Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Craft: Presentation Samples


Being at Two with Nature: Tradition and Ambivalence in Nature Writing

Robert Finch

Until the 1980s, “nature writing” was regarded by most literary critics – if it was regarded at all – as “regional” or “genre” literature. “Nature books” rarely got reviewed in serious critical publications, and if they did it was as natural history or environmental writing, not as serious literature. But with the explosion of first-rate nature writing after World War II, and the emergence of nature writers of the caliber of Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Hoagland, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and many others, nature writing began to come into its own as a major literary genre.

When John Elder and I put together the first edition of The Norton Book of Nature Writing in 1990, our aim was two-fold: to give nature writing the formal recognition we believed it deserved, and to trace what we saw as a continuous tradition in English literature going back at least 200 years.

Using selections from the Norton anthology, we will explore some of the defining literary characteristics and forms of the “nature essay” and one of the major themes of nature writing: the divided or ambivalent response of nature writers to natural encounters and experience.

Readings will be taken from The Norton Book of Nature Writing, Second edition, ed. Robert Finch and John Elder (W.W. Norton, 2002) Selections marked with an asterisk (*) will be discussed at some length.

Confronting the Negative Controlling Images of Black Women:  The Work of Morrison, Hurston, Walker, and Butler

Alexs Pate

Good fiction functions on many levels. And while character, story and fully wrought settings are the hallmarks of these great writers, their work accomplishes so much more.  The novels of these African American women are instructive for writers who wish to recalibrate the world’s perception of a group of people or just themselves.  As the analysis of Patricia Hill Collins’ essay Mammies, Matriarchs and Other Controlling Images explains, these Black women attempt to smash stereotypes and redefine their existence.  This presentation, using the work of groundbreaking African American women writers, will focus on techniques and approaches to attacking the “controlling images” that effectively hold us (all?) in bondage.  

Required Reading:

Students are required to read one of the following novels

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Toni Morrison, Jazz

Octavia Butler, Kindred

Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”

Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs and Other Controlling Images”

Suggested Reading:

The remaining novels

Let’s Talk About Sex: How to Use Eroticism Effectively in Writing

Aaron Hamburger

Writing about sex can cause many of us a lot of grief.  Some of us try to dance around the topic, perhaps out of fear that if we include too much sex in our work or write about sex in the wrong way, we won't be taken seriously. Others are eager to write about sexual subjects openly, but sometimes what seems erotic and authentic in the imagination can turn out childish and cringe-worthy when it appears on the page.

If either of these descriptions sound like you, don’t worry; you’re in good company.  In this session, we’ll take a look at two of the finest writers in the English language, E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence, who had exactly these problems when writing about sex. We’ll also take a look at writers who have written effectively about eroticism, gay and straight, including Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Victor LaValle, Andre Aciman, Peter Nadas, and our own Patricia Smith.  We'll pay special attention to how writers have depicted eroticism in original ways.  We’ll also examine how in their descriptions of erotic habits or behavior, writers have transcended simply reporting the mechanics of sex to reveal hidden depths of character, plot, and theme. Finally, we’ll try an in-class creative writing exercise.

Required Reading:
E. M. Forster, Howards End (Chapters 1-35)

Suggested Reading:

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

E. M. Forster, Howards End (to the end)

The Wages of Syntax and the Drama of Grammar in the Poetic Line: nuts and bolts on craft for the poets

Jeanne Marie Beaumont

 “As I altered my syntax, I altered my intellect.” This sentence by W. H. Auden speaks to the power of syntax to shape thought, and indicates why poets need to keep their syntactical and other grammatical tools sharp. Each sentence, each line, is a small stage on which language events occur. What is to be presented, and what is the best order for it? How do simple, compound, and complex sentences help us navigate through material? How far can syntax be twisted, pushed, defamiliarized, and what effects are created by doing so? As Baron Wormser has written, “Every time a sentence or phrase is constructed, the poet faces an expressive possibility.” We will consider these expressive possibilities in model poems and consider how to apply them to revision. Participants should bring a short poem or segment (at least a dozen lines) they are open to revising.

Required Reading:

The Art of Syntax, Ellen Bryant Voigt

Email instructor for the handout of model poems

Mapping Storyland

Susan Conley

As writers we’re really cooking when we write about things we don’t fully understand yet. If we don’t excavate our material and take geologic surveys and make wholly new maps of the emotional and physical world we create in our stories, than we’re often just conveying information. And who really wants to read that? So how do we move into new territory in our writing—both geographically and emotionally? How do we write compellingly about the new places we land on in our stories? When done well, place becomes a wholly formed character in our prose and does an enormous amount of work for us. This presentation will look closely at specific elements of craft that allow setting and place to reign. We’ll learn how to leverage a sense of place in our work, until location and dislocation are both enhancing plot tension and character development and making real cinema out of our words.

Required Reading:

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge

Alysia Abbott, Fairyland

What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

Breena Clarke        

Racial identification of characters, whether by overt statement or coded language, constructs the stage and simultaneously places the players on the fictional stage. Color shorthand can enlighten or irk the reader. How does it serve the writer? Does it create authority or expose racial bias? In If Beale Street Could Talk James Baldwin wastes few words on racial description. Baldwin begins his novel with a plain first person declaration and proves his narrative authority in subsequent, tightly controlled, descriptive sentences. By contrast, Paradise, by Toni Morrison bluntly states color and gives up its climax and dares the reader to continue until the central, very disturbing mystery is decoded. To herald what is at stake at the beginning of the story, suspenseful fiction creates drama before the crisis. If race is a “crisis,” how long should the writer wait to talk about race? We will discuss strategies of staging race for the fiction writer.

Required Reading:  

 James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

Suggested Reading: 

Toni Morrison, Paradise

Colum McCann, Transatlantic

Charles Baxter , The Art Of Subtext

Through Me Many Long-Dumb Voices: The Poet-Lawyer

Martín Espada

There is common ground between bards and barristers that goes beyond a fascination with language or the use of words as weapons. In my experience as poet-lawyer, that common ground is advocacy.   The tradition of advocacy in North American poetry goes back to Whitman. One of his greatest disciples was a poet-lawyer, Edgar Lee Masters, who published Spoon River Anthology in 1915. This is a series of 244 poetic monologues in nineteen linked narratives spoken by the dead of Spoon River cemetery. Spoon River reveals the underside of small-town Midwestern life, a rebuttal to the idealized fable of small town America. Here there is greed, lust, betrayal, corruption, poverty, addiction, war, rape, and murder. The rich dominate the poor; men impose their will on women; white people brutalize the few who aren’t white. Through it all, Masters is the advocate, identifying with the marginalized and despised citizens of Spoon River, condemning the powerbrokers. These persona poems were clearly written by a lawyer. The language is often similar to that of an affidavit: written in the first person, direct and clear, telling a story, attempting to persuade. The poet-lawyer of Spoon River speaks in 244 voices.

Required Reading:

Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology

Plots—What the Heck Are They, and Why Don’t I Have One?

Aaron Hamburger

The term “plot,” is one of the most slippery and angst-inducing for writers of prose, fiction, pop fiction, and non-fiction alike.  In this presentation, we’ll try to nail down exactly what we mean by this oft-used and little-understood term, considering the differences between “plot,” “story,” and “action.”  Once we’ve come to some conclusions about what we’re talking about when we talk about plot, we’ll then analyze how plot organizes narrative in two short stories and a fantasy novel.  Finally, we’ll turn from literary analysis to our own work with an exercise or two to see how plot is functioning in students’ current projects.

Required Reading:

Gonzalo Barr, “Braulio Gets His Car Back” from The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa

L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

Lorrie Moore, “Terrific Mother” from Birds of America

Suggested Reading:

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (great chapter about plot)

Gotham Writers’ Workshop Guide to Fiction (also, a great chapter about plot)

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

One Good Thing After Another

Jaed Coffin, Michael Kimball, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Patricia Smith

“A story should be . . . one good thing after another and the whole of some consequence.” – James Salter

A panel that explores ways of breathing life into expositions and transitions. Whether we write fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, stage plays, or poetry, we inevitably face passages where we feel compelled to abandon our experiential perspective and start explaining—or perhaps we hope that our readers will sit still for a brief but uninspiring transitional chapter, scene, paragraph, line, or word.

In this panel, we will share our strategies across genres for infusing those flat passages with drama, conflict, anticipation, momentum, enlightenment, emotion, humor, beauty, etc., so that in the end we’re left with “one good thing after another.”

Open to all genres.

Write to Eat

Jaed Coffin, Barbara Kelly, Helen Peppe (moderator), Michael Steinberg, Suzanne Strempek -Shea

Food writers try to be compelling, sometimes entertaining, always informative, yet they often arouse anger and guilt in the reader and, in some cases, they even offend.  How does a writer address those food issues that affect environment, health, and ethics without making a reader defensive? Or is it a writer’s responsibility to incite readers to react emotionally and, in the case of food and the environment, to question their food choices and related behaviors? Appetite, including cravings, is one of the most basic animal drives, connecting us to our planet and the animals and plants that inhabit it in a way that nothing else does. And it is one of the most difficult to control. Fraught with challenges, socially, politically, and, even hormonally, if the “you are what you eat” cliché is true, then many food writers seem to want readers to become different people.

In this presentation, panelists will discuss the opportunities food and related issues present for writers and strategies on how to write about food successfully in an era where the topic has overwhelmed many readers to a level of unresponsiveness.

Required Reading:

Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, Skinny Bitch or Skinny Bastard

Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manuel

Frances Moore Lappe, Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet

Excerpts from: Moby, Gristle

Excerpts from: Jane Goodall, Harvest for Hope, A Guide to Mindful Eating

Excerpts are available on BlackBoard

Suggested Reading and Viewing

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids: The Secrets Behind What you Eat

Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet

DVD Food Inc., Eric Schlosser, Gary Hirschberg, Michael Pollan, and Joe Salatin, 2009

Amp Up the Emotion: Tricks of the Trade From Romance Writers

Nancy Holder and Laura Navarre

Do you want to power up your manuscript with a visceral punch? Irrespective of genre, one of the most effective techniques for grabbing your reader’s interest is to pump up your characters’ emotions. We’ll discuss techniques for writing an emotion-packed manuscript, using examples from genre and literary fiction, in this seminar co-taught by a Stonecoast faculty member and a Pop Fic alumna who are multi-published in romance, YA, mystery, horror and other genres. Please come prepared to share examples of amped-up emotion from your own favorite books.

Required Reading (choose one):

Cheryl St. John, Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict: Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel.

Karl Iglesius, Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End