English 523 The Revision Workshop
Office: Humanities 257
Office Hours: Tues 2:00-3:30; W 3-4 and by appointment
Course website: www.unm.edu/~gmartin
This is a writing workshop focused on revision. Each student will write two new pieces of creative nonfiction, and the class will workshop each of these pieces three times. The goal of the course is to push you to produce more than you thought you could, to break down what Jane Smiley calls “evasion strategies.” The structure of the class is designed so that week after week, you’ll be pushing your work to its elastic limits, so that no piece is allowed to lie dormant. Perhaps in the past, after workshop, you’ve told yourself that you need to just let a piece “rest,” so that you can “ponder” it, and then come back to it after awhile. Then a month goes by and you wouldn’t recognize the piece if it passed you on the sidewalk. That won’t happen in this class.
Most often in a graduate creative writing workshop, craft (plot, characterization, persona, etc) receives primary emphasis, and there are good reasons for this. But less often is discipline, itself, emphasized. The problem with too much emphasis on craft is that it may lead the apprentice writer to believe that their most important writing problems are craft problems. They aren't. Craft can be taught and learned but it cannot be assiduously applied. Craft is not tenacity or stubbornness or resolve. It's not sweat equity. One might argue that the inner discipline it takes to endure and produce as an artist is itself a kind of craft knowledge. Wynton Marsalis says, "Practice is the first sign of morality in a musician." What does practice have to do with ethics? Lots of things, especially if you define ethics as: obedience to the unenforceable. More than impart craft knowledge, this class is designed to help cultivate your inner discipline, and to get you to ponder what "total investment" means for you.
The particular subgenre of creative nonfiction you may turn in to the workshop is wide open: Autobiographical Narrative (an essay that looks a lot like a short story); a Lyric Meditation (a more “classic” Montaigne-like essay that is structured associatively, like a poem; Travel Writing; Literary Journalism. It's all fair game.
Because of the structure of the class, my assumption is that you have some grounding in creative nonfiction, and so readings for discussion in class will be limited to essays on craft. At the same time, each student will pursue their own Underground Reading Project throughout the semester.
Underground Reading Project
(1) On your own schedule, read all of the essays in Best American Essays 2005. You are required to have frequent informal discussions of these essays with your peers and with me before class, at the break, after class as well as at other unspecified times and locations.
(2) Subscribe to two literary magazines which have had essays named as Notable Essays in Best American Essays. Read all the essays in the magazines you receive during the semester, and distribute the one you judge to be the best to the rest of the class--along with a one page discussion of its merits. A list, with website addresses and subscription information, can be found in the Publishing Your Work section of the course website.
(3) Keep an Influence Journal: Throughout the semester, you will keep an ongoing journal about how the course readings are influencing your work. At the end of the semester, you will give me ten pages from this journal (typed.) This is not a formal essay, or a craft annotation, or a "paper" of any kind. It's informal; you're writing for yourself (except that I get to see it.) Write it in the way that feels most comfortable to you. The only requirement is that it should be focused on craft, on your deliberate stalking of the essays and books you're reading, and what they're teaching you.
The Treadmill Journal
This is a daily journal of your writing schedule and goals. Each day you make seven entries:
The date and the time
How long you plan to work.
What you plan to work on for this day.
Time when you stop writing and total amount of time writing.
Answer the questions: What did you actually end up doing? How well did it go?
What you plan to work on tomorrow
When you plan to work tomorrow and for how long.
Sept 15, 2005 8:30 am
Work until noon
Focus on rising action in Macular Degeneration
12:15 Almost four hours
Sluggish until coffee kicked in, then pretty good characterization of Oscar. Didn't get to turning point.
More rising action tomorrow. Must write turning point--as scene, not just a lame sketch.
Tomorrow: 5:30 to 9.
You can't take three days off in a row.
If you take two days off in a row, you ought to feel bad, not just about your habits and your lack of discipline, but about yourself as a person.
You must log 18 hours of writing time a week. This is an average of 3 hours a day six days a week. (You can write more.) Take a day off each week, if you must, but I don't recommend it. Why would you? You're supposed to love it. You'll love it more, the more you do it. Wynton Marsalis didn't take a day off practicing the trumpet for two years. That's why he's Wynton Marsalis.
Unplug the phone. (Turn off cell, if you feel you must have one of those)
No diary-type notes. Nothing about your cat's urinary tract infection.
Can you tinker with these rules and with these seven steps and "make them your own"? Why would you?
Keep track of how many hours you write each week. Keep track of how many hours you write over the 16 week semester. Don't let yourself off the hook.
Feel free to not like doing this. But you still have to do it. Try it for a semester. (Bend your will to mine.) If you like it, keep doing it. If you don't, don't.
Like any course in creative nonfiction, this is a writing workshop that focuses on how both memory and forgetting shape us, and shape our writing about real lives and events. We will explore the blurred boundary where memory and memoir access truth but are also acts of speculation. We will also explore the real obligations that memoirists have to real lives: to their subjects, and to their readers. And in all this, we will explore how craft technique informs and guides. Nabokov, in Speak, Memory, writes that the true task of autobiography is the following of thematic design, of pattern and order, through one’s life. We will be seeking those patterns, attempting to make larger sense, to see how our personal lives participate in the human condition.
My hope is that the course will push you stylistically and technically, and encourage you to take emotional risks, to write what you could not have written before, to raise your standards for what you consider good writing, and then to meet those standards through the development of the habit of art.
Six creative nonfiction drafts: 2 separate pieces, three drafts each (40%)
Important note #1: the writing that you turn in to workshop must be, in some recognizable way (more on this) creative nonfiction. (No fiction.)
Important note #2: Some of you are working on booklength projects, and so will not be turning in pieces that stand alone at 10-25 pages. Fine. If so, make sure to provide at the beginning of your workshop submissions a single spaced paragraph or so of the background your readers will need to give you feedback.
Peer Responses: (30%) 1-2 page, typed, responses for each of your peer’s manuscripts submitted for workshop. These peer responses are to be distributed to me, and to the author of the workshopped piece, on the day the work is discussed. These responses should focus on what you take to be one of the work’s deeper concerns, its situation and story, your thoughts on how the essay is evolving, draft to draft, as well as suggestion for revision.
Influence Journal (10%)
Treadmill Journal (10%)
Essay Submission (10%) Bring to the end-of-semester party at my house, six stamped envelopes. These six envelopes should be addressed to six different literary magazines. In each of these envelopes are:
A cover letter.
A copy of one of the two essays you worked on during the semester.
A self-addressed, stamped envelope.
I'll take your submissions to the post office the following day and ceremoniously drop them in the slot. For examples of cover letters, see the Publishing Your Work section of the course website.
If this course requirement makes you feel like you need to check yourself into the ER (rapid pulse, dizziness, nausea, etc), please come see me.
Try to think of the workshop as a tentative process of helping the writer make this piece better, or as is often the case, make a future piece better. Everything we say will be wrong, or partial, or skewed by our own aesthetics. You will hear startlingly different analyses of your work from the class. Writing is not democratic, and you can’t possibly listen to all the voices in the class. Go away from the workshop with the reading that is most helpful to you. Choose, as your favorite critic in the class, the peer who seems most in sympathy with your work. Then make friends with that person, get together outside of class, share your work, and drink caffeine. Good workshops always extend beyond the classroom.
1. Manuscripts are due at specific times. You need to deliver copies of your work, for each of your peers and for me, one week before you are to be workshopped. There is no flexibility in this scheme. The workshop’s effectiveness depends on the timely distribution of your work. Late essays will not be workshopped. You have been charged a $20 fee for the course towards photocopying for workshop using the department's kind, able workstudy students. Your memoir should be given to the department secretary to be stamped and dated at least 48 hours before you need to distribute your work to the class. If you cannot meet this deadline, you are on your own.
2. Essays should be typed, double-spaced, numbered, 12pt font, with one inch margins, on one side of the page, with no cover pages, and bound. Also include: your name, the course number and section, my name, the date, the title.
3. Correct grammar, usage, punctuation and spelling are expected. A piece flawed by pervasive proofreading or mechanical errors will be mocked.
4. Attendance and participation are mandatory. If you miss class more than twice it will affect your grade.