BA, University of Michigan. MS, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. MFA, Yale University School of Drama. Fiction writer, critic, editor, playwright; author of the novels The World of Rae English and The Ticket Out; editor of anthologies Great American Love Stories, World Treasury of Love Stories, and The Eloquent Short Story: Varieties of Narration; reviews and articles published in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune Book World, Ms., Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review; plays produced at Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center, Waterford, Connecticut. Recipient, Pulitzer Fellowship in Critical Writing; served on Book-of-the-Month Club’s Editorial Board of Judges and as the Club’s senior editorial adviser. SLC, 1988–
Current undergraduate courses
Characters are not disembodied spirits. They need a place to live. With student stories serving as our basic text, and drawing also from a varied reading list, we will explore the multiple uses of place in fiction and how it can serve to define characters, advance story, and illuminate theme. We will consider questions such as why a story happens here rather than there—say, in Richard Yates’s suburbia, ZZ Packer’s Atlanta, Jose Donoso’s Buenos Aires or Chile, Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, Katherine Anne Porter’s Texas, Junot Diaz’s inner city, or Denis Johnson’s highways and roads. Each region—its landscape, its history, its culture—has its own set of values and associations. Changes of scene—from country to country, even from room to room—can also reflect shifts in a character’s state of mind. What does it mean, for example, for a character to be—or feel—“out of place” or “at home”? What does it mean for a character to know—or, as is often the case, not know—his or her place? What, then, does exile mean? Or homelessness? Along with the supplementary readings, short exercises will be assigned. This course is for students who, along with writing, want to feel more at home with books—and for those who already do.
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 questions such as: 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.
Dialogue is an essential element of craft. This course will consider how the inflections of speech and the timing of silences help to bring a work of fiction alive. Some writers depend heavily on dialogue; others, not. It gives us choices. With student writing serving as our basic text, and drawing also from a varied reading list, we will talk about what those choices are and how to make them—how they may or may not serve your story. Writers ranging from Salinger and Richard Yates to Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Anne Porter can offer us models. We will also look at dialogue’s links to other aspects of craft: Can it, for example, help to flesh a character or advance a story? How can we translate the immediacy of our own speech onto the page? How can we give it to our characters? We will also talk about the first-person narrator and the interior monologue, the dialogue with self, and the “rehearsal” conversation that characters can have with characters offstage or otherwise not there. We will consider the importance, too, of what remains unsaid: how the discrepancy between what a character says and what she or he feels or does (e.g., the hidden agenda, the secret, the lie) can give a story urgency. We will consider these issues as they relate to each student story. Finally, we will explore ways to make our own writing relaxed and conversational for our own dialogue with the reader—and each other. Short exercises will be assigned weekly. They will be based on the readings and on issues emerging from student work. They can also serve as springboards for longer stories.