2014-2015 Writing Courses
Not all white, not all men, all good writers
This craft class will focus on reading short stories (and maybe one novel) by women writers of any race and both male and female writers of color (basically, no white guys. Cheever is one of my favorites but....) There will be a couple of craft lectures but mostly we will examine them through close readings for craft, writing short responses and taking them apart to see how they work, how they use the various tools of fiction (and what we as writers can learn from them to use in our own work). Beyond those traditional goals of a craft class, there will be brief consideration of how these works function in the larger context of literature, given the difficult place they have occupied in the culture and the political/gender issues that some of the work raises.
The literary colloquium features events by SLC faculty members, visiting writers, editors, publishers, and literary agents, and is designed to bring MFA students in contact with a wide array of ideas from the world of writing.
Examples of regular events in the colloquium are: a residency in each genre (which includes a reading and a craft talk by a visiting author); conversations with writing faculty members and visiting writers; panels and discussions focused on publishing, teaching, editing, or other career-related topics.
By participating in forums related to both craft and professional development, students benefit from exposure to many voices, genres and experiences.
"Metamorphosis is a painful process. I imagine the exquisite agony of the caterpillar turning itself into a butterfly, pushing out eye-stalks, pounding its fat-cells into iridescent wing-dust, at last cracking the mother-of-pearl sheath and staggering upright on sticky, hair's-breadth legs, drunken, gasping, dazed by the light." -from The Untouchable by John Banville
In this poetry workshop we will rigorously attend each poem's metamorphosis, paying attention to whether it wants to sprout wings, antlers, both or neither. We will try to plot out the poem's most unique path according to the signposts the rough draft gives us. Our focus will be both minute and broad—examining poems on a cellular level, then talking about larger issues, like autobiography, science and poetry, compositional techniques… We will also read a number of books of contemporary poetry (by such authors as Anne Carson, Brenda Shaughnessy, Jen Bervin, Jeffrey Yang, and Kevin Young). Students will be asked to extrapolate from these works-detailing the elasticities and limits of each poetic voice in order to further develop their own.
This class will combine discussions of student work with writing exercises and readings in critical theory and psychology. We'll also read stories from published writers whose work serves a given discussion. We’ll talk about narrative approaches using psychic distance; fiction as dream; fiction as desire; the role of the unconscious; repetition and difference; and metaphor theory. Rather than cling to what we "know" in artful, literary fiction, I'm a firm believer in Cynthia Ozick's tenet: "When you write about what you don't know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination...it's our will to enter the world...." The most grounded realism needs to enter the reader's mind like a dream. It needs to leave the reader a complete stranger to its world, even after they've finished reading. I want to get the class thinking about entering the broader world, about writing stories that don't ever leave their readers
How Does This American Life Do What They Do?-A Narrative Writing for Radio Course
Have you ever wondered how This American Life, RadioLab, The Moth, and other narrative radio shows/podcasts do what they do? Wonder no more. This course will teach you how to write and construct long-form narrative pieces from pitch to broadcast. We will listen to, analyze, write, and produce in the style of shows that have dominated the narrative form for decades: This American Life, Radiolab, Planet Money, and The Moth. You will also be introduced to emerging shows such as 99 Percent Invisible, Love + Radio, Strangers, Unfictional, Audio Smut, Snap Judgement, Radiotopia, The Organist, and many others. Students will learn practicalities; e.g., pitching these shows by using actual "call for stories" from This American Life and Snap Judgement; the fundamentals of how to record and mix stories using the latest digital editing technology; what narrative editors expect from freelancers; how to adapt a written piece for broadcast; what kinds of narrative internships are available; and, yes, how to negotiate what you'll be paid. We will also reflect on the theoretical and ethical considerations for this "Golden Age of Narrative Radio." We will ask questions such as: How do imposing narrative structures affect nonfiction storytelling? How do narrative shows deal with ethical missteps? What does it mean to have "a voice?" Does it matter who gets to tell the story? (Answer on the last question, "Yes." We'll discuss why.) Producers, editors, and freelancers for This American Life, Radiolab, and The Moth will visit the class to provide insight into their shows and answer student questions. The class will also take a field trip to WNYC, which houses Radiolab and other national shows. At the end of the semester, students will take over the Hudson Valley community station, WGXC, to broadcast their final projects.
This class is open to all MFA students, including ones who have taken Ann Heppermann's audio fiction craft class.
Studies in Form
Students will explore techniques for generating, revising, and conceptualizing our fiction's deep structure, using ideas drawn from common and uncommon sources. We’ll discuss organizing principles found in organic matter, chance operations, dreams, psychology, narratology, mimesis, music theory, and film studies, among others. I’d like to convey just how many ways we can look at a text and find art in its arrangement. I feel that the more you know about the possibilities of form, the more you can stray from convention in your fiction without losing its cohesion and resonance. This class will touch on some topics that I discuss in workshop but will go much deeper, extending ideas and introducing many new ones.
The Hidden Lives of Poems
Poetry is the most concentrated of the literary modes and the one in which meaning and form are most intimately and subtly related. Therefore, to grasp fully what any poem has to offer, we need to understand more than the meaning of its statements; we must understand, in depth, how the poem is made, as well as the crucial relationship between what the poem is saying and how it is made. We may come to such understanding through an intensive study of whole poems, paying equal attention to the larger structures of meaning and feeling; the substructures of syntax, image, rhythm, and phrasing; and the “miniature” patterns (syllabic/phonemic) of sound and sense. Then poems stand forth in their full complexity as intricate and powerful expressive systems. In sum: While emphasizing crucial connections between meaning and form, this course will also go deeply into poetic anatomy and the poet’s toolkit: metaphor, simile, meter, stanza form, word-sound, diction, silence, line length, word length, line breaks, and so on. We will study a broad range of poems—both closed and open forms—and, on the way, work toward a general definition of poetry.
Writing for Magazines
In this course, we will use The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, and other periodicals to study narrative techniques of reporters, essayists, critics, cartoonists, poets, and fiction writers. Students will practice writing for a mass market, experimenting with a variety of styles and topics. Conferences will focus on submitting work for publication. Hard copies (no digital versions) of The New Yorker, Harper's, and the Sunday issue of The New York Times are required texts for the class.
Workshop in Creative Nonfiction
This course is intended to help each student settle into his or her voice and produce work that resonates with his or her distinct set of experiences, interests, and insights. Though the prime focus will be personal essay and memoir, those who want to explore other nonfiction forms are welcome. The course work will include workshop pieces that students develop in conversation with the instructor and shorter exercises intended to open students’ awareness of their process. Students can expect to do an extensive amount of revision, to engage in a deepened practice of reading, and to draw connections between writing and other creative fields such as music and film.
Shaping the Novel
The most delicate choices 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, 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 effectively discussing each other’s work. In workshop discussions, we’ll cultivate articulate critiques that always keep the writers’ intentions in mind. Revision will be emphasized. Over the course of the semester, each student will revise a story or novel excerpt at least twice and will have the option to workshop different drafts. The published works that we read for class and conference will be chosen in response to students’ writing and will include authors such as Ann Beattie, Gary Lutz, Denis Johnson, Robert Lopez, Blake Butler, Anton Chekhov, Junot Diaz, Barry Hannah, Octavia Butler, Yasunari Kawabata, and Joy Williams.
Writing for the Screen
Screenwriting is not so much a writing discipline as it is one allied with the tenets of the oral tradition of storytelling. In the best scripts, you are telling us your film. — Paul Schrader, screenwriter/director, Telluride, Colorado, 1989
In screenwriting, you show; you don’t tell. —classic screenwriting adage attributed to just about every screenwriting guru
I wrote a beautiful script, but ‘they’ shot it full of holes and made a terrible film. — classic screenwriter lament attributed to just about every screenwriter unhappy with their produced work
In this graduate craft class, we will explore writing for the screen, be it silver, flat, computer, or smart-phone. The aim is to understand how to write a bullet-proof screenplay where a writer “tells” a film through prose that effectively “shows” what we see and what we hear, moment-to-moment, articulating the action (the doing) of the characters and thereby revealing the emotional moments of recognition in the characters’ journey. Structured as a combination of seminar and workshop-style exchanges, writers will journey through the nature and construct of the screenplay form. The fundamentals of character, story, universe and setting, formatting, visual writing, dramatic action, tension, conflict, sequence structure, acts, and style will be explored. Analysis of published screenplays and peer work within the context of a productive environment will help writers hone a critical eye and develop skills to apply to troubleshooting one’s own work. Overall, the writer builds a screenwriter’s toolkit for use as future opportunities may emerge in writing for the screen. Skills learned in this class can be effectively applied to other threads of writing.
Poetry Workshop: Find Me A Body From Which My Soul Can Sing
This course focuses on the craft of writing poetry. Students will engage in an intensive pursuit of finding the finest form that their poems can embrace. We will be driven by the usual concerns and obsessions that occupy the writing of poems (imagination, craft, revision, content, etc.) but will delve into fundamental questions regarding the history and conceptualization of form and the poetic line. We will draw distinctions between line and sentence, speech and writing, shape and body, rendering and enactment, description and perception, disembodiment and incarnation, rhetoric and music.
The first meeting of this workshop will consist of, I hope, a spirited and thought-provoking discussion of the aesthetics and ethics of nonfiction writing. Topics that might come up are: Is it possible to write about other people without exploiting them? What is the difference between factual and essential truth? What is the main effect that I want my writing to have on my reader? During the second class, we will discuss three very differently structured essays with the goal of establishing a common set of concepts and terms that will be useful in the discussion of student writing. The remainder of the semester will be devoted to workshops, during which students will be encouraged to make specific and honest remarks (no one is ever helped by false praise), while always being considerate of the writer’s feelings and respectful of the writer’s freedom to defy convention. Workshops will involve detailed discussion of technical matters (point of view, metaphor, pacing, etc.) but never to the point where we lose track of bigger issues pertaining to the role that writing plays in the lives of readers and writers—and in society as a whole. Ideally, by the end of the semester students will have a fairly clear idea of what works best in their own writing and will have made significant steps toward working out their personal aesthetics.
The formulaic nature of many fiction-writing workshops seems (to me) antithetical to what it means to make art. I’ve been trying desperately for years now—with varying degrees of success—to find a way to “teach” writing in a way that feels open, honest, and playful. Want to know what I’d like? For a class to encourage innovation and experimentation, to come to the collective epiphany that the possibilities for story are 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 fiction”—plot, character, setting, and theme. I am suspicious of peer critique that uses, as its engine, the words “I want.” In an ideal situation, we would try to see stories from the inside out and try to imagine how they might become more purely what they are rather than something that we want them to be. We would value language, style, and structure. Voice would take precedence over plot. We would encourage ambitious failure more than careful success. We would applaud a writer for taking a risk rather than bury her or him for the risk’s inscrutability. We wouldn’t treat every story as something to be made publication-ready and wouldn’t be so small-bore in the way that we think and talk. These are ideas, of course, and tell you nothing about how I actually run my classroom. So here are a few things I’m (relatively) sure about. Each student will bring at least one story into the classroom over the course of the semester. We will often write in response to prompts designed to help you find a voice, take a chance, do something you wouldn’t expect of yourself. We will, on two or three occasions, take a break from our routine to discuss a great (and, for those of you who don’t know me, likely unorthodox) novel. We will try to spend some time talking about aesthetics and discussing essays from writers of all stripes who think they’ve got it all figured out. It’s having it all figured out that scares me. In the end, I want us to follow Socrates’ lead and to realize that we only know that we know nothing. Every class should be equal parts rigor, play, and discovery. If this sounds interesting, show up, and we’ll work out the details.
The focus of most of our discussions this semester will stem from the students’ own work. Whose story is it? Is it the narrator’s story? Or is it another character who has the focus of your attention? What is your particular intention for tone? How is the voice working in counterpoint with the subject matter? How is the story structured in time? What are you beginning to recognize as the most mysterious and promising material of the story? Which details seem spooky and informative of a larger revelation? What actions, events, memories are beginning to form a pattern in the story, and how can these patterns be recognized and better developed? The questions, conceptions, and issues that arise in the workshop are as rich and varied as the enterprise of fiction. We will investigate the craft of fiction through readings and discussion, exercises, and close discussions of your writing in biweekly individual conferences.
This graduate workshop will involve a lot of reading as well as writing. What are the dominant myths in Western culture? How is our own worldview influenced by them? What is your relationship to the garden? To time? To error? To form? To wholeness? To brokenness? How does the manner (the how) of your poems reflect that worldview? What is your relationship to “the natural world”? If you join this class will read The Book of Genesis, the Greek myths, and many other nonfiction texts, as well as books of poems—approximately one book a week. You will write a poem per week and meet with another member of our class community once a week in a poetry date. You will keep a journal of observations each week. You will meet with me in a conference every other week. You will collect your poems into a chapbook at the end of the term. I ask for full participation, deep inquiry, and rigor. We will have a wonderful time.
Writing With Wit
Did you hear the one about the MFA student who blended strong prose with a sense of humor? Probably not, since so many don’t. Or maybe they’re just not encouraged. In this workshop, you’ll learn to inject humor into your work by connecting with your comic voice. We’ll read and discuss the work of legendary humorists, including James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, as well as contemporary wits such as David Sedaris, Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, Ian Frazier, Merryl Markoe, Fran Lebowitz, and Sloane Crosley. Writing assignments will help strengthen your voice across four basic forms: the personal essay, the comic novel or short story, the topical news column, and the parody piece. We’ll also do some in-class exercises designed to shake off preconceived notions of “literary” prose and help you find the funny in the characters, dialogue, and situations that you create. Whether your goal is to pen a “Shouts and Murmurs” piece for The New Yorker, a post for McSweeney’s, or just loosen your style with a lighter touch, the first step is the same: take your sense of humor seriously. Sample reading selections include: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, Lillian Ross, ed.; I Found This Funny, Judd Apatow, ed.; selected interviews from And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With Humor Writers, Sachs, ed., and How To Write Funny, John Kachuba, ed.; Saturday Night, Susan Orlean; Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris; The Onion.
Articulations of Intimacy and Unmapped Syllable: Poetry and Prose as a Landscape of Pysche
We’ll look at texts and visual works that examine both interior and exterior geographies regarding the relationship and erosion of “a world” to our own identities as poets and writers. We’ll also focus on the device of landscapes as an entrance to our own poetic maps and personal histories. Some of our material will include Denis Johnson, Lucille Clifton, Tomas Tranströmer, Faulkner, Teju Cole, T. S. Eliot, Mark Strand, Toni Morrison, Kevin Powers, Marie NDiaye, Rilke, and Brenda Shaughnessy, among others. Students will write poems and short fiction and create visual texts about the challenge of the complex and intimate terrains that we face as individuals, citizens, and arbiters of a larger humanity.
The Nature and Purpose of Drama
Prose fiction, viewed from one angle, is a mongrel genre pitched halfway between poetry and the stage. It's hard enough to talk about the poetry part…but what about the drama? This craft class will focus on what fiction writers can learn from their board-treading colleagues about the complex relationships among character, plot, and structure. What makes a great character? What plot should she find herself in? How should the story be told? What separates an urgent scene from a flat one? How can we move from any of these starting points to any of the others? And what can all of this tell us about the larger drama of writing itself?
Craft readings will draw on the work of playwrights, directors, and novelists who have wrestled with these questions, including Henry James, Constantin Stanislavski, David Mamet, Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Suzann Lori-Parks, and Tony Kushner. Primarily, though, we’ll explore these writers’ ideas as they play out in fiction by Deborah Eisenberg, Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Grace Paley, Denis Johnson, Christine Schutt, Junot Diaz, and others.