School in Book Form

I’m already two months into the second year of my MFA! My program at VCFA definitely is an unconventional model and people often ask me to explain my course schedule over and over again. (Crash course: 5 craft modules per semester, each module lasting 3 weeks and taught by a rotation of core and visiting faculty; 2 semester-long classes involving writing workshops). I’ve been thinking about how to craft a post about the classes I’m taking this semester, and realized that the books we’ve been reading for each class should do the talking for me!

Shall we begin the magical book tour?

Craft Module 1 – The Craft of Vulnerability in Creative Nonfiction (works read not pictured): In this course taught by Erin Stalcup, we read excerpts of The Glass Castle, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Art of Daring, and The Argonauts, and explored how (and when) to be vulnerable on the page. How I see it—we are always in a state of vulnerability, just by being alive, just by attempting to write at all.

Craft Module 2 – Poetry and What’s at Stake: Through the incredible collections of poems by Carolyn Forché, Kaveh Akbar, and Chen Chen, along with excerpts of books by Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, our class (led by Rita Banerjee) discussed urgency, conflict, and stake-raising turns in both formal and experimental poems.

Craft Module 3 – Making Fiction True: Adding Texture and Meaning: This course seems to be the school’s response to the kinds of stories my class wants to tell. The majority of us fiction writers have magical/paranormal/speculative elements creeping into our stories in large and small ways. Lesley Arimah uses the lens of speculative fiction to teach us how to sell improbable situations by crafting “the narrative ecosystem” with authenticity and layers of complexity. We’re studying Man v. Nature, The Golem & the Jinni, and Exit West to explore three types of speculative fiction: “our world, but different,” “our world, much changed,” and “the brand new world.”

Novel Writing Thesis Seminar: In this semester-long class, we crazies who are attempting to write a novel for our thesis (or at least 100 pages of it) submit chunks regularly to be workshopped. Along with reading each other’s works, we are also studying the unique structures of award-winning novels. So far, we have read The Underground Railroad (a very tightly structured novel) and A Visit from the Goon Squad (a novel structured in “interconnected stories”). There’s nothing like reading two brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning books in a row to make you rethink everything you’re doing….

Critical Essay (not pictured): This class does not require any reading, as its purpose is for us thesis-writing crazies to craft a book proposal draft that could potentially become what we submit to agents/editors with our manuscript and query letter. Until then, this class helps us envision our thesis and think through our motivations, our scope, our market, our audience, and the trajectory of the stories we want to tell.

That’s all for now, but there’s more to come, more blog posts to write, more classes to attend, more books to read. Which is great, because you know I can’t resist a good “books spread across the floor” picture.


One thought on “School in Book Form

  1. So glad I’ve finally found you and your blog. Your Grandmother gave me your site/contact info in a long- ago phone conversation (as she was joyously’ bragging on’ her beloved granddaughter). So far I especially enjoyed your piece on the Japanese movement workshop you attended in Western Mass. What excellent exercises for practicing vulnerability! Your descriptions of your workshop experiences dove-tailed well with a C-Span author interview I enjoyed today. Actor, Alan Alda, talked about “listening deeper”, a subject he teaches at Stonybrook (SUNY) in NY. Alda has become an expert on this subject, instructing scientists and doctors how to better communicate difficult & complicated information. Alda’s book. “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” (subtitle: the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating”) is one I look forward to reading after listening to the C-Span discussion of the need to be “willing to be changed” or at least “impacted” by the person to whom you are listening. And … I look forward to reading more of your thoughtful words. (Just in case my name is unfamiliar to you, I am your great Aunt, your grandfather’s sister (the one they called “Babe” … I have Sutton to thank for that nickname.) Your grandmother, Jan, and I have been close friends since our high school days.

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