We bring you now what we hope will be a regular feature on the echolocation blog--an imaginary syllabus written by and for creative writers. The idea's inspiration came from Michael Collins, who has written the post below. If you have an idea for an Imaginary Syllabus send it to Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Collins is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Toronto. His work has been published here and there, including in the most recent issue of Echolocation. You can follow him on twitter @erlking. He is always threatening to visit a website upon the world, but this has yet to pass.
"This course is for students who would like to learn how to write and for students who already think of themselves as writers.
Students in this class will study a diverse array of short fiction. The aim is not to tease out the meaning of the text, as in other courses on English literature. Instead, the goal is to learn the mechanical workings of written narrative and to be exposed to the aesthetic possibilities of various prose styles. There will also be occasional lectures on narratology, and on the pragmatics of the literary marketplace."
Last fall, I applied to teach creative writing at a university that I won't name. It was an arrogant thing to do. The MA or MFA in creative writing is such a well-oiled (if vaguely pyramid-shaped) self-perpetuating system, and my place within it is uncertain. Actually, no, it's not. I'm just being polite to myself when I say 'uncertain'. My place is certain: outside. I'm doing a 'straight' PhD in literature, trained in the analysis of existing texts, not the production of new ones.
But I do produce new ones. I have plenty of creative publications on my CV and only a few academic publications. I wrote short stories before I started graduate school, and I'll continue to write short stories wherever I land (so hopeful a verb!) when I'm done this PhD. And who knows where that will be? I worked the night desk of a hotel before I came back to academia, and I might find myself back at such work in the future. Doing a PhD in the humanities feels, increasingly, like packing off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star. You give it a shot and you hope for the best. In that sense, it's not unlike writing fiction, or any other artistic endeavour.
And in any case, why draw such a clear distinction between literary analysis and literary production? At their core, both pursuits involve a lot of deep thought about the way words work when they're put together. They both involve thinking about what texts are and what they do. They both require us to take seriously imaginative constructs like character and plot. There is an expectation that practitioners of both should be meticulous.
A good writer is a thoughtful student of literature even if they've never taken a university class. When I was reading fiction submissions for Echolocation, a couple of years ago, a certain quality unified a number of the weaker ones. We always got the feeling, reading them, that the writer hadn't read much, hadn't read widely, hadn't thought deeply about what they'd read—and, as a result, hadn't thought deeply about what they'd written, either. The stories were tiresome and self-indulgent. They felt like they were created in a kind of vacuum, like the person writing them didn't actually like short fiction enough to read much of it.
That's why, when I put together a pretend syllabus as part of my job application, I made reading short fiction equally central with the ubiquitous workshops.
"How does short fiction work? What forms can it take? What problems can an unfinished story have, and what solutions are available to its author? The goal of this class is to teach students how to knowingly create short fiction that functions as they want it to function, and how to make deliberate aesthetic choices as both storytellers and prose stylists. Whether students conceive of short fiction as a kind of exercise yard where they may hone their skills before attempting larger works, or whether they consider the short story a worthy pursuit in and of itself, this class will produce prose writers with expanded stylistic palettes and greater technical finesse."
The first story on my pretend syllabus is Lydia Davis's “Spring Spleen.” Here it is in its entirety:
I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly.
Soon they will hide the neighbour and her screaming child.
Yup. That's all of it: beginning, middle, and end.
Brevity has become a bit of a mania with me lately. I have thoughts like: does your story really need 3,500 words? Cut it 350, just to see what happens. As an editor, my never-spoken-but-vehemently-felt mantra evolved to be: “don't waste my fucking time!” My story in the current issue of Echolocation is a result of such thoughts combined with reading a lot of Lydia Davis.
Remarkable brevity and an unconventional narrative technique are kind of Davis's thing, although some of her stories are actually rather long and others are more conventional. But I put “Spring Spleen,” this neutron star of a story, in prime position on my syllabus because I wanted students to reconsider what stories could be, what shapes and forms they might take. Is Davis's text a story? Is it a poem? Does it have characters or a plot? If it does, how does it convey those things?
My answers: Yes it is a story. Possibly it is also a poem. Yes it has characters and plot. I think “Spring Spleen” uses a lot of negative space to generate narrative energy. It implies the existence of character and plot while actually depicting very little of them. There are at least three people in it, a protagonist and two antagonists. There is an implied setting (a leafy but perhaps crowded neighbourhood), an emotional frame (gladness at anticipated relief), several actions (growing, hiding, screaming), and a sense of forward temporal momentum (soon!). “Show, don't tell” is one of the oldest saws in the biz; Davis's story barely even shows, but it still works.
But I was more interested in what the students would say when confronted with “Spring Spleen.” Because I don't think it's a creative writing teacher's job to give students rules. Telling rather than showing is just fine, as long as the telling is interesting and purposeful. As long as telling is what serves the needs of the story.
I think of a story like an animal. It has organs, parts that work together to give it life (or fail to work together, resulting in a dead decaying lump of something). A story has a heart (or hearts) and it has skin (or skins). Individual words are its DNA, organic bits that aren't alive in isolation but somehow create life when chained together. Writers are mad scientists, combining and re-combining organs and glands, splicing bits, amputating this or that, tinkering with enzymes and hormones and DNA.
In that sense, Lydia Davis's story is like a virus: tiny, elegant, intensely purposeful, but maybe not even technically alive. But poking around at the boundaries of things is good practice in mindfulness, and that might be the only rule I would insist my students follow: whatever you're doing, be mindful.
Davis, Lydia. “Spring Spleen.”
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph.”
Colette. “The Bracelet.”
Moore, Lorrie. “Agnes of Iowa.”
Gowdy, Barbara. “Presbyterian Crosswalk.”
Gallant, Mavis. “The Ice-Wagon Going Down the Street.”
Munro, Alice. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”
O'Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
Calvino, Italo. “A Sign in Space.”
Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.”
Barthelme, Donald. “I Bought a Little City.”
Moore, Lorrie. “How to Become a Writer”
Of course I could have had many more on there. I posted this list to my facebook and two responses were common: people liked the list and they wanted me to add [x]. But a semester has only so many weeks in it, and I had to hold workshops too.
Earlier, I criticized unsuccessful stories (I shy away from the word 'bad,' but here it is anyway, in parenthesis) by saying they seemed to come from a vacuum. The other, complementary side of this idea is my belief that people make really important artistic breakthroughs by encountering art that is new and exciting to them. My theory is that if it's new and exciting then it's unexpected, and a curious brain can't help but pick apart something unexpected, and the act of picking apart a story teaches you how to put a story together. Maybe your writing will be a bit derivative for a while, but better to be derivative for a bit than to be perpetually stuck in a gravity well of narcissism.
I admit that a curious brain is a necessary element in such a chain of events, but I do think a writer should have a curious brain.
I first read Kafka's short stories in my early twenties, while house-sitting for my Aunt and Uncle in the east end of St. John's, Newfoundland. Alone in a house I couldn't quite feel at home in, I admired those stories as mood pieces (discomfort! nausea! frustration!) and as narratives that were wrought in a fashion I hadn't really encountered before. In each story something is amiss. Although whatever is amiss can be described, no one can say why or how the state of affairs came to be as it is. The narrative drive comes from the implications of whatever is amiss, not from 'solving' the mystery or 'fixing' the problem. There is no telos. The problem just is, and the story becomes: what are the details of the problem? What results from it?
Before I read Kafka I thought of myself as a writer in a vague kind of way, for reasons more to do with self-perception and ego than anything else. I wrote a lot not-awful-but-not-particularly-great lyric poetry, and I wrote the odd short story. These stories were light on plot, featuring rudderless young people in either an economically depressed small town or an alienating urban environment, executed in wordy prose.
I even sent some of these stories out into the world. All were, unsurprisingly, rejected. No doubt the editors who read them thought of me as I would later think of others: whoever wrote this hasn't read widely or thought deeply. And it was true, I hadn't. For me, Kafka was the beginning of reading wider and thinking deeper.
I wrote a short story called “Slip” shortly after I read Kafka, wherein an anxious young man becomes increasingly stuck and unstuck in the flow of time. That story was my first ever to be accepted for publication. I cringe at the title, now (I remain shit at titles), but I stand by the story.
So reading Kafka and writing a number of Kafka-esque fictions really was a kind of breakthrough for me, because it was the start of my own mindfulness. Importantly, I was thinking about how these stories were put together. Kafka was the boot in the arse I needed.
I don't know what other boots in other arses might be, but, as I put together this syllabus, I hoped some of these stories would do the trick for some of my students. So when you see my list of stories, above, think of them as a variety of waiting boots.
There are all kinds of reasons why someone might want to write. There are all kinds of ways people get pleasure or interest from texts. I'm not telling people the reason they want to write is wrong. I don't want to tell people--people I have power over, as a teacher--that they're wrong to be excited by this or interested in that.
But, after a few years wading through slush piles, I do think lots of people might benefit from answering honestly questions such as: why do you want to write? What kinds of things excite you when you're reading something you love? Why is your story the way it is, and not a different way?
"Students are reminded that the point of workshops is to share material that is flawed, imperfect, unfinished, etc. The quality of what you workshop has no bearing on your grade . . . . Do not lose too much sleep over this. A workshop would be of little use if everyone submitted work that was already finely polished and flawlessly functional."
How do you even evaluate creative writing, though? I wanted to teach creative writing through assigning a diverse set of readings that I consider exemplary, through assigning exercises in criticism, and through making students practice. The only creative writing class I've taken was under Michael Winter, when he was Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto, and those are the techniques he used. His class wasn't graded, but it also wasn't for credit.
But if there are grades, then what determines an 83% versus a 77% when it's a piece of short fiction that's being evaluated? An academic essay is a functional, objective kind of thing. It needs to lay out a specific argument at the beginning. It needs to elaborate upon the argument through focused discussion of evidence taken from the text, and then recapitulate the argument in the conclusion. A story is not an essay. It can have any number of objectives, and it can go about achieving those objectives in any number of ways. Is “Agnes of Iowa” worthy of an 86, while “In the Penal Colony” gets a 92? It's insane to think of stories in that way, yet that is precisely what I might have been called on to do.
As far as I'm concerned, creative writing courses should all be pass/fail, and a pass should simply fulfill some of these requirements: did the student gain new technical abilities or tools? Did the student try new things? Did the student gain a more specific sense of why they are writing, and of what they want any particular story to do? Did the student provide helpful and thoughtful contributions to the ubiquitous workshop? If yes to some (not even all! Not even most!) of these, then the student has received whatever things of value creative writing classes can offer.
At least, that's how I think about it. I didn't get the job, by the way, so all this remains theoretical.