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, 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.

2018-2019 Courses

Writing

Speculative Fiction Craft: This Story Changes the World: Imagined Manuals, Feminist Utopias, and Furious Fantasies for Crafting New Worlds

Craft—Spring

You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

The creation of fantastical worlds in order to address and analyze real-world problems of radical inequality—gender-, sexuality-, race-, and class-based oppression—is a tradition that can be followed easily through the history of speculative fiction. For writers, both utopian and dystopian narratives can be tools for greater analysis of our own structures and assumptions, revising our cultural mythology, and ultimately changing the world around us. In this course, we’ll look at the ways in which speculative writers have used genre to “What If?” their way out of oppression, looking at everything from excerpts and analysis of the worldbuilding and conceptual follow-through of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland to the nonfiction and fiction of Ursula K. le Guin, Octavia Butler, Sofia Samatar, Charlie Jane Anders, Carmen Maria Machado, Brooke Bolander, and more. We'll pry apart the found materials of our world—ranging from political rhetoric to kernels of science, expedition, and exploration— to fuel our own imagined narratives. In writing exercises, we’ll learn to use our own cultural assumptions as tools to recalibrate notions of heroic POV, to rip from the headlines, to add mythic elements, and to shape the worst that the news has to offer into fantastical stories and concepts interrogating and exploring worlds brewed from the one in which we live.

Faculty

Poetry Craft: Writers in a School of One: The Singular Imagination

Craft—Spring

In this class, we will look at poets who may not be easily associated with or placed within poetic groups and movements as a result of their distinctive styles, imaginations, aesthetics, and, in some cases, hermetic lifestyles. We will study Emily Dickinson, Robert Lax, Elizabeth Bishop, Claudia Rankine, Thomas James, CAConrad and others. In an attempt to learn from their making, we will closely examine how craft elements—such as repetition, diversion, mystery, minimalism, pacing, and drastic leaps—operate within their work. All of this will be done in an effort to discover the singular voice within each of us as poets. Additionally, we will engage in writing exercises, language experiments with crystals, and discuss the occult in poetry. Theoretical voices such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes will guide us along the way in an effort to understand style and authorship. We will listen to The Doors. We will experiment. Anything is possible.

Faculty

Nonfiction Craft: Cultural Criticism: A Conversation Between Readers and Writers

Craft—Spring

We grow as writers by responding to the work of others. George Bernard Shaw was a theatre critic before he was a playwright. Dave Eggers was a reviewer before he was a novelist and memoirist. This nonfiction craft class will explore the role that opinion plays in the arts and will allow you to try your hand at several forms of writing—the critical essay, the short reported piece, the online review—that may be new to you. We will also be looking at how technology is changing the shape of opinion, criticism, and recommendation—and asking the following sorts of questions: How important is expertise when one is passing judgment on something? What is the role of "voice" in criticism? How does the medium (magazine, television, blog) affect the message? Does everyone's opinion matter? No familiarity with any of the above is necessary for this class! Its primary purpose is to unleash your “Inner Cultural Critic” by encouraging a lively exchange of ideas, honing your writing skills, and helping you find your voice—both in the classroom and on the page!

Faculty

Fiction Craft: In Time and Out of It

Craft—Spring

In this course, we’ll be exploring the ways in which the time line that governs most fiction can open into spaces of timelessness. Whether achieved by means of metaphor or a shift in perspective, through the use of history or myth, a move outside the temporal frame of a work of fiction often yields an expansion of the inner story...opens it to eternity. We’ll be reading fiction by Munro, Baldwin, Trevor, Elizabeth Bishop, Joyce, Kafka, Chekhov, Carver, Edward P. Jones, Proust, Woolf, Duras, and Teju Cole. A couple of stories or a section of a novel will be assigned each week, as well as a craft exercise that relates to the readings. These exercises, for the most part, will be written out of class; I’d be glad to look at them but don’t require they be handed in. At the end of each class, we’ll talk about general questions of craft: beginnings and endings, audience, self-censorship, voice, perseverance, etc. We’ll also make space in the final weeks of the semester for short presentations in which students explore the hidden avenues that led to their art.

Faculty

Poetry Craft: Vessel of Fire: History of Poetic Forms From the Traditional to the Experimental

Craft—Spring

This craft class is intended for writers who are invested in learning the history, origin, and practice of poetic forms. Poetic forms provide both cage and freedom, risk and rigor. We will focus on poetic devices, formal strategies, structure, rhythm, and sound. During the first half of the semester, we practice earlier forms (epistle, cento, sonnet, villanelle, ghazal, elegy) while, in the second half of the semester, we will delve into more modern invention (erasure, the pecha kucha, the bop, the golden shovel, the contemporary zuihitsu, and hybrid forms combining poetry and the moving image)—all the while journeying toward your own individualized form(s). We will read work by Terrance Hayes, Matthea Harvey, Kimiko Hahn, Tyehimba Jess, Afaa Michael Weaver, Nathalie Diaz, and Jack Gilbert, as well as translations from international writers. We will also read the invention of student writers who have taken these forms and made them their own. Students are expected to write and read consistently, experiment, and be passionate about creation. The class culminates in a literary tour and reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop.

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Craft: Fact and Research in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry

Craft—Spring

This course will explore the complex issues regarding the use of factual material in all forms of creative writing, as well as give students practical experience and guidance in various types of research and reporting. The class will begin by trying to pin down the surprisingly enigmatic concepts of “fact” and “truth” and move on to explore—through readings, discussion, and brief writing assignments—questions such as: What is my obligation to the “truth”? How much should I care about the feelings or reputations of my living subjects? When should I commence research? When should I stop? Are truth and beauty allies or enemies? How do I handle a hostile interview subject? How do I organize my files so that I can easily access the results of my research? During the first half of the course, students will write brief assignments focusing on particular issues regarding the use of fact. The last half of the course will be devoted to workshops of longer pieces—in any form—that the students will write in consultation with the professor. Students will also be instructed in library and internet research and in libel and copyright law. There will be biweekly one-on-one conferences.

Faculty

Mixed-Genre Craft: Reading for Writers

Craft—Spring

To become a really strong writer, the most useful and interesting thing that you can do is to become a really strong reader. (It is the way good writers have always learned how to write.) 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. As you closely retrace the footsteps of the literary imagination, 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. 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, screenplay for Casablanca; 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.

Faculty

Fiction Craft: The Prose Experiment

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 other structures to build compelling, surprising works of fiction. A writing constraint can be as hypnotic as an illusionist’s sleight of hand, freeing the writer’s mind for magic. We’ll examine the effects of lists, footnotes, erasures, numbering, and omissions; the impact of experiments with verb mood, unexpected points of view, and tense; different approaches to intentionally breaking established rules; and the ways in which other formulae can help us and our readers find new paths to our imaginations. Students will work with writing assignments, play writing games, and occasionally collaborate to generate stories. We’ll read fiction—created using such techniques—by authors such as Gertrude Stein, Thomas Bernhard, Georges Perec, Robert Lopez, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Renee Gladman, Joshua Ferris, 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.

Faculty

Fiction Craft: The Drama of Fiction

Craft—Spring

Prose fiction is a mongrel genre, stuck 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 the complex relationships among character, plot, and structure—and what fiction writers can steal, and have stolen, from their colleagues in the theatre. What makes a great character? In what plot should she find herself? 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 novelists who have wrestled with these questions, as well as directors and playwrights: Henry James, Constantin Stanislavski, David Mamet, Anton Chekhov, Suzann Lori-Parks, Deborah Eisenberg, Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Grace Paley, Denis Johnson, Christine Schutt, and others.

Faculty

Speculative Fiction Craft: Monster Lessons

Craft—Spring

“The monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us,” writes Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his groundbreaking 1996 essay Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In Western literature and culture, the monster has been linked to the other and to marginalized bodies beginning with the “foreign” and barbaric Cyclopes of Homer’s Odyssey. Women, queer people, and people of color and Native people have frequently found themselves represented as one kind of monster or another; but marginalized people have also found ways to transform monster stories into opportunities for gleeful and exuberant resistance. Rewriting the monster can show us ways to make new stories out of old skins. In this craft class, we’ll learn to look at our own culture through its monsters by reading classic horror texts in conversation with modern-day speculative subversions of the monstrous body. We’ll use those lessons to build our own responses to the monstrous—and to our own monster stories. We’ll examine the different strategies that writers use to re-envision the monstrous, and we’ll develop a toolkit for writing about the real and imagined monsters around us. Potential reading list:

Monster Culture (Seven Theses), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
The Blood of the Vampire, Florence Marryat/Monster Portraits, Sofia Samatar 
The Horror at Red Hook, HP Lovecraft/The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor Lavalle  
The Rim of Morning, William Sloane/The Moth Diaries, Rachel Klein
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley/Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg
Beowulf/The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley

Faculty

Fiction Craft: The Whole Thing From Start to Finish

Craft—Spring

The syllabus may change to fit students’ needs, so don’t read ahead.

This is an everything course. From muttering "I've been taking notes" at parties to humblebragging on Twitter, there are many distinct steps to writing books and stories—and we'll be walking you through each one from beginning to end. We'll talk about gathering material, close reading, creating good conditions for writing, drafting quickly, finding your way into characters, overcoming writer’s block, research, plot, getting and using feedback, and early and late revisions. To finish things off, we'll cover story submissions, pitches, freelancing, finding agents, working with editors, and publishing/promoting your work. There'll be lectures, discussions, useful and non-demeaning activities, and a bunch of readings. All readings will be provided.

Raymond Carver, One More Thing
Flannery O'Connor, Good Country People
Francine Prose, Close Reading
James Wood, How Fiction Works, excerpt
Philip Roth, The Conversion of the Jews
Alexandra Kleeman, Fairy Tale
Martin Amis, Bob Sneed Broke the Silence
Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine, chapter 1
Elizabeth Tallent, No One's a Mystery
Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs, Chapter Zero
Stephen Koch, Working and Reworking
Jenny Zhang, You Fell in the River and I Saved You! early draft (2011) and final published version (2017)
ZZ Packer, Brownies
Allan Gurganus, My Heart is a Snake Farm
Harry Mathews, Country Cooking From Central France
Carmen Maria Machado, Especially Heinous
Tom Wolfe, Stalking the Billion Footed Beast
Lincoln Michel, The Ultimate Guide To Getting Published In A Literary Magazine
Tony Tulathimutte, Publish or Perish
Vladimir Nabokov, Spring in Fialta and Signs and Symbols
Clarice Lispector, The Egg and the Chicken
Lydia Davis, A Mown Lawn
Bennett Sims, The Bookcase
Donald Barthelme, The School
Octavia Butler, Bloodchild
Amy Hempel, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried
George Saunders, The Perfect Gerbil
Kristen Roupenian, Cat Person

Faculty

Speculative Fiction Workshop: Prose for Pros: Survive and Thrive as a Spec Fic Writer

Workshop—Spring

People often think of writing as a solitary business, but the reality is that writers rarely thrive without a community of mentors and colleagues. In this workshop, students will receive peer and instructor critique on their work; but they will also learn how to support themselves emotionally, professionally, and physically as they work toward bettering their craft. Readings will include nonfiction pieces about the writing life by Mary Robinette Kowal, Matt Kressel, and Kate Wilhelm. In one-on-one sessions, students will receive tailored reading suggestions based on their work and interests, as well as suggestions and pointers for placing their work in the context of the contemporary speculative fiction scene. Every writer’s goals and techniques are different, and each student’s one-on-one time will be dedicated to crafting an approach to authorhood that works for him or her. Students will each have two critique slots over the course of the semester, with the option of either bringing two original pieces of fiction to workshop over the course of the semester or writing one piece and substantially revising it for a second round of polishing feedback—with the end goal of revising the stor(ies) for eventual submission to prestigious, professional speculative fiction journals.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: Reading, Writing, and Revising

Workshop—Spring

If you are not reading, you are not writing. This is a quiet fact. In our workshop and our conferences, I hope to introduce you to poems and poets you have not yet encountered. (Some you’ll love; others, not so much.) I will bring copies of poems to discuss at the opening of classes and will ask that you bring sufficient copies of your own poems for workshop each week. We are here to help one another consider the poem’s intent, music, and reach—to "dot every I and cross every T," to address fundamentals of form and syntax, and to point to moments of confusion and moments of brilliance. This will be tricky work! But I have faith in this process—of reading, writing, revising, and revising again—bravely gathering all of the poets' tools (the tools of line/linebreak/diction/strategy/sonics/compassion and thought). At semester's end (early May 2019), I ask that you hand in an informal annotated book log and a sequenced chapbook of 10 to 12 revised poems.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

This memoir workshop will follow the traditional format of manuscript exchange and evaluation with a particular emphasis on Kaula, or community building. Constructive criticism is not constructive; the only helpful "critiques" meet each individual author exactly where they are, on their own unique terms, and offer support and encouragement of what we, as readers, perceive, from our highest selves, are the author's intentions for the work. This can only be achieved in a safe and mutually respectful community. In conference, students will complete an intensive structural analysis of a book-length, published work of personal narrative (either memoir or "collected essays," aka memoir) and will take turns presenting to the class an excerpt of the book that they have chosen for conference study. Please come to the first class with a vague idea of which book you are interested in studying on a deeper level this semester.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

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

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

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 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 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 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

Speculative Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

“That’s how I see the world now,” Anna Kavan remarked to her publisher, Peter Owen, about her turn to speculative and science fiction as a way to respond to personal and global devastation. In this workshop, we will read and write the poetic and philosophical speculative works of literature in which one enters landscapes of unreality or other realities as a way to write an individual often alienated in society—often rewriting and revising fairytales and myths, dream spheres of the human and the animal. We will think about form, language, mood and atmosphere, and concepts like the uncanny, the unreal, and the defamiliarized space while writing and sharing your own work. While writing, we will be thinking about theories of the speculative, with an adventurous reading list that could encompass stories and novels by Franz Kafka, Antoine Volodine, Leonora Carrington, Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, Kanai Mieko, Angela Carter, Clarice Lispector, WG Sebald, Renee Gladman, Cristina Rivera Garza, Anne Carson, and more. We could also look at other art forms to think about the mood and atmospheric feelings of the speculative, everything from the paintings of Paula Rego to the television series BoJack Horseman to the films of Chris Marker.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: Writing About Ideas

Workshop—Spring

In this course, we will read and analyze essays that are only, at most, nominally about the person who is writing them. This will not, therefore, be a class in which the focus is on self-discovery but, instead, will be on discovery of something outside the self. In order to write meaningfully about the world around us, we must be engaged with it— through thought and through other kinds of exploration. In this course, we’ll practice the art of thinking, which is harder than we might, well, think it is—it involves silence and separation from distraction and the hard work of developing a relationship with one’s own intellect. We’ll work on fluency in writing and will apply keen editing skills to our own sentences and paragraphs. It will be really fun. (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

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Spring

This workshop will take a hybrid approach to the traditional roundtable discussion of student work. Though we’ll discuss student work, we’ll also spend class time talking about theories on structure, form, psychology, and philosophy. We’ll read and analyze published work—stories and novels and memoir—that illustrates how the theory can leave the academic and conceptual realm and be useful to developing your own creativity. 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 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.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Spring

This course will focus intensively and humanistically on participants' own work.  Roughly a third of 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: Reading, Writing, and Revising Nonfiction

Workshop—Spring

In this workshop, we will talk about defining characters (including narrators), establishing a sense of place, and structuring and pacing our work—and we will delve into questions that go to the heart of creative nonfiction writing: What is the essence of a personal essay? What are its necessary elements, or is the very notion of "necessary elements" limiting? Is there a meaningful difference between essay and memoir, or does worrying about which one you’re writing inhibit creativity? Each week, the class will discuss two workshop pieces and analyze a published work, focusing on craft. For each session, students will submit 300- to 500-word analyses of technique and style in the published work under discussion. At the end of the course, each student will submit a substantive revision of one of the workshop pieces. Published works will include essays/personal narratives by writers that include Phillip Lopate, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, George Saunders, Christian Wiman, Gayle Pemberton, E. B. White, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Julie Marie Wade.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: The Dead and the Living

Workshop—Spring

In this class we'll discuss how to draw on the inspirational powers of other poets: the living, as proposed by you, and the dead, as proposed by me. Each week, someone in the class will assign, present, and suggest an exercise based on the work of a living poet—and each week, I'll do the same based on the work of someone dead. Our choices will be made after our introductory discussions to figure out the powers, needs, and interests of the poets in the room. Along the way, we'll develop a critical language together in which to talk about poetry of any description, acquire tools of our own inspired by the inventions of others, do some in-class workshop discussion of drafts (but not too much), and broaden our sense of the range of what poetry is and can do. Drafts will be discussed in detail in conference. You'll get experience in teaching a class as well. The only prerequisites are a desire to be challenged, a thirst for reading that equals your thirst for writing, and a willingness to undertake whatever labors might be necessary to read and write better on our last day of class than on our first.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop: Graduate Workshop in Novel and Linked Stories

Workshop—Spring

The class is for students who are working on novels or on short stories that they plan to connect in some way. Workshops will ask what the fiction wants to mean and how it goes about conveying this. We’ll talk a good deal about shape and structure and creating narrative tension. Students will be asked to write tentative summaries for novels or annotated tables of contents for story collections and to think about how the parts will connect to the whole. (Writers can expect their work to be read in sections rather than as completed entities.) Most of the class time will be spent discussing student work, but we’ll also do outside reading and look at a range of examples.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Fall

In this workshop, we will combine the exploration of our own new writing with discussions of readings assigned each week from a diverse list of books, including poetry by Kamau Brathwaite, Marilyn Chin, Robert Pinsky, Cynthia Hogue, Martin Espada, and Carol Ann Duffy. We should look forward to engaging discussions, including aspects of subject and structure, cultural embodiment and borrowing, and topical writing. Pointed discussions of line edits can extend to an ongoing investigation of how we are led by our imagination and how we may take hold of our imagination and lead it. In addition to our weekly readings, I may make spontaneous additions of individual poems, especially translated works. Translation, in its theory and application, should be an ongoing interest. Our weekly discussions of the readings will, I hope, be a deep and honest sharing of our responses to published work in the service of maintaining the workshop as a safe, open, and generative space where we can nourish our pursuit of the art.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

In this course, we will explore how the nonfiction writer engages and holds onto the reader: through storytelling, the progression of an idea or argument, tone and voice, or what Phillip Lopate calls an “aesthetic inevitability.” We will read and discuss essays and memoir excerpts (from writers including James Baldwin, Eula Biss, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adam Gopnik, and Mary McCarthy, among others) and listen to various audio stories to try to figure out how other writers and storytellers have done it. We will complete short, directed assignments that aim to access compelling biographical or intellectual material and help students light upon their particular concerns and writing style. We will strive to create writing that is vivid, fresh, and beautiful; that struggles toward honesty and precision; that matters beyond the fact that the events depicted are true. Students will be expected to complete two longer works that will be submitted to workshop. 

Faculty

Nonfiction Craft: Storying the Self

Craft—Fall

How do we take the sprawl of life—with its many characters, events, timelines, memories—and distill the human experience to a cohesive and gripping story? How do we find the narrative electricity in the mundane? This class will focus on the elements of story with a particular emphasis on structure. We’ll study classic forms, episodic timelines, and experimental narratives with an objective to chisel a dramatic arc from our lives. We’ll also discuss the terms on which one forges a relationship of trust between writer and audience—the compromises that we might weigh and the permissions that may or may not be granted by this foundation. We will use the architectures behind the assigned readings as a blueprint and gateway for our own writing exercises. Texts will include work by: Kristen Arnett, Charles Baxter, Alison Bechdel, Brian Blanchfield, Durga Chew-Bose, Julie Buntin, Alexander Chee, Rachel Cusk, Sonali Deraniyagala, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Kristin Dombek, Eliese Colette Goldbach, Samantha Irby, Leslie Jamison, Kiese Laymon, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Sarah Manguso, Mary Ruefle, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Jenny Zhang.

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 the opening lines of a sonnet by Terrance Hayes: “Our sermon today concerns the dialectic/Blessings in transgression & transcendence”; the second, from CA Conrad: “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.” 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 translations, we will consider defiance and deference, structure and surprise, and 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. Look forward to intensive meetings devoted to generative writing, reading an array of daring poets (think: Layli Long Soldier, Solmaz Sharif, Vievee Francis, Anne Carson, Sarah Howe, Patrick Rosal, sam sax, Natalie Diaz, Tyehimba Jess, etc.) and conversations about the matter and melody of all that you create.

Faculty

Speculative Fiction Craft: The Monstrous Domestic: Horror in the Home

Craft—Fall

In this craft class, we’ll examine monstersboth literal and metaphoricand the roles that they play in fiction set in the domestic sphere. We will explore the juxtaposition of teeth and claws against marriage, housework, and tax returns in fiction by Max Gladstone, Angela Carter, Marie Vibbert, Carmen Machado, Jeffrey Ford, and others. Real-world horrors will play a role in the readings, too, through nonfiction essays such as Dimas Ilaw’s The Shape of Darkness as it Overtakes Us,” which discusses how speculative fiction can help us cope with and confront violence, danger, and fear. The stark contrast of the monstrous and the domestic will give us an excellent opportunity to look through the lens that speculative fiction holds up to the everyday, showing us hard truths and inspiring us to see things differently. 

Faculty

Fiction Craft: Narrative Obsession

Craft—Fall

How do we reveal ourselves, obliquely or otherwise, in the act of longing for another? And how can writers use such revelations for narrative effect? While the objects of obsession for these writers range from ex-lovers to strangers, our readings are all books whose driving force comes from a singular focus on the other. Even though ostensibly these are books “about” another person, I’m interested in how they function as a portrait of their narratorsmaps of their psychological topography. I’d like to look at the ways in which obsession tints and twists our ability to tell a story and how writers can employ this as a narrative tool in their own work. For the reader, a narrator with an obsession is a useful entry point into a world. We’ll look at the choices that these authors make and to what effect, the craft strategies that they employ to create a slippage in narration, and think about how obsession both reveals and obscures reality. Readings will include works by Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Sophie Calle, Jeffrey Eugenides, Scott Spencer, and others. Informed by the reading, students will submit a creative work of 5-10 pages, animated by the theme of obsession.

Faculty

Speculative Fiction Craft: Lost in the Maze: Unseen Forces, Conspiracies, and Fate

Craft—Fall

Worldbuildingin speculative fiction often brings to mind the maps on the endpapers of fantasy novels, showing the terrain that characters will traverse on their journeys. But in many great novels and stories, characters start out embedded in the heart of a labyrinthand never find their way out. In this course, we’ll look at fictive universes that trap and delude their inhabitants, sending them on twisting routes to dead ends or keeping them in ignorance of the powers-that-be who are secretly determining the shape of their lives. We’ll closely read stories and novel excerpts from authorsincluding Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Link, Victor LaValle, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Samantha Hunt, Mark Z. Danielewski, Thomas Pynchon, and othersin order to reverse-engineer the all-encompassing systems they present in their fiction. Ultimately, we’ll ponder how writers can use systems to convey meaning and how characters can find meaning within those systems.

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Nonfiction Craft: Emersonians and Montaignians: Two Approaches to the Essay

Craft—Fall

When you say that you’d like to start working on an essay,” you’re probably referring to one of two related but distinct forms, each with its own history. There’s the argumentative essay that, here in America, is descended from the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson—developed out loud, in sermons and speeches, for the purpose of persuading (and, just as importantly, entertaining) an audience. Then there’s the more ruminative essayistic tradition that stretches back to Michel de Montaigne and the French Renaissance. In this course, we’ll explore both traditions and play with what we find. We’ll start with classic early American sermons by John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, as well as Montaigne’s first attempts to map his restless consciousness onto the page, in prose. Then we’ll wind through time, visiting Emerson and Douglass, Didion and Sontag, Dr. King and Zadie Smith. We’ll make work informed by their tendencies and strategies on either side of the essay’s enduring line.

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Fiction Craft: The Writing of Politically Engaged Fiction

Craft—Fall

One of the enduring assertions of the second wave of the Feminist Movement in the United States, beginning in the late 1960s, was that the personal is political. Despite the skepticism that often greets fiction attempting to engage contemporary political issues, some of the most significant works of fiction in recent years have dramatized how the personal fates of characters are shaped by political events beyond the immediate circumstances of their lives as individuals. In this course, students will read eight works of fiction (Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, A Person of Interest by Susan Choi, Brief Encounters With Che Guevera by Ben Fountain, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, and Run by Ann Patchett) that use various narrative strategies to tell the stories of individuals who are also informed by the larger political realities in the world they inhabit. Students will engage in class discussions, examining the strategies used by each writer to make a personal story resonate politically. Each student will be required to give a presentation on how effective a particular work of fiction is in fulfilling the assertion that the personal is political. The typed written notes of class presentations must be turned in by the end of the semester.

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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 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 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 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’s lead and 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.

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Poetry Workshop: What Else Inside the Voice Inside the Ink?

Workshop—Fall

This course takes its sense from my (our) craft course last semester. Several of the questions centered here are questions that we began to think about last semester, but this new course is new—and folks who either did or didn’t take that course last year are all welcome.

How does a text behave like (or carry) the worlds and questions to which it responds? What Else or Elsewhere can be found inside the ink? How do writers cultivate encounter, observation, history, and imagination to tip and trouble language into experience? In this workshop, we will explore texts that inspire wonder and exemplify the powers of imaginative practice(s). Studying work that is original, strange, wondering, we will consider the gifts of mystery and strangeness in poems. (And here I am hearing Paul Celan in “The Meridian,” translated by Pierre Joris: “The poem estranges. It estranges by its existence, by the mode of its existence, it stands opposite and against one, voiceful and voiceless simultaneously, as language, as language setting itself free….” Together we will work to understand some of the ways in which the texts are working while also engaging in studies that awaken our own idiosyncratic ways of saying and seeing. As a way of learning with assigned materials, participants will be expected to write poems in response to experiments, present beloved texts, and provide peers with thoughtfully considered feedback on/observations of their work. The course will be reading- and writing-intensive. It will also be a kind of laboratory for trying and making. Among the artists whose work we will likely study are Simone White, Hélène Cixous, Ilya Kaminsky, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Paul Celan, Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Ruefle, Vievee Francis, J. Michael Martinez, Clarice Lispector, James Baldwin, June Jordan, Cherrie Moraga, Ross Gay, W.S. Merwin, and Kamau Brathwaite. In addition to reading workshop materials by peers, students will read five assigned poetry collections over the course of the semester, along with other assigned texts (a pair of letters, a poem, an essay) every week.

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Fiction Workshop: Revision

Workshop—Fall

This course examines the art of revision.  “[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 in the hopes of examining the concrete ways 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. In addition to a selection from James’s New York edition prefaces, our supplemental readings may also include revisions of Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, Joyce’s The Sisters, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Grace Paley’s A Conversation with My Father, Edward P. Jones’s The First Day, and Flannery O’Connor’s The Geranium and Judgement Day, among many others.

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Fiction Workshop: A Life in Fiction

Workshop—Fall

This workshop will focus on the development of craft, expanding the writer’s understanding and range of character, syntax, narrative strategies, and narrative risk. We will look at published works of fiction to understand how a writer has accomplished what she/he has accomplished in a specific novel or short story and what we as writers can learn and make use of in the advancement of our own craft. In addition to working on drafts and revisions of fictions, there will be weekly writing experiments that will, hopefully, upend and expand preconceptions of language and structure in the shaping of fiction.

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Poetry Workshop: Speaking in Tongues, Wearing the Mask: Speaker, Persona, Impersonation, Ventriloquism, Fragment

Workshop—Fall

When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person. Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

For centuries, poets have spoken in the voices of other people—from the early Greeks to Shakespeare, to Walt Whitman, to Emily Dickinson, to Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, Patricia Smith, Nick Flynn, Jorie Graham, Tyehimba Jess, etc. What is made possible when one speaks in the voice of a character in an ancient story or myth? What is made possible when one gives voice to a character that lived in another time? Who dares to speak in the voice of a flower? Of a bee? Of a storm? Of a star? What if one gives voice to the fragments of voices within one consciousness? In this class, we will read poems where the poet has spoken in a different tongue or has worn the mask of someone or something else. Each participant will be expected to read assigned collections deeply each week, to meet with another student in a weekly poetry date, and to bring in one new persona poem each week. I hope we will find that outside the limits of the personal story is a cosmos of possibilities for empathy, revision, wonder, instruction, and finding another way in: slant.

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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-level, as opposed to the 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.)

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Speculative Fiction Workshop: Un-Realism

Workshop—Fall

Paul Ricoeur has suggested that written language—through the unique process by which the human brain converts metaphor into image—can make real what in our day-to-day reality would be tangibly impossible. In other words, we can, through the written word, draw from the ether of madness and real-ize it. It’s unique to the word on the page, our brain’s translation of a little cipher into the letter a,” a combination of ciphers into a word, our internal transmutation of that word into a sound-image—which, combined with other sound-images, produces breathing dreams of logic and paradox and joy and terror and narrative drive. And it’s an internal process that other forms of narrative—like cinema or television or theatre—don’t require of our brains. This internal combustion of words and memories is an amazing alchemy that we, as writers, engineer. We can transfer madness onto a page and make it hard and material. It’s that transference and burnishing of madness—of manipulating metaphor into reality—that I want you to understand deeply and be able to use in new ways by the end of this workshop…to know how to make anything startling and real…to send anyone into the breathing dream. So, rather than a speculative fiction workshop, we might call this an un-realism workshop. We’ll spend about half of each session workshopping student writing but will devote the rest of the time to outside reading: theory and fiction relating to the parable form, Freudian dream work, mise en abyme, frame narrative, mazes, pattern language, conceptual metaphor, surrealism, magical realism, anti-realism, and irrealism. Some caveats: The reading list will be ambitious and mandatory. I tend to run on at the mouth with abstraction, pointy-headed digression, 10-cent words, and apparent non sequiturs. I’ll aggressively point out clichés that you thought were just fine and stop you from writing television shows. If you’re okay with all the above, let’s work together.

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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 (back story) 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 and 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. There will be both biweekly and one-on-one conferences.

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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 that 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.

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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. —Paul Schrader, Screenwriter/Director, 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 smartphone, 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. We will explore the fundamentals of character, story, worldbuilding, universe and setting, formatting, visual writing, dramatic action, tension, conflict, sequence structure, acts, and screenplay style. 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 to use for future opportunities that may emerge in writing for the screen. Skills learned in this craft class can be effectively applied to other threads of writing.

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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.

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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 course work 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. 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.

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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 or adviser. If you have not been in touch with SUNY Purchase and plan to register for this craft class, please get in touch with Amparo Rios for next steps.

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.

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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? Assignments throughout the semester will 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. 

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Speculative Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns. —Octavia Butler

This speculative fiction workshop will be a home for those strange stories that grow outside the manicured gardens of the real. We will interpret “speculative” broadly, welcoming stories of science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, weird literature, and anything in between. Student work will be the center of class, but we will also spend time honing our “imaginative literacy”—our understanding of different genre conventions and traditions. We’ll discuss worldbuilding, horror vs. terror, fairy-tale structures, and other concepts to deepen our appreciation and craft. Because genres are, in a sense, large conversations between artists, we will also discuss outside readings from authors such as Ray Bradbury, Kelly Link, Julio Cortazar, Gene Wolfe, Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ted Chiang, Shirley Jackson, and more (including writers that you love and recommend).

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