What is the most valuable resource for teaching writing? There is, of course, no single go-to work, but invariably, every instructor has a favorite. We asked four writing teachers to tell us theirs – and why they return to it year after year.
Professors share books every writer should read
Name: Gayle Brandeis
Teaches at: Sierra Nevada College
Course: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop
Recommended text: Bluets by Maggie Nelson
What writers can learn from it: Bluets is a lyric meditation on the color blue; it’s a slim volume, but it holds so much – memoir, philosophy, art, science. Written in short, numbered fragments, the book breaks open preconceived ideas of form: It shows students they are not confined to the traditional Aristotelian narrative arc; it shows them they can create their own structures to hold the shape of their memory, the movement of their mind, the intensity of their curiosity and enthusiasm and heartbreak. I love how Nelson is in conversation with other texts throughout the book, braiding intellectual rigor with emotional honesty, empowering students to reach both deeply into and beyond themselves in their work. I ask students to choose a color that resonates with them, then have them write a lyric, fragmentary essay about that color using Bluets as a model; the work that results is revelatory.
Name: Diana Cage
Teaches at: Pratt Institute
Course: Introduction to Literary and Critical Studies
Recommended text: Citizen by Claudia Rankine
What writers can learn from it: I usually work with novels and memoirs, and it’s so interesting to be working with poetry this year – especially a book that is so beautifully yet clearly addresses this zeitgeist moment. Rankine effortlessly includes the reader through her use of second person. It is a teaching book but not didactic. She illuminates a pervasive white supremacist ideology that is often invisible to those who are not constantly subjected to it. As poetry, it’s quite unconventional. Students who generally are not drawn to poetry suddenly see that experimental language and narrative can be useful to describe concrete ideas in ways that evoke an emotional response. Rankine is also making identity visible and inclusive – it’s a useful model for discussing identity in writing. This is where I see the book as useful to writers; it models perfectly a way into discussing identity that allows the reader to be part of a writer’s experience rather than think, “Oh, this isn’t meant for me.” Students have used Rankine as a model to tell their own experiences, to elevate their dailyness into literature while not compromising their beliefs in pursuit of accessibility.
Name: Christina Kapp
Teaches at: Writers Circle Workshops, New Jersey
Course: Poetry Writing
Recommended text: “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
What writers can learn from it: “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart” is a poem in a 10-part series centering around Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Each part of the poem has a different speaker, and the tension between shared experience and unique vision drives the individual voices and the poem as a whole, creating a wonderful example of the power of detail and the uniqueness of each relationship. As an exercise, I ask poets to identify an event or moment in time and step outside their own point of view to describe the experience in different voices, stretching themselves to try perspectives that may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable. There is an inherent risk in creating a new voice, and encouraging poets to identify experiences that are both common to many and also deeply personal to each speaker can be a challenging and empowering experience.
Name: Stephen McCauley
Teaches at: Brandeis University
Course: Directed Writing: Fiction
Recommended text: A short story by Michael Chabon
What writers can learn from it: No matter what level workshop I’m teaching, I like to begin the course with an early story by Michael Chabon. I often use “The Little Knife” or “House Hunting.” Chabon writes in lively, precise prose that’s vivid and mellifluous but unpretentious. He doesn’t have a style that students feel inclined to imitate, a problem with someone like David Foster Wallace. Chabon’s stories are easy to enter. You read a few sentences, and you’re immersed in the world of his characters. A conflict or situation is already in play. You’re heading somewhere. He’s outstanding on concrete details that define his characters and doesn’t stint on sensory cues, including textures and smells. The stories I choose deliver an emotional punch without being highly dramatic. My undergraduates often come into class thinking they need to start with violence or catastrophe. I like to get rolling with a story that’s set in a recognizable world, one not too far from their reality.
Jeff Tamarkin is a freelance writer/editor. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.
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