Clifford Thompson

Undergraduate Discipline

Writing

Graduate Program

MFA Writing Program

BA, Oberlin College. Author of What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues (2019), which was selected by Time magazine as one of the “Most Anticipated Books” of the season. Thompson received a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press, which also brought out his memoir, Twin of Blackness (2015). His personal essays and writings on books, film, jazz, and American identity have appeared in publications including The Best American Essays 2018, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, The Times Literary Supplement, The Threepenny Review, Commonweal, Cineaste, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also the author of a novel, Signifying Nothing. Over a dozen years Thompson served as the editor of Current Biography, and he teaches creative nonfiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, New York University, and Sarah Lawrence College. A painter, Thompson is a member of New York’s Blue Mountain Gallery. He is the writer and illustrator of the graphic novel Big Man and the Little Men, due out in fall 2022 from Other Press. SLC, 2016–

Undergraduate Courses 2022-2023

Writing

First-Year Studies: Reading and Writing Personal Essays

FYS—Year

This first-year seminar will comprise workshops focusing on reading and writing personal essays. Each semester will be divided into three units, each corresponding to a particular kind of essay. Students will read published work and discuss one another’s work. The units in the first semester will be: People You Know, or essays about figures in the writers’ lives; Place, or essays in which setting figures prominently; and what I call the PCJ essay—Personal in the Critical/Journalistic. In the PCJ form, the personal story intertwines with a well-known outside subject—for example, a book, a film, or an event—and the two elements combine to form a third, an insight, which would not be possible without the first two. The units in the second semester will be: Demons, or essays about writers’ personal challenges, internal or external; The Braided Essay, or works that combine seemingly unrelated elements to form a coherent whole; and The Critical Survey, or critical takes on items in a category or genre (for example, five albums that came out this year, or a ranking of Quentin Tarantino films, or a ranking of the last five presidents). During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

Faculty

Graduate Courses 2021-2022

MFA Writing

Nonfiction Craft and Workshop: Writing About Family

Craft—Fall

In this course, we will read and discuss personal essays in which authors write about either their families or individual family members. In addition to analyzing the way each work functions as an essay, we will identify the challenge that each represents for its author with regard to writing about family and discuss how well the author meets the challenge. Published texts will include The Limit, by Christian Wiman; At the Western Palace, by Maxine Hong Kingston; Under the Influence, by Scott Russell Sanders; Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin; 503A, by Julie Marie Wade; Matricide, by Meghan Daum; and excerpts from Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. The class will discuss the pitfalls of representing family on the page—for example, engaging in hagiography or allowing narrative to devolve into complaint—and how to avoid them. For students who sign on for a workshop component, we will discuss their family-centered works. The whole class will sometimes participate in in-class writing exercises focusing on family.

Faculty

Nonfiction Craft and Workshop: Writing About Family

Workshop—Fall

In this course, we will read and discuss personal essays in which authors write about either their families or individual family members. In addition to analyzing the way each work functions as an essay, we will identify the challenge that each represents for its author with regard to writing about family and discuss how well the author meets the challenge. Published texts will include The Limit, by Christian Wiman; At the Western Palace, by Maxine Hong Kingston; Under the Influence, by Scott Russell Sanders; Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin; 503A, by Julie Marie Wade; Matricide, by Meghan Daum; and excerpts from Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. The class will discuss the pitfalls of representing family on the page—for example, engaging in hagiography or allowing narrative to devolve into complaint—and how to avoid them. For students who sign on for a workshop component, we will discuss their family-centered works. The whole class will sometimes participate in in-class writing exercises, focusing on family.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Writing

Nonfiction Workshop: Reading and Writing Personal Essays

Open, Seminar—Fall

This course will be divided into three units, each of which will involve reading published essays and writing our own. In the first unit, People You Know, students will write personal narratives involving people in their lives and will read, as models, published examples of such works; e.g., Phillip Lopate’s portrait of his family in the essay “Willy.” In the second unit, Place, we will read and write essays about authors’ relationships to particular places—less travelogues than investigations of the dynamic between the person and the place. Examples of published essays that we will read for this unit are James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” and Annie Dillard’s “Aces and Eights.” The third unit, The Personal in the Critical/Journalistic, or PCJ, involves work that combines personal reflection with consideration of an outside subject; e.g., a favorite movie or an event like 9/11. The interaction of the personal and the outside subject yields a third element, an insight that would not be possible without the first two elements; e.g., Jonathan Lethem’s personal essay about the movie The Searchers.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: The World and You

Open, Seminar—Spring

This course will be divided into three units, each of which will involve reading published essays and writing our own. The first unit, Demons, will focus on writers’ personal challenges, from mental illness (as in Suzanna Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted) to migraines (the subject of Joan Didion’s essay “In Bed”). The second unit focuses on braided essays; the class will read essays whose authors juxtapose seemingly disparate topics in forming coherent works, such as Melissa Febos’s “All of Me,” which reveals how writing, singing, tattoos, and heroin addiction all relate to the need to deal with pain. For the final unit, Critical Survey, we will read and write critical takes on works or figures in particular fields; for example, James Agee’s essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” about silent film comedians and Toni Morrison’s (very) short book, Playing in the Dark, about race as it pertains to early American literature.

Faculty

MFA Writing

Nonfiction Craft and Workshop: Writing About Family

Craft—Fall

In this course, we will read and discuss personal essays in which authors write about either their families or individual family members. In addition to analyzing the way each work functions as an essay, we will identify the challenge that each represents for its author with regard to writing about family and discuss how well the author meets the challenge. Published texts will include The Limit, by Christian Wiman; At the Western Palace, by Maxine Hong Kingston; Under the Influence, by Scott Russell Sanders; Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin; 503A, by Julie Marie Wade; Matricide, by Meghan Daum; and excerpts from Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. The class will discuss the pitfalls of representing family on the page—for example, engaging in hagiography or allowing narrative to devolve into complaint—and how to avoid them. For students who sign on for a workshop component, we will discuss their family-centered works. The whole class will sometimes participate in in-class writing exercises focusing on family.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop/Craft Class: Reading, Writing, and Revising

Workshop—Spring

In this workshop, we will talk about defining characters (including narrators), establishing a sense of place, and structuring and pacing our work—and we will delve into questions that go to the heart of creative nonfiction writing: What is the essence of a personal essay? What are its necessary elements, or is the very notion of "necessary elements" limiting? Is there a meaningful difference between essay and memoir, or does worrying about which one you’re writing inhibit creativity? Each week, the class will discuss two workshop pieces and analyze a published work, focusing on craft. For each session, students will submit 300- to 500-word analyses of technique and style in the published work under discussion. At the end of the course, each student will submit a substantive revision of one of the workshop pieces. Published works will include essays/personal narratives by writers that include Phillip Lopate, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, George Saunders, Christian Wiman, Gayle Pemberton, E. B. White, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Julie Marie Wade.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: Reading, Writing, and Revising Nonfiction

Workshop—Spring

In this workshop, we will talk about defining characters (including narrators), establishing a sense of place, and structuring and pacing our work—and we will delve into questions that go to the heart of creative nonfiction writing: What is the essence of a personal essay? What are its necessary elements, or is the very notion of "necessary elements" limiting? Is there a meaningful difference between essay and memoir, or does worrying about which one you’re writing inhibit creativity? Each week, the class will discuss two workshop pieces and analyze a published work, focusing on craft. For each session, students will submit 300- to 500-word analyses of technique and style in the published work under discussion. At the end of the course, each student will submit a substantive revision of one of the workshop pieces. Published works will include essays/personal narratives by writers that include Phillip Lopate, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, George Saunders, Christian Wiman, Gayle Pemberton, E. B. White, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Julie Marie Wade.

Faculty

People, Places, and Things—Nonfiction Craft

Craft—Spring

“A noun is a person, place, or thing,” we were taught when we grew up; so this class might be said to focus on writing about nouns.

The class will be divided into three units. The first will concentrate on people. We will read published personal essays that illustrate the many different ways of creating characters on the page. For example, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Family Hour” defines characters solely through action, while Phillip Lopate’s “Willy” uses a variety of techniques to evoke personalities. The second unit will take on place—how place functions in personal essays to determine action and illuminate character. In James Baldwin’s “Equal in Paris,” for example, eight nights in a French jail forces the narrator to see that he can no longer get through life by playing the role that society has assigned him; instead, he has to figure out who he really is. The third and final unit will deal with things. The class will read braided essays whose authors juxtapose seemingly disparate topics—things—in forming coherent works. Melissa Febos’s “All of Me,” for instance, reveals how writing, singing, tattoos, and heroin addiction all relate to the need to deal with pain.

In each meeting, we will dissect two published essays and have in-class writing exercises based on the lessons from the assigned reading.

Faculty