This class encourages fiction that, like all good writing, takes emotional risks. This riskiness sets literature apart from the dishonesty of bad books, TV, and movies. Workshop is not confession, but in the privacy of their writing rooms students might begin to tell personal stories that perhaps they have only told about other people.
"Tell everything on yourself," Raymond Carver urged. Virginia Woolf would have agreed: "If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people." Yet we will never assume anything in a story actually happened to the writer. Rigorous storytelling, of course, evolves into fiction, blurring and even obliterating its source material.
We will read published stories as models. Amy Hempel writes of a woman who abandons a close friend dying of cancer, and confronts the aftermath of her choice. Thom Jones explores one soldier’s psychological territory of war, aggression, and epileptic torment, in which “illness” provokes dark illuminations of self and humanity. The good news is, the truth redeems, no matter the damage…
The Writing Life: A Fiction WorkshopIn this class we’ll examine the writing life from the perspectives of five writers—Ernest Hemingway, Annie Dillard, Francine Prose, John Gardner, and Anne Lammott. They all seem to agree: Although the writing life is risky and impossibly difficult, it is nevertheless exciting and always worth the effort.
Apart from discussing these authors’ books—A Moveable Feast, The Writing Life, Reading Like A Writer, On Becoming a Novelist, and Bird by Bird—we’ll commit to a daily habit of reading and writing.
Chekhov’s Characters: A Writing WorkshopIn this class we will study ten of Chekhov’s short stories. Each story offers multiple lessons toward mastery of craft. We’ll devote most of our time to studying his character portraits. Chekhov presents an astonishing variety of people in his fiction, surprising us again and again with complex, often contradictory human truths.
"The Teacher of Literature" treats a man who constantly tells his friends and family of his own happiness, and discovers that beneath his surface he is quite a different person. In "The Petchenyeg," however, we meet a truly miserable man with a distorted vision who believes any happy person must be pretending.
No question is settled for Chekhov. He is more interested in the myriad ways we deceive ourselves than in any fixed truth. Perhaps for Chekhov truth is simply the careful observation of human beings.
Hemingway: A Writing Workshop In this class, we will read the short stories of Ernest Hemingway as writers, applying his mastery of craft to our own fiction. Hemingway is still the most influential writer of our time. His literary principles are universal. He was no minimalist, nor a mere innovator of style. Writers around the world claim him as their greatest teacher, including such talents as Albert Camus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Frederick Barthelme, and John Updike.
To read Hemingway well is an experience of profound enrichment. He rendered human experience with such intensity and truth, creative writers will always search his prose for secrets.
While discouraging Hemingway imitations, this class will examine concepts that writers of all tastes can use to improve their work. We’ll discuss sensory detail, compression, density of meaning, musical language, coiled dialogue, and the iceberg principle. We’ll devote the second half of class to workshopping our own stories.
As time permits, we will correct an assortment of distortions about Hemingway. Where it matters most—in his work—Hemingway demonstrates enormous compassion and deeply humanistic values.
Raymond Carver: A Writing WorkshopIn this class we will study the short stories of Raymond Carver. Called "the American Chekhov" by the New York Times, Carver wrote about the common people of the West—waitresses, salesmen, loggers, and, especially, the out of work.
His characters are often haunted by their own failings. But they would sooner drink or change the subject than own up. They blame others, tell lies, inflict subtle cruelties, and fail to love. Although tempted to judge them and find less honest reading, we keep turning pages for, of course, we are reading about ourselves.
Carver achieved the highest level of emotional power, spiritual force, and artistic excellence in his short fiction, each line rewarding the careful reader with its precision and depth. Thus he became the most influential author of the late twentieth century, inspiring a generation of writers, including Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Tobias Wolff.
"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." --Saul Bellow, from The Adventures of Augie March