Writer Jean Kwok uses a Character Sketch Table in order to better develop and, subsequently, understand her characters. Whether or not she ends up using all the information in her final creative work, it helps her consider the ways that her characters move (and have moved) in the world. Prior to completing the following exercise, review this document and consider what sorts of information you would need to know about your characters. To begin the exercise, follow the next steps:
Create two characters who identify as the same gender and use the same pronouns. Note: If you choose to create a transgendered character, please honor the gender and pronouns they have chosen, not those assigned at birth, e.g. Dan, a cisgendered man, and Colin, a trans man or Maria, a cisgendered woman, and Jamila, a trans woman, would be grouped together here.
Create a quick character sketch in which you identify them by at least: name, age, occupation, interests/hobbies, life goals, and an old embarrassment. If there’s anything else you think your reader should know, you may also include it here. Avoid stereotyping based on race, sexuality, gender, ability, region, culture, religion, appearance, or age toward a complex person that’s more than any one of these identifiers.
Write a paragraph-long description of a short interaction between only one of your characters and someone else—barista, boss, what-have-you, as long as it’s not your other sketched-out character. The only caveat is that you must only use this character’s pronoun and never identify them by their name or specifically identify their occupation.
Read your peers’ pieces and try to guess which character appears in their scenes.
Instructor’s Course Description
American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but also begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, its rhythms, and its forms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers. In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen a couple of poetry collections and The Best American Poetry 2015 so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”
The Best American Poetry 2015, ed. Sherman Alexie. Scribner, 2015. ISBN: 978-1476708195
Charms Against Lightning by James Arthur. Copper Canyon, 2012. ISBN: 978-1556593871*
Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. FSG, 2011. ISBN: 978-0374532369
A Larger Country by Tomás Q. Morín. Copper Canyon, 2012. ISBN: 978-0966339598*
Miscellaneous poems/packets on Moodle
*Arthur and Morín will be reading at Centenary College on September 23, 2015.
ENG 2016: PROSE WORKSHOP (ONLINE)
Instructor’s Course Description
This online course will introduce students to a variety of prose forms: flash fiction, the short story, personal essay, and memoir. Using Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing as a technique and terminology guide, students will analyze published prose and write their own pieces for workshop, a collaborative discussion about the effects of writers’ choices on readers. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.
Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. Longman, 2014. ISBN: 978-0134053240
The Best American Short Stories 2014, ed. Jennifer Egan. Mariner, 2014. ISBN: 978-0547868868
The Best American Essays 2014, ed. John Jeremiah Sullivan. Mariner, 2014. ISBN: 978-0544309906
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction and Nonfiction Purpose: To examine how setting is influenced by voice Readings: Chapters 3 (“Voice”), with “Guns for Teachers” by Warren J. Bowe and “What I Learned” by David Sedaris, and Chapter 5 (“Setting”), with “At the Dam” by Joan Didion, in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Read the following two passages—the first from the second page of a novel, the second from the third and fourth paragraphs of an essay—by the same author about a woman going out to run an errand. Consider the author’s use of voice and setting. How does the voice change between the novel and the essay? What might point of view have to do with voice? What impression do you get of the characters from these excerpts? How much do we know about the setting? Why does the author describe the setting early on in the work?
For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty, —one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reasons: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.*
How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light — windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars — lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which —— She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?*
*The first excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The second excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” I didn’t, however, reveal this to my students immediately. As an aside, I asked them if they recognized the author before revealing the source.
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Nonfiction Purpose: To explore the self as a character and subject Readings: Chapters 8 (“Creative Nonfiction”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing and “Nobody Knows Your Name” of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land
Do you know the story of your name? Its meaning and its history? Do you know why your parents named you what they named you? Are there other famous people with your name? Is your name particularly popular or obscure? What does your last name say about your ancestry, if anything? What are misconceptions about your name? Is your name easily mispronounced or misspelled; if so, give us a narrative about someone getting your name wrong. Are their misconceptions about you based on your name? How would address those who make judgments on a person based on their name? If you don’t know what your name means, speculate and/or invent your own personal meaning for your name based on your experiences, the sounds in your name, etc.. Do you define your name or does your name define you? Write for 10 minutes.
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction Purpose: To explore Burroway’s concept of “Character as Image”; examine potential of non-verbal communication; and situate the reader to receive information along with a character Readings: Chapters 4 (“Character”) and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Two characters come upon one another in the middle of a forest. Something bad—but not melodramatic*—has happened to one character and that character needs help. When the first character tries to tell the second what’s wrong, it’s revealed that the two characters don’t speak the same language. (This could include sign language.)
Write a scene from the point of view of the second character (first person “I”) while the first character tries to communicate the problem using only gestures, drawing, or other non-verbal communication. Additionally:
the second character cannot know what the problem is before the first character reveals it in this scene;
the second character should notice details throughout the interaction that reveal more about the first character (i.e. clothing, appearance, possessions, etc.)
the second character may or may not—or even cannot—help.
*Challenge yourself to come up with a problem that doesn’t involve far-fetched plot lines, flat characters, and easy conclusions. This means it would be best to avoid killers, aliens, and monsters. Think about more ordinary but equally tension-filled situations like a farmer whose lost a bull, a teenager who has a flat tire but doesn’t know how to change it, a hunter who accidentally shot his buddy in the foot, etcetera.
After talking about Janet Burroway’s Image chapter in Imaginative Writing, my class took our discussion to the white board to consider problems with translating experience and ideas in language, the fundamentals of significant detail, and the precision of language.
I asked them to consider all of the possible meanings for each of these sentences:
“Joe had some water.” —He drank some water; he has water to drink; he had water for watering his plants, etc.
“Joe had a glass of water.” —He drank the glass of water; he had a glass of water to drink, etc.
“Joe had a glass of water on the table.” —He had water to drink on the table and he hadn’t finished drinking it.
We explored the slippery nature of the word “had” in all of these cases, and then we thought about how context could change the sentences. We considered the difference between “a glass of water” versus a “water glass,” how the second doesn’t necessarily mean that the glass contains water, rather it could designated as a glass for water. Additionally, having the read come to “glass” before “water” would help form the image for the reader as it provides the container before what’s contained inside it.
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction Purpose: To open up discussion about plot structure and significant details Readings: Chapters 9 (“Fiction”) and 6 (“Story”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Write a summary of what happens in the video. (2 min.)
Now write a scene from the point of view of the bear or the man. Try to tap into their thoughts and moment-by-moment perceptions. Include as many details as you can in 5 minutes. Here’s the hitch: you must tell the story in reverse chronological order! (Tell the story backwards!)
Look at the inverted check mark diagram of pg. 173 in Burroway. Discuss how the check mark works for a chronological story compared to the story told in reverse. Where does the conflict fall in your scene? The crisis (climax)? Is there resolution? Were there any details you thought of telling the story backwards that you might not have thought of telling the story chronologically?
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry Purpose: To consider how writers of three genres go about approaching similar subject matter; to introduce distinctions between the genres; and to introduce key drafting and revision considerations based on reading from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing Readings: Chapters 1 (“Invitation to the Writer”) and 7 (“Development and Revision”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Pick a favorite nursery rhyme, myth, or religious tale that you know by heart. Write a brief summary of the story in 2 to 5 sentences.
If you were writing this narrative as a short story, how would you change it? What elements would you include? How would the style change?
If you were writing this narrative as a poem, how would you change it? What would be your first steps to writing the poem? What would you leave out? What would you add in?
If you were using this narrative as a basis for nonfiction, how would you frame it? How can you approach this subject matter in that way?
Free write for ten minutes and begin to convert your summary into either a short story, a poem, or personal essay.
In the Spring 2015 semester, I will be teaching ENGL 215: Textual Analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University and CRWR 212: Introduction to Creative Writing at The College of William & Mary. Below I’ve included the course descriptions and required texts for each course followed by a brief explanation of my choices for the classes’ reading lists.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY ENGL 215: TEXTUAL ANALYSIS
“Brickwork: Urban Imagination”—From the sidewalk to the skyscraper, alleys to main thoroughfares, the urban landscape has not only provided the setting to many works of great literature, it has become a kind of a foil for many protagonists. In this course, we’ll read novels, nonfiction, and poetry that use the urban landscapes, the exterior world, that increasingly engage, complicate, and reveal charactes’ internal life. Starting with photorealistic portrayals of cities in a particular moment, like those in essays by Joan Didion, and moving on to fabular remakings of place, as found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, students will learn the basics of close reading, analyzing the literary devices and strategies, comparing and contrasting works, and contextualizing their discussion toward a main question about how a city can make a person, how people make a city. In addition to the previously mentioned authors, students will read excerpts or texts by Kazim Ali, Teju Cole, Charles Dickens, Nick Flynn, James Joyce, Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, Anne Winters, and more.
Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray. 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. ISB: 978-0312461881.
Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose. Penguin, 2014. ISBN: 978-0143107439.
Winters, Anne. The Key to the City. University of Chicago Press, 1986. ISBN: 978-0226902272.
A course packet available online with excerpts taken from the following texts:
Ali, Kazim. Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities.
Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land.
Cole, Teju. Open City.
Crane, Hart. The Bridge.
Diaz, Junot. Drown.
Dickens, Charles. Night Walks.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
Gunn, Thom. The Man with the Night Sweats.
Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems.
Joyce, James. Dubliners.
Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead.
Meitner, Erika. Copia.
Meitner, Erika. Ideal Cities.
Neruda, Pablo. The Heights of Machu Picchu (trans. Morín)
Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.
Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems.
Shapiro, Alan. Night of the Republic.
Smith, Patricia. Blood Dazzler.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth.
Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
Teitman, Ryan. Litany for the City.
*The goal with my selection of these required texts and the course packet is to keep the students engaged and challenged while exposing them to a variety of canonical and contemporary writing in their acquisition of essential textual analysis skills.
Additionally, I want them to be exposed to poetry throughout the course, unlike my students who read only one poetic work this semester. I find that students who read a lot of poetry become much better readers of poems and, I’d even argue, all other texts; continued exposure is the key to their understanding. I came to this conclusion after reading the responses to Autobiography of Red, in which many of them thoroughly investigated sound and line breaks. I realized that I hadn’t trusted the 215 students enough to “get” poetry when I was making my syllabus because they hadn’t taken any college literature classes before; this time, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and give them equal parts poetry and prose.
The excerpts in the course packet will be short, and they will be used either on their own (like Didion), as a supplement for their books, and/or for in-class assignments. Many of the books on the excerpt list were originally a part of the working text lists. I decided, however, to cut down the required reading from this semester’s seven texts to five so that we could spend more time on in-depth exploration. In this way, we’ll have more focus on a few core texts and I won’t have to cut out many of the authors I want to teach. I might supplement Anne Winters with Alan Shapiro poems and an excerpt from Dickens’s Night Walks; Invisible Cities with some of Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. Once I start making the course calendar, I’ll have a better idea about how I’ll juxtapose these texts.
I decided to add the Bedford Glossary because I felt like I often had to remind students of literary terms, strategies, and concepts this semester. They received these terms through lecture, discussion, and a glossary I created. A desk reference such as the Bedford, however, will provide them with many more possibilities to understand and locate literary devices and to explore the lenses through which to analyze texts. I haven’t decided yet whether I want to test them on a selection of these terms, but I think it might incentivize them to learn core terms.
WILLIAM & MARY CRWR 212: INTRODUCTION TO CREATIVE WRITING
University Course Description
Workshop format emphasizes the basics of writing fiction and poetry. Class meets for one two-hour session per week. No previous writing experience is required. Open to academic freshmen and academic sophomores with priority given to academic freshmen.
Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land. Graywolf Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1555975180.
Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing:The Elements of Craft. (3rd Edition). Penguin Academics, 2010. ISBN: 978-0205750351.
Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
*I decided that I wanted my Creative Writing students to be exposed to the types of writing that we generally eschew in lower-level courses, especially hybrid works like prose poems, lyric essays, etc. So many creative writing students I’ve encountered have such set ideas for what poetry or prose should be that it’s hard for them to engage the genres in any new way. The idea here is that we will start with fiction (Gautier), move into the essays (Biss), transition into poetry (Levine), and then consider poetry/prose hybrids (Nelson and Rankine). In every other creative writing class I’ve taught, questions about prose poetry and, less frequently, lyric essays have arisen. They want to know what they are and how to write them. I want students to understand genre as one bridge you can walk rather than separate rocks you have to hop between to cross the river. This decision is founded on my belief that a writer of any genre can learn from strategies of other genres and that there are many intersections between the genres.
I will use the Burroway for the students to learn essential concepts (setting, tone, point of view, etcetera), and I’ll likely use the example texts therein for in-class assignments to jumpstart exercises and or discussions.
My Intro to Creative Writing class discussed Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “On Morality,” and “On Going Home” with regard to what they learned from the “Creative Nonfiction” and “Setting” chapters in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. After, they jumped into this exercise about place and how external details reveal internal information.
1. Write about entering a place that’s incredibly familiar to you (your dorm room, your car, etc., but not this classroom.) What do you notice? Use only concrete descriptions. Avoid emotional responses and abstractions. (5 min.)
2. Think of a time in which you returned to a place that was once familiar to you but to which you hadn’t been in a long time. (A childhood home, your old school, etc.) Write a scene in which you describe only your physical surroundings as you enter that place. What’s changed? What’s different? Compare and contrast your memory of the place with its current state. (5 min.)
3. Now write a similar sort of description about a time in which you entered a new place, particularly one in which you weren’t comfortable or one that has a culture that is unfamiliar to you (like Didion going into the Haight). Again, focus only on concrete details. (5 min.)
4. Read aloud your three entries. The class will then vote on which one was more immersive, compelling, and detailed.
5. Reflect: Why did the class choose that one? Did you write more about one than the others? If so, why do you think that is? As a reader, which one of these is more interesting to you? Why? Which one was the hardest to write? Why?
Overwhelmingly, the class chose either the second or third description as both seemed to reveal an internal conflict—the sense of something lost/irreparable or alienation. The best part is that the students didn’t write about these internal conflicts at all; rather, it was entirely implicit in the concrete details.