I’ve chosen the readings for this course to raise questions of influence in writing. How do poets, playwrights, novelists, and essayists build on the work of other artists? And how, given everything that has been written already, does a writer manage to create something that seems new and her own?
Our mode of work throughout the semester will be straightforward: We will spend a few classes reading and talking together about a number of texts that are in a kind of “conversation” with one another, and then I will ask you to join and extend that conversation with a brief piece of writing of your own.
In some cases, this will involve writing an experimental or imaginative text. For instance, I’ll ask you to read Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a book of poems in which she rewrites a series of Grimm’s fairy tales, and then to see if you can retell a familiar story with similar power and effect. I’ll also ask you to write a “plagiarism,” modeled on Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” that imaginatively remixes quotations from and allusions to other texts. But I’ll also ask you to write pieces of a more critical or interpretive sort—for instance, to track one of the ways in which the poet William Blake has been invoked by contemporary artists, as well as to comment on one of the many plays and movies inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But if this course works as I hope, these “critical” pieces should not feel all that different from the more “imaginative” ones—since the challenge of both types of writing will be not only to extend the work of another writer but also to create a piece that expresses your own voice and ideas.
In practical terms, you should expect to read about a book per week and to write a brief X assignment every other week. At three points during the term (fall break, Thanksgiving, exam week), I’ll ask you to look back over the pieces you’ve written, to select one you’d like to work more on, and to develop and revise it. Xs will be graded with a check or check minus; each of your three revisions (Rs) will earn a letter grade.
All writings for this class are due on Thursdays at 8:00 AM. This is a firm deadline. I’ll post guidelines for each writing assignment as we move through the semester. You’ll notice on the the schedule that I’ve set aside a class about every other week to talk about pieces written by students in the course. You should thus anticipate having at least one of your own writings discussed in this class sometime during the semester. I’ll also set up individual conferences to talk with you about your plans for your revisions.
To do well in this course, then, you will need to keep up a regular pace of close reading and thoughtful, imaginative writing. There are no “big” papers, but there are many small, important ones. The key will be to work consistently, thoughtfully, and hard. But if you do, I think you’ll find that such work can turn into a kind of intellectual play. Over the course of this semester, that is, we’ll talk about a series of interesting and unusual texts, you’ll be asked to experiment with writing in a number of various forms, and you’ll be free to choose which of those writings you want to revise, to take to the next level. In short, it should be fun. I’m eager to work with you!