Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Fiction: Presentation and Workshop Samples


Writing  Sexuality (C, S)

Carolina De Robertis, Boman Desai, Aaron  Hamburger
This panel will explore the joys and  challenges of portraying a range of sexual and gender identities in our  fiction—gay, lesbian, bi, straight, trans, and everything in between and  beyond those particular labels. All fictional characters have a sexual identity and gender identity. What tools can help us create compelling, complex characters across the sexuality spectrum? What techniques can we use to write sexualities that differ from our own personal experience?  What role can gay themes play in seemingly non-gay narratives—how do they  enrich or inform the bigger picture? In what ways can queer erotic desire  burst open the definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman—and how  does this affect our stories? What does it take to create nuanced portrayals of characters who cross gender boundaries?  
We will explore these questions and more, with readings from Michael Chabon, Ha Jin, Herman Melville, Manuel Muñoz, Sarah  Waters, and Jeanette Winterson.
Required Reading:
Selected texts, which will be made available via  Blackboard.
Suggested Reading:
Sarah Waters, Tipping the  Velvet
Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Michael Chabon, Mysteries of  Pittsburgh

Manuel Muñoz, Zigzagger

Ethics and Esthetics of Fiction (C)

Boman Desai

Some write well, but have nothing to say; others have much to say, but write badly. Style without substance makes you a charlatan; substance without style makes you a propagandist. The former are the tailors in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”; the latter are professional speechwriters, editorialists, copywriters. No writer is entirely one or the other, but every writer is defined by where the line is drawn. The reading list (see below) provides examples of how differently the line can be drawn, also of what John Gardner calls Characters of the First, Second, and Third degrees. We will probe these distinctions the better to understand and apply them to our own work during the seminar.

Required Reading:

Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” available in just about any collection of short stories by Tolstoy

Ian Fleming, “The Hildebrand Rarity,” the last story in Fleming’s collection, For Your Eyes

Only; Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond, available in many editions.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, available in many editions.

Suggested Reading:

Leo Tolstoy, “The Three Hermits,” a very short story, but difficult to find. I have it in a collection, Russian Stories, edited by Gleb Struve, published by Bantam Books, in Russian AND English (pages facing each other), published as a Bantam Dual-Language Book (October 1961) and a Bantam Language Library edition (February 1965).

Ian Fleming, “Quantum of Solace,” the third in Fleming’s collection, For Your Eyes Only – which has NOTHING to do with the movie, and almost nothing to do with James Bond who remains a bystander in this least Bond of Bond stories. Call it the unBond. Fleming showcases a surprisingly light and human touch, ripe for Redbook.

Residency Reading Response:

Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot. Please read and comment on just Chapter 6, “Emma Bovary’s Eyes.” The chapter stands well as an object lesson in learning to think for yourself. One approach might be to contrast the ethics and esthetics of Flaubert and Dr. Enid Starkie, his “most exhaustive British biographer.”

Grabbed by the Tale: Fairy Tales as Source, Symbol, and Springboard (C)

Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Nancy Holder, Christina Mock

For a wide range of authors, from the experimental fiction writer to the formalist poet, the fairy tale has been a rich and rewarding source for characters, plotlines, and imagery. The dramatic frames the tales provide are endlessly reworkable, and the psychological complexities elastically adaptable to many current modes. What hold do the tales have on us and why? How can contemporary writers use the tales to fire up their own imaginations? This cross-genre panel will look at these issues and consider several textual examples. We will also consider such issues as authorial tone of the tale teller, updating the tales, and writing for different audiences.

Please read at least some selection of work outside your chosen genre for the broadest discussion:

Required Reading:

(choose one of the first two for your reading response)

Anne Sexton, Transformations (poems)

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (fiction)

Reread some of the classic tales themselves, eg, from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Suggested Reading:

Poems from The Poets’ Grimm available on line at

(see Contents and Links pages for poems)

Patricia C. Wrede, Snow White and Rose Red

Nancy Holder, The Rose Bride: A Retelling of “The White Bride and the Black Bride”

Louis Murphy, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: a novel of war and survival

Mappa Mundi: From Folk Tale to Fiction (C)

Gioia Timpanelli

In this presentation I’ll tell four folk tales and we'll discuss their relation to fiction.  

Folk tales have an especially sneaky logic found in poetry, metaphor, and dreams. Knowing intimately all the land and plants and creatures with whom they live, stories tell carefully and respectfully the people’s place on earth. The tales’ natural inner/outer narratives reflect what changes and what is perennial in their world. Everything is alive in the stories, and so not given to large statements on meaning. What seems both outside and inside are experienced in the same place; what seems small and hidden is an entire world.

How is this view helpful to a fiction writer? The stories aim at balance. No word is wasted, yet this sparseness allows the richest of images, complex and subtle. I think of telling stories as primitive (first) theater where story/ teller/ listener are one in the soulful art. Knowing the value of these intensely wise stories changes our sense of learning, changes us – not in order to write communal folk tales but to reflect on their wisdom and shake ourselves free to be inspired.

Required Reading:

Select a collection (e.g. African, French, Irish, Russian, Grimm’s), read a number of stories from

The Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library

Gioia Timpanelli, Sometimes the Soul, two Novellas of Sicily, “Rusina Not Quite in Love” (Beauty and the Beast story as fiction)

In what way can this quote from Gertrude Stein (What Are Master-Pieces) be relevant to our discussion of folk tale and fiction?

Think about how you create if you do create you do not remember yourself as you do create.

Twelve Things Not to Do in Fiction (C)

Rick Bass

We’ll undertake a discussion of major pitfalls that can diminish the potential of any manuscript. Specific examples will be examined. It should be remembered that these dozen “don’ts” can each be easily repaired in the editing process. The hoary dictum, “Show don’t tell,” will be first out of the blocks, but we will also identify other, less commonly noticed mistakes. We’ll also look at what works—at great stories that possess a burning soul and yet also manage to avoid any of the twelve mistakes.

Required Reading:

Raymond Carver, “Where I'm Calling From” and “Cathedral”

Joy Williams, “The Blue Men”

Joy Williams, “Escapes”

Residency Reading Response: How might Carver have written “Where I’m Calling From” or “Cathedral” differently, and why?

What do you think is the greatest key to the success of “The Blue Men” or

Go There: The Art of Conflict in Fiction (C)

Martha Southgate

All too often, students shy away from the juiciest, most meaningful moments in their stories because they aren’t sure how to write the conflict, or they’re afraid of writing it. That conflict can be anything from a brawl to a conversation, internal or external. In this craft class, students will look at a couple of stories to examine the meat of fictional conflict, how authors work with it and how they might begin to use conflict more skillfully in their own work. Then we’ll practice writing a conflict of our own. Please read Charles Baxter’s essay “Creating a Scene” in the book The Art of Subtext and the stories “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway and “The 5:48” by John Cheever. All will be discussed in the presentation.

Required Reading:

Charles Baxter, “Creating a Scene” in The Art of Subtext

John Cheever, “The 5:48” in The Stories of John Cheever

Ernest Hemingway, “Hills like White Elephants”

Have Blaster Will Use It: Writing Moments of Violence (C)

David Anthony Durham

No matter what genre you’re writing in the story could go there... That long-simmering marital tension erupts in a murderous argument ignited over the fondue pot. The invading horde of sword-wielding barbarians pours over the mountain pass toward your protagonist’s village. The mutated piranha-toads escape from the lab and catch the scent of fresh meat from the playground next door… The circumstances can vary, but often our fictions require us to write scenes of people at their bloody worst. Does rendering such moments effectively require the same techniques as moments of quiet description and introspection, or are new techniques required? We’ll examine this question as we look at how some of the pros handle writing violently dramatic scenes. 

I’m asking participants to seek out well-written scenes of violence on their own. Please email me their chosen scenes. Yes, that may mean you have to retype the scene manually, but that can be a very informative exercise. Or you could scan it and send it as a pdf. This isn’t a requirement, but please keep it in mind and send them on to me anytime you’d like. I’ll pick some of these to use for discussion during the seminar. Also, come ready to write, as the seminar will include writing exercises!

Required Reading: Read at least one of the following:
Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood

Madison Smartt Bell, All Soul’s Rising

David Anthony Durham, Walk Through Darkness

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Richard K Morgan, Altered Carbon

The Question of Character Is an Innocent One (C, T, CC)

Todd Boss and guest Waldorf instructor David Barham

Using temperament models as frameworks for thinking about identity, a writer can:

  1. push oneself to new levels of personal discovery,
  2. bring that personal journey to the page, and
  3. model that personal journey as a teacher for one’s students. 

Writing is often at its best when the writer has been most vulnerable to a conflict rooted in identity. Similarly, teaching is often at its best when a teacher can model vulnerability as a means toward development, guiding by example. Temperament models can be useful because they remind us that, although our identities are largely innocent accidents of genetics, we are never “stuck” with ourselves. Using the Jungian-based Enneagram and Rudolph Steiner’s century-old Waldorf pedagogical theories as tools, this Q&A between a poet and a Waldorf-trained teacher will explore how the journey of self-discovery begins in childhood, is manifested in the fictional characters and persona poems of major contemporary authors, and can be used in the writing classroom to engage students.

Required Reading:

Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, The Enneagram Made Easy: Discover the 9 Types of People (Please come having identified your type.)

A small packet of selected readings will be available in advance. Please e-mail Todd Boss,, to obtain it as a PDF.

Alumni Forum: Location, Location, Location (C)

Michaela Roessner

All genres and subgenres have – due to their specific natures – strong suits that the other genres can learn and benefit from. One of speculative fiction’s strengths is setting/locale, because if we spec. fic. writers are known for anything, it’s the worlds we create.

Writers in all genres sometimes think of setting/locale as an annoying element that does need to be taken into account, but then applied, gotten over and done with as quickly as possible: a hastily painted backdrop of sorts.

Setting/locale has, however, the potential for acting as one of the most powerful implements in our auctorial toolbox – a veritable Swiss army knife of a device. Looking at examples from a broad spectrum of genres, this presentation will open up and consider some of setting’s “blades” and other wondrous gizmos, examining a number of ways in which setting can be used to multitask in a narrative.

The presentation will finish with a list of setting-oriented writing exercises. Please bring some paper and pencil or your laptop so that we can play around with these a bit.

Required Reading:

Rather than send folks off on the usual reading-materials scavenger hunt, I’ve assembled excerpts from a number of authors into a single document. I can email it to any interested parties as either a doc. or PDF attachment. Or, if you have trouble getting attachments, let me know and I’ll street-mail it to you. Email me at Please bring it with you to the presentation. I will be bringing some extra copies with me, but not necessarily sufficient for everyone.

Wait…wait…that’s not what happened! (C)

Emma Bouthillette (alum)

You probably don’t remember what you ate for breakfast let alone what happened when you were five. As curious creatures, we may refer to our parents, grandparents, siblings or friends to help compile and clarify some of those memories from our earlier years for the purpose of our writing. But what happens if you recall a story and the person you’ve turned to for clarification says, “Wait…wait…that’s not what happened!” What does one do then? As creative nonfiction writers, we struggle with what may be a murky memory and perception of days gone by that may be different from those we shared the experience with. Despite that, readers are expecting we tell the truth in the words we put to the page. So what’s a memoirist to do? Looking at Jenny Lawson’s “mostly true memoir” Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, we’ll discuss ways writers can navigate those murky memories and create a manuscript that lends credibility to the narrator.

Required Reading:

Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened

Reading you already should have done and if you haven’t what are you waiting for:

Sven Birkerts, The Art of Time in Memoir

Suggested Reading:

Jenny Lawson’s blog can be found at

Questions About the Narrator (Fiction, Memoir) (C, LT)

David Mura

In terms of narration, a series of crucial questions confront any storyteller, whether in fiction or memoir:  Who is the narrator?  Who is the narrator telling her story to?  When is the narrator telling the story?  Why is the narrator telling the story? 

In fiction, these questions help the writer focus on what information should be included in order to provide the necessary context for the story.  These questions can also help shape both the voice of the narrative and the narrative itself, particularly in instances of first person narration.  These questions are also relevant to memoir where they can help the writer create the perspective from which she is telling her tale; these questions are thus crucial to the formation of the reflective voice. 

To illustrate my points, I’ll first focus on Conrad’s Marlowe in The Heart of Darkness.  I’ll also use excerpts from some of the following: The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga; The Lover, Marguerite Duras; The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz; The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr; Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston; American Pastoral, Philip Roth; perhaps some science fiction such as Charles Yu or Octavia Butler.

Required Reading:

Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

Pdf. Handouts