Sarah Braunstein (Fiction, Writing for Social Change) is the author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (W.W. Norton), winner of the 2012 Maine Book Award for Fiction. The novel was a finalist for the 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction and an Oprah Magazine Top Ten Pick of the Month. In 2010 Sarah was named one of “5 Under 35” fiction writers by the National Book Foundation, and she received a 2007 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI, Ploughshares, FiveChapters, Post Road, The Sun, Nylon Magazine, Maine Magazine, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She co-wrote a play, String Theory: Three Greek Myths Woven Together, which was produced in New York City in 2009 and at Vassar College in 2010. Sarah has taught at Harvard University Extension and Summer Schools, at the Stanford University Online Writer’s Studio, and at Colby College. She is currently the Coastal Studies Scholar at Bowdoin College, where she teaches in the Gender & Women’s Studies Department. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MSW from Smith College School for Social Work.
How I Teach:
Welcome to the program. Get ready to fail. (At least sometimes.) Writers must be well acquainted with failure, mess, and risk. Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Anne Lamott advocates for “shitty first drafts.” Woody Allen says: “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing something very innovative.” You want to apprentice yourself to this work? Then enter into it with equal measures of hope and humility. Get ready to make some mistakes—and to make them publicly. Get ready to do it again.
Making art requires submission to mystery. Nothing guarantees success, or happiness, or self-confidence, or awards… The only guarantee I’ll bet on is this: success depends on being willing to explore depths, make a mess, and trust that the work often knows more than you do. In this spirit, I’ll encourage you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, to allow yourselves the experience of surprise.
I learned over the years (as both teacher and social worker) that a supportive community, in which students feel seen, fosters the richest, most broad-minded work. And while I aim to be a generous, warm-hearted teacher, that is not to say working with me will be easy. I aim to gain your trust in order to push you. I take no short cuts. My feedback addresses work on the level of craft, examining choices of point of view, characterization, tone, etc. I search drafts for uncontrolled, clichéd, and flabby prose. I request revisions. I call out laziness. But I’m also the first to underscore your successes: to cheer for a striking image, to praise your passages masterful dialogue, to embrace the originality and beauty of an idea.
I believe students progress most dramatically when encouraged to revise their work significantly (something I was not encouraged to do as a student). Even if you’re satisfied by the outcome, I like to ask: How else could you do this? In what other ways might this story be told? What would happen if…? When required to re-examine their work, to unpack language, to play, students are often startled by what they discover.
I expect packets to be submitted on an agreed-upon date, and I respond promptly with both line notes and a general letter. I will work closely with you to generate challenging and expansive reading lists, and will request both critical annotations and creative writing exercises based on published readings. I tailor instruction to meet the needs of the individual. My students know that if they come to me feeling stuck or overwhelmed, I will create an original assignment for them: a short story to read, an essay on craft, a creative exercise. After I send my response to your monthly packet, I will usually request a brief phone conference.
Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” In two years as a graduate student, you will likely encounter moments when the muse—or whatever rush of passion and hope inspired you to apply for this program—becomes overwhelmed by doubt. When getting words on the page feels like getting blood from a stone. If and when this happens, I’ll work with you to keep you writing—to keep you wielding that club with power and authority.