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

Long-Form Narrative Workshop—Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

This workshop will focus on novels, novellas, and book-length memoirs. We'll use a traditional roundtable discussion to talk about student work-in-progress. The class size will probably influence how we approach the workshop and how we use conferences, but the emphasis will be on your work’s development. If time permits, I'd also like to discuss ideas that will help you work on longer narratives that move beyond the workshop discussion and, hopefully, beyond ideas that you’ve already learned—concepts as applicable to creative nonfiction as they are to fiction. Mostly, we’ll focus on interest: What makes a book riveting? Why are some narratives flat and dull or fall apart after the first third—even when they’ve followed all the common “rules” to the letter? The discussion of why the experience of reading fascinates us—drawing from psychological, philosophical, and linguistic ideas—might be more valuable than reiterated truisms on character, plot, and structure. So, I’m hoping that we can talk about the conventions that are useful but then move into some less-discussed concepts. We might begin with David Ball’s book on reading plays, Backwards and Forwards, then branch off into ideas rooted in catharsis, reversal and recognition, the uncanny, the gestalt of metaphor, sublimation, mirror neurons and narrative empathy, the interaction of space and time as depth and energy, the teleological impulse, transindividuation, how the death and life drives work together to create a “page turner”…and so on. We’ll look at work by established writers, using interesting approaches so that nothing we discuss will exist in an abstract, conceptual vacuum—because the better you understand the atomic principles that constitute the larger abstractions, the more likely you’ll be able to turn those conventions inside out. You’ll retain what makes basic rules of plot and character and structure powerful while adapting their cathartic force to suit your ideas rather than resorting to the stock templates. I’m hoping that the semester will show you how you can express your ideas in a way that feels natural for you but also sets you apart.

Faculty

Writing Humor and Joy—Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

In this creative nonfiction workshop, humor and joy will be the leavening agents that we invite one another to integrate into material of any weight or gravity. Humor—whether used as the driving force of a satirical piece or as a light dusting of levity within a piece that’s hugely serious—affords us, as writers, a way to disarm and charm readers—to share a breath with them across time. Likewise, finding artful ways to animate joy on the page is a gift that only rare writers have fully explored; it can feel indulgent or unnecessary. But in an era that is rippling with worry, uncertainty, and despair, joy in our writing matters more than ever; it’s a power source to propel us forward—not with blind optimism but, rather, with deep appreciation for what’s most precious, most worth preserving and transmitting. The grace and power made possible by folding humor and joy into virtually any narrative line are available to any of us but require eager attention and careful architecture. As effortless as humor and joy may appear on the page—like any conscious act of craft—these are deliberate gestures that the writer has chosen to enrich their work. Our aim will be to harness the special momentum that joy and humor offer to creative nonfiction narratives and to amplify both within our own writing. Writers whose work may serve as a guide include, among others, Elizabeth Alexander, Chris Struck, George Saunders, John Berger, Ross Gay, Virginia Woolf, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Caitlin Moran, and ZZ Packer.

Faculty

How to Make Your Life [Seem to] Matter: Writing Essays—Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

Nonfiction has to be based on real life but is also supposed to make sense and mean something—two things that real life consistently fails to do. The fact that “it really happened” may make a story interesting in bars but not necessarily on paper. How do you reconcile the messy raw material of reality with the requirements of art? How do you turn the pointless meandering up and down of life into something shaped like a story? How do you render your own personal experience into something significant and universal, something worth reading? How do you make it all seem to mean something? How do you make your life matter?

We’ll hash these questions over in class as thoughtfully as we can. We’ll read beautiful, hilarious, and moving essays, memoirs, and journalism to see how writers who are smarter and more talented than we have managed to pull it off. We’ll labor to find strange new ways of saying the same old obvious truths. We’ll talk euphony and rhetoric, memorize snatches of great literature, and write letters to loved ones. And we will do the least fun thing anyone can voluntarily do—write essays ourselves.

By the end of this course, students will understand life.

Faculty

The Distinctive Voice in Poetry—Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Spring

This course will focus primarily and humanistically on participants’ own work. Roughly a third of discussion time will be devoted to seminal contemporary poems, with attention to poets of color and marginalized voices. We’ll examine poetics, prosody, issues of form, pace, voicing, and tone in contemporary poetry and in radically experimental texts. We’ll focus on the revision process: How do artists push themselves toward new worlds? How do poets achieve spontaneity without sacrificing rigor? How do texts reconcile clarity and unpredictability? How do poets develop their own exploration tools? How do we go beyond intent? Our emphasis is on craft and individual style, not judgment. Expect to read widely, to approach texts in new ways, and to create many wild drafts and a finished portfolio of six-to-infinity poems.

Faculty

Revision—Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

“[O]ne’s plan, alas, is one thing and one’s result another,” Henry James says in the New York edition preface to The Wings of the Dove. We will try to think about what James calls, in that preface, “the gaps and the lapses” in our work, “the intentions that, with the best will in the world, were not to fructify,” “the absent values, the palpable voids, the missing links, the mocking shadows” that necessarily haunt any early draft, and our subsequent attempts to exorcise those specters. We will do this primarily by workshopping early drafts of student work alongside revisions of that work, examining the concrete way that each revision meets or fails to meet (or even re-conceptualizes entirely) the ambitions and requirements of its earlier incarnation. Our assumption will be that most drafts—especially early ones—are largely failures, pocked with the Jamesian voids and lacunae mentioned above. Anyone can fail in this manner, of course—anybody can produce a disastrous first draft—but few are capable of failing (to use Samuel Beckett’s oft-quoted injunction) better. This course aims to provide you with the tools and the strategies to do so.

Faculty

We Are the Weirdos, Mister—Speculative Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

We can approach the speculative as a mirror that sometimes allows us to view what we are unable to see directly and sometimes warps reality’s reflection into something that is perhaps less comfortable to look at but more honest. Or we can approach the speculative as a prism, refracting reality into something more beautiful. Together, we’ll explore our own reasons for seeking to subvert, push, or transgress the boundaries of the “real” in our fiction; and in our workshops and one-on-one conferences, we will experiment with voice, style, nontraditional storytelling, and aim to gird the architecture of your world-building. We will be doing magic, and we will be transforming. We’ll read from a range of authors—possibly including but not limited to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Angela Carter, Mariana Enriquez, N. K. Jemisin, Alice Sola Kim, Vernon Lee, Ken Liu, Brenda Peynado, and Karen Tei Yamashita—and consider the ways in which speculative fiction enables minority writers, in particular, to escape the standard tropes of “ethnic fiction” and to reimagine issues such as identity, immigration, and otherness.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Spring

In this course, we will examine contemporary voices in poetry and build our own poetry-writing practice, engaging in lively questions about process and craft as we work to define and contextualize poetry in our class discussions and workshops. Students will individually produce material and submit drafts to the poetry workshop for discussion, where we will learn to offer serious and constructive criticism. The goal of the poetry workshop is generative: It propels a dynamic revision process so that, at the end of the semester, each student will submit a portfolio of revised material. This course strives to equip students with a framework to both read and relate to poetry as an artistic discipline, as well as a means to connect individual and collective expression within a broader social, historical, political, colonial, and/or transnational context.

Fiction Workshop: Seeking the Limits of the Frame

Workshop—Spring

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

Art Imitates Life—Mixed-Genre Prose Workshop

Workshop—Spring

Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability, Anne Lamott says of storytelling. Annie Dillard takes it even further by saying, “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” Years earlier, Maya Angelou noted, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” This workshop will explore the intersection of these three concepts: how to tell the stories we must, as abundantly and generously as we can, and with as much truth as they deserve. Our time together will explore the concept of facilitating emotional healing through creative expression and will incorporate meditation practices and tenets of narrative therapy. In this course, students will develop and workshop their pieces, as well as critically read a range of contemporary fiction and nonfiction, tackling powerful experiences that include love, death, mental illness, and grief. While most of the class time will be devoted to workshopping pieces, we’ll also talk frankly about the more practical aspects of writing—setting up a routine, navigating the publishing process, dealing with distractions. At the end of the semester, we will either attend a literary event together or organize one ourselves, depending on whether students want to share their work.

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.

Technologies of the Fantastic—Speculative Fiction Craft

Craft—Spring

How do authors construct science-fiction worlds? Which psychological effects can horror produce? What systems power the surreal? This craft course will examine the inner workings of speculative fiction genres by pairing craft and theory with fiction from around the world. We’ll read essays by authors such as Karen Russell, Sigmund Freud, and Charlie Jane Anders, along with fiction by Carmen Maria Machado, Angela Carter, Brian Evenson, the Brothers Grimm, Ted Chiang, Yoko Ogawa, Iain M. Banks, and Octavia Butler. Classes will involve regular in-class exercises. Our goal will be to study the inner workings of various speculative forms and use our findings as models, toolkits, and inspirations for our own strange and original stories.

Faculty

Reading for Writers—Mixed-Genre Craft

Craft—Spring

To become a really strong writer, the most useful and interesting thing that you can do is to become a very strong reader. (Good writers have always learned how to write this way.) In this course, we will explore a range of compelling works—in fiction, drama, poetry, and film—with the aim of understanding how those texts work and why they succeed as well as they do. What are each work’s special powers? As you understand others’ writing more deeply, you will widen and deepen your own work—in any genre. Our informal class discussions will be oriented toward the project of expanding your awareness of options and choices and acquiring new techniques. We will also take a close look at comedy and tragedy and consider their stunning uses in several of our texts. Texts will include: Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory; Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day; G. B. Shaw’s drama, Saint Joan; Samuel Beckett’s one-act play, Krapp’s Last Tape; the Epstein Brothers and Howard Koch’s screenplay for Casablanca; and poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Stanley Kunitz, D. H. Lawrence, and others. In addition to Casablanca, films will include The Sting, The Fallen Idol, Babette’s Feast, and The Lives of Others. There will be bi-weekly conferences held via Zoom.

Faculty

Craft, That Which Can Be Spoken—Poetry Craft

Craft—Spring

In this course, we will examine closed and open forms of poetry—beginning with a form called “the bop,” which was invented in the late 20th century. "The bop" involves the use of musical structures and has been compared to the sonnet. Our initial discussions of form will involve ideas of language, sound, and patterns that, I hope, will give us a chance to review as well as to explore as we move through some familiar forms such as the villanelle. In looking at open form, we will look at older published works in historical context, such as the early work of John Ashberry and ideas of abstract organization in works by Sekou Sundiata and Jayne Cortez, both of whom should give us a chance to look at the performative dimensions in poetry. The earlier work of Langston Hughes, with its use of montage, will give us a chance to discuss the ways in which poetry can borrow from structures in film. At various points in the course, I will make reference to the Dao De Jing as a framing device for our discussions. In chapter 24, for example, there is a frame for discussion of balance in the line. The overall objectives of the course are lively in-class discussions toward the production of new and exploratory writing.

Faculty

Finding the Drama—Fiction Craft

Craft—Spring

Narrative prose is an impure genre that lives and dies somewhere between poetry and the stage. It's hard enough to talk about the poetic elements of a great story or novel (or profile or memoir), but what about the dramatics? What makes a character? In what plot should she find herself? What separates an urgent scene from a flat one? What is the three-act structure, and how can it help or hinder? And what can any of this tell us about the larger drama of writing itself? This craft class, designed for anyone who has ever wrestled with the “story” part of telling a story, will focus on the complex relationships among the dramatic elements of character, plot, and structure—and what writers of narrative can steal—and have stolen— from their colleagues in the theatre. Craft readings will draw on the work of novelists who have engaged with these questions, as well as with directors and playwrights: Henry James, Constantin Stanislavski, David Mamet, Anton Chekhov, Suzann Lori-Parks, Deborah Eisenberg, Edward P. Jones, Grace Paley, Yoon Choi, and others.

Faculty

Writing the Adapted Screenplay

Craft—Spring

A scene from your favorite novel haunts you, a peculiar event in the news leaves you incredulous, you are fascinated by an historical event or personage or amazed by the journey of a relative from a distant land. These are some of the many preexisting sources that fuel our cinematic, story-telling imagination and call us to write movies. Focusing on the craft of adaptation, we will study the development of numerous films based upon novels, plays, short stories, etc.—analyzing the transitional process from original source to screenplay and then to final film. How is expansive, complex source material distilled into a successful screenplay? How does one expand material from a brief news event or poem into a complete three-act narrative? Using folktales, short plays, and current events as prompts, students will write short, adapted screenplays in order to further develop the craft of three-act, dramatic screenwriting. As part of the shift to screenwriting, students will create mood boards, inspired by their own projects, to further develop cinematic storytelling skills. The final project will be a short, 15-page screenplay adapted from source material of the student’s choosing. (A student may adapt their own work, as well.)

Faculty

Fiction Craft

Craft—Spring

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 imposed 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 cover a range of topics over the course of the semester—from point of view to the passage of time to embodied characters and beyond—and use our experiments to explore them fully. We’ll also take different approaches to intentionally breaking established rules. Students will work with writing assignments, play writing games, and occasionally collaborate to generate stories. There will be opportunities throughout the course to apply what we’re doing to works that students already have in progress. We’ll read pieces created using such techniques by authors such as Garielle Lutz, Shelley Jackson, Thomas Bernhard, Georges Perec, Robert Lopez, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Renee Gladman, Jen Bervin, Matthew Sharpe, Elizabeth Crane, and others. We’ll also discuss some theories around constraints in writing. We’ll talk with contemporary authors about their writing processes, and each student will design a constraint that we will use for writing in class. Poets and nonfiction students are welcome in this class.

Faculty

Dance as Writing—Nonfiction Craft

Craft—Spring

This craft class, open to writers of any genre, will use methods derived from the world of dance to explore new ways to generate and revise compelling writing. Shifting back and forth between dance studio and seminar table, movement will be our starting point in finding connections between physical embodiment and literary expression—which will allow us to reexamine our writing practice. Areas of dance and performance from which we will draw and that overlap with writing concerns include techniques for heightening physical perception, movement through space as a gateway to memory, dance as a method for accessing heritage, the use of randomness in composition, and choreography derived from improvisation, as well as relationships between dance and nature. While the emphasis of the class will be on using movement to find new approaches to writing, participants are more than welcome to bring in works-in-progress and their own existing methods. For inspiration and insight, we will watch works choreographed by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones, Jiří Kylián, Donna Uchizono, and Pina Bausch, among others, and reading from works that reflect on dance and performance such as Paul Valery’s Philosophy of the Dance, Alan Lightman’s Pas de Deux, Colum McCann’s Dancer, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Caroline Brown’s Chance and Circumstance, Cecilia Vicuña’s Instan, and Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution. A background (or perceived ability) in dance is absolutely not required.

Faculty

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