Writing

Related disciplines

In Sarah Lawrence College’s nationally recognized writing program, students work in close collaboration with faculty members who are active, successful writers. The program focuses on the art and craft of writing. Courses in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction are offered.

In workshops, students practice their writing and critique each other’s work. The program encourages students to explore an array of distinctive perspectives and techniques that will extend their own writing ability—whatever their preferred genre. Conferences provide students with close, continual mentoring and guidance and with opportunities to encounter personally their teachers’ professional experiences. Teachers critique their students’ writing and select readings specifically to augment or challenge each student’s work. In conferences, student and teacher chart a course of study that best allows individual students to pursue subjects and issues that interest them, to develop their own voice, to hone their techniques, and to grow more sophisticated as readers and critics.

The College offers a vibrant community of writers and probably the largest writing faculty available to undergraduates anywhere in the country. Visits from guest writers who give public readings and lectures are an important component of the curriculum throughout the year.

Sarah Lawrence College also takes full advantage of its proximity to the New York City literary scene, with its readings, literary agencies, publishing houses, and bookstores—as well as its wealth of arts and culture. The city provides fertile ground for internships in which students can use their writing training in educational programs, schools, publishing houses, small presses, journal productions, magazines, and nonprofit arts agencies.

2017-2018 Courses

Writing

Shapes, Self, and Bridges: An Exploration of Poetry, Images, and Memoir

Open , Seminar—Year

In this course, we’ll study and engage the process by which we create or erase identity and self. We'll examine poets and visual artists who blur the dynamic realms of poetry, prose, and image-making. Our texts will include poetry, memoirs or excerpts of memoirs, and selected visual artists. We’ll look at the bridges between lyric and narrative works and how those complex relationships serve meaning and discovery in both genres. We'll consider how genre informs the lens of self by both author and audience. Some of the primary writers on whom we'll focus include Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine, Aracelis Girmay, Joy Harjo, Ocean Vuong, Rickey Laurentiis, Nick Flynn, Tracy K. Smith, Elizabeth Alexander, Mary Ruefle, Lydia Davis, Lucille Clifton, Carl Phillips, Jill Bialosky, and others.

Faculty

Creative Nonfiction: Beyond the Truth

Open , Seminar—Fall

Writers and readers of creative nonfiction constantly wrestle with questions about truth: How much of this story is perfectly, purely true? Is there any such thing as perfect truth? What is the writer’s responsibility to the truth? What I’d like to do in this class is move beyond these debates and ask: What if we assume what we are writing and reading under this (unnecessarily?) dubious genre listing is true? Or true enough? What if we decide, as an experiment for this semester, that it actually doesn’t matter what is true/based-on-truth and what isn’t in a work of nonfiction? What kind of questions could we ask then, and what do we have to learn from them? In this course, we will examine a few book-length works of creative nonfiction (Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Miranda July’s It Chooses You)—as well as selected stories and excerpts from James McBride, David Sedaris, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Phoebe Robinson, and Rob Delaney—with a focus on the craft of storytelling and examining the creative choices that each author makes and does not make. Student groups will do informal presentations of each author/book to provide temporal/cultural context; then we will let the discussion unfold from there. We will also do short, in-class exercises, as well class discussion of longer student work, in a supportive spirit that seeks to evaluate a story on its own terms. Individual conferences will be spent preparing, honing, and discussing student essays before and after they are presented to the class. By the end of the course, students should have a substantial portfolio of short and long pieces, a keener editorial eye, and a more comfortable relationship with truth and storytelling.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Subject Matter, Voice, Form, Purpose

Open , FYS—Year

What does it mean to be a writer today? How do we find our subject matter, our voices, our forms? The writer Paula Whyman observed, “Art in its many forms can give voice to our concerns, hopes, fears, anxieties—and joys. Art can provide solace. It can spur engagement. It can increase understanding. It can help us feel less alone.” Through weekly reading and writing assignments, we will begin the journey into understanding who we can be as fiction writers. We’ll explore questions of craft: What makes a story a story? How does one go from word to sentence to paragraph to scene? Does there always need to be transformation? What is the role of setting? And how does structure help create voice? The workshop will be divided between discussions of student stories and of published fiction writers, including Denis Johnson, George Saunders, Dorothy Allison, Claudia Rankine, and Lesley Arimah. We will also read from other genres, including graphic memoirs and essays on craft by authors such as James Baldwin, Richard Russo, Roxane Gay, and Robin Hemley. Students are required to do additional conference reading, as well as to attend at least two campus readings per semester. From the start, we will work on developing our constructive criticism; when developed in a supportive atmosphere, our critiques should help us better grasp the workings of our stories and see what those stories can be in the world.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: A Life in Fiction, the Craft of Fiction

Open , FYS—Year

In this yearlong fiction class, we will create a community of writers committed to the craft of fiction—namely, reading and writing every day. In the fall semester, full attention will be given to the short story in all of its possibilities. We will consider the possibilities in a writer’s tool belt: POV, tone, structure, character, diction, tense, narrative, distance, etc. Weekly writing experiments, weekly close reading, and formal annotations of published short stories will be assigned. In the fall, we will approach the short story in a systematic way—building up from the demands of the opening sentence and opening paragraphs to the demands of event and complication and the development of character. We will take a story through to a first draft (workshopped in class) and then to revision (again, discussed in class). Each week, we will read one to three stories to highlight the week’s subject and to build a shared writers’ vocabulary. Conference work will involve additional writing and reading. In the spring semester, our writing group will delve deeper into the narrative possibilities of the story form. We might decide to focus our class reading with regard to certain themes that are emerging out of the class fictions. Additionally, each student will explore the full body of work of an established writer, as well the work of her or his influences, which will be presented to the class at the end of the year.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Is Journalism What We Think It Is?

Open , FYS—Year

This class will both investigate journalism as a social, cultural, and historical phenomenon and employ journalism as a practice by which to encounter the world. We will immerse ourselves in journalism’s intricacies and complexities, its strengths and faults, and come to understand it not only as a working trade and history’s first draft but also as a literary art in its own right—one with as many deep imperatives and as rich a tradition as poetry or fiction. We will survey the best (and a little bit of the worst) of short- and long-form journalism and, over the course of the year, craft everything from brief profiles to ambitious investigative pieces. How does a writer know which details to highlight and which to subordinate? What is the nature of good interviewing technique? How does one interview a willing source as opposed to a resistant one? When should one write concisely, and when is it appropriate to expatiate? What are the ways in which a journalist interacts with—and runs the danger of contaminating—his or her subject? We will ask and answer these and many other questions and spend significant time puzzling out the ways in which fundamental journalistic practice leaps from print to television to new media. Prominent journalists will be invited to talk to us and tell us what they do. Readings will range from H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, Janet Malcolm, Joseph Mitchell, and Truman Capote to Joseph Roth.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Writing the Literature of Fact

Open , FYS—Year

The aim of this course is to have students produce a range of nonfiction essays. We start with basic reporting and work our way up to long-form journalism. Along the way, we will read a series of well-known nonfiction writers—among them George Orwell, Joan Didion, and James Baldwin. But the reading that we will do is designed to serve the writing. This is not a course in the history of the nonfiction essay. Essays are assigned with deadlines for drafts, rewrites, and final copies. The assignments are those that any editor would give. The aim of this course, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, is to produce nonfiction as lively as fiction. Accurate reporting is a non-negotiable starting and finishing point. The course will begin by emphasizing writing technique; and as we move to longer assignments, our focus will be on the role that research, interviews, and legwork play in completing a story. This course is not for first-year students with remedial writing problems or for those whose preference is fiction writing.

Faculty

First-Year Studies in Poetry: The Making of the Complete Lover

Open , FYS—Year

The known universe has one complete lover, and that is the greatest poet. —Walt Whitman

This class will be a yearlong introduction to the ways and means of making poetry, from the most concrete to the least: the word, the line, the image, the sonnet, the ghazal, the blues, prescience, truth, revision. Our text will be an anthology of 99 great poems according to me, from ancient Sumer to the present, called “Love the Wild Swan,” supplemented by poems your tastes will add to our mix. We will not discuss drafts of student work in class but in conference; in class, we'll discuss the mysteries of poems that we love as a way of figuring out how to make new poems in dialogue with them. You will be expected to attend class, engage with assigned and suggested readings, participate in discussions, and, by the end of the course, produce: (a) a short critical essay on a poem; (b) a short biographical sketch of a poet; (c) a 20-page anthology of poems, with introduction; and (d) a 10-page chapbook. The only prerequisites for this class are a passion for reading that equals your passion for writing and a willingness to undertake whatever might be necessary to read and write better on our last day of class than on our first.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Open , Seminar—Year

Some people think that all classes—especially writing classes—should be “safe.” I don’t. I prefer danger. Only by risking failure can anyone learn. I want students to care about what they write and how they write; and if the consequences of caring include anxiety, trepidation, and night sweats, so be it. Oh, class should also be fun. As for the content: You write, I read, we talk. Using student work as examples, we talk about what makes one story dynamic and another dull, what makes one character believable and another implausible, and, mostly, what makes one sentence sing and another croak.

Faculty

Our World, Other Worlds

Open , Seminar—Year

This course explores prose writing with an emphasis on the creation of a world. The writing can be fiction or nonfiction and can take place in this world, another, or several. We will explore ideas about this world and writing about this world and others and work on our writing to make it livelier and more real, no matter how imaginary our world is. This course runs in two parts, one semester each. You can take one or both parts. One part will involve writing episodes to build a world that, revised, will become a conference project; the other part will work on craft and content exercises of all kinds, with the conference project distinct from the exercises. Readings include folktales, religious writing, philosophy, fiction, and newspaper items.

Faculty

Words and Pictures

Open , Seminar—Year

This is a course with writing at its center and other arts—mainly, but not exclusively, visual—around it. We will read and look at all kinds of narratives, children’s books, folk tales, fairy tales, and graphic novels and try our hands at many of them. The reading tends to come from a wide range of times and places and includes everything from ancient Egyptian love poems to contemporary Latin American literature. For conference work, people have done graphic novels, animations, quilts, rock operas, items of clothing with text attached, nonfiction narratives that take a subject and explore it visually and in text, and distopian fictions with pictures. There will be weekly assignments that involve making something. This course is especially suited for students with an interest in some other art or body of knowledge that they would like to make accessible to nonspecialists. The spring semester will be similar in approach but with different assignments and texts. This course may be taken for one semester, either semester, or as a yearlong class.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Writing and Producing Audio Fiction

Open , Seminar—Year

The goal of this class is to start a revolution. Over the past few years, we have entered into a time of what is being called “The Second Golden Age of Radio.” But there is a problem. This Golden Age is primarily nonfiction. This class will change that. Students will learn to write and produce groundbreaking contemporary audio dramas for radio and podcast. We will listen to emerging works from podcasts such as Welcome to Night Vale, The Truth, Wiretap, and Lore, as well as by authors who have played in this field: Miranda July, Rick Moody, Gregory Whitehead, Joe Frank, and others. We will also create our own critical discourse for contemporary audio drama—analyzing writings and essays from the fields of screenwriting, sound art, contemporary music, and literature—to help understand and analyze the works that we are creating. The creators of Limetown and The Truth and other audio fiction makers will visit the class to talk about their stories and production processes. The class will also contribute to the newly created Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award (aka, The Sarahs)—the first international audio fiction award in the United States. Students will make works for The Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Contest and help curate works for the award-show podcast. At the end of the year, students will take over WGXC radio station in the Hudson Valley and broadcast their final conference projects.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

No, Really, Where Do Ideas Come From? A Fiction Workshop/Creative Bootcamp

Open , Seminar—Fall

It’s not a stupid question. We’ll seek to answer it by spending the first third of the semester engaging in writing exercises, thought experiments, intelligence gathering, and craft discussions designed to get your own ideas flowing and to provide seeds for the stories that you'll be writing. The rest of the semester will be devoted to workshopping what you’ve written, with the class coming together 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, as we address a slew of other not-stupid questions such as: What makes a plot strong? Does a character have to be likable? And how much truth goes into fiction? Outside reading will be designed to take you in and out of your comfort zones, running the gamut from realism to fabulism and featuring a multitude of rule makers and rule breakers for you to admire and inspire, love and loathe—sometimes simultaneously.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Compassion and Contempt

Open , Seminar—Fall

Experienced writers who seek to prove that they are wise—and young writers who seek to prove that they are experienced—are often guilty of the same sin: We cultivate a jaded, cynical tone that's hypercritical of everyone and everything that ​we encounter. This can be very effective; in fiction, readers tend to trust narrators or point-of-view characters who see their worlds through a dark lens. But as cynicism becomes ​the ​default mode of discourse, its effect is blunted. Just as insidious as knee-jerk contemptuousness, though, is anodyne, upbeat blandness. Can we find a middle ground that enables us to stay true to our beliefs? How can fiction writers make their opinions clear without ​resorting to caricature? In this ​workshop, we’ll examine what it means to write with compassion and with contempt, using both modes as tools in a series of creative exercises that will build to longer-form stories or lyric essays. Authors ​we’ll read ​may include Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Meaghan Daum, Rachel Aviv, and Myriam Gurba.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Open , Seminar—Fall

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.

Faculty

The Prose Experiment

Open , Seminar—Fall

All fiction is written taking into account the basic constraints of prose: grammar, punctuation, and the formal standards of style. In this class, we will explore the use of other structures to build compelling, surprising works of fiction. A writing constraint can be as hypnotic as an illusionist’s sleight of hand, freeing the writer’s mind for magic. We'll examine the effects of lists, footnotes, erasures, numbering, and omissions; the impact of experiments with verb mood, unexpected points of view, and tense; different approaches to intentionally breaking established rules; and the ways in which other formulae can help us and our readers find new paths to our imaginations. Students will work with writing assignments, play writing games, and do in-class exercises to generate stories. We’ll read published fiction—by authors such as Gertrude Stein, Thomas Bernhard, Georges Perec, Junot Diaz, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Matthew Sharpe, Elizabeth Crane, and others—created using such techniques. We’ll also discuss some theory around constraints in writing and talk with contemporary authors about their writing processes. Workshop discussions will focus on students’ fiction written with such techniques, and each student will design a writing constraint.

Faculty

Collage/Assemblage/Montage

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this generative seminar, we will think about how writing can be inspired by and catalyzed from visual forms. We will ask how literary texts can take on dimensions, fragments, and layers by seeing and thinking through collage, assemblage, and montage. Much can inspire us about modes of juxtaposition and hybridity—collage is usually marked by an obsessive vision, passionate and constant collecting, and the witty and melancholy gaze of history. Each week, I will pair a collage artist with a chosen text and ask you to write from and about and to be inspired by these visual and literary forms for your own prose pieces that you will assemble and that may cross the border between fiction and nonfiction.Examples of visual artists we might be looking at include Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, Chris Marker, Nan Goldin, Kara Walker, Hannah Hoch, Ray Johnson, Kurt Schwitters, B. Ingrid Olson, Paul Sepuya, and Isa Genzken. Some of the possible writers that we read for this class include a mix of generations, forms, genres—Bhanu Kapil, Charlie Fox, W. G. Sebald, Claudia Rankine, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Lisa Robertson, Chris Kraus, Danielle Dutton, Wayne Koestenbaum, Anne Carson, and Kathy Acker. This is a prose workshop, meaning that we’ll be reading inside and outside of genres. Open to anyone willing to read and write wildly and seriously.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Open , Seminar—Spring

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 these questions through a series of exercises meant to generate and sustain your visions of a story, as well as to put into practice the various elements of fiction: plot, character, setting, detail, dialogue, and exposition. We will learn how these seemingly practical conventions of story writing have been used to virtuosic effect by authors such as Donald Barthelme, Jamaica Kinkaid, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer, George Saunders, and others. You will generate your conference work from your readings and exercises, develop it through close critique in our classes and conferences, present it in preliminary workshops, and finally submit your best work in a series of formal workshops at the end of the semester.

Faculty

Fiction: True or False?

Open , Seminar—Spring

In this class, we examine the much maligned but remarkably fruitful miscegenation of fiction and nonfiction. For roughly the first half of the semester, we will read and discuss works that are either composed of both fiction and nonfiction or that call such genre distinctions into question. We will begin by looking at Stephen Crane’s two accounts of being shipwrecked: one is a short story; the other, journalism/memoir. We will also read excerpts from fiction that incorporate discrete nonfictional segments (John Berger’s Pig Earth and Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), fiction that disguises itself as nonfiction (John Haskell’s I’m Not Jackson Pollock and Rachel Cusk’s Outline), nonfiction that isn’t quite (Lauren Slater’s Lying, Ryzard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men), and works with no clear genre (Jenny Boully’s The Body, John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon, and Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar). The second half of the semester will be devoted to workshopping the students’ own mixed-genre works, the composition of which will be the primary focus of their conferences. Among the questions that we will take up are: What are the differing advantages of fiction and nonfiction? How does genre affect an author’s obligations to readers? Is there a clear distinction between the genres? When does blurring that distinction render thrilling art, and when does it amount to a con job?

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Fiction Workshop

Open , Seminar—Spring

Our imaginations grant us waking dreams, and cultivating the imagination is a large part of writing good fiction. Equally important, though, are sharpening our observations and mastering craft. In this course, we will aim for a balance of all these elements. We will pursue philosophical questions about writing, as well. For instance: Is there such a thing as a reliable narrator? Does what is considered realistic vary according to culture and era? What essentially defines a short story, as opposed to a poem or an essay? Students will be encouraged to stick with the revision process, to let go of preconceived ideas about subject matter, and to experiment with language and form. During the first half of the semester, we will focus on writing and reading short-short stories; the second part of the term will be spent writing and discussing longer pieces. We will read work by authors such as Anton Chekhov, Katherine Anne Porter, Joy Williams, Shelley Jackson, Dolan Morgan, Robert Lopez, Helen Oyeyemi, and Gary Lutz.

Faculty

The Unconscious, The Absurd, the Sublime, and The Impossibly Probable

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This one-semester workshop will venture into more unlikely fictional territories: dream narratives, preposterous situations served up matter-of-factly, unscary ghost stories, speculative fiction, and virtuosic works that elude comprehension but deliver you to the profound and pleasurable edges of apprehension. To jar us from our more prosaic and safe forms of fiction, we will begin the semester with a series of exercises inspired by the stories of authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, George Saunders, Clarice Lispector, and David Foster Wallace, as well as essays by Carl Jung, Immanuel Kant, and Charles Baxter. You will generate your conference work from the readings and exercises, develop it through close critique in our classes and conferences, present it in preliminary workshops, and finally submit your best work in a series of formal workshops at the end of the semester.

Faculty

Lines of Flight: A Mixed-Genre Workshop

Open , Seminar—Fall

In the current political climate—where we are inundated each day with too much news and information to fully comprehend while, at the same time, becoming less and less certain what “truth” means—thinking as a form of exercise to work through what is happening in the world becomes essential. Refraining from clichéed thinking and instead practicing a type of thinking that allows us to examine our ideas and thoughts, we will practice what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari termed “Lines of Flight,” a thinking that moves, travels, and leaps while resisting binaries and reductive thinking. Leaping from genre to genre in our writing practice (poetry, nonfiction, art writing, and the essay) and from genre to genre in our reading practice (philosophy, theory, art writing, poetry, and nonfiction), we will attempt to make sense of the world in which we live while, simultaneously, practicing different “lines of flight.” Some of the writers and thinkers that we will be reading may include: Lara Mimosa Montes, Paul B. Preciado, Dolores Dorantes, Antonin Artaud, Franz Kafka, Allison Benis White, Donna Haraway, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Fred Moten, Fernand Deligny, Avital Ronell, Sara Ahmed, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and Jakob von Uexküll.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: To Tell the Truth

Open , Seminar—Fall

This class will explore the mysteries of writing what has been called “nonfiction,” focusing particularly on questions around what has been called lying and what has been called telling the truth. Was Toni Morrison right when she said our minds have an “antipathy to fraud”? Does lying have a syntax? What are the cultural contexts, nourishments, and manipulations that may affect what happens between a writer and a drafted or published sentence? What’s the difference between a lie that illuminates the truth and a lie that obfuscates or tries to extinguish it? Can popular writing lie? Is it possible to “tell the truth”? We will not discuss drafts of student work in class but, rather, in conference; in class, we’ll discuss readings in light of the questions above as a way of guiding our own makings. Our readings may include the work of James Baldwin, Anne Carson, Frantz Fanon, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Dionne Brand, Aimé Césaire, Adrienne Rich, Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, and Jean Améry, as well as that of Wallace Stegner, Donald Rumsfeld, Ward Churchill, Peter Matthiessen, Tom MacMaster, Louise Mensch, and the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. You will be expected to attend class, engage with assigned and suggested readings, participate in discussions, and, by the end of the class, produce 20 pages of publishable nonfiction. The only prerequisites are a passion for reading that equals your passion for writing and a willingness to undertake whatever might be necessary to read and write better on our last day of class than on our first.

Faculty

What’s The Story? A Radio Journalism Class

Open , Seminar—Fall

After a politically divisive presidential election that fractured the country—and with the proliferation of fake news—journalism is more important than ever. And so are the skills required to do the job. The landscape of radio is exploding, and new podcasts are being launched almost faster than listeners can decide which episode to download next. These outlets, shows, and story-making machines are hungry, both for stories and for producers with the skills to know how to tell them. In this class, we’ll learn the fundamentals of making radio news, both writing and production for short stories and long. We’ll cover editing, software, interviewing skills, and, of course, how to hold your microphone. We’ll learn what makes a story, how to get good tape, and how to write for the ear (very different than for the eye—just try comparing an article from The New York Times with a transcript from NPR). We’ll also cover the skills critical for all nonfiction narrative storytelling, print or audio, from Morning Edition to This American Life. We’ll talk research, ethics, fact checking, how to find sources, and how to get them to talk. Finally, we’ll cover the art of the pitch. That’s industry lingo for selling your story. It’s no good getting the scoop if you don’t know how to sell your stuff. News is new. Come and learn something new.

Faculty

Documenting Identity: Undergraduate Nonfiction Writing

Open , Seminar—Fall

Identity politics, which has been of serious consequence across the political spectrum recently, has been accompanied by an explosion of identity writing over the past 30 years. In this (largely, though not exclusively) nonfiction writing class, we will look as deeply as we can into what identity actually is—and what, as far as literature is concerned, the rhetoric of identity is—by reading writers ranging from Whitman, Freud, Kafka, Pessoa, Woolf, and Baldwin to contemporaries whose subject matter comprises race, sex, disability and ability, gender dysphoria and euphoria, and existential exaltation or dread. Conference work will consist of reading tailored to individuated projects; one large identity essay (the term is flexible and can encompass anything from journalism of the self to confession to critical inquiry), which will be workshopped; and a series of short exercises, some of which will also be discussed in class.

Faculty

Forms of the Personal Essay

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this course, students will read and discuss published essays that fall into three categories: "People You Know," in which writers evoke figures from their lives; "Trouble," or essays that describe predicaments that the writers faced; and "The Personal in the Journalistic," or works that combine discussion of the writers' personal lives with discussions of well-known outside subjects (e.g., a famous movie or 9/11). The writers whose published essays we will read include James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, George Saunders, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Students will turn in personal essays, at least 1,500 words in length, related to each topic. In addition, each week at least two students will have pieces workshopped. (Workshopped pieces do not have to fit in any of the three categories.) Finally, each week students will participate in an in-class exercise.

Faculty

Wrongfully Accused

Open , Seminar—Spring

Long-form investigative journalism has opened many doors, perhaps most literally in America’s penal system where journalists have regularly revealed—and freed—the wrongfully convicted. This class will set out to expose the innocence (or confirm the guilt) of a man or woman convicted of a controversial murder or other serious felony. Working collectively and using all of the tools and traditions of investigative journalism, the class will attempt to pull out all known and unknown threads of the story to reveal the truth. Was our subject wrongfully accused? Or are his or her claims of innocence an attempt to game the system? The class will interview police, prosecutors, and witnesses, as well as the friends and family of the victim and of the accused. The case file will be examined in depth. A long-form investigative piece will be produced, complete with multimedia accompaniment.

Faculty

I’m Not Making This Up: Writing Creative Nonfiction

Open , Seminar—Spring

Nonfiction has to be based on real life, but nonfiction is also supposed to make sense and mean something—two things that real life consistently fails to do. The fact that something really happened does not, in itself, make it interesting. How do you reconcile the messy raw material of reality with the necessities of art? How do you lop off little segments of time that are shaped like stories? How do you render your mundane and idiosyncratic personal stories into something significant and universal—something worth reading? How do you make your life matter? Another touchy issue is that of literal veracity vs. artistic truth: When does artistry become falsification? How do you write honestly and bravely without forfeiting all privacy? Also, hey, won’t everyone you know get mad at you if you write about them? No one’s pretending that there are clear or easy answers to these questions. What we’ll do is hash them over in class as truthfully and thoughtfully as we can. We’ll read beautiful, hilarious, and moving essays and memoirs and journalism to see how writers smarter and more talented than we, from Montaigne to Michael Herr, have managed it. We’ll labor to find strange new ways of saying the same old truths. We’ll talk euphony and rhetoric, memorize snatches of great literature, and write letters to loved ones. And we will do the very least fun thing anyone can voluntarily do—write essays ourselves.

Faculty

Mind as Form: The Essay, Personal and Impersonal

Open , Seminar—Spring

The essay has been resorted to as a vehicle of intimacy and directness—not only by writers in other genres but also by artists of other art forms and by intellectual workers in a wide variety of fields. Why is this? Maybe because the essay is flexible enough to adapt to the shape, structure, and movements of our minds as they actually function. We will examine the essay by reading 15 to 20 significant examples of the genre, ranging from contemporary writers (Maggie Nelson, David Foster Wallace, Nancy Mairs, and Claudia Rankine, among others) to writers from recent history (Sontag, Didion, Mailer, Eiseley, Baldwin, Orwell, and Miyazaki), from its classic writers (Yeats, Pater, and Hazlitt) to its creator (Montaigne), and then to its prehistory in the sermon, the meditation, the epistle, the spiritual autobiography (Edwards, Basho, Augustine, St. Paul, and Plato). Conference work will comprise two essays, both to be presented to the whole class, and a series of exercises. ​

Faculty

Workshop in Personal Essay

Open , Seminar—Spring

We write personal essays to learn about ourselves, to face our demons, to understand what entangles us, to expose the lies that we have allowed ourselves to believe, to recognize what we are running away from, to find insight, to tell the truth. This workshop is designed for students interested in doing that work and learning to craft what they have written so that their readers can share in their learning. We will learn to read as writers, write as readers, and, where relevant, draw connections between writing and other creative fields such as music and film.

Faculty

A Question of Character: The Art of the Profile

Open , Seminar—Spring

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 what they admire or despise in other writers’ characterizations, 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.

Faculty

Creative Nonfiction Writing

Advanced , Seminar—Year

This is a course for students who have taken a creative writing class and are interested in exploring how nonfiction can be an art form. The first semester will focus on reading and interpreting outside work—essays, articles, and journalism by some of our best writers—in order to understand what good nonfiction is and how it is created. Writing will be composed mostly of exercises and short pieces aimed at putting into practice what is being illuminated in the readings. We will look at poetry to better understand language and image and at documentary films to study narrative structure; and we will write in class. During the second semester, students will create longer, formal essays to be presented in workshop.

Faculty

Eco Poetry

Open , Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of the Earth and the stars—we will consider the great organism Gaia of which we are a part. We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder and to utterly contemporary poets such as Brenda Hillman and Chase Twichell. We will consider the Earth and the fullness thereof. We will take field trips, watch films, study trees and plants, and listen to birdsong. We will write a poem a week, read, meet together in poetry dates, observe, and learn. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will have a collection of poems that somehow sing to it and to the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other animals? What is a star? What is occurring right now in the deep ocean? What does it mean that everything seems to eat everything? (Again) what is death? What is time? Which bird is that singing right now?

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Hybrids of Poetry and Prose: A Multigenre Creative Workshop

Open , Seminar—Year

One of the exciting literary developments in recent years is the plethora of work that refuses easy categorization by authors such as Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Jenny Offill, and Eula Biss. Our syllabus will be composed of texts that blur the lines of genre. We will consider architecture, diction, association, metaphor, and other issues of craft. Students will be required to write critical responses to the reading and bring in a new piece of writing each week. For workshop, students can submit poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, or anything in between. We will aim to locate a piece’s heat—its linguistic, figurative, and musical energy—and consider how that energy might be developed, or maximized, in subsequent drafts and to what effect. Half of each class will be devoted to discussing the weekly reading; the other half will be spent discussing student work. Occasionally, we will do in-class writing exercises that emphasize intuition and chance and steer students toward a place of hybridity. In the spring semester, students will work on hybrid projects of their own. A background in creative writing is not essential to taking this class; a willingness to read and write and take creative risks is.

Faculty

Hybrid Beast

Open , Seminar—Fall

The word hybrid comes from the Latin hybrida, which means mongrel, a creature of mixed breed, and that definition is well worth exploring. The tradition of poetry is widening, drawing from many art forms, blending and fusing to create contemporary, cross-pollinated forms. In this class, we will explore the many ways in which poetry is increasingly a hybrid beast, as innovative and exciting projects are envisioned across the genres. We will discuss the process by which poets collaborate with visual artists, filmmakers, choreographers, and dramatists; and we will practice the poem-as-essay, poem-as-tweet, dramatic monologue, prose poem, ekphrastic poem, mosaic poem, erasure, collage, comic and graphic novel, and the many formal experiments that make the current environment of poetry so eclectic. Classwork will comprise student writing and critique, linguistic adventure, wild meanderings, and manifestos in order to understand future possibilities for one’s own poems.

Faculty

A Reading, Writing, Revising, and Working-Hard Workshop

Open , Seminar—Fall

We will open each class with a discussion of assigned texts (Composing Poetry, essays on metaphor and craft, and a variety of poems by others, past and present); however, the focus of the class will be on workshopping your poems. Mistake-making, risking everything, the logic of illogic, the slapping-fresh image, angst, and faith are required. Equally required: attendance in class and conference and a poem a week with sufficient copies for all. Our job, in every workshop, is to try to see the intent of our peers’ poems and to make suggestions, open possibilities, and craft choices that the poet may not have considered. This is a compassionate but careful work; and within this work, we will find ourselves learning, consciously or not, much about our own aesthetics: a gleaning of how we might affirm something of our own, what we never knew we knew; a fine definition of poetry, what we never knew we knew; and how to evoke this unthought known in our work, in our readers. In conference, we will focus on what you most need. Accordingly, I’ll assign poets and books to read. Some will strike the mark; others, less so. Keep a book log of why/how. In conference, we can also discuss your individual writing “blocks” and concerns about your writing process and revisions. At semester’s end, a chapbook of your poems, revised and sequenced, and a responsive journal to your readings (likes, dislikes, influence) will be due.

Faculty

Masks, Personas, and The Literal I: A Poetry Workshop

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this writing workshop, we will read books by poets who utilize masks and personas to explore depths of honesty, thought, and feeling that might otherwise be off limits. We will consider the different ways in which a character may be created and inhabited via syntax, diction, emotional crescendos and deflations, associative leaps, metaphors, and tonal shifts. We will also read books by poets who collapse the space between poetic speaker and author, employing a more literal I. We will strive to come to a richer understanding of the possibilities of the first person. Students will be asked to create their own mask, a constructed first person to breathe and speak through, and also to write poems in the mind/throat/heart of a more literal I. The reading class will be roughly a book of poetry a week, including John Berryman’s Henry, Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, and the expansive I in Whitman’s Song of Myself. There will be a number of short response essays to the reading. Students will be expected to write and rewrite with passion and vigor, turning in a new first draft each week and a final manuscript of 6-10 poems. Class time will be split evenly between discussing outside reading and student work. This class will be good for both workshop veterans and those who have been harboring an urge to give poetry a try.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Open , Seminar—Spring

This is a reading/writing course. We will spend time every week reading poems that have already been published to 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.

Faculty

Awake and Dreaming

Open , Seminar—Spring

A dream is very like a poem, always after the logic of illogic; but a poem is a dream carried into the world. This is to be a poetry workshop, with the focus on your poems; and all sorts of mistake-making, risk-taking, angst, and discoveries are required. At the same time, we will begin each class with discussion and questions about previously assigned readings: How Poets Work With Dreams, Night Errands, Freud on Daydreams, The Practice of Automatic Writing, Surrealism, and a variety of poems as dreams or vice-versa. No, this is not a seminar on dream interpretation! No! Perhaps more importantly, we will together consider our work in the light and shadow of the relationship between the unconscious and the conscious mind, always working as poets towards an impossible balance: wildness and clarity; the “structure” of freedom; “no discovery, no poem”; what a difficult work, what serious play. If facts are no longer the truth, poems attempt to be truthful but are not necessarily factual. Dreams may be difficult to understand, but dreams don’t lie. Artistic growth (including prosody, reading, revising) is, as Cather said, always an approach toward truth-telling. How can we write while standing in such ambivalence? Because ambiguity and the play of dark and light is all the material that poets have. Required: attendance in class and conference; your questions about readings and, especially, your thoughts about poems being workshopped; i.e., compassionate and clear responses to the work of others; and your poems weekly, with copies for all. A chapbook of your work, revised and sequenced, and your continuing book log (journal) of reading and reaction is due before the semester’s end.

Faculty

The Enemies of Fiction: A Fiction-Writing Workshop

Open , Seminar—Year

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 the plot’s efficiency, the theme’s effectiveness, the characters’ foibles. If we are not careful, our discussions can descend to the level 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 will 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, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Concrete by Thomas Bernhard, and Florida by Christine Schutt) and weekly short stories by writers both well-known and ignored. These writers may or may not include Robert Coover, Dawn Raffel, Joy Williams, Stanley Elkin, Julio Cortazar, 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 this course is offered (generously) to writers of all backgrounds.

Faculty

Intermediate Italian: Modern Prose

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

This course aims at improving and perfecting the students’ speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills, as well as their knowledge of Italy’s contemporary culture and literature. In order to acquire the necessary knowledge of Italian grammar, idiomatic expressions, and vocabulary, students will be exposed to present-day Italy through the selection of modern Italian literature (e.g., short stories, poems, and passages from novels), as well as specific newspaper articles, music, and films in the original language. Some of the literary works will include selections from Alessandro Baricco, Gianni Rodari, Marcello D’Orta, Clara Sereni, Dino Buzzati, Stefano Benni, Antonio Tabucchi, Alberto Moravia, Achille Campanile, and Italo Calvino. In order to address the students’ writing skills, written compositions will also be required as an integral part of the course. The materials selected for the class—whether a literary text, song, or grammar exercise—will be accessible at all times to the students through MySLC. Research on the Web will be central to the course and will offer the basis for the weekly “Web piece,” a short paper on a particular topic. Individual conference topics might include the study of a particular author, literary text, film, or any other aspect of Italian society and culture that might be of interest to the student. Conversation classes will be held twice a week with the language assistants.

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