Handout for “Walk the Line: The Tension Between Line and Syntax”

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The handout for “Walk the Line: The Tension Between Line and Syntax,” tomorrow’s course at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, is now available on my Google Drive.

Course Descriptions & Reading Lists for ENG 2015: Poetry Workshop & ENG 2016: Prose Workshop

ENG 2015: POETRY WORKSHOP

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.”

Required Texts

  • 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.

Required Texts

  • 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
  • Miscellaneous readings on Moodle

 

“The Craft of Prose” Fall 2015: Course Description, Required Texts, and Grade Requirements

Instructor’s Course Description
As a means of exploring the craft of prose writing, we will read, analyze, and imitate two living writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jesmyn Ward. By reading two, book-length works by each writer—a short story collection and book-length essay by Adichie and a novel and memoir by Ward—we will see how these writers develop their unique styles across genres and locate how their personal concerns inform their fictional narratives. Additionally, we will supplement these texts with short stories and essays by some of the most influential prose writers of the 20th century to understand the history and development of American prose over the last one hundred years. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise two of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. 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.

Required Texts

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2010. ISBN: 978-0307455918
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2015. ISBN: 978-1101911761.
  • The Best American Essays of the Century, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Mariner, 2001. ISBN: 978-0618155873.
  • The Best American Short Stories of the Century, ed. John Updike. Mariner, 2000. ISBN: 978-0395843673.
  • Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2014. ISBN: 978-1608197651
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265

Grade Requirements

  • Class Participation (10%)
  • Group Presentation (15%)
  • Four Workshop Pieces (40%)
  • Two Revisions (15%)
  • Two Imitations (10%)
  • Discussion Board Participation (5%)
  • Final Reading (5%)

Prompts: “The Conversationalist,” “Just a Phase,” and “Witness” for Creative Nonfiction Writing

Phrenology diagram. From People's Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883).
from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883)

A student wrote to me over the weekend to request a prompt for my Intro to Creative Writing‘s 5–7 page creative nonfiction assignment. Although I usually encourage students to locate their own subject matter as it’s a critical skill and they’ll likely care more about their handpicked subjects, I came up with several prompts that I’ll hold onto for future students who need a place to start.

The Conversationalist
Is there a story or several stories that you like to tell friends or new people you meet? Is the subject matter related or disparate? Write the story/stories that you tell, and the narrative of telling these stories. How have people reacted? Reflect. Why do you tell these stories? Do you find yourself wanting to create a certain impression on listeners? This piece, as it has three narrative components, has a lot of promise for fulfilling the page requirement.

Just a Phase
Was there a time that you tried to “be someone else,” to adopt a different personality? Describe in detail. Did you change your clothes? Your hair? Your interests? Your speech or accent? Many of us go through identity crises especially as adolescents. What did you do while you tried this out? Did you go somewhere? Did you make a fool of yourself or pull it off? When did you realize it wasn’t right for you? Why change? Do you feel nostalgic now? Show this.

Witness
Have you ever witnessed something violent, unsettling, or scary? Write about this and your reaction after. How long did it affect you? How did it change you? Did you intervene? Why or why not? Do you regret your decision to become involved or not involved? (See “Accident, June 1948” by Seamus Deane for an example.)

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.