MFA in Creative Writing Course Descriptions

Recent Courses Taught by Faculty



Spring 2013

English 261:  Craft Seminar in Fiction

Instructor:  Wesley Gibson                                            Thursday 4:30-7:30

This course focuses on issues that influence the writing of fiction.  Some seminars may focus on issues of craft or aesthetics – narrative structure in the novel, point of view, or dialogue – and others may be thematic in nature – historical fiction, realism or the postmodern ethos.  Readings may include a wide range of fiction from diverse backgrounds and historical periods as well as the students’ own works-in-progress.

English 264: Literary Journalism

Professor: Wesley Gibson

In this class we will be examining the genre of literary journalism.   I see literary journalism as journalism that takes its time to luxuriate in the subject both in terms of style and nuances of meaning.  Every other week we’ll look at an example of the genre: the profile, political reportage, what I would call muckraking, travel journalism, a literary investigation, and Truman Capote’s masterpiece of the genre, In Cold Blood.  In the weeks in which we’re not examining something I’ve assigned you will be asked, either singly or in small groups, to bring in an example of literary journalism to “teach.”  In other words you will lead the discussion.  We’ll spend the second part of the class going over your own work.  You will experiment with each of the examples we’ll be looking at with an eye towards a final project.





Spring 2013

English 262: Craft Seminar in Poetry : The New American Poetry

Instructor:  Matthew Zapruder                                            Tuesday 4:30-7:30

In 1960, Donald Allen and Grove Press published The New American Poetry 1945-1960. It included many poets (Ashbery, Creeley, Ginsberg, Guest, Jones, Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Spicer, etc.) of great future influence, and sorted the poets into categories (Black Mountain, Beats, San Francisco Renaissance, New York School) familiar to us to this day. Reading the anthology today, we can see how what is thought of as "new" in American poetry has (for better and worse) been profoundly influenced by this book, and beneath a surface idea of the "experimental," a deeper metabolizing of the innovations and values, both traditional and revolutionary, of the previous 150 years. In the first half of this course we will read the anthology, as well as separate full books by some of the poets (Guest, Ashbery, O'Hara, Creeley, Spicer, Wieners, and Creeley) along with supplementary material, in order to think about the "new" in American poetry, and how those ideas have influenced our understanding and practice of poetry. In the second half of the course students will choose and present work they feel has, or will, or should, determine what we think of as the new American poetry of the 21st century: what has mattered, what seems to matter now, and what will matter to poets and readers in the future.



Spring 2013  

English 264:  Craft Seminar in Nonfiction:THE CHARACTER OF CHARACTER

Instructor:  Marilyn Abildskov                                          T/Th 2:50 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. 

Many of the most acclaimed novels in the history of literature focus on and are named after a single character:  Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dallaway, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  We read with focus, then, as we come to know the texture of Anna’s troubles, the quality of Clarissa’s mind, the futility of Emma Bovary’s aspirations.  Much of what we think of as modern realist fiction probably centers on character. And so, in discussing the writing of fiction, it’s natural to discuss the flesh-and-blood reality of characters we encounter on the page, how to build characters, how to make them appear more believable and as complex as we know real people to be.

But what of character in nonfiction?  How does the writer of memoir and essay bring to life people on the page who already exist or existed in real life, characters who do not need to be built so much as revealed?  This course will look at a range of work from the autobiographical novel to the fragmented memoir to long-form literary journalism with an eye toward studying the nature of characterization:  how writers bring to life people on the page:  through glimpses, sketches, full-length scenes that rely on gestures, descriptions, dialogues, and monologues, and double portraits arranged through memories, questions, and riffs of imagination). We will ask ourselves in what way first-person narrators—those who recede into the background and those who take center stage—are crafted (often through a distinctive voice) to become essential characters.  We will also ask, to what effect?  For what purpose do these characters exist on the page?  As windows into another culture?  As a way of examining—and arguing—political ideas? As the canvas on which an elegy is composed? And what particular issues regarding character do nonfiction writers face?  Do readers expect to “like” a narrator in nonfiction in ways they do not when reading fiction?  Do we yearn to know a narrator will be OK at the end of a memoir in a way that we do not when reading a novel?  We will pose these questions and many more by delving into the character of characters (whether these are people, places, or ideas) in each text.


Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

Long Ago in France by MFK Fisher

Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas

Michael Martone by Michael Martone

“Undertaker, Please Drive Slow” by Jo Ann Beard 

An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorján





Fall 2013

English 264: The Craft of Nonfiction

Time & Memory

Instructor: Marilyn Abildskov           Tuesdays 4:45 to 8 p.m.
In The Art of Time in Memoir, critic, editor, and memoirist Sven Birkerts examines the impulse to mine one's life in writing, posing the question: what makes one memoir memorable and another self-serving? His answer:  How the writer navigates time itself. In this class, we will study how time operates in a variety of texts (short stories, personal essays, memoirs, literary reportage, and one novel), posing the seemingly simple (but incredibly revealing) question:  What is the narrative time frame of the text? A minute? An hour? A day? A week? A month? A year? Many decades?  How does the narrative move? Chronologically?  Back and forth in time?  As a mosaic, jumping in and out of chronological time, mixing narrative with exposition?  Where does the writer speed up or slow down or stop the narrative altogether to move into expository passages?  What is the effect of the braiding together a story of action (narrative) and story of thought (exposition)?  We will observe how writers negotiate the temporal, turning a single evening into multiple pages or compressing years into compact paragraphs of economy.  We will ask what effect these decisions have on the text, what response they evoke in readers.  And in the course of doing so, we will explore the business of memory.
Required Texts: 
Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper
The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Phillip Lopate
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
The Wrong Dog Dream by Jane Vandenburgh
The Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell




Fall 2013

English 262: Prosody and Poetic Form

Instructor: Brenda Hillman                                                 Thursday, 4:45pm-8:00 pm

Some say our hearts beat in iambic rhythm; whether this is true or not, there is a deep correspondence between seasonal and bodily rhythms and poetic form. In this course, you will learn the basics of scansion, prosody, received forms of metrical verse, and procedural forms of poetry. This nuts-and-bolts background is useful for the student of poetry, especially in light of the fact that free verse has been the most common choice for poets in the twentieth century. We will start the semester learning the basic techniques of scansion and will proceed to study principles of some received forms—the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, accentual-syllabic verse, syllabic poetry, concrete poems, prose poetry—as well as techniques of free verse poetry. The student will be asked to annotate poetry and to write weekly versions, imitations and variations of these received forms. We will study variants of the singlet, the couplet, the triplet and other stanzaic structures. Though this class is primarily a graduate seminar, it is open to undergraduates with permission of instructor, if space permits. 


Annie Finch, A Poet’s Craft

Mary Kinzie, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry


Weekly poems and critical annotations of the readings; full participation in every class discussion; weekly attendance; and final project.







Fall 2013

English 261: Beyond Setting: Locating Character in Time and Place

Instructor: Rosemary Graham                                   Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:00pm-4:35pm

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

This course will give you the opportunity to focus on two of the three parts of O’Connor’s “peculiar crossroads.” Weekly readings will guide weekly experiments encouraging you to take your fiction into unexplored territory: other decades, other continents as well as the here and now.

Likely Texts:            

Eudora Welty, Mystery and Manners (excerpts)

Frank O’Connor, The Best of Frank O’Connor

Margot Livesey, The House on Fortune Street

Ellen Sussman, The Paradise Guest House

Peter Behrens, The O’Briens

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes

Requirements: Weekly informal written responses to the reading and weekly 2 pp. experiments, one of which to be expanded into a 15-20-page story or novel excerpt. Attendance, active participation in lively class discussion. 

Official Learning Outcomes for English 261, Craft of Fiction

In this course, students will:

  • read fiction with attention to the techniques writers use to locate characters in place and move them through time
  • create original fiction using these and other techniques to locate characters in place and move them through time
  • relate the content of the course to their own fiction and to the practice of writing fiction in our time.







English 231: First Fiction

Professor: Lysley Tenorio           Tuesdays 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.                                                   
We see them year after year—debut novels and collections on the bookstores shelves, short stories in journals, magazines, and annual best-of anthologies.  Given the market’s competitiveness, their publication is a feat in itself, and with publication comes the assumption that these writers have something unique and vital to say, that their work demands—and is worthy of—readership.  But what makes these debuts so noteworthy?  What do these first novels and stories demonstrate in terms of artistry and vision, craft and technique, and, to quote John Gardner, how do they “enable us to see and feel vividly what characters see and feel, to experience as directly and intensely as possible”?  
In this course, we’ll read first novels and stories from both new and established writers, examining their prose styles, the ways they portray and explore their subject matter, and how they sustain drama and tension.  We’ll also consider questions specific to each author’s work.  How, for example, does George Saunders give emotional substance to the satirical dystopias in the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline?  How does Julie Otsuka’s shifting points of view lend itself toward the portrayal of Japanese-American internment during WWII?  What collective identity does Edward P. Jones create for his characters in the stories from Lost in the City, and what does this suggest about his portrayal of place? 
In addition, three local emerging writers—Will Boast, Kathryn Ma, and Joshua Mohr—will visit our class.  We’ll read their first books, and they’ll discuss their own experience of putting their first manuscripts together, the technical and aesthetic choices they made, the thematic concerns that helped push their work forward, as well as their own unique paths to publication.  
As writers working on your own first novels and stories, our discussions will hopefully raise questions and concerns relevant to your own material, and to your own relationship to the writing process.  Therefore, your responses to these works—whether positive or negative, enlightenment or bafflement, joy or frustration—are essential to our discussion, so your active participation and enthusiasm are essential and appreciated.  
Students in this course will work toward achieving the following goals: 
•To explore the relationship between craft and story, and the ways authors employ narrative technique
•To research the lives and careers of these authors, with attention to critical reception of their work
•To become familiar with current literary trends in the novel and short story
•To relate contemporary fiction to its professional context (publishing, the market, etc.)
Course Text
Power Ballads, Will Boast
Tinkers, Paul Harding
Selected stories, Edward P. Jones (course reader)
All That Work and Still No Boys, Kathryn Ma
Some Things That Meant the World to Me, Joshua Mohr
Selected stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin (course reader)
Selected stories, Daniel Orozco (course reader)
When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman
Selected stories, Karen Russell (course reader)
Selected stories, George Saunders (course reader)
Selected stories, Susan Steinberg (course reader)
The Book of Salt, Monique Truong
Various handouts (provided by instructor)



English 261: Graduate Craft Seminar


Narrative Strategies in Fiction

Instructor: Lysley Tenorio            Tu/Th 10:00 to 11:15 a.m.                                                    
I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time.  No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date:  I was born in Doctor Narkilar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.  And the time?  The time matters, too.  Well then: at night.  No, it’s important to be more…On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact.  Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came.  Oh, spell it out…
Now, however, time (having no further use for me) is running out…I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night.  I must work fast, if I am to end up meaning—yes, meaning—something…
So begins Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, in which the narrator, Saleem Sinai, declares his mission: he is here to tell the story of his life, and in effect, the story of modern, post-colonial India.  But as the opening shows us, Saleem is struggling to get the story right.  Does he begin at the beginning (“I was born in the city of Bombay”) or at a more image-driven moment (“Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came”)?  If, as he says, time is running out, how quickly should he tell his story?  Within it, what others need to be told?  And, perhaps most importantly, how will he “end up meaning—yes, meaning—something…?”
In many ways, the opening pages of Midnight’s Children illustrate a crossroads in the writing process.  Like many writers, Saleem Sinai knows (or perhaps, is beginning to know) his story: he understands its events and arc, crisis and conflict, a sense of resolution.  But for the writer, particularly in the stages of drafting and revision, this is just the stuff of knowledge, an articulation of mission—it’s the execution of this mission that will make the story finally come together.  The writer must have a narrative strategy in mind—begin at the end or in the middle; tell the story in the present or the past, use the first, second, or third person point of view—a “plan of attack” that will lead to the most convincing, evocative, and resonant story possible, and hold the reader captive until the final word and well beyond. 
The goal of this graduate craft seminar is to develop our skills and hone our instincts as writing “strategists,” and to recognize and consider the options available to us, particularly in the process of drafting, experimentation, and revision.  To meet this objective, we will examine the various elements of craft by reading and discussing critical essays on fiction writing by writers such as Janet Burroway, Aimee Bender, and Charles Baxter.  To deepen our discussion, we’ll then look at published fiction to see how different authors utilize these techniques, and to understand why they make the technical choices they do, and how they serve the overall goals of the narrative.
This course is not meant to demystify the writing process—the first draft is often the result of sudden inspiration, good energy and creativity, luck and serendipity. However, it’s those subsequent drafts that require real work, skill, grit, and strategy: this is the point at which writers step back and consider the true thing they’ve created, and willingly revise, tear down and build up, and experiment.  Our discussions and conversations will rely on this philosophy, which will hopefully be true for you as well.
Course Texts
Course reader/ handouts (provided by instructor)
Stories for group presentations 
Two short books (to be announced later in the term)