Not for the kids (they’ve been at it, on and off, all summer)–for me. I’m back to teaching at William & Mary this fall. Only one class (that’s about all I can manage and still parent/write/sleep), and today’s the first class meeting.

I’m teaching the introductory creative writing seminar, which I’ve done four or five times before. I’ve discovered two all-important principles for teaching freshmen: first, give them a model to use for their own work; second, make sure that all critiques are anonymous. Without a model, 95% of the stories that get submitted in a beginning class are…amorphous. And one-themed. John Updike (I think…although I could be wrong) once said that most short stories are about God or sex. Only one of those topics ranks high for freshmen.

So each week we have a model to follow: we read a short story and pull it apart, figure out what the basic plot structure is, what techniques the writer has used, what the central idea of the story is, and the students have to use one or more of those elements in their own assignment.

Each week I’ll also be taking the names off the papers that I photocopy for the class to critique. The problem isn’t that students are savaged by their peers if everyone knows who wrote the story in question; the problem is that they’re all so NICE about each other’s writing that nothing useful gets said. When there’s no name on the paper, the comments are much more honest.

If you’re interested in what we’ll be doing this semester, my syllabus is posted below.

English 212-07 (15374)
Intro to Creative Writing

1. Attendance. You may skip one class without penalty. Further absences may result in a deduction of 5 points per absence from your final grade. If you weren’t here for the first class, you’ve already used your absence.
2. Grades. 50% weekly papers (each completed paper weighs equally), 30% final project, 20% participation. There is no final exam.
A, 95-100; A-, 91-94
B+, 88-90; B, 85-87; B-, 81-84
C+, 78-80; C, 75-77; C-, 71-74
D+, 68-70; D, 65-67; C-, 61-64
F, 60 and below.
3. Weekly papers. The class will be divided into two groups. Story assignments will alternate between the two groups. Poetry assignments will be completed by all students. All assignments are due to the instructor, by email, by midnight on the Wednesday before class. Selected assignments will be distributed to the class for anonymous critique; instructor will comment on other assignments. There is no minimum word count for these papers (longer is NOT always better), but I may require you to redo assignments which strike me as unfinished.
4. Preparation. I expect you to have read the model before class and will require you to sign an honor statement that you’ve done so. (Also I may put you on the spot, so be ready). You can get one free “preparation skip” for the semester. Bring a copy of the model to class with you; I will ask to see it.
5. Participation. 3 comments per class = A, 2 comments per class = B, 1 comment per class = C, silence = F.
6. Final project. Your final project will be a portfolio made up of your revised stories and poems (please submit original drafts along with revisions), along with an original final composition. This may be a single short story of 2,000 to 4,000 words, two short stories of 1,000-2,000 words, or a series of 5-8 poems related in either theme or style. The poems must follow an accepted form (no free verse). Although I will not enforce a word count for poetry, I expect to see significant effort. (You can run a rough draft by me for approval.) Your final project is due no later than 1:30 PM on December 18.

August 28 Introduction, discussion of story model
The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke

Sept. 4 Group A story due; discussion of story model
The Last Question, Isaac Asimov

Sept. 11 Group B story due; discussion of poem model
“In Flanders Field,” John McCrae
“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar
“Death of a Vermont Farm Woman,” Barbara Howe

Sept. 18 Rondeau due; discussion of story model
The Lottery, Shirley Jackson

Sept. 25 Group A story due; discussion of story model
The Ransom of Red Chief, O. Henry

Oct. 2 Group B story due; discussion of poem model
The villanelle
“Villanelle After a Burial,” Steven Cramer
“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Dylan Thomas
“The House on the Hill,” Edwin Arlington Robinson

Oct. 9 Villanelle due; discussion of story model
Lamb to the Slaughter, Roald Dahl

Oct. 16 Group A story due; discussion of story model
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving

Oct. 23 NO CLASS

Oct. 30 Group B story due; discussion of poem model
The sestina
“The Concord Art Association Regrets,” Pam White
“Sestina,” Eli=abeth Bishop
“Paysage Moralise,” W. H. Auden

Nov. 6 Sestina due; discussion of story model
The Minister’s Black Veil, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nov. 13 Group A story due; discussion of story model
The Story of the Bad Boy, by Mark Twain

Nov. 20 Group B story due; discussion of poem model
The sonnet
“Death, be not proud,” John Donne
“Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne
Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”
Sonnet 29, William Shakespeare
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”


Dec. 4 Sonnet due

Showing 4 comments
  • Sarah

    How do you use the short story models? It sounds a great idea but I don’t understand what you mean by following the model.

  • Susan


    Good point. I’ve inserted a little more explanation into the blog post above…

  • Sarah

    Thanks! That makes sense now.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I like that you begin with a story by Asimov, a reader that students are more likely to already know. It is nice to teach the techniques of critical reading with a more familiar piece.

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