Category Archives: Teaching

The Way We Live Now; or, The Year of Living Autobiographically, Part III

From October 2011 to October 2012, I wrote The Year of Living Autobiographically; four years later, from October 2015 to October 2016, I wrote a kind of sequel, which for the nonce I’ve been calling The Year of Living Ignominiously. (As I wrote here and here, it’s on a back burner.) And right at the moment—eight years after the first project, four years after the second—I’m in the middle of writing what I guess will be the third part of a trilogy.

I’ve been telling my students in the past few weeks—in our last in-person classes, which all ended on Friday 3/13, and in a few test runs I’ve set up with my students using Zoom this past week—to observe the world around them as it changes, and to take notes. Social media can be a good way to stay in touch with friends, and it can be a good conduit for accurate and trustworthy news from reliable sources. But social media, I’ve tried to remind them (this is nothing new, obviously), can also be a firehose of rumors, and it can be a crutch—one that so thoroughly reinforces our performed, public selves, that we forget or neglect our private selves. Take private notes, I’ve said. Keep a diary, a journal, a notebook, James Comey–style contemporaneous notes, whatever you want to call it. Think Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”; think Nora Ephron’s mom’s mantra that “everything is copy.”

Emily and I are trying to do good where and when we can; we’re trying to teach our students, and raise our sons, and be useful citizens if we can—of this town, this state, this nation.

And I’m trying to follow my own advice. In case you’re curious about what the work that might eventually be called something like The Years of Living Autobiographically: Book III is going to look like, here are the 21 entries I’ve written over the past few weeks. I’m following my same absurd self-dare as before: for one year, write one status update per day that’s precisely 420 characters long—no more, no fewer. (See previous posts on this: The Year of Living Autobiographically; Praise; More Praise.)  This time, though, for reasons that I can’t explain other than following instinct (and perhaps borrowing from my friend Jessica Anthony in her brilliant new novel Enter the Aardvark), it’s all in the second person.

Sat 29 Feb 2020
Do you want to see how I know there’s a hole in my dishwashing glove? you asked Emmett. Of course he did. You folded back the cuff, made a seal with your lips, inflated it with your breath. Then you gently squeezed, aimed a wobbly yellow pointer finger at Emmett’s nose. A small hole at the tip; enough to flood them with water, enough to pinpoint air. Toby needed to feel it as well. What a marvelously dad thing to do.

Sun 1 Mar 2020
“Why do we wear a kippah?” asked the rabbi. “Because it’s cool,” one girl said, to the rabbi’s delight. “Because you can,” said Toby. Emmett’s morah: “That’s my favorite answer so far.” “That’s a serious answer,” the rabbi said. “I don’t know if you even know how serious an answer that is.” It’s a reminder to be humble, she said. “I wear it to remind myself to be humble when I’m doing something that I think is holy.”

Mon 2 Mar 2020
An overheard fragment, a student’s phone conversation—”your arteries, your heart, a lot of pressure around your heart, so you can suffer complications from that. But I was on an Internet forum, and a lot of people were saying”—was she talking about COVID-19? Remember Rabbi Bunim: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.'”

Tue 3 Mar 2020
Your hands are dry from frequent washing. It’s tough, in these early days after the shortest month, to twist the knob to advance the date on your watch. A cold rain turned to steam as it hit the walkway by Warner. “Journey of the Magi”: a convert’s midrash on “We Three Kings”? Your students, unversed in Matthew. Rain at sunset; rainbow in the east; a tornado-yellow sky; then hail, gone before you could photograph it.

Wed 4 Mar 2020
Your friend, on leftist rage: “The horse you ride to victory—you don’t keep stabbing it in the eyes.” Later, you asked your students if they were doing okay, or afraid—you meant COVID-19—and one mentioned Biden. What did she mean? Biden has dementia, she said. She learned this on Twitter; it’s an open secret. She’d been proud to cast her first vote for Clinton, even though, your student said, she’s a “lizard person.”

Thu 5 Mar 2020
Your student, a “Bernie bro,” said she had you pegged as a “Warren bro.” Senator Warren, today: “If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, ‘whiner.’ And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, what planet do you live on.” You want not to cry; you want cookies for dinner; you want to torch the subliminal civilization-scale erasure of the very idea of matriarchal power.

Fri 6 Mar 2020
Last night at the Feve, Emily introduced you to one of her students. He reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice for Coronavirus. “Do you have it?” he said, his voice a bit panicked. No, no, you said, but we need to practice social distancing, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to put one’s hands over one’s heart in greeting. He liked this idea; this was what you both did.

Sat 7 Mar 2020
In office hours, a student yawned almost every time you spoke. He also picked his nose. As he got up to leave, he reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice alternatives. There’s putting your hands over your heart, and then there’s this: you held up the priestly blessing. He didn’t recognize it as Jewish, but Vulcan. “Live long and prosper,” he said, “I like it.” “Live long and prosper,” you said.

Sun 8 Mar 2020
As she introduced the Purim Shpiel, the rabbi encouraged everyone to eschew shaking hands. Later, a fellow Hebrew school dad reached out to shake yours. You proffered an elbow. He bumped it begrudgingly. “You must be from Oberlin,” he said, with a dismissive smile. Meaning, presumably, that taking science seriously requires leftist inculcation. L’esprit de l’escalier still hasn’t arrived. “It’s true, I am,” you said.

Mon 9 Mar 2020
Part of Emmett’s homework: “Explain how the unfair laws described in the introduction of the book had an effect on Thurgood Marshall’s life.” His answer: “He was soper mad at the white peapole ho did not alaw brown pepole to go to thar restrants.” True. Fair enough. COVID-19 is now in Ohio. Three cases, Cuyahoga County. Not yet a red dot on the Johns Hopkins University map. The governor declared a state of emergency.

Tue 10 Mar 2020
Outside your office, a coughing fit, then hawked-up sputum, then quiet. The U.S. has 971 confirmed cases. You sent Emily a Crimson lede: “Harvard Moves Classes Online, Asks Students Not to Return After Spring Break In Response to Coronavirus.” “Holy shit,” she replied. “Crap.” The list of Ivies charting the same course grows: Princeton, Yale, more. Then an emergency confab, and Oberlin, after break, will follow suit.

Wed 11 Mar 2020
Your children’s bus driver says the schools might close. Someone’s been swiping hand sanitizer dispensers from Peters Hall, the building manager said. Probably selling them on the black market, he joked. Word of mouth: hoarding toilet paper; student riots in Dayton; a Facebook group for unsanctioned spring breaks. The cause of your sacroiliac pain, your chiropractor determined, is your unconscious fear of turning 50.

Thu 12 Mar 2020
Cuomo: Broadway ordered dark. DeWine: a three-week “extended spring break” for all Ohio schoolchildren, starting next Tuesday; Oberlin students gone by then too. Tom Hanks infected; baseball delayed; Disneyland closed. One receptionist at your doctor’s office: “We’re gonna have to start making our own toilet paper!” The other receptionist: “Ew.” Driving home, a cheddar-cheese Combos bag, empty, scuttling in the wind.

Fri 13 Mar 2020
You stopped by the Boys & Girls Club, looking for Toby. They’re also shutting down. Our lives are upended, “but I really think it’s the right decision,” you said. “It absolutely is the right decision!” said one of the teachers, wiping down tables. “We gotta stop the spread!” Faculty and staff are pulling together, but in ordinary times, a dean told you, “there’s usually a pervasive hermeneutic of suspicion going on.”

Sat 14 Mar 2020
“I have the sense of being unmoored from responsibility,” Emily said. “It’s like a storm with no storm,” you said. “It’s like waiting for a tornado,” she said. “Exactly,” you said. Emily: “I guess I’ll put on some socks and do some knitting? That sounds like a pretty good plan, right?” It did. Spain joins Italy on lockdown; first case in Lorain County; patient surge “threatens to swamp U.S. hospitals”; at dusk, snow.

Sun 15 Mar 2020
California: all seniors must shelter in place. Ohio: all restaurants closing, except for take-out. Your knuckles now sting when you wash your hands with warm water. Cleaning the natural keys of your loaner Steinway, using a non-bleach disinfecting wipe, is easy, but what about the sharps? “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Amazing Grace,” up and up, octave by octave. Pope Francis walks the Roman streets alone.

Mon 16 Mar 2020
France on lockdown. DC shuttering. San Francisco: everyone must shelter in place. First case of COVID-19 on the Oberlin campus; an employee in the dining hall, who last went to work on Wednesday. Your department chair: “Everything is radically unmoored right now.” No atheists in foxholes, no libertarians in pandemics. Your sister, on the phone: “Are you hoarding toilet paper and pasta like all other white Americans?”

Tue 17 Mar 2020
Cemetery ramble: Toby in-line skates, Emmett scooter. In the IGA, you sidled toward the granola bars; a woman who’d been a yard from you stole even further away. Was the man behind you at checkout, the one buying a case of ramen, wearing blue scrubs? Italy: “morgues are inundated, coffins pile up.” President Ambar shared a poem: “What if you thought of it/ as the Jews consider the Sabbath—/ the most sacred of times?”

Wed 18 Mar 2020
You parked on Main, but the Feve’s front door had a note: pick up all takeout at the kitchen entrance. You drove around back in the rain. A chalkboard sign pointed the way. You entered, approached the bar. A man was ahead of you, also picking up takeout. He held up his hands to protect his face. “Stay away from me!” he said, then he relaxed. “Just kidding,” he said. “It’s all good,” you said, stepping out of his way.

Thu 19 Mar 2020
“One of the things we can do for each other is extend each other grace,” President Ambar said, closing the remote faculty meeting. “Even as we do this difficult thing. We will all be the better for it.” President Bacow, in an email: “The Talmud says that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world”; when we’re through this, “there will be no way to calculate the number of lives your actions have saved.”

Fri 20 Mar 2020
National Guard deployments; U.S. land borders closed to nonessential travel; Italy’s death toll exceeds China’s. These headlines are written by a child mimicking the opening montage of a crap disaster flick. Breakfast: margarine on Triscuits; lunch: Laughing Cow on Cheez-Its. Emily at IGA: “There is no fucking toilet paper, flour, bread, or pasta sauce.” The joy of “Seven Nation Army,” you on piano, Toby on trombone.

Some Updates on My Status Updates

The screen of a scanner.

“False Documents,” by E. L. Doctorow, on its way to PDF form: see below.

I am completely off social media now—unless you count writing a blog post update like this once every six months or so, which seems like a different creature altogether.

Goodbye, Facebook

For years, I would deactivate my Facebook account for long stretches of time (see: posts related to The Year of Living Autobiographically). But finally I listened to the advice of Virginia Heffernan, among others; the following I cut and pasted, perhaps ironically, from Twitter.

Call it sophistication, call it boredom with the interface, call it misanthropy, call it a productivity hack or a cognitive-security precaution or a weight-loss measure. Just find a reason and get off Facebook. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

A screen grab of deleting Facebook.

You’re about to permanently delete your account.

Goodbye, Instagram

I really enjoyed Instagram, and I think I would pay for a similar service—so long as it had nothing to do with Facebook, and had nothing to do with people influencing other people. I’d like to avoid places where the covert advertising of envy, despair, and rage occurs, where hostile foreign powers with highly sophisticated military intelligence operations seek to divide us, where corporations exploit beautiful young people to make us feel bad, convince us to seek out their products in fruitless attempts to salve our despair.

I just like sharing photographs. But I’m happy to have no photo sharing tool—especially no free, weaponized, democracy-eroding tool—for some time. I’m happy to wait until someone with more skills than I have reads Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and then creates the solution to the problem Lanier is describing.

In the meantime, I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

Goodbye, Twitter

I was barely on Twitter. I wrote and endlessly edited Twitter posts and essays that I never posted, which I know (and knew) is a waste of time.

I took two recent examples of this foolishness, and turned them into blog posts; I posted them retroactively, with the date and time stamps of when I stopped editing them (“How Are Things in Mandragora?” in December and “Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom” in November).

I asked a writer whose work I admire greatly, whom I’ve never met in person, and who is famously not at all on social media: “Do you happen to have any suggestions for how to stay away from such distractions, either mostly or completely?”

She replied: “As for Twitter, in my experience, addiction can’t be curbed; it can only be quit, usually after hitting bottom.”

She’s right.

Zadie Smith is right too: “I have seen on Twitter, I’ve seen it at a distance, people have a feeling at 9am quite strongly, and then by 11 have been shouted out of it and can have a completely opposite feeling four hours later. That part, I find really unfortunate […] I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind. I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”

So I quit.

I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

Hello Again, Fakery

Separating the phone-number tabs on a bulletin-board flier.

Help with the fliers for my fakes class.

In other news, I’m teaching two creative writing classes this semester: one on monologues (both in fiction and drama), and one on false documents.

A photograph of two fliers on a bulletin board.

My class is not called “Affordable Mimeographing.”

The latter is based on Faking It, the seminar I taught at Columbia in 2012.

Spines of books on a bookshelf.

Some of the assigned reading for my classes, plus recent reading, plus Anne Lamott.

I’m using Fakes again as a textbook, edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer. And I recently read Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, 2018), as well as Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life (Vintage, 2013). Both are excellent. (All pictured above.)

Hello Again, Fiction

Also, as long as I’m updating various statuses: way back in 2017, I said I might post updates here on how the novel I’m writing—trying to write—is going. I knew, and wrote, that I might fail to accomplish this. Which I have.

I’ve been calling it Xeno’s novel, meaning that as soon as I seem halfway done with the work I have left, the next half of what remains looms before me, and the finish line recedes away. Which is quite obviously not unique to me, or to this project.

The end result may be so small, so slight, that some readers might ask—if it ever has readers—This took you how long to write?

Manuscript pages.

Following Instructions: A Journal of My Second Son’s First Year.

If you’re reading this, and you’re wondering what the hell this is a picture of, Following Instructions exists within Intercalated Days. I’m almost done with the former. Then I can build it out into the latter.

I keep at it.

Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

The week before the midterms, I reminded my fiction workshop students that early in the semester, I’d described the restrictions of my writing assignments in the context of our greater freedoms as Americans. In this time and place, I said, you’re free to write what you want.

But in the past few weeks, I said, we have learned that a writer for an American publication was tortured and assassinated for what he wrote. This awful news, I said, makes the freedom of expression seem terribly precious.

I want to share with you a few quotes about empathy, I said. Which may be helpful to you, if you find it hard to think about writing as a worthwhile endeavor in times like these. (In class, I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been, attempting to say all this.)

The first quote was from George Saunders, since we read “A Perfect Gerbil,” his essay on Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” and his story “Home”:

Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing? Sensing how close we were to the edge financially […], I realized for the first time, in my gut, how harsh life could be and how little it cared if someone failed. […] The realization that failure was possible, even for me, had the effect of increasing my empathy. If life could be this harsh/grueling/boring for someone who’d had all the advantages, what must it be like for someone who hadn’t? A thread of connection went out between me and everyone else. They, too, wanted to be happy.

—from the preface to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (new edition)

Then I read a favorite quote from Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing”:

[A]rt’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension.

Then this great quote from Nikki Giovanni:

Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

I have not read Black Women Writers at Work (1983, Claudia Tate, ed.), but I’m grateful to Jon Winokur (who compiled Advice to Writers) for having tweeted it, and Emily Barton for retweeting it.

My hope, of course, is that this is not all too much to take. I said that I wanted to share these quotes because the news of the world had been particularly devastating the past two weeks.

The torture and assassination of a writer; the attempted assassination of twelve critics of the current “louche shyster” (Josh Marshall) aka the “umber Maginot” (Rick Wilson) aka the “self-pitying drama queen” (Peggy Noonan); the massacre of eleven of my landsmen—it has all been, to put it mildly (and to view it only in one way), terrible failures of empathy.

In the face of all this, I view creative writing workshops—and the greater categories workshops inhabit (the practice of writing, the study of literature, the liberal arts, even liberal democracy itself)—as tantamount to a religious practice.

I am asking my students, I suppose, to share my faith. Which, again, I hope is not overwhelming. Perhaps they just want to write stories! But writing stories is a political act. Not seeing writing as political is itself political.

I didn’t say all this in class, of course.

It is not my job to advocate for a candidate or a cause. But it is my job, I believe, to challenge them. It is my job to make the case to my students that they have grave and magnificent responsibilities.

I closed with a quote from Alexander Chee. (Alex, if you ever happen to read this, I haven’t told you how much I enjoyed How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I already knew that the individual essays were good—what surprises me still is how astonishing well they fit together into a larger whole, how they come together as a narrative, as a memoir.)

My syllabus ends with this quote:

Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

But this week, I ended my class with a longer excerpt from the last paragraph:

If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?

—from “On Becoming an American Writer

In the quote I initially included in my syllabus, I think I was wary of mentioning war and “the ones who are coming for your life.”

But here they are: they don’t come across borders. They cross a border in their mind, then go across town on Shabbat.

Vote, I told my students. Vote!

The world will be a different place when class meets next week. We just don’t know how or in what way.

I didn’t tell them who to vote for.

But I think only the authoritarian bent on exploiting the values of a free society in order to undermine those very values would say that a teacher can’t urge a student to exercise the franchise.

Good News: Oberlin

Emily and Tom and the boys at Oberlin

Here’s a roundabout way to tell you some good news: 31 years ago, in the summer of 1987, I visited Oberlin College for the first time with my dad. It was, around that time, my first choice. My college counselor had only recently started working at my high school; he’d been an admissions officer at Oberlin, his alma mater, for a number of years before that. In other words, when Carl said he thought you should go to Oberlin, it wasn’t interchangeable for him with, say, Reed or Hampshire or Kenyon or Brown or Wesleyan. It meant more.

I got an acceptance letter from Oberlin, but I also got one from Harvard, where I ended up, and where I met Emily. She and I fell out of touch for 16 years, then reconnected, then got married.

Which leads us, 11 years later, to our wonderful news that Emily is joining Oberlin’s creative writing faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor. And I’m still pinching myself, but I am delighted to say I will also be teaching creative writing this fall at Oberlin as a visiting assistant professor.

Emily and Tom and the boys at Oberlin

I haven’t figured out yet how to reach Carl (or if he’s still alive). Odds are, three decades and hundreds of advisees later, he doesn’t remember me. But still, I want to let him know that in my roundabout way, I finally got to Oberlin.

It just took 31 years.

The Daily Themes of Peter Matthiessen

I’m a tutor in English 450: Daily Themes this semester. It’s a legendary class; famous alumni include Calvin Trillin, who wrote about it for The New Yorker (“No Telling, No Summing Up”), and Peter Matthiessen, who died last April.

When I describe the class, I usually repeat the story that Matthiessen’s first published piece began in Daily Themes. But I’ve been wondering: is this true? It looks like it is. But what was the published piece? And what was the theme? What follows is as close to discovering the answer to those questions as I’ve gotten. (Which bring up more questions: e.g., was the story published before he graduated, or after?)

The next step, it looks like, would be visiting an actual physical library.

Daily Themes (now English 450), is a Yale Classic. Its disciples write a 250-500 word “theme” five days a week for every week of the semester—a practice that encourages odes to childhood and puppy love, eavesdropping at street corners for inspiration, and, eventually, an addiction to writing. Daily Themes has been in existence since about 1901, and its list of famous graduates is long.

Beinecke Top Tens: Daily Themes

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen published his first short story, written in his Daily Themes class, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1951, the year after he graduated from Yale.

Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701 – 2001, J. D. McClatchy, Ed.

Yet another member of Fenton’s spring 1950 fiction writing class was Peter Matthiessen, author of such major works as The Snow Leopard (1979), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) and Shadow Country (2008). Like many students in the class of 1950, Matthiessen served during World War II before enrolling at Yale. He showed tremendous early promise as a writer, publishing a story in the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. On the strength of that, Fenton arranged for him to return after graduation to teach in in Daily Themes and the Short Story writing class during 1950-51.

—Scott Donaldson, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel.

—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt “Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86,” The New York Times, 6 April 2014

In Case It’s August of 2014 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 245a…

(Cutting and pasting, basically, from this.)

…Then I’d recommend reading what I wrote a year ago about applying to 134a. My suggestions about writing sample length and the letter of application both still apply.

And make sure to read what Emily has to say about how you can improve your chances of being accepted to an undergraduate creative writing workshop.

As I wrote before, I really hope these suggestions are helpful. I’m absolutely delighted to be teaching Introduction to Writing Fiction again. It’s a fun and challenging class.

Good luck!

In Case It’s Mid-December of 2013 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 245b

Then I’d recommend reading what I wrote in August about applying to 134a; my suggestions about writing sample length and the letter of application both still apply.

And make sure to read what Emily has to say about how you can improve your chances of being accepted to an undergraduate creative writing workshop.

As I wrote in August, I sincerely hope these suggestions are helpful. I’m absolutely delighted to be teaching Introduction to Writing Fiction this spring—it’s going to be a fun and challenging class. (Note that the deadline for applications has been extended until noon on Monday, December 16.)

Good luck!

Chag Sameach

I was walking out of Phelps Hall after teaching my Reading Fiction for Craft class. An Orthodox Jew—a Chabadnik, a Lubavitcher, I’m guessing, since he was doing outreach—approached me with a lulav and an etrog. Excuse me, he said, are you Jewish? I am! I said, Chag Sameach! During the brief time that I was both a Jew and a Brooklynite, I never really wanted to deal with these guys, but tonight, I welcomed it. Chag Sameach, he said, you have time for a quick mitzvah? I do! I said. He put the lulav in my hand. Repeat after me, he said, and we said the lulav blessing. Halfway through the prayer I realized out of the corner of my eye that he had a partner who was also asking passers-by if they were Jewish. Then he put the etrog in my other hand, and we said the Shehechiyanu. The Chabadnik seemed like a happy teacher when I caught up with him in the prayer, when I wasn’t just repeating after him. I thanked them for the mitzvah. Now my right hand smells like etrog, like I’ve been holding a lemon, except something different, more exotic, something sweeter than a lemon. I don’t want to wash my hand.

In Case It’s Late August of 2013 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 134a

A prospective student recently wrote with a question about applying for English 134: Reading Fiction for Craft. It was a good question: the Word doc application (which, as of this writing, you can take a look at here) says to “Paste below a writing sample of approximately 5-10 pages of poetry or about 4,500 words of prose, double-spaced.”

On the off chance that you, the person reading this, are a Yale undergrad, and you’re here because you’re thinking about applying for English 134, and it’s August 2013 (or some month in the future when the following answer remains helpful), I’m going to quote part of my answer here, with a few other suggestions for my class in particular and writing classes in general.

Here’s what I said about writing sample length:

I would suggest that you consider 4,500 words to be a maximum length, rather than either a minimum, or even a ballpark to aim for. Other professors may have different feelings about this, but to me, what matters most here is quality, not quantity.

On a side note, this question affects writers throughout their careers. A writer I know recently was reading applications for a fellowship, which required a writing sample with a maximum of 30 pages. He said that he saw applications where writers felt compelled to add, say, 10 pages of weak work on top of 20 pages of excellent work, thinking they were helping their chances, when in fact they were lowering their chances.

The very next sentence in the writing class application might cause confusion as well. It says: “For the statement of purpose, please write a short paragraph about why you wish to take this specific writing course.”

Or maybe not confusion, exactly—but it’s bound to lead to short paragraphs that are nearly identical. Why does anyone want to take a writing class in college? Because they love writing, because they’ve always loved writing, because they’ve been writing stories ever since they were little. Which is all true and beautiful, but it says more about our cultural and socioeconomic circumstances than it does about the applicant as an individual.

For the prospective student who wrote, I highly recommended this page on Emily Barton’s website.

“All of her suggestions on how to improve one’s chances at being accepted into an undergraduate writing class are great,” I said, “but my favorites are the last two on the list.”

I’ll quote them here for emphasis:

7) When crafting your letter of application, try to let the professor know what makes you unique as a person and writer. Are you a student in the sciences who’s never tried writing before but passionately wants to? Is there something specific about your interests, background, experience, or influences that might give you a unique perspective in workshop? Are you hardworking, persistent, eager to learn about revision but unsure where to begin? Those things are interesting and make you stand out. In letters of application, students often claim to be monomaniacal about writing—most letters, in my experience, declare that the applicant has been writing since first grade, or something of this nature. (Not an uncommon circumstance, in a culture in which we take cheap, readily available paper for granted.) Those things may be true, and you can mention them if they are; but also remember that a professor may wish to admit a diverse group of students to allow for lively discussions. If your letter is honest, straightforward, and expresses something about your particularity as a person, this helps her to do so.

8) Also remember that anyone who devotes herself seriously to her own writing is likely an avid reader of other authors. What current or canonical writers capture your imagination, and why? A writing instructor may be more eager to teach a room full of students she knows to be excited about, say, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, Lucretius, Zadie Smith, Deb Olin Unferth, Edmund Spencer, and Roberto Bolaño than a room full of people who have always really, really wanted to be writers.

So again, dear Yale student reading these words in August 2013, aim for brevity and specificity. I, too, have loved writing for as long as I can remember. What makes you different?

Two final notes:

a) If you don’t get into any creative writing classes this fall, see if the Yale Community Self-Led Fiction Workshops, which Emily and John Crowley started last year, are still happening. (If I find out that they are, I’ll post some sort of addendum to this blog post with more information; and the folks at the English department should know more about what’s going on with the self-led workshops soon as well.)

b) Always remember to say “thank you.”

I sincerely hope this is helpful. Good luck!

The Road to Parnassus; or, A Note on My Approach to Workshop Criticism

A decade ago—man, Nicholas Carr is right, blogging is “like mahjong or needlepoint”—I sent Maud Newton a link to a piece Jay McInerney wrote in 1989 for the New York Times about Raymond Carver, his former teacher (“Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice“).

Maud quoted two paragraphs from it about Carver’s gentle approach to teaching (“He said that there was enough discouragement out there for anyone trying against all odds to be a writer”)—but not the anecdote in the very next graf, which is a great bit, and one that doesn’t seem to be all that widely quoted or linked to out there on the Web.

I realized this this past fall, teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale. Some of my students—15 intimidatingly brilliant young minds—didn’t think my feedback on their exercises were critical enough. So I recounted the following story about Carver’s approach to teaching (starting with the last few sentences Maud quoted):

One day when I berated him for going easy on a student I thought was turning out poor work, he told me a story: he had recently been a judge in a prestigious fiction contest. The unanimous winner, whose work has since drawn much praise, turned out to be a former student of his, probably the worst, least promising student he’d had in 20 years. “What if I had discouraged her?” he said. His harshest critical formula was: “I think it’s good you got that story behind you.” Meaning, I guess, that one has to drive through some ugly country on the way to Parnassus. If Carver had had his way, classes and workshops would have been conducted entirely, [sic] by students but his approval was too highly valued for him to remain mute.

Once he sat through the reading of a long, strange story in his graduate writing workshop: as I recall, the story fleshed out two disparate characters, brought them together, followed their courtship and eventual marriage. After a series of false starts they decided to open a restaurant together, the preparations for which were described in great detail. On the day it opened a band of submachine-gun-toting terrorists burst in and killed everyone in the restaurant. End of story. After nearly everyone in the smoky seminar room had expressed dissatisfaction with this plot, we all turned to Ray. He was clearly at a loss. Finally he said softly, “Well, sometimes a story needs a submachine gun.” This answer seemed to satisfy the author no less than those who felt the story in question had been efficiently put out of its misery.

The double meaning of the punch line makes me wince, these days. But the point still resonates.

I don’t know if my (self-aggrandizing?) attempt to compare myself to Carver was at all helpful (“[Professor Hopkins] doesn’t have a hard bone in his body,” one student wrote in her/his evaluation, “but that is okay”).

In spite of my students’ criticism of my criticism, I’m not sure if I’m going to change the way I respond to student work. I don’t know if I can.

The world, as Carver said, is discouraging enough; some of us, I think, need to be the encouraging ones.