Vinson Cunningham

BA, Hunter College. Staff writer at The New Yorker. Cunningham's essays, reviews, and commentary have appeared in the print and online versions of The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine, The Fader, McSweeney’s, and other outlets. SLC, 2016

Graduate Courses

MFA Writing 2020-2021

Mixed-Genre Craft

Craft—Fall

The American literary tradition begins with a sermon: a Puritan lawyer named John Winthrop, on the way over the water to the New World, stood up and delivered an address called A Model of Christian Charity. His invocation of "a city upon a hill" is still with us—and so is his speechifying impulse. Despite our fetish for individuality and personal freedom, American writers have always been trying to convince somebody, somewhere, of something. In this course, we'll focus on how to write public addresses of all kinds (including the related forms of the op-ed, editorial, and "open letter") from our perspective as literary artists—and also explore how the American oratorical tradition has made its way into fiction, poetry, and, perhaps especially, the essay.

We’ll pay close attention to the substance of various ideas, assertions, digressions, debates that have obsessed the writers we read. (It’s my sense that, craft aside, a deep awareness of these tussles and preoccupations can only be good nourishment for a writer.) We’ll also keep close to the page, observing the tactics of writers, thinkers, preachers, and politicians—with an intermittent focus on classical rhetorical devices—and engage in in-class and at-home writing exercises to see how these methods might work for us. Readings will include works by Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. DuBois, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Ralph Ellison, Chris Rock, Cheryl A. Wall, and many others.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Nonfiction Craft: Emersonians and Montaignians: Two Approaches to the Essay

Craft—Fall

When you say that you’d like to start working on an “essay,” you’re probably referring to one of two related but distinct forms, each with its own history. There’s the argumentative essay that, here in America, is descended from the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson—developed out loud, in sermons and speeches, for the purpose of persuading (and, just as importantly, entertaining) an audience. Then there’s the more ruminative essayistic tradition that stretches back to Michel de Montaigne and the French Renaissance. In this course, we’ll explore both traditions and play with what we find. We’ll start with classic Early American sermons by John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, as well as Montaigne’s first attempts to map his restless consciousness onto the page—in prose. Then we’ll wind through time, visiting Emerson and Douglass, Didion and Sontag, Dr. King and Zadie Smith. We’ll make work informed by their tendencies and strategies on either side of the essay’s enduring line.

Faculty

Nonfiction Craft: Writing From the Podium: The Sermonic American Essay

Craft—Fall

The essay, in its American incarnation, is a direct outgrowth of the sermon—developed out loud and for the purpose of persuading (and, just as importantly, entertaining) an audience. Beginning with Winthrop on the boat and Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, our nonfiction tradition has been coaxing and argumentative, insistent and not infrequently irritating. The implications of this sermonic heritage can be found in the sentences, styles, voices, and attitudes of writers from Emerson and Douglass to Didion and Sontag. In this course, we will read and discuss sermons and speeches from the likes of Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinem, and Billy Graham, as well as a range of argumentative essays, and make work informed by the tendencies and strategies that we find.

Faculty