Writing Courses

One of the oldest programs of its kind in the country, Sarah Lawrence’s nationally recognized Graduate Writing Program brings students into close mentoring relationships with active, distinguished writers. Students concentrate in fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, 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.

2017-2018 Courses

Writing

Speculative Craft: The Radical Fantastic: Speculative Fiction Against the Machine

Craft—Fall

Mythology has always played a central role in how we view and interact with our world. Junot Díaz said, “Tolkien could have been talking about the power of stories when he described his One Ring: stories rule us, they find us, they bring us together, they bind us, and, yes, they can pull us apart as well.”  More often than not, mainstream speculative fiction reiterates dominant normative fantasies about gender, race, and power in our society. But what about counternarratives? Throughout history, subversive writers have used science fiction and fantasy to explore possibilities of radical change and expand our ideas of what’s possible, often while looking with unflinching eyes at a bleak, desperate future. Change begins with the imagination; and in this course, we will stretch our imaginations toward a radically different future than the one we were given. We will read work from DuBois, Butler, LaValle, Alexie, Anzaldúa, Okorafor, and others. Additionally, we’ll discuss elements of narrative structure, world building, character development, voice, and rhythm.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This fiction workshop will focus on the submissions of the participants alongside a handful of published works that we will read closely with an eye toward gleaning lessons from them to inform our compositional practices. Our discussions will marshal our highest intelligence in the service of helpful, cogent, respectful feedback about what works and what doesn’t in the pages under consideration. Over the course of the semester, and using both submissions and published works as points of departure for our conversations, we will explore the formal underpinnings of narrative art, emphasizing craft techniques such as: managing point of view and time, writing with the five senses, incorporating both showing and telling in one’s work, writing more effective dialogue, creating stakes, establishing voice, cultivating beauty, emphasizing conflict, promoting ambiguity and a multiplicity of interpretive possibilities, and scrupulously earning the kind of affect that is the opposite of kitsch. In-class writing exercises will be few; we will have plenty to talk about in our short time together every week. Supplemental works will be: Pastoralia by George Saunders; Runaway by Alice Munro; Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell; The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; Dubliners by James Joyce; The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff; and occasional handouts. (Any versions of these books are acceptable, including digital.)

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

The personal essay is an ancient form—Montaigne, Seneca, St. Augustine, and Sei Shonogan are early practitioners—with modern applications and implications. We'll discuss the context from which the essay arises and subjects that lend themselves well to the form. By analyzing successful models and exploring the contours, elements, and language of the essay, we’ll come to a deeper understanding of its purposes and pleasures. This workshop will encourage innovative approaches to the personal essay, as well as thoughtful use of poetic language, juxtaposition, and white space. We’ll discuss some of the forms that a personal essay may take, including the braid and lyric essay, wherein a steady accretion of key imagery and associations build meaning. Most importantly, perhaps, we will seek to make sense out of chaos by drawing threads of metaphor and connection across seemingly disparate landscapes. My goal is to dispense with notions of “appropriate” subject matter, or assertions that one must have lived an extraordinary or tragic life in order to write compelling nonfiction. To that end, we will work with the artifice of memory rather than against it. We will approach our work as conduits for awe, not as scribes for predetermined or too-familiar plot lines. Reading lists may include Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Octavio Paz, Italo Calvino, Justin Torres, Sarah Manguso, E. B. White, David Foster Wallace, Montaigne, Sei Shonogan, Anne Carson, and others.

Faculty

Pedagogy Craft and Internship: Teaching Good Prose

Craft—Fall

Prerequisites: Completion of at least two semesters in the MFA Writing program or permission of the instructor.

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, which include attendance in the Teaching Good Prose pedagogy seminar held on Fridays from 2:30 to 4:10 p.m., 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 the instructor and supervisors and are required to attend one class per week. Additionally, student-interns are expected to meet with students outside of class for 1-2 hours per week.

Faculty

Poetry Craft: 20th-Century Avant-Garde Poetry

Craft—Fall

This class will focus on the history of 20th-century avant-garde poetry. We will begin briefly in the 19th century with Charles Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Lautréamont, and Stéphane Mallarmé and then examine various avant-garde, experimental, and non-mainstream poetry movements, including Symbolism, Imagism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Harlem Renaissance, Négritude, Black Arts Movement, Black Mountain School, Beats, New York School, feminist poetry, Objectivism, cross-cultural poetics, ethnopoetics, spoken-word poetry, hip-hop, language poetry, concrete poetry, and more. We will end by focusing on recent trends, such as Flarf, conceptual writing, and digital poetry. Along the way, we will pause to talk more extensively about important figures in this history, such as T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Aimé Césaire, Charles Olson, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, and Alice Notley, as well as read the work of a few younger writers. We will also occasionally reference parallel developments in 20th-century avant-garde art, theatre, and music. We will write poems inspired by, though not necessarily imitative of, materials presented in class.

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Craft: Beginnings

Craft—Fall

The moment when a spider sends out the first strands of a new web, or when a bird positions the first twigs of a new nest, the eternal contest between imaginative freedom and natural constraints begins. This course will explore the complexity of written beginnings through weekly readings of poems, essays, and narratives, both fictional and nonfictional. Decisions will have to be made concerning: Who is speaking the narrative, essay, or poem? Who is experiencing it? Who is receiving it? How much context (backstory) does the reader need at the outset? Where in the story should the telling of it begin, and what difference might that choice make? How do we pull or push the reader, decisively, through the looking glass, into this new world? And finally, how do we END the beginning, intriguingly, so the reader will want to move on to the MIDDLE? Readings will be chosen from works that raise these questions, and many others, in provocative and instructive ways. Students will lead the discussions each week (with the instructor) from a writer’s perspective.

Faculty

Fiction Craft: Plot/Unplot: Structure, Voice, and the Narrative Unconscious

Craft—Fall

This class will discuss what makes contemporary narrative move. We’ll begin with some fundamental ideas on plot and form, then progress to less traditional thoughts on narrative’s internal circuitry. Each story we tell is a kind of consciousness with its own repressed activity living in the space around the words. This narrative unconscious—the madness within the syntax and word choice of its symbolic order—is critical to a reader’s engagement. It’s the heat in a story, the daemonic life within the text. But what is this heat? Why do certain stories have it while others don’t? How do we produce it in our own writing? We’ll start with Aristotle’s Poetics—his ideas on tragic vs. epic plots, unity, and magnitude. How do they relate to contemporary structure and dynamics? I’ll show you how we can adapt them to suit more open and fragmented forms. Then we’ll move into theories of the narrative unconscious: the sublime, Duende, the uncanny, abjection. How is creative writing a kind of madness of language? What does John Dewey mean when he says that art is a “living creature”? How—through plot and the distortions of ambiguity, ellipsis, fragmentation, and metaphor—do we navigate that line between internal logic and creative force? Readings will move from somewhat conventional formal structures to more open forms—Paula Fox, Denis Johnson, Emily Holmes Coleman, Henry Green, Michael Ondaatje, and Jenny Erpenbeck. Theory will draw from Aristotle, Dewey, Bergson, Chatman, Barthes, Freud, Bly, Lorca, Lacan, and Kristeva. Weekly writing exercises will produce self-contained flash pieces, using plot in compressed, unconventional ways to support and counter the week’s theory and creative readings.

Faculty

Poetry Craft: Managing Your Material

Craft—Fall

In a good poem, the elements work together as a unit, just as our own combinations of body and mind work together. But if we are studying body and mind as medical students do, we would soon realize that it is impossible to consider all parts at once. The way to deal with a complicated subject is to look at it part by part.…[Regarding poetry,] we have to talk separately about the elements that make it up—such as imagery, diction, rhythm—even though we know they cannot exist in isolation.  —from “Western Wind” by John Frederick Nims

We will examine how poets manage their content by isolating elements such as diction, syntax, structure, pacing, tone, imagery, and metaphor, among others, so that we can see how the elements are working on their own and how they cooperate and don’t cooperate with each other. What decisions is the poet making? And how do those decisions influence us as readers? There will be assignments throughout the semester that include generating poems, reading, writing a short paper (two-to-three pages), teaching a poem to the class, and more. We will read work by Carson, Francis, McClain, and many others, both as full books and through class handouts. 

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Craft: Writing With Wit

Craft—Fall

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; and The Onion.

Faculty

Fiction Craft: The Varieties of Narrative Style, or The How of Telling a Story

Craft—Fall

In the opening of Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, the narrator acknowledges to the reader the difficulties in explaining “Why” the calamities visited upon a particular family occurred—but then adds that the story as it unfolds will concern itself with “How.” This seems to be the challenge for every writer: to discover how to tell a story about the lives of specific human beings that will convey to the writer and the reader the meaning of those lives from perspectives which neither may have considered before. In this course, students will read 10 novels, along with essays about and interviews with the writers. Students will engage in class discussions, examining how particular narrative strategies—epistolary; first, second, and third person; multiple narrative perspective; dialogue and interior driven narratives; nonsequential narrative; story within a story; and mix of fiction and autobiography—are used by writers to present readers with a challenging relationship to the story they are trying to tell. Books: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff, The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich, Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Appointment by Herta Muller, The Whites by Richard Price, An Ishmael of Syria by Asaad Almohammed, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Making It Up by Penelope Lively.

Faculty

Fiction Craft: Writing for the Screen—The Bullet-Proof Screenplay

Craft—Fall

Screenwriting is not so much a writing discipline as it is one allied with the tenants of the oral tradition of storytelling. In the best scripts, you are telling us your film. —Screenwriter/Director, Paul Schrader, Telluride, CO, 1989

In screenwriting, you show. You don’t tell. —Classic screenwriting adage (attributed to just about every screenwriting guru)

I wrote a beautiful script, and ‘they’ shot it—shot it full of holes—and made a terrible film. —Classic screenwriter lament (attributed to just about every screenwriter unhappy with his/her produced work)

In this graduate craft class, we will explore writing for the screen, be it silver, flat, computer-based, for iPad or smart-phone, et al. The aim is to understand how to create a “bullet-proof screenplay” in which 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 craft class along with some workshop-style exchanges, writers will journey through the nature and construct of the screenplay form. The fundamentals of character, story, world building, universe and setting, formatting, visual writing, dramatic action, tension, conflict, sequence structure, acts, and screenplay 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 tool kit for use as future opportunities may emerge in writing for the screen. Skills learned in this craft class can be effectively applied to other threads of writing.  
Faculty

Nonfiction Craft: Writing From the Podium: The Sermonic American Essay

Craft—Fall

The essay, in its American incarnation, is a direct outgrowth of the sermon—developed out loud and for the purpose of persuading (and, just as importantly, entertaining) an audience. Beginning with Winthrop on the boat and Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, our nonfiction tradition has been coaxing and argumentative, insistent and not infrequently irritating. The implications of this sermonic heritage can be found in the sentences, styles, voices, and attitudes of writers from Emerson and Douglass to Didion and Sontag. In this course, we will read and discuss sermons and speeches from the likes of Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinem, and Billy Graham, as well as a range of argumentative essays, and make work informed by the tendencies and strategies that we find.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This workshop will take a hybrid approach to the traditional roundtable discussion of student work. We’ll discuss student work but will also spend significant class time talking about theories on narrative structure and form, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. We’ll read and analyze published fiction and creative nonfiction that illustrates how the theory can leave the conceptual realm and be useful to creating work. Because, as important as it is to be writing as much as possible right now, it’s as important to bend and broaden your understanding of the ways in which people perceive and dream and hope and remember and forget. These are the drivers of narrative as much as they are of living. So we’ll read and discuss philosophical and psychological texts, we’ll look into dreams and memory, metaphor, formal symmetry, dialectical method, the uncanny, desire, and whatever else seems suited to the class. Where in past workshops I’ve focused on shorter published work to read—short stories, mostly—I’d like to spend time on entire novels and story collections this time around, with a couple of weeks devoted to flash fiction. We’ll also work on mandatory writing prompts that further internalize the class discussions.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: The Unknown

Workshop—Fall

What moves people’s hearts, in every case, is the unknown….If so, wouldn’t it be a good thing to unknow the world? —Kenya Hara

This is a class about curiosity and inquisitiveness, about walking forward into the unknown and backward into the unknown. We will read texts in this vein, taking inspiration from Kenya Hara’s design text, Ex-formation, and Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. Students will be expected to undertake biweekly, class-created writing experiments, such as: “Go to a part of the city that you’ve never been to before. Spend one hour on a bench looking only at people’s feet. Write a poem.” Texts and themes will include: Ex-formation by Kenya Hara, Grapefruit by Yoko Ono, Time/Here by Richard McGuire, Animals/What did We Do Wrong? by Fanny Howe, Love Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindenberg, Language/Look by Solmaz Sharif, Size/Complete Minimal Poems by Aram Saroyan, and Sleep/A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam.
Faculty

Speculative Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

Although every work of fiction is a fantasy, fiction writers often strive to portray reality. In this workshop, we will focus on writing and reading fiction that embraces the fantastic. We will focus on creating worlds from our dreams and daydreams. We’ll treat our stories as laboratories of the imagination that accommodate daring and complex experiments. We’ll talk about subjectivity and the scope of human perception—and explore how much of what we agree to call reality is itself a fantasy. We will also examine the precedents set in science fiction, fantasy, and other areas of literature that deal with the realms of the unreal. Authors whose work you may read for class or conference include Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, Octavia Butler, Judy Budnitz, Helen Oyeyemi, Karin Tidbeck, Cathy Park Hong, William Gibson, Paul LaFarge, Shelly Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, David Ohle, Samuel Delaney, Yasunari Kawabata, Angela Carter, and Dolan Morgan, along with theorists and philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Markus Gabriel. We’ll identify and discuss conventions within genres, both working within them and pushing against them. 

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

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 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 for not everything that comes through the classroom 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 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 him/her 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 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.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop: Literary Journals and Writing

Workshop—Fall

Where do the stories come from that are featured in anthologies like Best American Poetry or the O. Henry Prize Stories? How does the fiction in Paris Review compare to that of Prairie Schooner? What sort of writers are published in Tin House? In Ploughshares? Who publishes in reviews and journals to begin with? In this workshop, we will read various literary journals, both online and in print format, as a way to answer these and other questions, as well as to discover new voices. In terms of writing, this workshop will be held in a traditional format, wherein students deliver their work a week in advance of the workshop and write up formal critiques of the fiction of their fellow writers. There will be writing exercises in addition to weekly readings of journals and critical essays. Literary journals can be sources of great reading and inspiration; becoming familiar with them might help you figure out where your own fiction might one day find a home.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This course will focus intensively and humanistically on participants’ own work. Roughly a third of the discussion time will be devoted to classics and to work that will never be found in the canon. We’ll pay close attention to the development of the individual voice and examine poetics, prosody, issues of form and tone in contemporary and classical poetics, and the radically experimental text. 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? Expect to read widely, to approach texts in new ways, and to create many wild drafts and a finished portfolio of six to ... poems. 

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This course is intended to help each student settle into his/her voice and produce work that resonates with his/her distinct set of experiences, interests, and insights. The prime focus will be personal essay and memoir. The coursework will include workshop pieces that students develop in conversation with the instructor and shorter exercises intended to open the student’s awareness of his/her 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.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: The Personal Essay

Workshop—Fall

In this course, we will study the writings of great essayists to discover how the form works to create universal meaning from personal stories. We will discuss the process of writing and practice (through informal classroom exercises) moving thoughts and ideas from the mind to the page with fluency. From there, we will focus on elements of craft and style and work specifically on writing good sentences and then good paragraphs and, ultimately, formal, polished essays that will be submitted to workshop.  

Faculty

Fiction Workshop: The Art of the Novel

Workshop—Fall

The novel is a vast landscape; but despite the liberal space, a good novel requires structure—direction, motive, and dynamic characters that will take readers through the terrain. Through reading, writing, and discussion, this intensive workshop will challenge students to expand on ideas, using the tools given to make the novel work as a unified, compelling whole. This course may be more beneficial for students who already have a novel in progress; however, it is also open to those who are just getting started. Each student will have the opportunity to workshop twice, up to 25 pages. We’ll discuss at least two selected works to aid our discussions on technique/craft in relation to shaping your novel. Excerpts of other books and stories will be assigned as we go along to better aid your individual storytelling process. Authors may include Chimamanda Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, and Jacqueline Woodson. Prompts will be given at the beginning of every workshop to get your creative juices flowing.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This graduate workshop will involve a lot of reading and writing. What are the dominant myths in Western culture? How is your 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, you will read The Book of Genesis, The Greek Myths, and many other nonfiction texts, as well as books of poems—approximately a book a week. You will write a poem a 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. And 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.

Faculty