I want to discuss as many texts as possible in the class, so I came up with a reading list of 20 books. Each student will read two books off the list, and will give an oral presentation on one book, and a written report on the other. Their task is to teach the other students what these books show us about writing.
14-Sep Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
14-Sep Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
21-Sep Sarah Bird, The Mommy Club
21-Sep Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
28-Sep Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
28-Sep James Hynes, Kings of Infinite Space
12-Oct Patti Smith, Just Kids
12-Oct Mary Karr, Cherry
19-Oct Patricia McConnel, Sing Soft Sing Loud
19-Oct Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow
26-Oct John Graves, Goodbye to a River
26-Oct Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
02-Nov Susan Collins, The Hunger Games
02-Nov Joyce Carol Oates, Black Water
09-Nov Lowell Mick White, That Demon Life
09-Nov John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
16-Nov Oscar Casares, Brownsville
16-Nov Tiffani Yanique, How to Escape from a Leper Colony
30-Nov Jim Harrison,Returning to Earth
30-Nov Percival Everett, Erasure
It’s not a perfect list. If I’d had a few days to think it over, some
different books might have made the cut. But as it is, I think it’s useful: I have a wide range of narrative types here—novels, novellas, composite novels, memoirs—horror, history, comedy, popular page-turners.
We began with Sandra Cisneros and Shirley Jackson. Erika Liesman and Austin Meek gave very fine presentations—informative, insightful, and enthusiastic.
This isn’t the first class I’ve taught where I have students write
extended narratives. When I was working on the creative part of my dissertation, I was writing a composite novel composed of three interlocking novellas. And since I was writing novellas, I thought I should perhaps teach novellas, and so I structured the prose part of my multi-genre into to creative writing class to accommodate long stories/novellas.
All the students got off to excellent starts, but then, after 15 or so pages, they stopped. They didn’t know what was supposed to happen next in their novella. The pages seemed to stretch out before them, endlessly, scarily. All of them recovered and completed their novellas, and some of them did truly fine, high-quality work, but there was a grim period there in the middle of the semester where the young writers were staring around glassy-eyed and stressed. It made me nervous—I’m sure it was worse for the students.
It occurred to me that a good outline might have prevented this
worrisome stall. So for my current class, I mandated that students produce an outline, and made it a graded assignment. They were due this week, and were interesting in their variety and conception. Some were very detailed, others more perfunctory—all of them, I think, will give the writers something to fall back on when they get stuck (and they will get stuck).
At the same time, I tried to emphasize that outlines are not
contracts—you don’t have to stick with them forever and ever. Indeed, as your extended narrative—your novel, novella, memoir—gets written, your conception of the project will change, and new ideas, relationships, and characters will emerge. The work-in-progress is necessarily plastic. I’m going to encourage the writers to keep their outlines plastic as well, and keep them updated as their narratives progress.
Here’s Jacquelyn Asiala’s outline, done in sticky notes….
Next week: more reading presentations, and the first workshops....