Writing Courses

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One of the oldest programs of its kind in the country, Sarah Lawrence College’s nationally recognized graduate writing program brings students into close mentoring relationships with active, distinguished writers. Students concentrate in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or speculative fiction, developing a personal voice while honing their writing and critical abilities.

The program seeks to enroll students who bring rich life experience to the writing process and fosters a stimulating community of writers who get to know one another in workshop discussions and remain connected throughout their lives. In addition to workshops, students benefit from one-on-one biweekly conferences with faculty. There are plenty of opportunities to read, hear, and share work on campus, including a monthly reading series, a festival that brings nationally known writers to campus, and an annual literary publication.

MFA Writing 2022-2023 Courses

Craft Classes

Teaching Good Prose: Pedagogy Craft Class and Internship

Craft—Fall

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 12:30 to 2:10 pm, as well as a supervised teaching assistantship in a freshman writing class at SUNY Purchase. In the pedagogy seminar, readings and class discussions will explore strategies for designing and teaching lessons that will improve students’ ability to compose analytical college essays; to express ideas clearly and effectively in well-developed, focused arguments with relevant and adequate evidence; and to use the style and conventions of standard academic prose. Student-teachers are supervised by an instructor and are required to attend one session of a freshman writing class per week. Additionally, student-teachers are expected to meet with students outside of class for 1-2 hours per week.

Co-taught with Amy Beth Wright, (SUNY Purchase)

Faculty

Compression

Craft—Fall

What is compression? It is both form and technique. To compress is a verb. We will consider stand-alone, smaller forms—the fragment, brief essay, flash, report, note, fait divers, crônicas, journal entry, calamity, feuilleton, short talk, lecture, pillow book, portrait, miniature, novella.—as well as examining the cellular in a larger work—paragraph, sentence, list, or page. We will discuss the movement of compression in writing—as speed, tightening, shortening, lightening, quickening, a way of collapsing time. We will also problematize compression when thinking through the contemporary—the tweet, the post, the lyric vs. the can’t be. Writers and thinkers that we will read will necessarily cross genres and languages; some possibilities include Fleur Jaeggy, Annie Ernaux, Natalie Léger, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Lydia Davis, Mary Ruefle, Teju Cole, WG Sebald, Lauren Berlant, Kathleen Stewart, Anne Carson, Brian Evenson, Sei Shōnagon, and Moyra Davey. Students will read and write compressed forms weekly.

Faculty

Embodied Text–Nonfiction Craft

Craft—Fall

In this craft class, we will explore the different ways in which authors of creative nonfiction inhabit their texts; the pleasures (as both readers and writers) of such embodiment; and the aesthetic, emotional, and political pitfalls of such deep immersion into the characters, landscapes, and experiences of supposed subjectivities. Through generative exercises, meditation, experimentation, and play, we will inhabit new and, hopefully, exciting spaces in our writing. Close reading of authors such as Marlon James, Louise Erdrich, Michael Twitty, Barbara Demmick, Lydia Yuknavitch, Katherine Raven, Melissa Febos, and others will inspire and instigate us.

Faculty

Speculative Fiction Craft Class

Craft—Fall

In this class we will approach speculative fiction as an expression of daydreams, memories, nightmares, fantasies, anxieties, curiosities, projections, desires, and—most of all—the body. The primary focus will be building imaginary worlds with mindful attention to our unique lived experiences. We will work to put aside cerebral planning projects and rules that bind us to particular genres. And we will interrogate our assumptions about reality to expand our definitions of the unreal. Every class will include writing experiments that support each student’s imagination; each experiment will build upon the previous one. We will be reading work by published authors whose work reflects a similar process and may include Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Karin Tidbeck, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Helen Oyeyemi, Shelley Jackson, Renee Gladman, Chris Adrian, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasunari Kawabata, and others.

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Mixed-Genre Prose Craft: Structuring the Story

Craft—Fall

This class is focused on structuring your novel or short fiction around a propulsive plot that will satisfy your readers. Through in-class discussion, writing exercises, and independent reading, we’ll identify techniques for building a compelling, coherent narrative. In collaboration with your classmates, you will distill your own chosen story down to its essential conflict. You’ll then create an outline of your story in order to strengthen its internal logic and navigate through any structural, pacing, or plotting roadblocks. As we develop your outline over the semester, you’ll gain clarity on your story’s shape and the characters’ motivations. This class can speak to writers at any stage of a project, whether you are first contemplating a new work or are deep into your umpteenth revision. No matter where you’re at, we’ll aim to help you gain clarity. Readings include novels by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Miriam Toews, Hye-Young Pyun, Jason Reynolds, and Octavia E. Butler, as well as short fiction by Lauren Groff and Lesley Nneka Arimah. Classes are expected to be conducted in person.

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BUT THERE ARE NEW SUNS: Defiance, Poetics, and Practice

Craft—Fall

The spark and sustaining fire for our work is this tercet from Octavia E. Butler’s unfinished novel, Parable of the Trickster: “There’s nothing new/under the sun,/but there are new suns.” We take those lines as both inspiration and aspiration, reckoning with what we create, how we create, and for whom we need to create. At the heart of this course pulses an ever-evolving progression of catalytic writing experiences, experiments with form, and conversations about daring contemporary poems. And as a coda to those explorations, we will challenge ourselves to design—and then bring to life—dynamic projects that engage with the wider world, thrive in the public sphere, and redefine the possibilities of poetry and community.

Faculty

The Craft of Translation: Expanding Across Tongues

Craft—Fall

Literary translation encompasses numerous interdisciplinary fields, including comparative literature, linguistics, cultural studies, and creative writing; therefore, this craft course will touch on all of these aspects at varying and overlapping intervals. Dynamically designed, the program will proceed conceptually and cumulatively––mixing history, theory, and practice. “Perhaps a time will come when a translation will be considered as something in itself,” said Jorge Luis Borges during one of his Norton Lectures in 1968. That time may have arrived. To find out, we will delve into a wide selection of literary works (poetry and fiction) alongside their respective English translation. Some of the languages and authors include, but are not limited to: Spanish (Borges, Pizarnik, Bracho), Portuguese (Pessoa, Lispector), French (Baudelaire, Jaccottet), Italian (Campana), German (Rilke), Swedish (William-Olsson), Hindi (Varma), and English (Merwin, Gander). Reading as translators, we will reflect on common translation challenges—such as style, false friends, Latinate/Germanic choices, and prosody—as well as on generative aspects of retranslation, co-translation, and transcreation. Curiosity, rigor, collaboration, and play will accompany us on this journey between voices and between languages. While English is the target language of the course, for the final semester project each student will choose to translate a literary work written in a source language of his or her choice. This course aims to help participants become better readers and writers of literature. Open to all MFA in Writing students––with experience in one or more foreign languages or none, for that matter! Come with a native language and leave with a world under the tongue.

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Visual Storytelling: Writing for the Screen

Craft—Fall

A solid screenplay is the foundation of any great film, television program, or web series. Though filmmaking is a collaborative medium, the script is the blueprint for what happens on screen. It all begins with the writer and an idea. In this graduate craft class/workshop, students will learn the fundamentals of writing for the screen: story structure, character development, dialogue, outlining, and formatting. Weekly writing assignments will be given, then read and discussed in class. In addition, students will read several feature-length and short-length screenplays as a way to strengthen their script-analysis skills. For the final project, students will outline, pitch, write, and revise an original short screenplay. Overall, the writer will build a screenwriter’s toolkit, useful for any future opportunities that may emerge in writing for the screen.

Faculty

Crafting the Writing Process

Craft

While many books delve into the writing process, it’s rare for a semester-long class to treat the creation and maintenance of that process as a project in itself—which is what we’ll be doing—with an emphasis on prose and, especially, nonfiction writing. Through writing prompts, workshops, and the work of other writers, we’ll explore the conditions under which writers produce their most effective work and what a sustainable writing process can look like for each of us. Routine, productivity, mental obstacles, family, relationships, perfectionism, writing by hand vs. on computer, internal vs. external rewards, and tapping into the unconscious are issues that will be explored, unpacked, and questioned, along with any other issues related to the writing process that come up. Readings will include Melissa Febos, Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, Natalie Goldberg, Samuel Delany, Ross Gay, and Jenny O’Dell. Students taking this for workshop credit will have biweekly conferences and are expected to produce two workshop pieces—between 10 and 20 pages each or one new piece and a substantial revision—that come out of our explorations of writing process. Craft class members should expect weekly writing prompts to be shared and discussed in class, with the option of further feedback during professor’s office hours.

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Workshops

Poetry Workshop: On Collecting and Collections

Workshop—Fall

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.  ―Walter Benjamin

In this class, we will discuss and write about our collections (collections of facts, objects, memories) while looking at how collections of poems and prose are constructed. Books discussed may include, among others, The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, Obit by Victoria Chang, Frank Sonnets by Diane Seuss, What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C. Bailey, On Longing by Susan Stewart, and The 13th Balloon by Mark Bibbins. I will be collecting class ideas over the summer, so please consider this course description a type tray yet to be crammed with miniature figurines.

Faculty

Art and Activism: Contemporary Black Writers, A Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

Toni Morrison once wrote, “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.” She referred to the interior life of her ancestors as being a large (perhaps the largest?) charge that she, as an author, faced; the characters she created—in part from pictures, in part from the imaginative act—yielded “a kind of truth.” We are experiencing a new age of Black artists and activists, charging the world to heed their own truths; as writers, we’ll delve into the fullness of their experiences. Nana Ama Adjei-Brenyah brings magical realism to the doorstep of our daily lives; Edward P. Jones establishes setting as character, garnering comparisons to James Joyce. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay posit large questions about writing and Black identity, while Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses satire to address themes of class and culture; and both Danielle Evans and Jamel Brinkley write in a charged realist tradition that is RIEBY (my new acronym: right in everybody’s back yard!). Class readings will include essays on technique, short stories, and memoir. We’ll discuss the elements of craft as they pertain to the published literature as well as to our own work. This workshop will also have at its heart the discussion of student manuscripts and the development of constructive criticism. Talking about race, talking about craft, and talking about our own fiction should occur in an environment where everyone feels valued and supported. The road may be bumpy at times—but how else to get to that truth that Toni Morrison so prized?

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: Invention, Diversion and Mystery

Workshop—Fall

In his 1959 manifesto “Personism,” Frank O’Hara writes, “I went back to work and wrote a poem…While I was writing it, I was realizing that, if I wanted to, I could use the telephone instead of writing.” In this workshop, we will think about the imagination’s relationship to the every day, to the city and place, to ritual, the unconscious, and the occult. We will think about creativity as a force that is larger than the self and one that often arrives through the self. How do we manage it? How have other poets managed it? In addition to our own poems, attention will be paid to the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Language school, and Black Mountain poets, as well as poets working today who push the boundaries of what’s possible on the page. We will closely examine craft elements such as repetition, diversion, mystery, minimalism, pacing, and drastic leaps within our own poems and those we read for class. Breaking the mind open to new possibilities and ways of understanding our own work in relation to what has come before us is one goal. Everything else is possible.

The Situation and the Story—A Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

This course, which takes its title from Vivian Gornick’s classic book, is intended to help students settle into their voices and produce work that resonates with their experiences, interests, and insights. The prime focus will be personal essay and memoir. The course work will include workshop pieces that students develop in conversation with the instructor and shorter exercises intended to open the student’s awareness as both a reader and a writer. We will engage in a deepened practice of reading and learn to draw connections between writing and other creative fields, such as music and film.

Faculty

Crafting the Writing Process: Nonfiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

While many books delve into the writing process, it’s rare for a semester-long class to treat the creation and maintenance of that process as a project in itself—which is what we’ll be doing—with an emphasis on prose and, especially, nonfiction writing. Through writing prompts, workshops, and the work of other writers, we’ll explore the conditions under which writers produce their most effective work and what a sustainable writing process can look like for each of us. Routine, productivity, mental obstacles, family, relationships, perfectionism, writing by hand vs. on computer, internal vs. external rewards, and tapping into the unconscious are issues that will be explored, unpacked, and questioned, along with any other issues related to the writing process that come up. Readings will include Melissa Febos, Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, Natalie Goldberg, Samuel Delany, Ross Gay, and Jenny O’Dell. Students taking this for workshop credit will have biweekly conferences and are expected to produce two workshop pieces—between 10 and 20 pages each or one new piece and a substantial revision—that come out of our explorations of writing process. Craft class members should expect weekly writing prompts to be shared and discussed in class, with the option of further feedback during professor’s office hours.

Faculty

Influence: A Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

In recent years, my workshops have concentrated on seeing stories architecturally. We have tended to ask (at my behest) questions like: What structural conceits move the story from A to B? How is time handled on the page? In what ways do language and content intersect or diverge? But I have found myself, more recently, wanting to ask questions about influence. Why did the writer submit this work to the workshop? What works have moved or inspired the writer to move in this direction rather than in some other? What does the writer of this story value in fiction? These questions will, I hope, be the building blocks of this class. Each student will workshop at least once (and perhaps twice); but when students submit their original stories, they will also submit a published story that has inspired them. The links between the published work and the original work can be overt or hidden, thematic or architectural, shallow or deep. Discussions of original work will be preceded by a short discussion of the linked published piece and led by the student who submitted both. In addition to the published “inspirational” pieces, students will occasionally read published works, chosen by yours truly, that feature some connection to the work we’ve been discussing and will sometimes respond to writing prompts that, likewise, grow out of our discussions. My expectations are that students will be open to all sorts of fiction, supportive of one another’s efforts, and willing to take risks on the page.

Faculty

Writing the Impossible–Speculative Fiction Workshop

Workshop—Fall

In this class, you’ll train your eyes on published work and each other’s work with the same goal in mind: to understand what makes good writing tick. Outside reading—by writers like Aimee Bender, Kevin Brockmaier, Ayse Bucak, Angela Carter, Julio Cortazar, Edith Pearlman, and Karen Russell—will both confirm and challenge your notion of what speculative writing can be, as we explore the way craft fundamentals apply (and sometimes don’t) to stories that leave the world as we know it behind. We’ll take a craft approach to examine fantastical writers from across both time and the globe to get at some of the universal writing principles that underlie powerful, memorable writing of all persuasions. In workshop, we’ll band together to create a constructive community of readers with the kindness, toughness, honesty, and sensitivity that can make group critique a unique and valuable writing tool. Ambition and risk-taking will be wildly encouraged.

Faculty

Long-Form Prose Workshop

Workshop—Fall

The aim of this workshop is to help students write a long-form work—novel, memoir, or some hybrid project—from beginning toward an end. A parallel goal is to give you, through theory and discussion, a grounded understanding of what drives a text and, thereby, drives a reader to read it. The course will stretch across two semesters and discuss novels, memoirs, hybrid forms, etc., using traditional conventions of plot and character as a launching point for more unconventional approaches. It will be an ambitious class, as outside readings and discussion will supplement the discussion of student work. Longer work demands a commitment from the reader. It’s important to understand just what is inherently interesting to a stranger coming at your story—cold. I believe that first grasping traditional ideas of plot, unity, and catharsis is the best way of then branching off into other methods of building narrative interest. So, we’ll begin with Aristotle's Poetics but soon move into other modes of thinking: how narrative plots are driven by metaphor, image chains, recursion and consecution, rhizomatic models and their variants, animistic and divinatory poetics, psychological and neurological concepts, models of desire, cinematic form, musical form, and so on. We will probably discuss a couple of films and some film theory. We’ll also discuss music theory as narrative—voice-leading, counterpoint, fugue variations, binary methods, improvisation over chord changes, etc.—as a way of generating a text. The ideas will be supported throughout with creative interpretations so that you can see how they work in practice and beyond the theory. Because it's a yearlong effort, we’ll have latitude for stretching beyond the conventional boundaries of “workshop.” So, half of each session will be devoted to outside readings, ideas, and some theory; the other half, to a more conventional peer workshop. Probably one student piece per session will be discussed in the workshop. But this also means that the ambitions of the class may be more than some can reasonably manage right now. The reading list will be demanding, probably (though not entirely) leaning toward forms that illustrate more experimental ideas. The list will absolutely include dark, complicated, and emotionally difficult readings. Several may be triggering to some people. Peers will be free to write what they want, as well. I’d like to ensure an open discussion, free of remonstration, in the interest of experience and learning. Please consider this before committing to the class. I’m aiming for a gestalt here and hope the discussions and ideas will continue to unpack long after the class is over. I’ll be learning alongside you. I may try to write something, too. I’d love to think that, in the end, we created something original, enduring, and compelling.

Faculty

Nonfiction Workshop: Interpreting Memory

Workshop—Fall

In this course, we will read and analyze a series of personal-history narratives to discover what makes a compelling memoir. This will require both self-discovery and discovery of something outside the self. As always, in order to write meaningfully about the world, we must be fully engaged with it through deliberate thought and through focused exploration. In this course, we’ll practice the art of thinking and of self-examination—both involving silence and separation from distraction, the ongoing work of developing a relationship with one’s own intellect, and one’s own past. We’ll work on fluency in writing and will apply keen editing skills to our own sentences and paragraphs. Students should come to class with a personal story or some aspect of their history that they would like to explore in a workshop setting.

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