“Babylon: A Place You’ve Only Heard Of” Exercise

"Abbildung der Stadt Babylon" ("Picture of the City of Babylon"),  Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

“Abbildung der Stadt Babylon” (“Picture of the City of Babylon”), Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how place becomes setting and to cultivate an “outsider’s” point of view
Readings: “Goodbye to All That,” “Babylon,” and “No Man’s Land” from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

 

  1. Think about a city or country that you’ve never heard of but have never been to. This can be a real (Saigon), mythic (Troy), or imagined place. Describe what you know or imagine to know about this place. Write for 5 minutes.
  2. Now think about your hometown. Describe it as you remember it, including the homes, the landscape, the stores, the values, etc. Write for 5 minutes.
  3. Write a paragraph that considers similarities between the place you’ve never been and your hometown. Write for 3 minutes.
  4. Is there something notable or notorious about your hometown? Write for 3 minutes about how outsiders might view your hometown. Is there something unique to your hometown and therefore strange to outsiders? Would an outsider have prejudices against your hometown? Write for 3 minutes.
  5. How might you be like the outsider with the place you’ve never been? Write a meditation on these similarities for 5 minutes.
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Setting and Voice

Victoria Embankment, London (circa 1930)

Victoria Embankment, London (circa 1930)

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.

Goodbye to All That

My Textual Analysis class is discussing two essays titled “Goodbye To All That,” the first, of course, by Joan Didion and the second, a response by Eula Biss. We’ll be considering literary influence and response.

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Spring 2015 Course Descriptions and Reading Lists

Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)

Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)

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

Course Description
“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.

Required Texts

  • Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray. 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. ISB: 978-0312461881.
  • Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN: 978-0156453806.
  • 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 WalksInvisible 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.

Required Texts

  • 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.
  • Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-1933517407.
  • Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976903.

*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.

Homing In On Home Exercise

Garage met Chauffeurswoning te Zandvoort (1916) by Guillaume Frédéric la Croix

Garage met Chauffeurswoning te Zandvoort (1916) by Guillaume Frédéric la Croix

Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Creative nonfiction
Readings: “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “Los Angeles Notebook,” and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion; “Bread” by Jane Brox
Time: 24 minutes

1. Describe the home you spent the most time in as a child including its location, distinctive features, the people, the food, the weather, etc. Be as thorough as possible. (7 min.)
2. Is there something that people often assume about the place that isn’t true? Write an anecdote about a time that someone made a presumption about where you were from. (i.e. Every evening while I had bronchitis I stopped at a pub in Mayfair to have a shot of Jack Daniel’s to ease my coughing before bed. The first night, the bartender asked to see my ID. When I handed him my Tennessee driver’s license, he said, “A Tennessee girls drinks Tennessee whiskey,” and, laughing, “Do you like your country music too?”) (5 min.)
3. Why do you think that outsiders often assume these things about your home? Speculate about why that is, how long that’s been true, and if it will continue to be true. Why or why not? Use this as a means to tell us a little bit of history about the place you grew up. You can use historical facts, family stories, gossip, rumors, etc. (7 min.)
4. If you weren’t from the area, how would you view your hometown? Would you visit or move there? Consider several possibilities. (5 min.)

This exercise allows students to look at a subject from different angles as well as helps them access something personal through exterior descriptions. In much the same way that they saw Didion revealed through the places she talks about (California’s Central Valley, Los Angeles, and New York), students should realize that, by the details they choose to talk about and the perceptions they reject or defend, they do some work to define themselves as well as the place, subject, and—perhaps most importantly—a conflict.

Three Places Exercise

    The Hermit Saints Triptych (1490s) by Hieronymus Bosch

    The Hermit Saints Triptych (1490s) by Hieronymus Bosch

    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.

On Journaling: a Revelation

Codex Manesse, fol. 383r, Meister Konrad von Würzburg

Codex Manesse, fol. 383r, Meister Konrad von Würzburg

Sometimes discussions with my students lead me to articulate things about writing that I’ve fathomed but haven’t been able to put into words. For instance, in Intro to Creative Writing this morning, my students were discussing Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and how they could use journaling as a foundation for their creative writing. Because of the students’ provocative questions and Didion’s exegesis on the practice—”I imagine . . . that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. . . . our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.'”—I was able to finally say what I’ve often felt in keeping my writing journal:

Journaling is an exercise in being a character.

In keeping a journal, I distance myself from the self that appears in my writing. (Think Dante the writer vs. Dante the character.) This not only allows me to receive critical input without feeling as if I’m under attack but it also, and perhaps more importantly, gives me the opportunity to view my own writing as a reader would.

Maybe other writers out there have come to this realization, but the idea, and the way I was able to say it, surprised me in its clarity. Maybe this too is a product of journaling: I have distanced myself enough so that I am allowed to be surprised by myself, a moxie I find quite germane to the writing of the lyric.