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, successful 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.

2015-2016 Courses

Writing

The Hidden Lives of Poems

Craft—Fall

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, and also, 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 sub-structures 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.

Faculty

Fiction Craft Course: Storytelling and the Art of Not-Knowing

Craft—Fall

Ernest Hemingway once remarked that when writing a story, he wrote until he knew what was going to happen next. He would begin again the following day, allowing the time away from writing to undermine his certainty about where the story was headed. For Hemingway, a story had the best chance of coming fully to life when the act of writing was an ongoing process of discovering what he did not know. In this course, students will read ten works of fiction, including essays about and interviews with the various writers. Class discussions will focus on how these writers construct stories that follow the arc of Hemingway’s storytelling strategy from not-knowing to discovery.

Books:

In Our Time-- Ernest Hemingway
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories-- Flannery O’Connor
Angels-- Denis Johnson
Sula-- Toni Morrison
Mao II-- Don DeLillo
Tracks-- Louise Erdrich
The Untouchable-- John Banville
Moral Disorder and Other Stories-- Margaret Atwood
The Night Inspector-- Frederick Busch
The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories-- Valerie Martin

Faculty

Managing Your Material: Poetry Craft Class

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, 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 (2-3 pages), teaching a poem to the class, and more. Throughout the semester we will read poems closely by such writers as Baldwin, Bishop, Brooks, Carson, Francis, Gluck, May, Voigt, and many more.

Faculty

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 literally telling us your film, moment to moment.”
-- Screenwriter/Director, Paul Schrader, Telluride, CO 1989.

“In one rule in screenwriting is show, don’t tell.”
-- Classic Screenwriting Adage (attributed to just about every screenwriting guru).

“I wrote an awesome 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. Writers will investigate the nature and construct of the screenplay form, studying the fundamentals of character, story, universe and setting, formatting, visual writing, dramatic action, tension, conflict, sequence structure, acts, and style. Screen character development and story outlining will be a focus. 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 as well as the work of others. 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 class can be effectively applied to other threads of creative writing.

Faculty

Nonfiction craft -- Breaking Form: Alchemies in Creative Nonfiction

Craft—Fall

Conventional essay forms offer us familiar containers in which to pour our content. And essays are traditionally driven by content. It is a formula that works. The problem with formula, and the familiar, is that it lulls the imagination and protects the psyche. But what happens when we lead with structure? What happens to our content when it meets an unfamiliar container? In this class, we will generate work using unconventional forms, and find the hidden corners of our content. Appropriating forms from sources diverse as poetry, prayers, scales, bestiaries, lists, and etymologies—and studying texts including those of Eula Biss, Jeannette Winterson, Lia Purpura, and Jorge Luis Borges—we will surprise ourselves.

Faculty

Fiction craft--The End: A Class On Endings

Craft—Fall

Founded on the idea that endings are intrinsically unnatural to us as living human beings who never truly experience our own “ends” (we experience fabricated endings, such as compartmentalized phases: relationships and break-ups, the deaths of others, etc.), this class will explore the difficulties in crafting the “genuine” ending to a story. We will look at the various takes on this, examining the attempts of poets, essayists, short story writers, and novelists. For instance, we’ll examine how, in one sentence, Salinger’s final words in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” overwhelm our entire understanding of the piece and prompt us to reread from that perspective and how James Wright in a final line utilizes aphorisms or emotive summarizing to capture the essence of his entire poetic journey and how Cheever extracts optimal dramatic tension with his often stultifying plot reversals at the final moments of a piece like “The Hartleys” and how Faulkner with his almost naturalistic first person narration feels so wedded to the psychological accuracy of stream-of-conscious rendering that he mimics the real-time “dropping-out” of the narrative voice in The Sound and Fury.

We will also discuss various experimental works, like Lydia Davis's flash fictions and portions of Cortazar’s non-linear “anti-novel” Hopscotch, where plots are multitudinous a la Choose Your Own Adventures—does that render an ending more or less “false” in nature?

Students will have an opportunity to look more calculatedly at the stories they want to tell—how does it change the process to begin with an awareness of where it will end up? What happens when we formulate a story from the ending up? What is the ultimate responsibility of an ending? How does closure relate to the opening? What happens when we give our own stories entirely different endings?

We’ll dive into several “last-line” exercises that may evolve into whole pieces. We will also work on exercises that are simply “last-scene” sketches. Students will also have a chance to rewrite their peers’ endings as a class exercise. Finally, students will have a chance to each workshop a whole piece that emerges out of these exercises, with careful consideration given to the crafting of its ending as well as the effectiveness of the piece as a whole.

Faculty

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 you create. Whether your goal is to pen a Shouts and Murmurs piece for The New Yorker, a post for McSweeney's, or just to loosen your style with a lighter touch, the first step is the same: take your sense of humor seriously.

Sample reading selections including:

  • 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
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 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

Non-Fiction workshop

Workshop—Fall

This course is intended to help each student settle into her voice and produce work that resonates with 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 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.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

The most delicate choices a writer makes significantly affect a story or novel. In this workshop, we'll take a closeup 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 discussing each other's work effectively. 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 we read for class and conference will be chosen in response to students' writing and will include authors such as Gary Lutz, Denis Johnson, David Bezmozgis, Rivka Galchen, Anton Chekhov, Junot Diaz, Barry Hannah, Octavia Butler, Katherine Anne Porter, David Ohle, Yasunari Kawabata, and Joy Williams.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop--Checkpoint Fact/Lyric

Workshop—Fall

In this class, we will look at the use of facts as the spring boards for poems and lyric essays. We will examine how facts can be transformed, distorted and framed by the various filters we use as poets (imagination, diction, formal strategies, etc). The course will be framed by readings from Things That Are by Amy Leach. We will also discuss Revolver by Robyn Schiff, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Brain Fever by Kimiko Hahn, and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald along with selected lyric essays. For their conference project students will choose an area of research (a historical figure, a cartoon character, news articles, etc.) and write a long poem, a series of poems, or an essay that straddles poetry and prose stemming from their investigations.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This graduate workshop will involve a lot of reading as well as writing. What are the dominant myths in western culture? How is own world view 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 world view? 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 non-fiction 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. 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

Non-Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

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 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 that 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.

Faculty

Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This workshop will combine discussions of student work with readings in theory and psychology. We'll also read stories from published writers whose work serves a particular discussion. Rather than approach traditional craft topics, I like to explore what drives the imagination, how stories harness and release their power at the point of cognition and reception. So we’ll talk about creative writing and the unconscious, narrative as dream, narrative desire, parable and tableau, space and time, repetition and difference, recursion and consecution, metaphor, and mimesis—and any number of other things. Because exploring these ideas allows us to better understand writing at a deeper level, allows our voice to draw out what we don’t know. Cynthia Ozick says: "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...." Even the most grounded realism needs to enter the reader's mind like a dream. I want to get the class thinking about entering that broader world, about writing stories that don't ever leave their readers.

Faculty

Fiction Writing 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’ 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

Poetry workshop

Workshop—Fall

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 towards 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

Fiction Workshop: Literary Journals and Writing

Workshop—Fall

Where do the stories come from that are featured in anthologies like Best American or the O. Henry Prize Stories?  How does the fiction in the Paris Review compare to that of Prairie Schooner? What sort of writers are published in Tin House? 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 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