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?