enterprise of fiction. As a complement to the discussion of student work, we will spend a third of our time reading essays on the craft and process of fiction, as well as master stories by selected authors. All of the members of the workshop are encouraged to contribute these readings.
Poetic Process: A Poetry Workshop
In this reading and writing workshop, we will undertake three tasks: to discuss close readings of poems and texts relevant to poetics and the creative process; to find new ways to generate poems of our own through exercises, models, and experiments; and, finally, to workshop our poems for revision purposes. During the semester, we’ll explore the theme of poetic process, always asking ourselves: How do we grow as artists? How do other arts and sciences inform our work? What is the role of the unconscious, of mystery, in both creativity and revision work? In class, selected readings of contemporary, traditional, experimental, and culturally diverse poetry will be discussed—followed by close readings of our own work. Thorough and compassionate participation is expected in classes and in conference. Further readings of essays on craft (prosody) and poetry will be assigned individually in our conferences. An annotated bibliography (worksheet) and a revised, sequenced gathering of 10 poems written this semester in chapbook format are expected before semester’s end. The classroom itself is reserved for exploring, risk-taking, and mistake-making. Please park preconceptions, egos, etc. outside.
The first meeting of this workshop will, I hope, consist of a spirited and thought-provoking discussion of the aesthetics and ethics of nonfiction writing. Topics that might come up are: Is it possible to write about other people without exploiting them? What is the difference between factual and essential truth? What is the main effect I want my writing to have on my reader? During the second class, we will discuss three very differently structured essays, with the goal of establishing a common set of concepts and terms that will be useful in the discussion of student writing. The remainder of the semester will be devoted to workshops, during which students will be encouraged to make specific and honest remarks (no one is ever helped by false praise) while always being considerate of the writer’s feelings and respectful of the writer’s freedom to defy convention. Workshops will involve detailed discussion of technical matters (point of view, metaphor, pacing, etc.) but never to the point that we lose track of bigger issues pertaining to the role that writing plays in the lives of readers and writers and in society as a whole. Ideally, by the end of the semester, students will have a fairly clear idea of what works best in their own writing and will have made significant steps toward working out their personal aesthetics.
Form and Feeling in Nonfiction Prose
While the larger focus of this class will be on the art of storytelling, the minute-by-minute concern will center on the instinctive choices and movements of a piece of writing as it unfolds and develops. We will be very specific and concrete and conceive of ourselves as the mechanics and engineers of our souls. We will spend a lot of time exploring rhetoric as the art of persuasion and concentrate on tone, diction, rhythm, pacing, and transitions in effective prose. We will figure out how a writer generates, sustains, and controls energy on the page and think a lot about how to make space for the uncanny and the imaginative within nonfiction writing. Reading will comprise a series of essays and at least one book. Writing will comprise five-to-seven exercises of no more than 500 words and two-to-three larger pieces, approximately 3,000 words each, which will be discussed by the whole class. The discussion will be lively and pertinent.
The formulaic nature of many fiction-writing workshops seems (to me) antithetical to what it means to make art. I’ve been trying desperately for years now—with varying degrees of success—to find a way to “teach” writing that feels open, honest, and playful. Want to know what I’d like? For a class to encourage innovation and experimentation, to come to the collective epiphany that the possibilities for story are endless, and that not everything that comes through the classroom has to be discussed in terms of what John Hawkes once called “the enemies of fiction”—plot, character, setting, and theme. I am suspicious of peer critique that uses, as its engine, the words “I want.” In an ideal situation, we would try to see stories from the inside out and try to imagine how they might become more purely what they are rather than something that we want them to be. We would value language, style, and structure. Voice would take precedence over plot. We would encourage ambitious failure more than careful success. We would applaud a writer for taking a risk rather than bury her for the risk’s inscrutability. We wouldn’t treat every story as something to be made publication-ready and wouldn’t be so small-bore in the way we think and talk. These are ideas, of course, and tell you nothing about how I actually run my classroom. So here are a few things I’m (relatively) sure about. Each student will bring at least one story into the classroom over the course of the semester. We will often write in response to prompts designed to help you find a voice, take a chance, or do something you wouldn’t expect of yourself. We will, on two or three occasions, take a break from our routine to discuss a great (and, for those of you who don’t know me, likely unorthodox) novel. We will try to spend some time talking about aesthetics and discussing essays from writers of all stripes who think they’ve got it all figured out. It’s having it all figured out that scares me. In the end, I want us to follow Socrates’ lead and realize that we only know that we know nothing. Every class should be equal parts rigor, play, and discovery. If this sounds interesting, show up—and we’ll work out the details.
On Making: A Poetry Workshop
In this course, we will focus on making creativity and inspiration. We will read the work of published poets alongside their interviews, artist statements, and/or manifestos, connecting each poet’s work with her or his poetic ideals, creativity, and artistic process. We will travel to New York City on field trips to see works of art and to visit artists’ studios, where we will have the opportunity to ask the artists about their creative process. In addition, students will interview one another and write a poetic manifesto. And each week, we will discuss and workshop the student’s own work.
The most delicate choices a writer makes significantly affect a story or novel. In this workshop, we’ll take a close-up look at your fiction: We’ll focus on precision of language, explore the mysteries and mechanics of point of view, and talk about building a stable world with words. We’ll treat our stories as laboratories of the imagination that accommodate daring and complex experiments. Empathy is a prerequisite for discussing each other’s work effectively. In workshop discussions, we’ll cultivate articulate critiques that always keep the writer’s intentions in mind. Revision will be emphasized; over the course of the semester, each student will revise a story or novel excerpt at least twice and will have the option to workshop different drafts. The published works that we read for class and conference will be chosen in response to students’ writing and will include authors such as Ann Beattie, Gary Lutz, Denis Johnson, Robert Lopez, Blake Butler, Anton Chekhov, Junot Diaz, Barry Hannah, Yasunari Kawabata, and Joy Williams.
In this graduate craft class, we will explore emerging literary forms that disrupt our concepts of what fiction should be through works that cross between and infuriate genre—still daring to call themselves novels, while incorporating memoir, criticism, biography, scholarship, theory, and poetics. We will be reading many examples of the nonfiction novel: the contemporary examples inspired by reality TV and the Internet, as well as their more (perhaps) political predecessors that include new narrative and associated works with their stewing in gossip, anecdote, literature, and theory. We will also be reading one work of genre-bending criticism. While reading and talking about how to discuss these works, we will examine ways in which these texts experiment not only with genre but also with narrative, structure, characterization, and plot. I will assign short, instigating exercises each week, where we will play with anecdote and aphorism and write real lives as fiction, and vice versa, culminating in a disruptive revision. Is the novel as we know it dead? Let’s celebrate, gleefully, in its wake. The reading list includes: Speedboat by Renata Adler, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer, To After That (Toaf) by Renee Gladman, Great Expectations by Kathy Acker, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, I am Trying to Reach You by Barbara Browning, How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, Taipei by Tao Lin, Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.
Storytellers: The Narrative in Fiction and Nonfiction Literature
"My vocation is to write stories—invented things or things that I remember from my own life but, in any case, stories," wrote novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg. In this nonconference course, we will study approaches to stories about “invented things” and remembered things; in other words, the art and craft of narrative in fiction and nonfiction literature. Readings include craft essays, fiction, nonfiction, and cross-genre work by writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Walter Benjamin, Roberto Bolaño, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, E. L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Selah Saterstrom, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Hisaye Yamamoto. Craft elements studied include narrative structure, narrative voice, setting, characterization, and plot. Students write short critical and creative responses to the readings and, at the semester’s end, a reflective essay on how they use narrative in their own creative work.
The Craft of Fiction: Finding the Drama
Prose fiction, viewed from one angle, is a mongrel genre pitched halfway between poetry and the stage. It’s hard enough to talk about the poetry part…but what about the drama? This craft class will focus on what fiction writers can learn from their board-treading colleagues about the complex relationships among character, plot, and structure. What makes a great character? What plot should she find herself in? How should the story be told? What separates an urgent scene from a flat one? How can we move from any of these starting points to any of the others? And what can all of this tell us about the larger drama of writing itself? Craft readings will draw on the work of playwrights, directors, and novelists who have wrestled with these questions, including Henry James, Constantin Stanislavski, David Mamet, Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Suzann Lori-Parks, and Tony Kushner. Primarily, though, we’ll explore these writers’ ideas as they play out in fiction by Deborah Eisenberg, Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Grace Paley, Denis Johnson, Christine Schutt, Junot Diaz, and others.
The Hidden Lives of Poems
Poetry is the most concentrated of the literary modes and the one in which meaning and form are most intimately and subtly related. Therefore, to grasp fully what any poem has to offer, we need to understand more than the meaning of its statements; we must understand, in depth, how the poem is made and, also, the crucial relationship between what the poem is saying and how it is made. We may come to such understanding through an intensive study of whole poems, paying equal attention to the larger structures of meaning and feeling; the substructures of syntax, image, rhythm, and phrasing; and the “miniature” patterns (syllabic/phonemic) of sound and sense. Then, poems stand forth in their full complexity as intricate and powerful expressive systems. In sum: While emphasizing crucial connections between meaning and form, this course will also go deeply into poetic anatomy and the poet’s tool kit: metaphor, simile, meter, stanza form, word sound, diction, silence, line length, word length, line breaks, and so on. We will study a broad range of poems—both closed and open forms—and, on the way, work toward a general definition of poetry.
Poetry and Prose Hybrids
In this class, we will read and discuss books that blur the lines among poetry and fiction and memoir. Authors to be read include: Lawrence Sutin, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Michael Martone, David Shields, Robert Lowell, Rachel Zucker, Baudelaire, and others. Half of each class will be devoted to discussing the weekly reading, which will amount to about a book a week. The other half of the class will be spent discussing student work. Students will be encouraged to embark on a project that explores hybrid forms in their writing. For workshop, students may bring in poetry, prose, or anything in between.
Personal Issues: Finding the Universal in First-Person Nonfiction
Too often, the emphasis on and in personal writing fails to consider the universality broached through local examinations. As writers, we must seek to bring thoughtfulness and introspection into this confessional landscape of bloggers and tabloids; we must be artful, intellectual, and accessible. This circumspection need not exclude emotional intimacy. As Virginia Woolf said, “A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us; but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.” A writer can discuss experiences of sex, addiction, violence, love, madness, and all manner of internal phenomena while avoiding the pitfalls of navel-gazing and insularity. In this class, students will examine the way experience, emotion, research, and intellection are integrated in the personal essay form through structure, pacing, dialogue, and other craft methods. On a weekly basis, students will attempt, through short exercises, to artfully place the subjective in the context of the larger world. We will examine published works that succeed at this in a broad spectrum of styles—from classic essays to recent, more experimental forms. Among these will be the work of Kathryn Harrison, Zadie Smith, Nancy Mairs, James Baldwin, Nick Flynn, David Foster Wallace, Jamaica Kincaid, John D’Agata, Bernard Cooper, and Eula Biss.
Producing Radio Dramas
Radio drama is far from dead. In fact, this class proves that it is poised for a revolution. The purpose of this class is to learn about contemporary radio fiction and push the boundaries of what is currently being created. We will listen to emerging works by Jonathan Mitchell, Miranda July, Rick Moody, Natalie Kestecher, Gregory Whitehead, and others. We’ll also analyze programs like “Selected Shorts,” “The Truth,” “RadioEye,” “The Next Big Thing,” “Wiretap,” and others. We’ll also tune the ear to radio works from around the world—England, Australia, Germany, and Norway—to explore how and why other countries have carried on the tradition of radio drama more than here in the United States. You’ll discover how knitting with dog hair fooled a nation and hear the letter that President Nixon wrote if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had crash-landed rather than landing on the moon. We’ll also look at how fiction can illuminate truth—and discuss what happens when those lines blur. Class will include author, actor, and producer visits. We’ll also have organized performances throughout the semester for those who would like to participate. Students will learn how to write for radio, produce and mix pieces, and create a podcast. We use Soundcloud extensively to comment on and share works. At the end of the semester, we will upload works to the Public Radio Exchange, and the best work may air on “The Organist” podcast.