I teach writing, usually fiction writing, at Sarah Lawrence College. During my first twenty years there, I never put together a syllabus, preferring to tailor the reading list to students’ interests as they became clear over the course of each semester. (Or maybe I just told myself I was doing this. My reading lists actually tended to be pretty similar, year after year.)
The college, true to its progressive origins, doesn’t try to force faculty members to teach from the same mold, so nobody ever hassled me about not having a syllabus. But during the past few years, maybe just since the pandemic, students have increasingly seemed to want them, so I’ve finally started to provide them.
The college posts everyone’s course information online during the registration period, so in addition to talking about the week-by-week structure of my class, I thought I’d use the syllabus as a way to let prospective students know some other things about who they’d be working with if they signed up for one of my classes. For example, because politics enters the creative writing workshop much more than it used to, I thought it would be good to let students know upfront that some of our ideas about the politics of writing and reading might not align.
It’s a good thing that students today think so much about the politics of writing and reading, and that they’re so intent on dismantling racist and sexist literary traditions. When I was their age, a typical anthology of the contemporary American short story might consist of nineteen white guys plus Hortense Calisher. Not a world anyone in their right mind wants to go back to.
That said, the worldview of many young people is different from mine in significant ways. I worked for Dissent magazine from my twenties into my forties, and when I think about politics, my touchstones are people such as Irving Howe, Bayard Rustin, and Ellen Willis–all of whom represented facets of a kind of left-wing thought that’s at a considerable distance from the thought of most politically minded young people today. A syllabus for a creative writing class might not be the place to provide a crash course in old-school democratic leftism, but I thought it might be useful for students to get an idea of where I’m coming from on issues like freedom of speech, “offensive” art, and so on.
In another part of the syllabus, I talk about what the students will be doing for conference work. This needs a word of explanation. One of the distinctive things about Sarah Lawrence is that in addition to meeting in class every week, each student meets with their teacher every other week in individual conferences. It’s a lot of work. (I once met a writer who, on learning where I teach, said, “I spent five years at Sarah Lawrence one semester.”) But if you like teaching, it’s gratifying work, because you get to know your students much better than you would at most other schools.
I was a student at Sarah Lawrence in the 1970s, and my writing teachers–E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Papaleo, and Sol Yurick–were generous to me in ways I’ll never forget. It wasn’t so much anything they said about the stories that I wrote; it was simply that they seemed to take my efforts seriously. I try to honor their example by taking my students’ writing as seriously as my teachers took mine.
Writing and Reading Fiction
A novelist once began a lecture by asking how many people in the audience wanted to be writers. When almost everyone raised a hand, he said, “So why the hell aren’t you home writing?” The novelist was asking the right question. The only way to improve as a writer is to write a lot. You might have all the talent in the world; you might have had a thousand fascinating experiences. But talent and experience won’t get you very far unless you have the ability to sit down, day after day, and write. Accordingly, my main goal is to encourage you to develop or sustain the habit of steady writing. You’ll be sharing a very short story with the class every week in response to prompts that I’ll provide, and you’ll be producing an additional longer story for conference every two weeks. We’ll also be learning from writers who have come before us, reading a mix of classic and contemporary writers that include Anton Chekhov, Jennifer Egan, Percival Everett, Henry James, ZZ Packer, Philip Roth, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Virginia Woolf.
What we’ll do in class:
Every week I will provide the class with short writing assignments, designed to help you stretch yourselves as writers. You’ll complete these assignments outside of class.
The following week, you’ll bring in sixteen copies of what you’ve written, distribute the copies to the rest of us, and read your work out loud to the class.
The atmosphere will be one of mutual appreciation and support. (We’ll clap for one another’s writing. If that seems too corny to you or otherwise unappealing, then please don’t register for the class.)
Every week, we’ll also talk about several published stories.
What we’ll do in conference:
Every other Friday, the week before our conference, you’ll send me a completed story of up to 3,000 words.
In conference, we’ll talk about your story and I’ll give you written notes.
I won’t be reading story fragments or novel excerpts. My theory is that a writer learns more from completing a story, even if it’s not nearly as good as you hoped it would be, than from writing fifteen beginnings.
In conference, we’ll also talk about the reading you’ve done for class. You should come to each conference prepared to talk about the aspects of each story that gave you pleasure, the aspects of each that made you think, and the aspects of each that you might steal or adapt for your own writing.
This class is not a workshop:
I’m not against workshops on principle. Many writing teachers lead workshops in which students feel affirmed, stimulated, and challenged. But I’m through with them.
I’ve spent too many years in rooms where fifteen people (including me) are telling a writer what they did wrong. I just don’t want to do it anymore. Telling writers what they’re doing wrong, and listening to other people tell writers what they’re doing wrong, isn’t how I want to spend my days.
More important than the question of how I want to spend my days, though, is this: I don’t think that offering “correction” is the way I can best be of use to younger writers.
When I was a student, the most valuable thing I got from my writing teachers wasn’t an understanding of what I was doing wrong or even an understanding of what I needed to do to get better. The most valuable thing I got from them was that they treated me respectfully, as a fellow writer.
This is how I will endeavor to treat you, when you share your writing with me.
Every writer is working with questions and challenges that are theirs alone. My job, as a teacher, is to accompany you for a few steps during your life as a writer, to help you reflect on your writing process, and to help you get to know yourself better as a writer.
Trigger warning policy:
I do not provide trigger warnings for our readings. Literature is about all of life, its horrors as well as its splendors, so it’s safe to assume that we’ll be reading work that will contain upsetting material, which may be triggering for trauma survivors. If you are a trauma survivor, please be sure to develop a self-care plan so that you can effectively engage with the course material and participate in class. If you need assistance in this regard, please contact the SLC Health and Wellness Center at 914-395-xxxx.
Your learning style:
One of the benefits of the SLC conference system is that teachers can get to know your individual learning styles. Some young writers, for example, are most productive when their teacher talks exclusively about the things that are praiseworthy in their work, while others are motivated best by sharp criticism. If you can share anything about your own learning style that might help us in our work together, please do.
If I’m falling short in some way:
It can be hard to know when I’m falling short if no one tells me. If you feel that I’m failing to explain the assignments clearly, or failing to respond to your work in a thoughtful way, or giving you unhelpful criticism, or not giving you enough criticism, or failing to display respect, tolerance, patience, or curiosity, or coming short of the mark as a teacher in some other way, please let me know! I will be thankful.
If you’re considering this class, here are a few things I’d like you to know about me:
I hold some beliefs that you may not share; it’s up to you to decide whether it will be acceptable for you to work with a teacher who may disagree with you on certain fundamental questions.
- I believe that stories and novels can still be valuable and even beautiful even when their authors and/or their characters hold ideas that we find repugnant. (I’m a Jew, and some of my favorite writers were either flat-out anti-Semites or people who liked to make occasional scornful remarks about Jews—for example, GK Chesterton, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. Despite their small-mindedness in this respect, each of them has other qualities that I treasure.)
- I believe that part of the proper work of the fiction writer is to try to imagine what life looks like from other people’s point of view. I believe that a writer should never be condemned for trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
This is an entirely separate matter from publishing industry practices, which for a long time excluded and denigrated minority voices. Such practices should be condemned and combatted. In a healthy culture, everyone has the right to speak, and everyone has the right to be heard.
- I believe that the harms involved in suppressing speech are almost always greater than the harms involved in freedom of expression.
Many people dismiss the importance of freedom of expression because it’s a right that’s more easily exercised by the privileged than by the marginalized. But the same thing is true of the right to a fair trial and the right to vote. In each case, I believe that those of us who are in favor of a more just and more democratic society should seek to defend and extend these rights, not to restrict them.
- I believe that art that offends its readers may still have value. The artist who offends their community may be performing a greater service to the community than the artist who reinforces its shared beliefs.
- I believe that you can be a friend of art or a friend of censorship; you can’t be both.
- Any writing class seeks to build a community. The kind of community I hope to build is one in which people listen respectfully to one another despite their differences—a community of people who come to understand one another through their disagreements, and who understand and respect one another more than they would have if everyone had pretended to hold the same views.
This is an extremely tentative week-by-week reading list. We’ll probably be reading only about half of the stories listed below, and we may be reading stories that aren’t listed here at all. I’m providing this list just to give you a rough sense of the reading I’ll be assigning.
I’ll distribute copies of the stories each week. You won’t be responsible for buying any reading materials for the class.
I’m not listing the weekly prompts you’ll be receiving, because they’re more fun when they’re surprises.
Monday, January 30
Percival Everett, “Graham Greene”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Babylon Revisited”
Sidik Fofana, “The Okiedoke”
Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose”
Haruki Murakami, “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”
Monday, February 6
Anton Chekhov, “A Doctor’s Visit”
Anton Chekhov, “At Christmas Time”
Anton Chekhov, “Enemies”
Anton Chekhov, “Gooseberries”
Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog”
Monday, February 13
In the Path Cleared by Chekhov
Saul Bellow, “A Father-to-Be”
James Joyce, “The Dead”
Katherine Mansfield, “A Dill-Pickle”
Yuri Olesha, “Lyompa”
Virginia Woolf, “The Introduction”
Monday, February 20
Playing with Genre
Margaret Atwood, “Popular Gals”
Donald Barthelme, “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph”
Aimee Bender, “Marzipan”
Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”
Victor LaValle, “Ark of Light”
George Saunders, “Sea Oak”
Monday, February 27
Premise and Development
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “The Hospital Where”
Sherman Alexie, “War Dances”
Lorrie Moore, “People Like That Are the Only People Here”
Monday, March 6
Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”
Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”
Franz Kafka, “The Judgment”
Monday, March 13—spring break
Monday, March 20
Jorge Luis Borges, “Borges and I”
Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorius”
Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins”
Monday, March 27
Approaches to Identity in Fiction
Jonathan Escoffery, “In Flux”
Isabel Fall, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”
Toni Morrison, “Recitatif”
Philip Roth, “Defender of the Faith”
Monday, April 3
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “I Only Came to Use the Phone”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”
Monday, April 10
Working with Multiple Characters
Kathleen Collins, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”
Jennifer Egan, “Safari”
Mary Gaitskill, “This is Pleasure”
Graham Greene, “The Destructors”
ZZ Packer, “Brownies”
Monday, April 17
Premise and Development
Lorrie Moore, “How to Talk to Your Mother”
Grace Paley, “A Conversation with My Father”
Delmore Schwartz, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”
Jenny Zhang, “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?”
Monday, April 24
“A Pistol Shot in the Middle of a Concert”
Ralph Ellison, “Battle Royal”
Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter”
Carmen Maria Machado, “Inventory”
Nafissa Thompson-Spires, “Heads of the Colored People”
Leo Tolstoy, “After the Ball”
Monday, May 1
Premise and Development
DH Lawrence, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums”
Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party”
Ben Lerner, “Café Loup”
Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain”
Monday, May 8
Raymond Carver, “A Small, Good Thing”
Raymond Carver, “The Bath”
Edward P. Jones, “First Day”
Edward P. Jones, “The First Day”
Monday, May 15
Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”
Honore de Balzac, “The Unknown Masterpiece”
Henry James, “The Middle Years”
Raven Leilani, “Breathing Exercise”
Norman Mailer, “The Notebook”
Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer”
In class, we’ll also be reading very short stories by writers including Isaac Babel, Lydia Davis, Ernest Hemingway, James Hannaham, Tao Lin, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Mary Robison.
Syllabiology is an occasional column in which generous scholars share their syllabi and their thoughts related to the teaching of a single class.