Application DeadlineThe deadline for applications to the MFA in Writing program is January 15.
2013-2014 Writing Courses
Nonfiction Workshop: Rational and Irrational Narrative
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 larger pieces, approximately 3,000 words each, which will be discussed by the whole class. The discussion will be lively and pertinent.
Fiction Workshop: The Novel
Just exactly what is a novel, anyway? How do you make one? And why? These are the guiding questions we’ll be answering—or discovering are unanswerable—in this workshop. Along the way ,we’ll be considering questions of process, structure, voice, dramaturgy, and imagination—but always in pursuit of rougher beasts like truth, magic, pleasure, and intensity. Conception and revision will be given equal weight. Each writer turning in material will be expected to put the workshop to use according to his or her own lights, whether it’s to test drive material that may turn into a novel or to help revise a completed manuscript. Along the way, we’ll be reading and arguing with Kundera’s and Forster’s short books on the novel and will likely read novels by Edith Wharton, Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami, Renata Adler, Sheila Heti, and Zadie Smith.
Poetry Workshop: 1960s-2010s
The reading list for this course will be split between seminal poetry books from the 1960s and vibrant work published in the 2010s. We’ll bounce back and forth between these two open and fertile decades. Poets to be read include: John Berryman, Terrance, Hayes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, Monica Youn, Frank O’Hara, and others. Class time will be divided between discussing student work and the weekly reading. Students will write a poem each week and, at the end of the term, submit a portfolio of revised work.
Nonfiction Workshop: The Genre of the Sentence
The writer’s work is making sentences. Everything else is secondary. But too often, our intentions blind us to the sentences that we are actually making—or we feel that, somehow, form or genre is more important than the sentence itself. This workshop will scrutinize your nonfiction prose, looking for the opportunities, energy, and clarity that may be lying hidden there. We’ll be aided by many other writers—Auden, Didion, McPhee, Baldwin, Joseph Roth, Kapuscinski, Dillard, Oates, etc. We’ll be thinking about writing as an act of discovery and the sentence as the smallest unit of perception. That means that we’ll be using your writing. I’ll expect you to be writing new each week for this course, and we’ll all be reading each other's work every week as we go through the semester. The goal is quite simply to clarify the act of discovering sentences and, in doing so, discovering the better writer within you.
This class is for students who are working on either short stories or longer fiction. We’ll talk a good deal about shape and structure and creating narrative tension. Workshops will ask what a story wants to mean and how it goes about conveying this. I’m always interested in what—-in a writer’s deepest sense of how life works—determines choices about economy or multiplicity in plots or handling point of view. Most of the class time will be spent discussing student work, but we’ll also do some outside reading.
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 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, 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 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. In the end, I want us to follow Socrates’ lead and to 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.
Poetry Workshop: The Dream of Totality
The Dream of Totality: What is the metaphysical? This graduate workshop will involve a lot of reading, as well as writing. What are the dominant myths in Western culture? How is our own world view influenced by them? What is your relationship to the garden? To time? To error? To form? To wholeness? To brokenness? How does the manner (the how) of your poems reflect that world view? If you join this class, you will read The Book of Genesis, The Greek Myths, and many other nonfiction texts, as well as books of poems—approximately one book a week. You will write one poem each week and meet with another member of our class community once a week in a poetry date. You will keep a journal of observations each week. You will meet with me in a conference every other week. You will collect your poems into a chapbook at the end of the term. I ask for full participation, deep inquiry, and rigor. We will have a wonderful time.
This class will combine discussions of student work with writing exercises and readings in critical theory and psychology. We'll also read stories from published writers whose work serves a given discussion. We’ll talk about narrative approaches using psychic distance, fiction as dream, fiction as desire, the role of the unconscious, repetition and difference, and metaphor theory. Rather than cling to what we "know" in artful, literary fiction, I'm a firm believer in Cynthia Ozick's tenet: "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...." The most grounded realism needs to enter the reader's mind like a dream. It needs to leave the reader a complete stranger to its world, even after they've finished reading. I want to get the class thinking about entering the broader world, about writing stories that don't ever leave their readers.
Nonfiction Workshop: The Shock of the Ordinary
To make the quotidian, the everyday, the unspectacular come alive—to make us experience differently and anew what we thought was familiar —is one of the most unheralded and crucial aspects of good writing. Without it, our work—no matter how urgent or dramatic—will not take on a breathing life of its own. This seminar will focus on what is right in front of the writer’s, and everyone else’s, nose yet goes unnoticed. The reading list will include, in part: Random Family, by Adrian Nicole Leblanc; Philip Roth’s memoir Patrimony; A Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff; Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives; and Joseph Roth’s collection of impressionistic essays, What I Saw. We will also dip into the works of certain fiction writers whose eye for the living quotidian detail is applicable to nonfiction, as well: Bernard Malamud’s early stories, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Our goal will be both to sharpen this aspect of writing as it pertains to our own work and to understand the range of possibility and individual style that it may entail.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 - Graduate
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.
Comics and Graphic Novels
Run like a fiction workshop, the class gives students a chance—three or four times a semester—to submit comic and graphic novel scripts for critique and discussion. The format is simple: A handful of students brings in copies of their work each week, and the rest of the class brings the work home with them, writes up comments, and comes in ready to discuss the submitted pieces in class the following week. I will bring in packets of contemporary comics and graphic books each week to discuss various craft elements (e.g., metaphor, dialogue), but the real focus of the class will be work. And the golden rule of the class: Students may only write comics about what interests them. By this I mean that students will come in ready to write solely about the things by which they themselves are excited, frightened, moved, and inspired.
Poetry Craft Class: Managing Material
Reading for Writers
To become a better writer, he most useful and interesting thing by far that you can do is to become a better reader. (It is the way good writers have always learned how to write.) In this course, we will explore a range of great texts from the ranks of fiction, drama, poetry and film with the aim of understanding how these great texts work and why they succeed as well as they do. As you actually retrace closely the footsteps of the literary imagination, you will widen and deepen your own work—in any genre. Our informal class discussions will be oriented toward the project of expanding your powers and acquiring new techniques. Texts will include: Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory; Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day; James Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” from Dubliners; G. B. Shaw's drama, Saint Joan; Samuel Beckett's one-act play, Krapp's Last Tape; the Epstein Brothers and Howard Koch, screenplay for Casablanca. Poetry may include poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Stanley Kunitz, D.H. Lawrence. Films may include The Sting, The Fallen Idol, Babette's Feast, and The Lives of Others. There will be two short class papers written at home on a topic related to class work. Conference topics and writing will be individually arranged.
Nonfiction Craft Class
What do you think, and why does it matter? This class will explore and analyze several different forms of commentary beginning with book reviewing, moving into arts criticism and reportage, and ending with an exploration of the way that the Internet and other networked technologies are changing the face of opinion, criticism, and recommendation. The class will consider the following sorts of questions: How important is expertise when one is passing judgment on something? What is the role of “voice” in criticism? How can reportage function as a subtle form of criticism—or not? How does the medium affect the message? Does everyone’s opinion matter? How have criticism and opinion journalism changed in the last decade, and are those changes temporary or permanent? Can we predict the future? No familiarity with any of the above is necessary for this class. Its purpose is to make you a more effective writer and an intellectually engaged and discerning reader.
In Time and Out of It
In this course, we’ll explore the ways in which the timeline that governs most fiction can open into spaces of timelessness. Whether achieved by means of metaphor or a shift in perspective, through the use of history or myth, it seems that stepping outside the temporal frame of a story may often yield an expansion of its meaning. We’ll read fiction by Munro, Baldwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Joyce, Trevor, Edward P. Jones, Proust, Woolf, Chekhov, Duras, Mann—and some poetry, as well: Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Cavafy, etc. A couple of stories and poems or a section of a novel will be assigned each week, as well, as a craft exercise that relates to the readings. These exercises for the most part will be written out of class. (I’ll be glad to look at them, although they aren't required to be handed in.) At the end of each class, we’ll talk about general questions of craft: beginnings and endings, audience, self-censorship, voice, perseverance, etc. We’ll also make space in the final weeks of the semester for short presentations in which students explore the hidden avenues that led to their art.
Fact and Research in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry
This course will explore the complex issues regarding the use of factual material in all forms of creative writing, as well as provide students with practical experience and guidance in various types of research and reporting. The class will begin by trying to pin down the surprisingly enigmatic concepts of “fact” and “truth” and then move on to explore—through readings, discussion, and brief writing assignments—questions such as: What is my obligation to the “truth”? How much should I care about the feelings or reputations of my living subjects? When should I commence research? When should I stop? Are truth and beauty allies or enemies? How do I handle a hostile interview subject? During the first half of the course, students will write brief assignments focused on particular issues regarding the use of fact. The last half of the course will be devoted to workshops of longer pieces—in any form—that the students will write in consultation with the professor. Students will also be instructed in library and Internet research and in libel and copyright law.
Oral History and the Elusive Story
This course explores memory, vanishing histories, and the connection between the written and the spoken story. We will pay particular attention to stories that have been traditionally ignored or neglected, as such stories provide the writer with an opportunity to create original and meaningful work. Students will conduct oral history interviews as a means of uncovering elusive and important stories. These interviews, in combination with research, will provide unusual access to stories that might otherwise remain opaque and remote. We will experiment with a variety of creative uses—documentary, fiction, creative nonfiction—of oral history. Students will complete one major writing project based on or inspired by interviews. The final project should reflect an attempt to find the form best suited to the retelling of a particular neglected story and most likely to make that story accessible to a wider audience. 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, as well as an end-of-semester multimedia exhibit during which students will present conference work.
Writing With Wit
Did you hear the one about the MFA student who blended strong prose with a sense of humor? Probably not, since so many don’t. Or maybe they're just not encouraged. In this workshop, you’ll learn to inject humor into your work by connecting with your comic voice. We’ll read and discuss the work of legendary humorists including James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, as well as contemporary wits such as David Sedaris, Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, Ian Frazier, Merryl Markoe, Fran Lebowitz, and Sloane Crosley. Writing assignments will help strengthen your voice across four basic forms: the personal essay, the comic novel or short story, the topical news column, and the parody piece. We’ll also do some in-class exercises designed to shake off preconceived notions of "literary" prose, and help you find the funny in the characters, dialogue, and situations that you create. Whether your goal is to pen a “Shouts and Murmurs” piece for The New Yorker, a post for McSweeney's, or just loosen your style with a lighter touch, the first step is the same: Take your sense of humor seriously. Sample reading selections include: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, Lillian Ross, editor; I Found This Funny, Judd Apatow, editor; selected interviews from And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With Humor Writers, Sachs, editor, and How To Write Funny, John Kachuba, editor; Saturday Night, Susan Orlean; Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris; and The Onion.