2013 Craft Talks:
Sierra Bellows: “(Re)Inventing History”
All fiction steals from fact. Stories are grounded in real places or historical epochs, and mannerisms are borrowed from real people. What happens when writers insert historical people into invented narratives? Or even make use of whole episodes lifted from the history books? What is gained — or lost — from an overt pastiche of the real and the imaginary?
Aja Gabel: “The Supernatural and the Super-real in Story Writing”
When we look for new storytelling territory, some of us who grew up with comic books, fairy tales and science fiction might find ourselves turning to those narrative tropes for inspiration. Karen Russell, Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier are a few story-writers who work in this arena successfully. This discussion and reading will consider ways we might incorporate those slightly more fantastical elements into honest literary fiction, not forgoing real sentiment for cheap sensation.
Emma Rathbone: “Deep Cuts”
It’s one thing to revise passages or sections of a story, but what about when you completely reimagine a piece from the ground up? What are the joys and struggles of this process? I’d like to talk about what it’s like to enact major changes in tense, structure and point of view, from the tedium of ironing out inconsistencies, to the pleasure of watching a better story emerge.
2012 Craft Talks:
I mean the kind of notes you take in that little notebook you keep close at hand at all times. The one in which you copy out the wisest words you read, the most beautiful phrases, the thoughts that haunt you. And the one in which, at our best, we write our own beautiful lines. What we’ve written there is a truer account of our lives than any diary could ever be. This talk is not so much a craft lecture as a glorified version of my own commonplace notebook, in which I’ve secreted away my own beliefs about the writing life. The logic of the talk — like the logic of our thoughts, journals, and dreams — will be associative rather than narrative. Or there may, in the end, be no logic to it at all. Ideally, though, these notes toward a craft lecture might help you as they have helped me — not only to write but also to understand why bother writing anything at all. Click here to download the complete talk as a pdf.
Michael Rutherglen: “A Poetics of Disdain”
I will be discussing the perhaps under-appreciated idea of disdain as it applies to poetry — not as a subject matter but as a formal condition — and as it is understood in the context of the over-misinterpreted concept of sprezzatura. First articulated by the Italian writer Baldassare Castligione in his Book of the Courtier, and perhaps best expressed by an episode in the life of the Italian painter Giotto di Bondone, sprezzatura refers to a strain of gracefulness achieved by the apparent avoidance of effort. Effortlessness, however, is not to be confused with lack of effort, frequently manifest in contemporary American poetry as sheer disjunction and formlessness. Properly understood, the ideal of sprezzatura is deeply linked to a broad ideal of form, one applicable to any kind of art; applied to literature, it serves as a condensed poetics, some of the features of which I hope to enumerate.
Leah Green: “ ‘I and this mystery, here we stand’: Writing the Known and the Unknown”
What is gained when we know, or think we know, our subject well? What is lost? Does the experience of approaching an unknown subject contribute to our writing or to ourselves? What effect do we have on our readers when we are able to share some fluency, familiarity, or insight gained? Does “writing what you know” risk didacticism? Conceit? We will follow Walt Whitman and others in celebrating certainty and in exploring the writer’s relationship to the unknown. We will investigate some of the roles that mystery plays as both subject and means for writing. To what extent are writers able or even obliged to share our perception and understanding with the world? To what extent is creation itself an act of discovery?
Nell Boeschenstein: “Writing for the Web”
With all the recent talk — ranging from skepticism to enthusiasm — about what ebooks mean for the future of the book, one thing is for certain: the internet can be a great place to publish, and the public's attention span is far longer than cynics initially assumed when it comes to reading serious content online. By discussing web-based nonprofit literary magazines like The Rumpus, as well as for-profit ventures like The Atavist, we will examine the pros and cons of internet publishing. We will then consider aggregate sites such as Longreads and look at how a piece published on a small website can find an immense audience should a groundswell of support indicate a piece is worthy of readers’ attention. As examples, we will look at specific pieces that have — within the literary community — “gone viral,” so to speak, finding their way from relative obscurity to the Longreads spotlight.
Sierra Bellows: “Spit It Out: Writing Up to the Edge of What Can’t Be Written”
Deborah Eisenberg once said that if science is the “how” of physical reality, and philosophy is the “why,” then we might think of writing as the “what.” Fiction writing is a repeated effort to capture and describe the “what” of a story: What happened first, and what happened next. How does the mysterious fit into such a description? Should we purposefully excise or conceal details to render the familiar alien? Or should we describe the world of a story as clearly as possible, to define the perimeter of that which is truly mysterious?
“Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman told Annie Dillard, “and don’t nobody know why.” Fiction writing is an exploration of where we’ve been “set down” and that vigilant investigation allows us to approach the mysterious, the “nobody know why.” What does it look like to write up to the edge of what can’t be written? How do we use specifics to ask questions about the universal? We’ll look at excerpts from writers including Faulkner, Ondaatje and Atwood in an attempt to locate that fissure, that edge between what we can write and what we can’t know.