2013-2014 Writing Courses
Poetry and Prose Hybrids
In this class, we will read and discuss books that blur the lines between poetry and fiction and memoir. Authors to be read include Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Michael Martone, James Baldwin, and others. Half of each class will be devoted to discussing the weekly reading, which will amount to about one book per week. The other half of 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. There will be several screenings outside of class that students will be expected to attend.
First-Year Studies: Coming of Age and Going Beyond—Fiction Workshop
This is a yearlong foray into the writing of prose fiction. Emergence into adulthood, the journey out of childhood, the formation of self—there is no shortage of writers that have explored this terrain. Think of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth. What is the self, and how is it shaped? By place, family, health, class? Is the self shaped by circumstance; and, if so, how does the self exceed or escape circumstance? The coming-of-age story explores these questions and will be our jumping off point for learning the craft of fiction. We will begin with the landscape of childhood—the complex fictions we heard, saw, and felt around us—and how, as writers, we leap from the “actual” to the artifice of fiction. What, then, is a story? How do we find the stories that we need to tell and then tell in a voice of our own making? What are the strategies of short fiction? In our year together, we will begin gathering the tools of fiction—character, scene, narration, dialogue, place, time, situation—and seeing how these gather, twist, and shape into necessary fictions. We will read a wide variety of authors—not as students of literature but as fiction writers breaking it down to understand how the story was made. Students will be writing every day, completing weekly writing assignments and working on longer stories and revisions. This course in the art of fiction will also be a course in necessity, wonder, and reverence—which are, finally, what generate great fiction.
First-Year Studies: Writing the American Experience
The aim of this writing course is to capture the present moment in American life as fully as possible through a series of essays that acknowledge the importance of the past in explaining our current situation. The course will begin with short assignments designed to emphasize the importance of craft and observation. The middle section will concentrate on profiles and op-eds. The final section will focus on long-form journalism that puts a premium on research. If all goes right, the best writing that you do will have, in style and structure, the power of good fiction; but this is not, it should be emphasized, a course in creative nonfiction or autobiography. From first to last, there will be a premium on accurate reportage and on turning out the literature of fact. Among the writers whom we will read are E. B. White, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Zadie Smith.
Writing and 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.
First-Year Studies: Shapes, Sizes, and Sentences: First-Year Seminar in Nonfiction Writing
In this yearlong nonfiction-writing seminar and workshop, we will examine, analyze, and dissect pieces of factual narrative from the perspective of their formal elements and then strive to reproduce those elements. The elements under examination will comprise the universal structures of narrative art, such as plot and character; structures peculiar to genres and subgenres, such as journalism, the essay, the biography, and the autobiography; and what could be called calisthenic elements, which represent the physical actions and movements of writing and the exercise of strength and effort of attention that those actions require. We’ll look at works according to their size—micro (or flash) nonfiction, the classic literary and personal essay, hybrid forms that live between the essay and the poem and the essay and the short story, oral history, short and long-form journalism, full-blown memoirs—so that we can appraise the dilemmas and opportunities size presents at each order of literary magnitude. We’ll look at works according to their shape—classical narrative shape—and the way it is either conformed to, elaborated, or violated in nonfiction writing. We will discuss the rhetorical dynamics that obtain between the different levels of organization in a piece of prose and the exchange of energy between microscopic and macroscopic realms in the ecosystem of a successful work of nonfiction art. We will talk a lot about the English sentence, read and write in equal proportions, and spend much time thinking about style. Students will be asked to write both exercises and pieces that they conceive independently; readings will range in time from Biblical narrative to famous contemporary and near contemporary texts and will include, among others, works by the author of the Book of Job, Aristotle, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Janet Malcolm, Jamaica Kincaid, Susan Sheehan, Nancy Mairs, David Foster Wallace, and John D’Agata. The differences among these writers will be reconciled by our investigating and understanding how—across time, space, race, class, gender, and culture—they deal with the same rhetorical problems and the same problems of meaning and arrive at many of the same solutions. We will, of course, also talk about race, class, gender, doubt, despair, joy, dread, happiness, and affliction—but primarily in the context of how they are embodied and transformed by the techniques of literary art. We will also step, gingerly, into new media.
Writing About Others
A writer’s central and essential challenge is to create work that resonates with others, but the themes and threads of our own lives do not automatically captivate readers. Even beyond the questionable resonance of self, looking within offers a limited store of writing ideas. Searching outward—where the writer meets the world, and the world the writer—offers that writerly requisite: a limitless store of ideas. But as writers, how do we perform the imperative act of moving beyond self? Where do we look, and how do we know when we find worthwhile subject matter—topics with the minimum requirement of intricacy and complexity? Moreover, once we home in on a suitable idea, how do we know whether it lends itself to modest treatment or a work of considerable range and ambition? We will write work of limited and complex scope. For guidance, inspiration, and cautionary tales, we will read and discuss works of writing from James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Truman Capote, Calvin Trillin, and others. At least one previous poetry class is required.
In this class, we will begin to investigate the mysteries of poetic form via the abecedarium, blues, ghazal, haiku, lipogram, sonnet, villanelle, random integer generators, and the I Ching—and via questions like: What is form? Is it separable from content? Is it a fascistic imposition of order on the freedom of chaos? What’s the relationship between randomness and form? Do its prototypes exist in a transcendental realm beyond the physical senses? (Is this what Plato meant when he described poetry as “concerned with something third from the truth”?) Did it disappear in English poetry of the United States with Walt Whitman? Or with TS Eliot? Is what’s called free verse formless? Is form "old” and formlessness “new”? Is language itself a form? You’ll be asked to memorize, do two readings, and make a final portfolio of 10 pages of formal poetry that you’ve read over the course of the term and 10 pages that you’ve written. At least one previous poetry class is required.
Risking the Body Electric: Women Poets (un)Writing Flesh
In this workshop, our reading and writing will concentrate on poetry that focuses itself on the interstices of identity and visual art in relation to body and ideology regarding women’s bodies. We will apply a polyglot lens to our workshop, employing visual art to anchor and generate poems that explore how issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, politics, government, violence, desire, power, capitalism, media, autobiography, nature, and art exert their forces in poetry. Students will generate new writing, participate in peer critiques and field trips, and make an effort to widen and reconfigure existing perceptions of women and poetry based upon visual prompts and poems. For conference work, students will be expected to select a poet’s work for extended study. Our reading will include work from Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath, Lucy Grealy, Martha Collins, Kimiko Hahn, H.D., Muriel Rukeyser, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Sarah Arvio, Toi Derricotte, Adrienne Rich, and others. Our visual reading will include work from Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, and others.
From Text to Comics
"I draw what I can’t write, and I write what I can’t draw," Marjan Satrapi said of her process for making comics. I don’t think she meant it as anything more than a statement of her aesthetic position; but I see this as something of a manifesto, or statement of purpose, for this class: an idea of storytelling where the text and the images exist together as a kind of personal idiom for the writer artist. Our work will take prose writers interested in telling stories visually in the comics form through an introduction to the basics of this form, using exercises, critique, workshop, and comics blogging. Students can come to class with a text they’ve written themselves, with something they plan to write, or with a public domain text that they might want to adapt into a comics format. Poetry, short fiction, prose fiction, memoir—all are valid. I also ask that students keep a comics Tumblr, where they can post a visual notebook of images that they find inspirational or work that they’re reading that other students can follow. No particular drawings skills are a prerequisite, though they can help. We’ll be focusing on visual storytelling, the creation of scripts, the dynamics of adapting something from prose to comics, and the possibilities for the ways in which comics can be created.
Nonfiction Workshop: Recollected in Commotion
Film historian Ray Carney said, “Consciousness cannot precede expression.” Or, as Joan Didion put it, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means." All forms of nonfiction—from hard news and biography to the experimental essay—bring the writer into a unique relationship with fact and perception. In this workshop, we’ll examine what makes compelling nonfiction, looking closely at crafting a narrative from raw data, the tension between bias and objectivity, the responsibility of the writer to his or her subject, and, most of all, how a writer’s thinking develops and shifts during his or her explorations. We’ll discuss student work each week and examine previously published pieces, which will include parts of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Didion’s The White Album, Denis Johnson’s Seek, critics Greg Tate and Lester Bangs on Miles Davis (and we may hear a little bit from Miles himself), Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Richard Meltzer’s Gulcher, and Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, among others.
Bulk is not an absolute value, but it’s a general truth that if you write more you’ll learn more about what you can and can’t accomplish. Likewise, failure is seldom a condition to be aspired to; yet risking failure—mocking it, taunting it like a tiger tamer—is the best way to ensure ultimate success. To that purpose, I hope that the students in this class will write a lot and risk a lot. Mostly what I care about here is active, continuous engagement. Then, after a manuscript is ready, we will discuss the work in conference and in class. Everyone in the class will address every story submitted to the class. What I care about is stringent, honest critique. In short: You write. I read. We talk.
In this course, we will study the form of the essay, dividing our time between reading and interpretation of literature (nonfiction, fiction, and what falls between), and the creation and critiquing of new work. These essays, both formal and informal, will be generated through loosely structured in-class exercises and outside assignments. We will work on crafting short, perfect pieces; so come prepared to think about your writing at the sentence level. Conferences will encompass a highly enjoyable reading list and several truly great documentary films chosen to complement the work that we do in class and broaden our understanding of narrative structure.
First-Year Studies: The Distinctive Voice in Poetry
Contemporary poets face a dazzling range of stylistic options. This course is designed to help you develop not just your own ear and voice but your own sense of craft, intuition, structure, technique, and experiment. We’ll focus primarily—and profoundly humanistically—on students’ own work, with the knowledge that a mistake in art can be fascinating and the demonstration of competence can be irrelevant. We’ll read widely and often individualistically, exploring the origins of the contemporary in poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin, poets of today from Anne Carson to Yusef Komunyakaa, and young poets like Eduardo Corral and A. Van Jordan. In translation, we’ll enter the more vast world of poets like Neruda, Lorca, Akhmatova, Aime Cesaire, Zbigniew Herbert, and Pessoa; and we’ll study experimentalists. Though this isn’t primarily an exercise course—students will be encouraged to find their own directions—we’ll study the structure of the sonnet, haiku, ghazal, and prose poem. We’ll look at the blues line and the ballad, poems of political engagement, the dramatic monologue, proverbs, and riddles. This course will examine the poetic sequence: how poets use personae and engage with myth to expand their horizons and reclaim universal ideas. Expect to read voraciously, participate in a peer group of readers, and write your own portfolio of original poems.
Poetry Workshop: Rebels, Sirens, Outlaws
Poetry is oftentimes driven by a mysterious force that prompts the imaginative writer to rebel, disobey, lie, tell fantastic truths, subvert, make new, or forge an entirely new path in a way that feels both expansive and combustible. The first semester will concentrate on in-class writing and critique, poetic experiments, wild meanderings, and manifestos anchored by choice readings of poems and essays. The second semester will ground the student by delving into individual books that will help the writer become more knowledgeable about the history in which they are a part. A book a week will be read, followed by in-depth discussions on craft, style, voice, vision, structure, and song. Poets that we will read include John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Amiri Baraka, Gertrude Stein, Jose Garcia Villa, James Dickey, Anne Carson, Albert Goldbarth, Lucie Brock-Broido, Lucille Clifton, and others. Students are expected to write and read consistently, to experiment, and to be passionate about creation. Take-home assignments will accompany readings. Two revision portfolios will be due during each semester. Students will have the opportunity to meet and converse with established poets whose work we will be studying in the spring semester.
This course is for students who want to break free of the conventions of the traditional essay and memoir and discover a broader range of narrative and stylistic possibilities available to nonfiction writers. During the first half of the semester, students will read and discuss examples of formally innovative nonfiction that will serve as the inspiration for brief assignments. Completed assignments will also be read aloud and discussed each week. During the second half of the semester, students will workshop longer pieces, which they will have written in consultation with the instructor as a part of their conference work
Creative Writing Workshop
I don’t believe in rules to follow when writing and, if anything, I think writing is often most alive when it breaks preconceived rules. But what I do believe is that the key to writing is learning how to be a writer, which means learning how to exist in the space of the page and on the screen, the space of being alone in a room, and developing a practice by reading, rewriting, and repeating. Being a writer often means failing and, hopefully, making discoveries through this failure. As Samuel Beckett has written: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” We will meet twice a week. In the first meeting, we will read and discuss student writing and then, by the second class, you will have read a range of wild texts that encourage playfulness with form—published fiction and essays on writing, including The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. We will be reading as writers in order to artfully steal, instigating weekly failures and experiments of your own. Although you will only be bringing to workshop two pieces for the semester, we will be writing and sharing other short writing in and out of class. I will also expect you to bring new writing or rewrites in conference. Open to anyone serious about the work and play needed.
Necessary Hero: A Fiction Workshop
Imagine a hero who is female and grows up in the Appalachian Mountains. Imagine a hero who is male, a Mexican immigrant, and lives near the Oakland shipyards. Imagine a girl from Norway whose family immigrates to North Dakota in the 1870s. What in their characters will begin to distinguish each as a hero? What flaws or beliefs? What innovative actions will their circumstances, culture, or time in history necessitate? The only requirement for each student’s hero is that he or she be human and living on earth. During the semester, each writer will develop a sustained hero’s tale. This will require the accurate imagination of place, time, character, and actions in response to each hero’s challenges and obstacles. Writers will research, as well as reflect on, heroic models from antiquity to the present day. Along with writing exercises suited to the task, we will read tales of heroes from the Americas, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere: Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Buddha, Moses, Joan of Arc, Nana Triban, Pippi Longstocking, Huck Finn, as well as student-selected literary models.
Nabokov stated that there are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. We will consider all three, but it is with the art of enchantment that this workshop is most dedicated. We will walk through the process of writing a story. Where does the story come from? How do we know when we are ready to begin? How do we avoid succumbing to safe and unoriginal decisions and learn to recognize and trust our more mysterious and promising impulses? How do our characters guide the work? How do we come to know an ending, and how do we earn that ending? And finally, how do we create the enchantment necessary to involve, persuade, and move the reader in the ways that fiction is most capable. We will investigate the craft of fiction through readings and discussion and numerous exercises. Our objective for the semester is for you to write, revise, and workshop at least two or three fully developed stories.
Crafting Fiction: Stories that Stick
In this class—which is devoted to the lonely, exhilarating, terrifying process of creating fiction—we will strive to create a constructive community of readers with the kindness, toughness, honesty, and sensitivity that can make a workshop a unique and valuable writing tool. Ambition and risk-taking will be encouraged, along with memorable voices and compelling characters. Through the work presented, we will discuss what makes a plot strong and what strategies exist for creating and sustaining narrative momentum. Outside reading will be geared to the needs and concerns of the class but will run the gamut from realism to fabulism.
First-Year Studies: Poetic Forms/Forming Poetry
“Radial, bilateral, transverse: symmetries that change over a life; radical asymmetries. Sea shells unfurl by Fibonacci. Horn, bark, petal: hydrocarbon chains arrange in every conceivable strut; winch and pylon, ranging over the visible spectrum and beyond into ultraviolet and infrared. Horseshoe crab, butterfly, barnacle, and millipede all belong to the same phylum. Earthworms with seven hearts, ruminants with multiple stomachs, scallops with a line of eyes rimming their shell like party lanterns, animals with two brains, many brains, none.” —from The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers
"Here we have the principle of limitation, the only saving principle in the world. The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention. A prisoner in solitary confinement for life becomes very inventive, and a simple spider may furnish him with much entertainment." —from Either/Or, by Kierkegaard
This course is part workshop, part an exploration of writing in established, evolving, and invented forms. We will use An Exaltation of Forms, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes (featuring essays on form by contemporary poets), alongside books of poetry by writers such as Baudelaire, Anne Carson, D. A. Powell, Haryette Mullen, W. S. Merwin, and Olena Kalytiak Davis to facilitate and further these discussions. You will direct language through the sieves and sleeves of the haiku, sonnet, prose poem, ghazal, haibun, etc. Expect to move fluidly between iambic pentameter and the lipogram (in which you are not allowed to use a particular letter of the alphabet in your poem). Expect to complicate your notion of what "a poem in form" is.
Awake and Dreaming: A Poetry Reading and Writing Seminar
This will be a yearlong endeavor: Can we discover some of the secrets of the “balancing act” that poetry is? We will explore distinctions between fact and truth, truth and truthfulness; we will work together to learn how to be awake to image-making, the logic of nonlogic, always offered to us through metaphors, dreams, and memory. Essays on writing, art, artifice, and the artificial will be discussed, along with readings on the craft of poetry and on “revision as creation.” A variety of poems will be read in class—contemporary, traditional, experimental, multicultural. We’ll also workshop our own poems attentively and compassionately, with our eyes on prosody, clarity, and clarity’s critical counterpart: mystery. In conferences, we will continue the hard work of writing, revising, and reading. Ten poems revised and sequenced in chapbook format, an essay as a questioning response to assigned books, and an annotated bibliography (a worksheet) are expected each semester, as well as full class and conference participation. This course is open to serious students of poetry who are committed to reading, writing, and delighting in poems!
Stories That Need to be Told
This course explores memory, vanishing histories, and the connection between the written and the spoken story. Students will conduct oral history interviews as one means of discovering stories that need to be told. By listening to these stories, students will make important discoveries. They will discover a wealth of stories set in the wider world. They will discover that each story, especially in the retelling, makes its own set of demands. They will also discover their own important stories. There will be autobiographical writing assignments, as well as the opportunity to write fiction. The class will conduct a series of interviews at Hour Children, an organization that supports women who have recently been released from prison. Students will create a series of dramatic monologues based on these interviews. There will be an end-of-semester staged reading of the monologues by professional actors. There will also be an end-of-semester multimedia exhibit, during which students will present conference work.
Poetry Workshop: Focus On Poetic Tone
This workshop will focus on how we create, sustain, and shift the tone of our poems. We will define tone as the weather, temperature, attitude of the poem. Often, the poem shifts line to line or stanza to stanza. But sometimes, it stays the same throughout. We create tone through our word choice, sentence formation, punctuation, overall structure. In short, tone is realized through how we manage our material. We’ll look, then, at the workshop poems and poems by other poets through the lens of tonal management, focusing on the poetic elements utilized by the poet.
PLAY Poetry Workshop
With the spirit of play in mind, we will read and workshop our own poems, as well as read and discuss the work of published poets for inspiration and direction. We will utilize writing exercises/writing games to help us generate work. We will look at the work of artists and writers who have invoked play. Artists and writers we will discuss may include Mike Kelley, Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, and Mary Ruefle. In workshop, we will learn how to use craft to make our poems come to life and practice finding a balance between the serious study of writing while infusing each class with a sense of fun. We will travel to New York City for at least one outing, and at least one artist or writer will visit the class to discuss her or his artistic process.
Our workshop will discuss student work alongside readings in critical theory, psychology, philosophy, structure, style, and form. We will approach ideas such as dream theory, desire as a fictional process, memory and impulse, metaphor and metonymy, and structuralism as inroads to writing fiction rather than leaving them in the realm of the theoretical. We’ll also read fiction from published writers whose work serves a given discussion. Writing exercises will emphasize pulling these ideas together. Though we’re interested in learning about processes of cognition that structure and encourage creativity, we’re far more interested in writing beyond ourselves—fumbling around in the dark at first and approaching a story with all we do not know. As Cynthia Ozick said: “When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination ... It's our will to enter the world." Even the most grounded realism needs to enter the reader’s mind like a dream, an unbroken spell. It needs to leave the reader a complete stranger to what they once found familiar. We will combine Ozick’s notion of moving beyond the “home-thoughts" while learning all we can about various literary and theoretical legacies. The class will get to thinking about entering the broader world, writing stories that don’t ever leave their readers.
The Source of Stories: Writing From Your Own Experience, Mixed-Genre Workshop
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 and 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 will 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 they have heard from others, or perhaps even draw 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—and will write short stories, essays, and memoir, learning to move freely from one genre to the next and attempting to reimagine their material in different forms. The emphasis will be on voice and narrative, both of which are essential for good fiction and nonfiction. We will also spend a good deal of time learning what it means to write a scene. This is a class for any student who wants to explore material that can become the subject matter of stories.
Writing the Dark Side: Murder, Mayhem, and Mystery
Flaubert once said that we should be ordinary in our lives so that we may be violent and wild in our imaginations. This class is designed for that purpose—to allow your dark side to run wild. What is the purpose of fiction if not to unlock the secrets of the human heart. To paraphrase the crime writer, Kate Atkinson, we write these stories not in order to solve the puzzle of crimes but to solve the problem of being alive. From the Bible to Brett Easton Ellis, murder has intrigued. Mysteries perplex us. And human behavior can be stranger than anything you could make up. In this course, you get to dip into your own Jeckyl and Hyde; but, while the content of this course is to probe the darkness, the primary goal—in some ways, the only goal—is the writing. We will write stories and workshop them. Prompts will be designed, and discussions will focus on character, plot, language. The writing is essential, because we wouldn’t read stories by Ray Bradbury or Joyce Carol Oates as we do if they weren’t written by great writers. We’ll read tales from the dark side, starting with Cain and Abel. On to Shakespeare’s Othello, Poe, Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, John Fowles’s The Collector, Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie and Dark Water, Kafka’s The Penal Colony, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man...and perhaps Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Helter Skelter, Stephen King, and mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler, Agatha Cristie, and Kate Atkinson. We will most likely read James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, along with the memoir he wrote about the murder of his own mother, My Dark Places. We’ll dip into the world of “noir” and write stories from our own dark places while learning the essentials of fiction writing. This is not for the faint hearted. You will compile a collection of your stories by the year’s end. Some previous knowledge of fiction writing is preferred but not required.
A Question of Character: The Art of the Profile
Any writer who tries to capture the likeness of another—whether in biography, history, journalism, or art criticism—must face certain questions. What makes a good profile? What is the power dynamic between subject and writer? How does a subject’s place in the world determine the parameters of what may be written about him or her? To what extent is any portrait also a self-portrait? And how can the complexities of a personality be captured in several thousand—or even several hundred—words? In this course, we will tackle the various challenges of profile writing, such as choosing a good subject, interviewing, plotting, obtaining and telescoping biographical information, and defining the role of place in the portrait. Students will be expected to share their own work, identify in other writers’ characterizations what they admire or despise, and learn to read closely many masters of the genre: Joseph Mitchell, Tom Wolfe, Daphne Merkin, Janet Malcolm. We will also turn to shorter forms of writing—personal sketches, obituaries, brief reported pieces, fictional descriptions—to further illuminate what we mean when we talk about “identity” and “character.” The goal of this course is less to teach the art of profile writing than to make us all more alert to the subtleties of the form.
The Enemies of Fiction: A Fiction-Writing Workshop
The late novelist John Hawkes said that he began writing fiction with the assumption that its “true enemies” were “plot, character, setting, and theme.” This same quartet seems to dominate the conversation in writing workshops. We like to “vote” on a plot’s efficiency, a theme’s effectiveness, a character’s right to exist. If we’re not careful, we can descend to the language of a corporate focus group—a highly effective forum for marketing laundry detergents but maybe not for making art. This yearlong workshop will attempt, in its own small way, to see the fiction of both published masters and participating students through a wider lens. In the first semester, we will read across a wide range of styles and aesthetics and write in response to weekly prompts designed to encourage play. Issues of language, structure, and vision will be honored, right alongside Hawkes’ imagined enemies. In the second semester—provided all goes well—each student will workshop two stories. Our reading list will include several short and unorthodox novels (possibilities include Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Concrete by Thomas Bernhard, and Florida by Christine Schutt) and weekly short stories by writers both well-known and ignored. These may or may not include Robert Coover, Dawn Raffel, Joy Williams, Stanley Elkin, Rick Moody, Shelley Jackson, Donald Barthelme, Harlan Ellison, and Kelly Link. We will also regularly read essays that challenge us to think about what art is and why anyone would want to make it. I am looking for generous students interested in fiction-as-play. The model here is counterpoint; so it may help if you have already taken a fiction-writing workshop, though the course is offered (generously) to writers of all backgrounds.
Voice and Form
It’s something we talk about in workshop and admire in the literature we read, but how does one discover one’s voice in fiction? How is voice related to subject matter, form, and point of view? How does one go about creating a memorable voice on the page? Through writing exercises and weekly reading assignments, we’ll explore these and other questions. Readings will include several genres, including young-adult novels, graphic memoirs, short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Authors we’ll read include George Saunders, Barry Yourgrau, Sherman Alexie, Aimee Bender, and Jacqueline Woodson. Students will get a chance to workshop stories at least twice during the semester; for conference, there will be additional reading. Come prepared to work hard, critique the writing of others with care and insight, and hone the elements of craft in your own fiction.
Literary Journals and Writing
Where do the stories come from that are featured in anthologies like Best American or the O. Henry Prize Stories? How does the fiction in the Paris Review compare to that of Prairie Schooner? How is Tin House fundamentally different from Ploughshares? And who gets published in literary journals to begin with? If questions like these are on your mind, this might be the workshop for you. Students will read various literary journals, both online and in print format, as a way not only of discovering the sources of mainstream fiction collections but also of discovering new voices. In terms of writing, this workshop will be held in a traditional format, wherein students deliver their work a week in advance of the workshop and write up formal critiques of the fiction of their fellow writers. There will be writing exercises in addition to weekly readings of journals and critical essays. Literary journals can be sources of great reading and inspiration; becoming familiar with them might help you figure out where your own fiction might one day find a home.
How do we, as writers, take our lived experiences and transform them into fiction? The novelist Janet Frame observed that “putting it all down as it happens is not fiction; there must be the journey by oneself, the changing of the light focused upon the material, the willingness of the author herself to live within that light…the real shape, the first shape, is always a circle formed, only to be broken and reformed, again and again.” Through exercises and longer writing assignments, we will begin the journey into this softly lit territory of subject matter. We will explore questions of craft: What makes a story a story? Does there always need to be transformation? How does structure help create voice? The workshop will be divided between the discussion of student stories and published authors such as Edward P. Jones, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Jamaica Kincaid, and E.L. Doctorow. Students will do additional conference reading and be required to attend at least two campus readings per semester. We will also work on developing our constructive criticism, which (when developed over time and in a supportive atmosphere) should help us better understand the workings of our own creative writing.
Open to any interested student.
Visible and Invisible Ink: How Fiction Writing Happens
Successful fiction writing is a pleasure that requires work and an educated patience. Using as our basic text the stories that students themselves write, we will seek to show how each story, as it unfolds, provides clues—in its language, narrative tendencies, distribution of emphases, etc.—to the solution of its own creative problems. We will explore such questions as these: What are the story’s intentions? How close does the writer come to realizing them? What shifts in approach might better serve both intentions and materials? What is—or should be—in any given piece of work the interplay of theme, language, and form? We will look at the links between the answers to these questions and the writer’s evolving voice. Discussion and analysis of student work will be supplemented by consideration of published short stories by writers such as Tim O’Brien, Jhumpa Lahiri, ZZ Packer, Rick Moody, Junot Diaz, Katherine Anne Porter, James Thurber, and Truman Capote. Exercises—which can serve as springboards for longer works—will be assigned weekly. Designed to provide opportunities for free writing and to increase students’ facility with technique, the exercises will be based on the readings and on values and issues emerging from students’ work.
Place in Fiction
All great stories are built with good sentences. In this workshop, students will create short stories or continue works-in-progress that will be read and discussed by their peers. Class sessions will focus on constructive criticism of the writer’s work, and students will be encouraged to ask the questions with which all writers grapple: What makes a good story? Have I developed my characters fully? And does my language convey the ideas that I want? We will talk about the writer’s craft in this class—how people tell stories to each other, how to find a plot, and how to make a sentence come to life. This workshop should be seen as a place where students can share their thoughts and ideas in order to then return to their pages and create a completed imaginary work. There will also be some short stories and essays on the art of writing that will set the tone and provide literary fodder for the class.
Poetry Workshop: The Making of the Complete Lover
“The known universe has one complete lover, and that is the greatest poet.”—Walt Whitman
This course, a semester-long variation on the theme of the traditional poetry workshop, will focus on acquiring the ways and means of Whitman’s complete lover via the study of great poetry. En route, we will read aloud, discuss particular topics (e.g., line breaks, punctuation, truth), and do various tuning and strengthening exercises. Conference time will be devoted to student work. Students will also be asked to compile an anthology and a chapbook collection of original poetry for class distribution, to memorize, and to participate in two class readings over the course of the term. The only prerequisites are a curiosity about all poetry, not just one’s own, and a commitment to undertake whatever labors are necessary to write better on the last day of class than on the first.
This is a reading/writing course. We will spend time every week reading poems that have already been published, so that we can see how they were made: music, syntax, line, sound, and image. We might spend time generating new work in class through exercises and experiments. And we will spend time looking closely at one another’s work, encouraging each other to take risks and to move even closer to the sources of our poems. Each writer in the class will meet with another class member once a week on a “poetry date.” Each writer will be responsible for reading the assigned work and for bringing to class one written offering each week. We will work hard, learn a great deal about poetry and about our own poems, and have a wonderful time.