Writing Courses

One of the oldest programs of its kind in the country, Sarah Lawrence College’s nationally recognized graduate writing program brings students into close mentoring relationships with active, distinguished writers. Students concentrate in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or speculative fiction, developing a personal voice while honing their writing and critical abilities.

The program seeks to enroll students who bring rich life experience to the writing process and fosters a stimulating community of writers who get to know one another in workshop discussions and remain connected throughout their lives. In addition to workshops, students benefit from one-on-one biweekly conferences with faculty. There are plenty of opportunities to read, hear, and share work on campus, including a monthly reading series, a festival that brings nationally known writers to campus, and an annual literary publication.

MFA Writing 2021-2022 Courses

Workshops

Speculative Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

Over the centuries, storytellers of all kinds have created distinct voices for works in every genre—and those voices have regularly convinced us to believe in wonders. Grounding our speculative fiction with confident stylistic elements can allow us to create works that feel possible, no matter how fantastical, futuristic, and/or wholly imagined our written worlds. A writing style doesn’t need to be flat, or “naturalistic,” to be believable; in fact, a fully-realized storytelling voice can sometimes make the wildest plot line plausible. This workshop will focus on developing voice and style as tools for speculative world-building in every way: plotting, structure, and sentence-by-sentence. We’ll be mining multiple forms for the stylistic and rhythmic cues that can take a writer’s work from basic to brilliant, working first on breaking down our stories to the simplest elements—moving from there into layering language atop plot and, in some exercises, allowing language the liberty to cue plot developments. We’ll be working with POV, rhythm, and meter and experimenting with the ways in which a change of voice can create changes in tension, storytelling pace, and depth of description, as we read work by writers such as Victor LaValle, Gayl Jones (possibly beginning with her new novel, Palmares, which will be released in September 2021, but also excerpting the extraordinary Mosquito), Amal el Mohtar, Kelly Link, Akwaeke Emezi, Anne Carson, Ted Chiang, Danez Smith, Denis Johnson, China Mieville, Sarah Gailey, Robert Aickman and more. This class with be half remote and half in-person, likely alternating weeks. The first class will be in person. My classes are inventive environments where we take risks, turn existing stories inside out, and build our poetic muscles by testing stories in various forms and finding the gaps in them, even as we find the right voices for them. In workshop, we’ll be encouraging one another to go big and to get to the most truthful version of our stories. In our conferences, we’ll get deep into finding your voice, both as a writer overall—discussing what your core stories are and how to develop them—and on your current writing projects—discussing how to best tell the stories you need to tell. There will be extensive reading recommendations, and experiments in storytelling are encouraged. It’s my goal to help get your work to its most extraordinary version.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: The Unsayable

Workshop—Fall

Poetry cannot be paraphrased; it holds the unsayable. How does a poem do that? We will practice the craft of poetry as a way to find out. We will read a large and wide selection of published poems and study them to learn how to deepen our own poems. We will practice expanding our use of diction, syntax, sound, image, metaphor. We will practice writing in organic forms and in received forms. Writers will keep a weekly journal of observations, read a group of published poems each week, write a new poem each week, and meet with another writer in the class in a poetry date each week. In addition, each writer will meet with me every other week in a half-hour conference. At the end of our semester, each writer will collect revisions into a chapbook. My hope is that you will write poems that will teach you something that you did not already know, poems that will astonish you and break open your own heart. Love and rigor will guide us. Our class will be celebrative and encouraging. Come and be changed.

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

Nonfiction Workshop: The Situation and the Story

Workshop—Fall

This course, which takes its title from Vivian Gornick’s classic book, is intended to help students settle into their voices and produce work that resonates with their experiences, interests, and insights. The prime focus will be personal essay and memoir. The course work will include workshop pieces that students develop in conversation with the instructor and shorter exercises intended to open the student’s awareness as both reader and writer. We will engage in a deepened practice of reading and learn to draw connections between writing and other creative fields, such as music and film.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

The most delicate choices that 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, interrogate reality, 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 critiques that always keep the writers’ intentions in mind; each week’s authors are encouraged to bring in questions and thoughts about their own work. Revision will be emphasized. Over the course of the semester, each student will revise a story or novel excerpt at least once and will have the option to workshop different drafts. We’ll often write from prompts designed to simultaneously tap into the unconscious and practice craft. The published works that we read for class and conference will be chosen in response to students’ writing and will include a range of authors, such as Maurince Kilwein Guevara, Renee Gladman, Gari Lutz, Yasunari Kawabata, Anton Chekhov, Octavia Butler, Daniel Olivas, Barry Hannah, Franz Kafka, Shelly Oria, Elizabeth Crane, and Robert Lopez.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop: Art and Activism: Contemporary Black Writers

Workshop—Fall

Toni Morrison once wrote, “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.” She referred to the interior life of her ancestors as being a large (perhaps the largest?) charge that she, as an author, faced; the characters she created—in part from pictures, in part from the imaginative act—yielded “a kind of truth.” We are experiencing a new age of Black artists and activists, charging the world to heed their own truth; our focus as writers will be to delve into the fullness of their experience. Nana Ama Adjei-Brenyah brings magical realism to the doorstep of quotidien political events; Edward P. Jones establishes setting as character, garnering comparisons to James Joyce. Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses satire to address themes of identity; and both Danielle Evans and Jamel Brinkley write in a charged realist tradition that is RIEBY (my new acronym: right in everybody’s back yard!). Class readings will include essays on technique, short stories, and memoir. We’ll discuss the elements of craft as they pertain to the published literature, as well as to our own work. This workshop will also have at its heart the discussion of student manuscripts and the development of constructive criticism. Talking about race, talking about craft, and talking about our own fiction should occur in an environment where everyone feels valued and supported. The road may be bumpy at times, but how else to get to that truth Toni Morrison so prized?

Faculty

Fiction Workshop: Seeking the Limits of the Frame

Workshop—Fall

I’ve been trying throughout my teaching career to find a way to teach writing that feels open, honest, and playful. My goal is to encourage innovation and experimentation and to lead my classes to the collective epiphany that the possibilities for fiction are nearly 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 the novel”—plot, character, setting, and theme. I am suspicious of peer critique that uses, as its engine, the words “I wanted.” In an ideal situation, we would try to see stories from the inside-out and 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 right alongside Hawkes’ quartet of imagined enemies. Voice would take precedence over plot. We would encourage ambitious failure more than careful success and wouldn’t care about readying every story for publication. We would applaud writers for taking a risk rather than burying them for the risk’s inscrutability. We wouldn’t be so small-bore in the way we think and talk about writing. The goal of this workshop is to move closer to these ideals. Doing so will require us to read published work that explores many narrative and aesthetic strategies: stories driven by language (like those of Dawn Raffel and Anne Carson, for example); stories driven by structural innovation (Julio Cortazar, Margaret Atwood); stories that thrive on patterns (Anton Chekhov, Carmen Maria Machado); and stories with a conceptual bent (Angela Carter, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah). Every class should be equal parts rigor, play, and discovery, as we seek to use the work of these masters—and our own collective imagination—to illuminate the outer edges of the frame of fictional possibility.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: The Brief Encounter Essay

Workshop—Fall

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 macro-level, distilling ideas and language into perfect sentences, one after another, until we have created concise beautiful works of art. We’ll read and discuss short, powerful pieces by outside writers, studying their craft techniques in order to perfect our own styles and voices. Of our six conferences, four will be individual meetings and two will be group meetings held in the evening to watch and discuss documentary films. In addition, there will be four monthly peer-group meetings. (Note: This is not a class in which to work on thesis material; the essays will be generated through writing exercises designed with specific topics and goals in mind.)

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: Silence, Embodiment, and the Speaker

Workshop—Fall

Over the course of the term, we will develop our understanding of three key elements of the poem. Each can be engaged with a question: Who speaks in this poem and how is the voice managed? How does this poem call upon us to use our senses, to be in our bodies? How does this poem relate to the silence that encircles it on the page and in the air? By reading a wide range of poets, both contemporary and past, we will consider how a poem can move along these three axes and how all three help us as writers. For each week of the term, you will produce one new poem. Workshopping will emphasize the descriptive: Although it’s easier to say what’s bad or good in a draft, it’s much more valuable to describe what’s actually there on the page. Additionally, you will read one poetry collection per week (some assigned, some elective), and we will discuss your reading and your process during biweekly conferences. My hope is to give you the grounding and routine that make space for a true encounter with the mystery. That’s what we’re here for, after all.

Faculty

Craft Classes

Fiction Craft (Screenwriting): Visual Storytelling: Writing for the Screen

Craft—Fall

A solid screenplay is the foundation of any great film, television program, or web series. Though filmmaking is a collaborative medium, the script is the blueprint for what happens on screen. It all begins with the writer and an idea. In this graduate craft class/workshop, students will learn the fundamentals of writing for the screen: story structure, character development, dialogue, outlining, and formatting. Weekly writing assignments will be given, then read and discussed in class. In addition, students will read several feature-length and short-length screenplays as a way to strengthen their script-analysis skills. For the final project, students will outline, pitch, write, and revise an original short screenplay. Overall, the writer will build a screenwriter’s toolkit, useful for any future opportunities that may emerge in writing for the screen.

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Prose Craft: The Craft of Humor and Joy: Writing with and About Delight and Amusement

Craft—Fall

In this multigenre craft course—spanning poetry, prose, and graphic memoir—we will identify, analyze, and emulate the grace and power of folding humor and joy into the narrative line. As effortless as humor and joy may appear on the page, these are—like any conscious act of craft—deliberate gestures that the writer has chosen to leaven or enrich their work. In considering joy, we will look at who typically has had or has laid claim to the “right” to joy. In other words, what does it mean for a writer who is experiencing active oppression to embrace and articulate the sources of joy in their life? Simultaneously, we’ll seek to upend the assumption of sameness at the heart of Tolstoy’s famous line, “All happy families are alike…,” by considering work by writers who sing their unique happiness on the page and forge kinship with the reader by sharing quotidian joys. In considering humor, we will focus on how—even (maybe especially) for writers who have been otherwise locked out of the experience of belonging fully within their culture—the use of humor has been a disarming tool, a survival mechanism, and a pathway toward transcendence. As John Waters said in a recent interview, “You can only change peoples’ minds if you make them laugh.” Writing that we’ll read may include, but is not limited, to: Bettyville, George Hodgman; Born a Crime, Trevor Noah; Fun House, Alison Bechdel; “Joy,” Zadie Smith; Picnic, Lightning, Billy Collins; The Book of Delights, Ross Gay; Baby, I Don’t Care, Chelsey Minnis; The Gilded Six-Bits, Zora Neale Hurston; and The Trayvon Generation, Elizabeth Alexander.

Faculty

Speculative Fiction Craft: Make Me Believe: How to Write the Impossible

Craft—Fall

The fun (and challenge) of writing speculative fiction is building a story that defies real-world rules while still earning the reader’s trust.  We’ll take a look at impossible stories by the likes of Aimee Bender, Kevin Brockmaier, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Angela Carter, Julio Cortazar, Nikolai Gogol, and Lauren Groff, among others, to explore the way in which craft fundamentals apply (and sometimes don’t) within radical narrative departures. We’ll also examine the speculative spectrum—the ways the term can be applied to include not only the outright fantastical but also a more subtle warping of reality. Classes will include teacher- and student-led discussions, in-class writing exercises, and a culminating workshop.

Faculty

Poetry Craft: New Chords and Transgressions: Topics in Craft (and Daring)

Craft—Fall

Two ideas power the imaginative and critical fascinations of this course. The first is from CAConrad: “We are not alone in our particular stew of molecules and the sooner we admit, even admire the influence of this world, the freer we will be to construct new chords of thought without fear;” the second is from the opening lines of a sonnet by Terrance Hayes: “Our sermon today concerns the dialectic / Blessings in transgression & transcendence.” Together we will complicate—and celebrate—formal traditions, exploring how writers work with and within and against conventions, expectations, and architectures. By way of spirited engagements with contemporary poems and an array of first books, we will consider defiance and deference, structure and surprise, the tensions between rebellion and innovation. And all the while, we will provoke new drafts and invent forms of our own by way of play and collaboration.

Faculty

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

Fiction Craft: Liminality and the Sublime Object

Craft—Fall

This class is inspired by an essay by Giorgio Agamben on profanation, which he describes as a crossing over the threshold between the human and the divine to create a third thing. That third thing is both, and neither, of those two states. How do we, as writers, work with that liminal space between two states to create a separate transcendent place that the reader occupies? It’s that sense of liminality, and what it produces, that I’d like to navigate over the semester. We’ll look at Agamben’s thought alongside other perspectives on the spaces between human and animal nature, consciousness and the unconscious, the gestalt of metaphor, cinematic montage, and whatever else comes up. We’ll read novels and short stories and discuss certain films that show how these ideas have been used to create art that itself transcends the simpler terms of its breakdown. My hope is that, by the end of the semester, you’ll understand how to make art that defies any reduction back to its original parts. You’ll better understand a kind of practice of the sublime.

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Prose Craft: Structuring the Story

Craft—Fall

This class is focused on structuring your novel or short fiction around a propulsive plot that will satisfy your readers. Through in-class discussion, writing exercises, and independent reading, we’ll identify techniques for building a compelling, coherent narrative. In collaboration with your classmates, you will distill your own chosen story down to its essential conflict. You’ll name your story’s innate strengths and weaknesses, main characters, and major turning points. You will then create an outline of your story in order to strengthen its internal logic and navigate through any structural, pacing, or plotting roadblocks. As we develop your outline over the semester, you’ll gain clarity on your story’s shape and your characters’ motivations. This class is perfect for writers at any stage of a project, whether you are first contemplating a new work or deep into your umpteenth revision. No matter where you’re at, we aim to help you gain clarity. After all, the more you understand your work, the better you’ll be able to advocate for it. The class is intended to help you not only develop and deepen your existing project but also to, in the future, more effectively pitch it to agents, publishers, and readers. Getting a firm grasp on your story’s structure will serve you through the entire life of the work. Readings will include selections from The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby; My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite;The Hole, by Hye-Young Pyun; Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds; The Collector, by John Fowles; Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler; as well as short fiction such as “The Wind,” by Lauren Groff; “Benji,” by Chinelo Okparanta; and “Trailhead,” by E. O. Wilson. Classes are expected to be conducted in person.

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Poetry/Prose Craft: On Sustaining a Practice of Documentation

Craft—Fall

The violence enacted on marginalized people is met with a poetry of resistance: art and literature as a political tool accessible to the masses. This course engages, through the marriage of poetry and the visual arts, with multidisciplinary, Black avant-garde methodologies toward documentation. What service do poetics and art-making practices offer to liberation, memory, and grief? In working to redefine the role of the writer-artist through the use of documentary poetic practices—and within a Black feminist framework—this course seeks a common thread across visual and textual mediums. Through ongoing readings, class discussions, and research, we will aim to link contemporary visual arts and documentary poetics as effective methodologies for documenting the liberation struggles and the marginalized experience. Utilizing texts such as adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism and Maurice Banchot’s The Writing of Disaster, we will consider the ideas of liberation, poetics, and artmaking in contrast to the functions of fact-based writing, testimony, and affidavits. The course will culminate in a final project that asks each student to create an archive, whether in the form of physical spaces, digital resources, or other more experimental forms.

Faculty

Pedagogy Craft Class and Internship: Teaching Good Prose

Craft—Fall

This is a remote internship. Prerequisite: completion of at least two semesters in the MFA Writing program.

This course will prepare student-teachers with a working knowledge of theories, methods, and procedures for teaching functional and academic reading and writing skills to first-year college students. The course has two main components: attendance in the Teaching Good Prose pedagogy seminar, held on Fridays from 12:30 to 2:10 pm, as well as a supervised teaching assistantship in a freshman writing class at SUNY Purchase. In the pedagogy seminar, readings and class discussions will explore strategies for designing and teaching lessons that will improve students’ ability to compose analytical college essays; express ideas clearly and effectively in well-developed, focused arguments with relevant and adequate evidence; and use the style and conventions of standard academic prose. Student-teachers are supervised by an instructor and are required to attend one session of a freshman writing class per week. Additionally, student-teachers are expected to meet with students outside of class for one-to-two hours per week.

Note: Courses are subject to change and not all will necessarily be offered every academic year.