This course is about learning to read for craft decisions that are evident in the surface of the text. I will bring a few short readings to class to get us started and I’ll also provide you with a copy of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” to read before residency. In everything we read, the author has decided to use the second person. This is an unusual choice, and so obviously we will discuss how that one decision about point of view/perspective affects all of the other craft choices and so affects our experiences of the text as readers.
In this seminar, I’ll tell you a story about my father’s journey to America, the letters he wrote to me over a period of thirty-odd years, and the book of poems I made with them, "Not so dear Jenny." Like a posthumous valentine, the book functions as a morbid factory of love. It makes letters out of letters; it enacts what it means to simultaneously lose someone and commune with them―the paradox of grief and all it gives us. You’ll be welcome to ask me questions about the making of Jenny during the seminar. Following our Q & A, I’ll invite you to collaborate with a piece of text that holds intense meaning for you. We’ll share some of our favorite stories, experiment with various modes of working with existing texts to make new ones, and look at examples of other collaborative texts. Whether it’s a letter written to us by a loved one, a public document written by a stranger or a medical bill written in a language we can hardly understand, we’ll have conversations with our texts and in so doing, we’ll discover new ways of reading (and writing) every text we encounter.
No matter the genre of writing we choose, the most important quality it must have — and, of course the hardest to master the skill of conveying — is empathy. How do we make a story about something more than entertainment? How do we combine the details of any narrative in order to leave a reader, and therefore the world around them, transformed? When we teach we speak frequently about embodying the characters about whom we write, or truly carrying their truths and their circumstances from our minds onto the page. But how, exactly, do we get there? Reading helps us travel part of the way, but the gift of a storyteller is not to merely emulate what has been done well, but to learn to think and feel deeply about people and conditions that are often completely unfamiliar to ones own experience.
In 2012, Colum McCann got together with a group of writers to conceptualize and form a group that could push storytelling to its limits. They came up with a powerful model. It required each participant in a conversation to step into another’s shoes through the exchanging of stories. Using some of the processes used in N4, we will share our own stories and learn how to turn them into compelling works of art.
In this fully embodied, experiential course, we will study, inhabit, and practice the art of Compositional Improvisation – composing (individually and collaboratively) (with movement, text, sound, and space) in the moment to create dynamic, rigorous, complex, and fully realized “pieces” without rehearsal or planning. This course will allow writers a chance to work from and with their bodies and unique subject positions while demanding acute attention to choice-making and the elements of composition on and off the page. Building on the chance, (Soma)tic, conceptual, and collaborative techniques of poets, dancers, and musicians from the last 50 years, we will explore the limits of our attentions, bodies, and abilities in an effort to expand the range of what is possible for our own writing and creative work. Experimental, risky, playful, and vulnerable – the practice of compositional improvisation will become the lab in which we analyze and experience Jack Halberstam’s “queer art of failure” in the hopes that we can further realize new forms, modes, and measures for a successful writing life.
This practice is framed by 4 tenets borrowed from Angeles Arrien’s The Four Fold Way. We will not be engaging with this book other than to use the 4 tenets. Students should arrive ready to practice them in body, mind, and creative process. They are:
Brought to you by popular demand, this new course will introduce writers (of any genre) to the practice of reading and writing poetry. We will pay particular attention to the craft elements foregrounded in poetry that can support your work in prose. Due to the short time we have together, we will not spend any time on meter and/or rhythm. Be warned: you may fall in love with this wildly unmarketable art!
Susan Sontag wrote that “every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive. . . . It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others.” In this course, we are going to consider the ways that the style of a piece of prose—whether fabulist fiction or an essay that includes fairytales or a prose poem—narrows our attention, tells us how to read it, and what to expect in terms of content.
All of the pieces I’ve chosen are, in some way, About the Body: they are visceral, the writer is writing about a moment of duress. I am hoping that having a (loosely) common theme will help us as we begin to compare voice and other craft choices. Authors are all contemporary and include Camille Dungy, Kate Braverman, Katherine Hunt, Chris Adrian, Lorrie Moore, Carmen Maria Machado, Lily Hoang, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, and Layli Long Soldier. Most of the readings will be supplied as pdfs, word docs, or links.
Ethereal. adj.1510s, "of the highest regions of the atmosphere," from ether + -al (1); extended sense of "light, airy" is from 1590s. Meaning “spirit-like, immaterial" is from 1640s.
When we listen to the Beatles, U2, Jay-Z, or Patsy Cline, we have a very clear sense to whom that music belongs, before we even hear it in its entirety. What does it mean to have a particular literary ear, or voice, or sensibility that it is hard to describe but entirely recognizable? Do we write our way toward it, or are we born with it? We will read both the well-established, and the just-starting-out in an attempt to immerse ourselves in the unique register of each of these writers—phrasing, tone, white space, subject, culture. By engaging in close reading and through discussion, we will learn how to shape our own choices into a particularity that comes to define the ethereal in our work.
The importance of narrative mechanics cannot be understated. After all, Dino Felluga writes, “…our ordering of time and space in narrative forms constitutes one of the primary ways we construct meaning.” In this course, we’ll consider the frame that narrative provides for us, and discuss those variables that dictate its shape and effect – these include timing, sequence, rhythm, balance, style and voice. We’ll also review examples of nontraditional structures, explore narrative constraints, study narrative theory, and conduct writing and reading exercises that allow us to “kick the tires” in our own narratives.
In this course, we will examine and experiment with both traditional received poetic forms and more contemporary constraints in order to radically expand and deepen our perception of (the always) available poetic material. Beginning with a willingness to get lost, we will embark upon a site-specific micro-journey in which we create a haibun by utilizing hybrid material text construction, erasure, syllabic patterning, verb constriction and homophonic translation.
Thinking of the haibun as a kind of queer and trans textual body - a text in dynamic relationship to context at all times, passing through, in, between, among - this form, in particular, interrogates the static. Each passing body is made to relate to shifting landscapes (social, physical, emotional), and those shifts, in turn, influence thought, body and form. We will reflect on what kinds of topics, places, subject positions and ideas we allow ourselves access to and what kinds of space we may inhabit on (and off) the page. This course will invite reflection and discussion regarding access to space, movement and mobility as poetic and political concerns.
In this two-part seminar, we will focus on “found text” forms of poetry-making including erasures; cut-ups and other Surrealist exercises; N+7 and other Ouilpo exercises; ready-mades, “gumshoes” and other kinds of poems drawn from other textual sources. Working with found text is an experimental and nontraditional method of composition; that said, its history dates back over a century at this point, and work in these forms have become highly influential. We’ll take a look at some of the history and notable examples of found poetics, read some essays on the ethical and other implications of such work, and discuss the advantages and pitfalls of these art-making strategies.
Speaking of advantages: one of the many pleasures of found text poems is that you need not wait for the muse to arrive on his little wingéd feet to find your language! So in addition to being a forum for deep theoretical discussion, we will also spend a good deal of time playing, creating and experimenting wildly.
“The stories we tell ourselves. . . create our lives and thus our health. What are the stories you tell yourself about your life and your health? This is story medicine.” Susun Weed, herbalist and natural health advisor.
In this course we will read recent essays by Heidi Julavitz, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, Eva Saulitis and Lia Purpura that weave together personal narrative with various types of research about health and medicine. We’ll study the ways these writers use narrative to orchestrate essays that are sometimes meditative, sometimes persuasive and sometimes lyrical as they document their own medical stories and, in Jamison’s case, the stories of others. We’ll write our own “story medicine” in response, exercising our capacities for observation, research, story-telling and self-reflection.
Susan Sontag tells us that “All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality that is represented,” and, further, that that distance is what determines style. But this is the challenge for the writer: how do we write about “lived reality” under conditions of extremity? And what else can we call a country where, as James Baldwin wrote in 1964, lynching was “a fact of life” or, as Eula Biss implies in 2009, writing about race is a minefield? How does one construct a persona or declare her subjectivity? What is the “right” narrative distance? For the writer, as Aisha Sabatini Sloan notes, there is the “primal frustration, that proximity somehow invalidates clarity.”
Many a knuckle has been rapped over fragments, comma splices, run-ons, but each can be used to great effect. In creative prose. Momentarily setting aside notional rules of grammar (there are enough dusty tomes on those), we’ll examine the question: What make a good sentence? The answer: It depends. Through analyzing and emulating great sentences, we’ll discover that more than anything else, this is an education of both the heart and head.
If readers can see it, they will believe it. The scene is a cornerstone of fiction. In dramatic mode, the author is a tour guide, pointing out landmarks, sites of interest, and potential hazards – both literal and figurative. In this workshop, you will learn tactics and tips for writing and revising scenes that keep readers engaged, heighten plot tensions and contribute to the overall design of your story or novel. We’ll also discuss plot considerations and chapter structure.
Our definition of the scene is simple: A conduit for emotion and meaning, the energy of which we amplify or impede by design. Part seminar/part inquiry-based lab, I’ll start and you’ll finish as we explore the gap between intention and execution and the gap between execution and experience. We'll look at the range of scenes from implied to full, the use of scenic overlays, and ways to achieve the scenic in brief. We'll talk about how scenes work to transform and propel character.
Come ready to write, revise and reconsider. This not about rules, but habits of mind; not strategies, but tactics. Our goal? To craft scenes that keep the readers turning pages.
In this course, we will review the fundamentals that make up received formal verse: scansion, syllabics, meter and rhyme. The basics of each will be taught and explored, followed by a more in-depth look at two traditional, historical forms from across cultures: the sonnet and the ghazal. We will then discuss samples of poems in these forms—both canonical and contemporary—and try our own hands at working with some of the elements that give these forms their shape and structure.
The needle in the needle stack: An Exploded View
Like reading through running water...Uh-oh. Maybe not. We'll read some dusty old tomes about metaphor, a little Dante (maybe), and some dry linguistic base-metaphor stuff, some terminally dull academic writing. You will sit in a chair, but what, really, is a chair, but a wingless wish saddled by fate. You will talk more than I. These are not the droids you seek, nor is this the course description. OR Are these the droids you seek?
Joan Didion and Michael Herr started their careers as journalists in the late 1960’s, but found themselves drawn to writing in more transparently subjective styles that came to be classified as New Journalism. We will read selected work from Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Herr’s Dispatches.
Both books provide examples of immersive research, where the writer goes to a location, blends in, and, to some extent, internalizes what’s going on. Didion, a politically-conservative Californian, was writing about the late sixties San Bernadino and San Francisco and experiencing culture shock. Herr embedded himself with the troops in Vietnam and said, “Conventional journalism could no more cover this war than conventional fire-power could win it.” Both writers had to find new ways of writing as their realities shifted and their basic assumptions were thrown into question. Writing prompts will invite experimentation with a range of subjectivities from reportage to personal meditations.
One might argue that every writer is a border crosser – that writing in any genre should aspire to naming and dissolving the boundaries that divide us. In this course, though, we’ll read work by some of today’s most important border crossers in fiction: Valeria Luiselli, Etgar Keret, Clarice Lispector, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders and others. After studying their strategies and methods, we’ll examine the walls that surround our own work; then we'll see what happens when we knock those walls down. Can we make new allies? What new territory will we discover?
According to the old Cole Porter song, birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.? Do what, you ask? Fall in love, of course. But, when Porter goes on to write: "I've heard that lizards and frogs do it...Layin' on a rock...They say that roosters do it...With a doodle and cock," we suspect that “fall in love” is a euphemism. Today, fifty years after Cole Porter's death, we are less circumspect in writing about sex and the body. There is a difference, though, between being direct, disturbing and distracting. Each has its place, and in this intensive sequence we'll look at writing sex to suit your intended effect.
“Passing” can be understood as the ability, or experience, of a person identified with one social group to exist within, or to be accepted as, a member of another social group. Historically, this term has been applied primarily to people of color (particularly African Americans and people of mixed-race heritage) who were accepted as white and thus were able to avoid racial segregation and discrimination. However, in the last 30 years, with the rise of immigration and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) debates, “passing” has taken on new connotations (positive and negative) and has been used to examine the permeable, and sometimes shifting, boundaries of identity and group cohesion with regard to nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class in addition to race. We will examine how different literary works, authors and artists conceive of “passing” and its various purposes and practices across culture and identity in order to reflect on the conflicting values of visibility and invisibility at significant moments in poetry and prose.
"Writing is revising," Donald Murray said, "and the writer's craft is largely a matter of knowing how to discover what you have to say, develop, and clarify it, each requiring the craft of revision." Murray's words point to the generative potential that revision holds for each of us as writers. How do we mine the hidden opportunities in our early drafts? How do we write through those moments in our drafts that appear to be false starts or dead ends? In this course, we'll cultivate strategies for naming, or creating, writing opportunities and chances for discovery. In doing so, we'll look for direction from writers such as Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis, James Joyce, Denis Johnson, Karen Russell, Chris Offutt, Lucy Corin, Susan Bell and some poets. Let's turn those false starts into alternate routes forward, and those dead ends into open roads.
In today’s literary marketplace, a writer empowers herself by knowing how writing is published. Even a basic understanding of the processes involved can help debunk common myths about the industry and shorten the distance between writers and readers. In this course we’ll review the fundamentals of publishing and production – this will include tutorials on rights acquisition, copyediting, proofreading, layout, web publishing and other fundamentals. We’ll also discuss steps for getting your work published, and students who choose to will have the opportunity to publish a brief excerpt of their own work online.