August 29, 2016

Syllabizing the Essay

When American University asked if I could teach a section of creative nonfiction this fall, I was thrilled. I've spent much of this year strategizing and drafting essays, so their craft is on my mind right now. Although I get to engage both genres as part of the faculty for the University of Tampa's low-res MFA program, poetry commands most of my time and my student assignments. Also, AU is the program that sent me out into the world as a writer; the first alumnus portrait that comes up on their splash page shows Derrick Weston Brown, one of my classmates from days of workshopping poems with Henry Taylor, Myra Sklarew, and Cornelius Eady. 

I decided to emphasize essays that incorporate lyric energy, by which I mean energy that is grounded in perception by (or will of) the author over the material, versus a topic’s intrinsic narrative or suspense centered in plot. Signature elements of a lyric essay usually include framing figurative language, raw juxtapositions, and unconventional structures--for example, a personal revelation embedded within a seemingly objective encyclopedia entry. Poets who crossover to nonfiction are often drawn to lyric forms, which I have written about here.

The great thing about teaching a class you've never taught before is that you get to envision everything from scratch--no preconceptions of the canon, nothing you're loyal to simply because you know it well. The terrifying things about a class you've never taught before is assembling a syllabus from scratch. I chose two core texts to anchor the workshop, which meets on Mondays, and will always include at least twenty minutes of craft talk before we segue to discussing student drafts. 

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction is a very straightforward and democratic guide, edited by Dinty Moore. Each contributor--including Bret Lott, Robin Hemley, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Norma Elia CantĂș--offers a brief essay on different aspects of flash nonfiction, accompanied by a prompt and an exemplar. Other than his introduction to the form and, implicitly, his shaping of the table of contents, Moore's voice is absent from the RMP anthology; he is happy to step back and let the contributors speak for themselves. 

In contrast, The Next American Essay, part of John D'Agata's trilogy of anthologies for Graywolf, embraces subjectivity. D'Agata's voice is interspersed throughout the collection, which is arranged chronologically from 1975 into the early 2000s, via prose-passages that comment on the particular moment in American literature--and sometimes D'Agata's personal biography, and sometimes the larger pop culture. I don't know if the students will find those passages useful; I don't know if they'll find them at all. I cherrypicked individual essays from within a slightly overwhelming (if very well curated) 450+ pages. Then, because that selection lacked pieces of the last decade, I added another nine pieces of my choosing. 

So these are authors whose essays we will give a close reading to:

John McPhee 
Barry Lopez 
James Wright 
Harry Matthews 
Eliot Weinberger 
Dennis Silk
Fabio Morabito 
Susan Mitchell 
Sherman Alexie 
Susan Griffin 
Carole Maso 
Mary Ruefle 
Thalia Field 
Jenny Boully 
Eula Biss
Maggie Nelson
Kiese Laymon
Roxane Gay
Sarah Einstein
Carmella Guiol
Camille Dungy

In addition, we have two weeks where we do not meet, so I've suggested hefty longform pieces--Joan Didion's "the White Album" and David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair," both conveniently anthologized by D'Agata --as supplemental reading. 

Toward the end of my syllabus, I've included "A Note about the Reading":

It is not your imagination if you find this reading list intensive. We have essays by thirty-some authors, plus lengthy suggested readings for the two weeks we do not meet in person. We will not always have a chance to discuss the readings fully, given the demands of our schedule. 

Here is my motive: being well read as a writer is a form of currency. If you stay in the publishing world, you will find yourself part of a thousand conversations in which the names of authors are dropped. When that happens, I have found that if I have even one genuine point of reference—that one essay I read, for that one class—I can contribute to the conversation with confidence. When I have no familiarity with the author, I’m a little embarrassed. I fall silent. 

So our reading list is intended to fill your coffers, Scrooge McDuck-style.

This is a pass / fail course with no pop quizzes. There may be days when you skim the reading and lay low during discussion, and no one is the wiser. That doesn’t make you a bad person—we all have weeks when we fall behind and need to cut ourselves some slack. But if you choose that path consistently, just be aware that you’re missing out. These readings, one and all, are ones that I wish that I’d gotten to digest during my MFA years. 

In addition to the reading, they'll be writing two longform essays, which I hope will incorporate lyric elements inspired by the readings, and four flash nonfiction pieces inspired by Rose Metal Press prompts. How will it all turn out? I have no idea. But I'm excited to find out. Class starts in the three hours.  


Emilyland11 said...

This is a great list, Sandra. Any specific essays from that list of writers that you can share?

Sandra said...

Thanks for reading the blog, and for commenting!

I highly recommend picking up the D'Agata / Graywolf anthology--since I'm using it for the course, his specific essay picks are "my" specific essay picks. I decided not to type up the individual titles here because that would essentially be reproducing their TOC. I want to respect that as intellectual property, and steer people toward the book.

In terms of the additional reading I'm distributing by hand, it will include: “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss; excerpts from Bluets by Maggie Nelson; “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” and “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others…” by Kiese Laymon; “What We Hunger For” and “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily…” by Roxane Gay; “Self-Portrait in Apologies” by Sarah Einstein; “Hair” by Carmella Guiol; and “Manifest” by Camille Dungy.

Emilyland11 said...

Thanks, I will hunt them down. You are the best.