Creative Writing Syllabus

kinshasa art 3 (2)Wanna take creative writing?  Then do it!
This is the course I’ll be teaching in the fall.  Exercises are at the end.  Find a group of writers to work with and go! All you need is discipline, imagination, and books!


Aims of the course: To make you better creative writers, obviously, and to introduce you to the world of creative writing– including those writers who are currently doing it well and successfully. By the end of this course, you will have a very good idea of what is being written now, and who some of the finest writers are. You will also have chosen several writers–some from the classic tradition, perhaps, but others from current times–who you especially enjoy and perhaps wish to use as mentors.



During September, we will focus on poetry. You will read two poems daily, preferably one from the classic tradition and one from the contemporary. In your journal, comment specifically on each poem you read. By the end of September, you will choose a poet you particularly admire, and will write in your journal why you enjoy him/her. (Please list specifics, such as striking imagery–with examples–etc.)

On the specified date, you will bring your own poem for workshop-critique. The final draft of the poem will be due as specified in the syllabus. You will turn in to me on that day your genesis paper, which has two elements: 1) A statement on the genesis of your poem. How did you come to it– or it to you? 2) A description of the influences on your style (perhaps the poets you identified as favorites).  Then, you will include a copy of your poem, typed.

During October, we will focus on the personal essay/creative non-fiction. The requirements during this month will be similar to September’s, but you will read only one personal essay daily, and will comment on it in your journal. Because your personal essay will likely be longer than your poem, you will bring it and three copies–typed–when so indicated in your syllabus. You will exchange with others in your group and come prepared with comments on each essay for workshop the following class period.

During November, we will focus on the short story. Again, read one short story daily and comment on it in your journal. (A list of good authors is included in your syllabus.) Bring your own work and three copies when so indicated in your syllabus. Workshop will be the following class period, with the final copy due as indicated.

Finally, you will prepare your final project. You choose the genre. It MAY be one of your earlier class projects– refined and polished, provided the earlier grade was less than a B+. Should you choose to emphasize poetry, you must include five short poems or three longish ones–all written during THIS semester. The essay or short story should be at least four pages, double spaced.



Poetry recommendations:

Fire in the Pasture (Tyler Chadwick) – superb collection!

Harvest (a collection of Mormon poetry)

Norris, Leslie (anything, but you might especially enjoy Norris’s Ark)

Romantic poets (Byron, Shelly, Keats, etc.)

Howe, Susan Elizabeth (BYU professor) Stone Spirits

Larsen, Lance Erasable Walls or any other collection

Robert Christmas

Rachel Hunt Steenblick

Alex Caldiero

John S. Harris Barbed Wire

Maya Angelou

Nikki Giovanni


Plus the stand-bys: Robert Frost; T.S. Eliot (with caution–he’s awfully cerebral and esoteric); Herrick (Try him; you’ll like him!}; Emily Dickinson; John Donne; G.M. Hopkins.


I also suggest that you read poems from The Atlantic, New Yorker, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Sunstone. If you find a poem you especially love, see if the author has a collection out.


Personal Essays:

The classics: Mark Twain

E.B. White (often anthologized)

Lewis Thomas (Try The Lives of a Cell)

C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity; The Problem with “X”; Four Loves, etc.)

Annie Dillard


Mormon: Personal Voices

Gene England:

Why the Church is as True as the Gospel

Dialogues with Myself

Making Peace

MANY of Gene’s essays are available at this website:


Phillip Barlow (ed)

A Thoughtful Faith

Ed Geary Goodbye to Poplar Haven

Patrick Madden Quotidian

Adam Miller, particularly Letters to a Young Mormon and Grace is not God’s Back-up Plan

George Handley, Homewaters

Patrick Mason: Planted




Garison Keillor

Elouise Bell

Woody Allen

Louise Plummer (Thoughts of a Grasshopper)

Robert Kirby



Theodore White

William Buckley

Joan Didion


You may also wish to peruse current issues of Dialogue or Irreantum. Newsweek and Time sometimes have excellent essays as well. Also look at the series of Best American Essays.


Short Story:


The classics:

Edith Wharton (especially “Roman Fever”)

Frank O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Eudora Welty

Nathaniel Hawthorne

D.H. Lawrence

Mark Twain


The contemporary:

Raymond Carver

Reynolds Price

Andre Dubus

Alice Walker

Rick Bass

Cynthia Ozick

Amy Tan

Ann Tyler

Anne Beattie

Charles Baxter

Tobias Wolfe

Levi Peterson (and you may wish to look through Greening Wheat)

Leslie Norris

Ron Carlson

Sandra Cisneros

Tim O’Brien

Michael Fillerup (Mormon)

John Bennion (Mormon)

Brady Udall (Mormon)

Douglas Thayer (Mormon)

Don Marshall (Mormon)

Phyllis Barber

Alice Munro

Jhumpa Lahiri

David Foster Wallace

Dispensations (collection)


Again, I suggest you check out Atlantic and New Yorker.



Sept. 7: First day of class.  Get acquainted.  Discuss class requirements.

Begin the poetry unit.  Discuss good and bad poems.  Start thinking about an experience in your past you’d like to write a poem about.

More discussion of poetry (good and bad).  YOU get to be the judge!


Sept. 14:  In class, you will write a paragraph about an early memory.  This paragraph will come in to me with your nostalgia poem, due next time.  We’ll also look at some nostalgia poems (Greg Orr, D.H. Lawrence, Nikki Giovanni, Phillip White). We will also look at (and sing) hymns, many of which have glorious poetry.

For next time, read Sam Payne’s essay (in your syllabus) about Kershisnik’s “Nativity” and bring a print of your favorite piece of art. Your nostalgia poem will be due.


Sept. 21: Due: Your nostalgia poem with your paragraph (stapled together).  We’ll look at some art poems and the art which inspired them, and you will tell us about the art you’ve brought with you. Your art poem will be due next time.


Sept. 28:  Art poem due. Word hoard.  Prepare to write a sonnet.  We’ll discuss the sonnet form in class, as well as various meters. We’ll also listen to a song which says, “Teach me some melodious sonnet” and will listen to a sonnet which you might not know is a sonnet! Your first draft of a sonnet is due next time.


Oct. 5 : Sonnet checks.  You need to have a DRAFT (all fourteen lines please) of your sonnet for this check. I will also divide you into your workshop groups. We will also begin our discussion of personal essays/creative non-fiction


Oct. 12:  WORKSHOP and a discussion of General Conference talks, which are, in fact, essays. You may write about TWO of the talks in your journal.  Note not only the words but the structure of the talks.  Final poem due


Oct. 19: Comprehensive grading of essays. We’ll  talk about the “This I Believe” essay.  Try one during the break! In class, we’ll read Garrison Keillor’s “How to Write a Letter” Your first essay will be a letter to someone you love and know well (though there is some latitude in this assignment).  We’ll talk about it in class. We’ll look at “Letter to a Man in the Fire” and “Letter to a College Student”.  We will also discuss President Kimball’s essay on art: Read also J. Kirk Richards’ interview:


Oct. 26: Your letter is due.  We will also read an essay by Ed Geary.  Think about what you’d say about Provo or your hometown. Your “hometown” essay is due next time. We will also discuss voice and tone.  What kind of music are you?


Nov. 2:  Hometown essay due VIA EMAIL (  I will be in the Congo, but Bruce Young will sub for me.  In preparation for this class, read Bruce’s essay “The Miracle of Faith, the Miracle of Love: Some Personal Reflections.”

We will wrap up the essay unit here.  You may write a new essay for workshopping next time, or you may use your hometown or your letter essay.  As prompts for a new essay, should you choose that, consider the following: 1) A response to an editorial or a letter to the editor; 2) A memorable experience; 3) Why I Love_________________. Bruce Young will also show Revising Prose.


For the final portion of this class, please visit the MOA or another museum of art.  We will move into short fiction now.  Look at various art works and write some thoughts on these possibilities, some of which are borrowed from Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power:

  • Pretend you created the work. Something important was going on in your life and your poured your feelings into the art.  What was happening?
  • Pretend you made it and are very dissatisfied. Why are you dissatisfied with it?
  • Imagine the work as medicine. What is the disease?  What are the symptoms?  How does this medicine cure it?
  • Imagine the work as poison. It destroys whoever experiences it.  Describe the effects.
  • Imagine that everyone on earth owned this work and all babies were repeatedly exposed to it. How would it change the world?
  • What tiny detail in the work says more about it than any other?
  • Create a story about what’s happening in the art—seen or unseen
  • Create a story about what’s about to happen after the scene the art shows
  • Create a story about one of the characters in the artwork (for example, someone observing the Savior at Bethesda).
  • Suppose that this work is the only one transported to an inhabited planet. What would the inhabitants deduce about earthlings given this work?


Nov. 9:  Workshop final essay and move into short fiction with a discussion of your art stories.

CONFLICT–the gut of fiction!! Henry V in two versions.  Bruce Young will lead the discussion after showing clips from two versions of Henry V.


Nov. 17: For today, read  “The Things They Carried,” which is frequently anthologized and not at all hard to find.  I will provide a link to a pdf. We’ll discuss moving from real life into fiction.  We will talk about structure and start you on the exercises. KEEP YOUR EXERCISES (dated) IN YOUR JOURNALS. (Exercises follow this syllabus.)


November 23: Thanksgiving.  BUT watch what happens at your various feasts.  Review the Christmas feast from “While You Were Sleeping.”  See if you can return with some compelling dialogue.


Nov. 30: Thanksgiving report.  For today, read a Flannery O’Connor story.  (My favorite is “Revelation”, but “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is also excellent.)  We’ll prepare you for an exercise on character

In class, read The Kingfisher, preparatory to the imitation exercise. For next class, read Tobias Wolfe’s short story, “Hunters in the Snow”.


Dec. 7th: “Kingfisher” exercise due. We will discuss character and integrating dialogue with action as well as “Momentum, Disruption, Deflection”. We will conclude with a discussion of the all-important question: “What does my character want?”


Dec. 14:

Workshop and final thoughts



8-10, Dec. 19th
Your short story is due. Christmas party?



Mentor story: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”


1st paragraph introduces us to the protagonist, Jimmy Cross, and his fantasies.  He “carried letters from a girl named Martha…”

2nd paragraph: The things they carried were largely determined by necessity


More characters, including Ted Lavander, who is always introduced by an appositive like “who was scared.”

3rd paragraph

They were called legs of grunts.  Details of a photograph of Martha

4th paragraph: What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty

More characters are introduced

9th paragraph, we learn that Lavender died.  This becomes the pivot point.  It has been affecting Cross from the beginning, but we haven’t realized it until now.

“In the first week of April, before Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha.”

10th Paragraph: “What they carried varied by mission”  Characters are described by their equipment/missions.  Included in this paragraph is the quietly hidden line, “They all carried ghosts.”

“The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition.” Details of strange things various soldiers carried.

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens…

After the chopper took Lavender away…


Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.

Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark.

(Now, we finally get the details of Lavender’s death.)

For the most part, they carried themselves with poise.

On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters.

Among the men there would be grumbling, of course, and maybe worse, because their days would seem longer and their loads heavier…





(In an Eric Samuelsen play, a missionary sneaks off and has sex with a young woman.  His companion feels responsible.  This is also a plot point in Dutcher’s _States of Grace_.)  Could a missionary story be similar to “The Things They Carried”?)


Scouting expedition (Sometimes, scouts get lost.  Who is responsible?  The newspaper is a good resource.  Years ago, a man took a troupe into the mountains, including his slightly handicapped son.  The son went back to the campsite while the others hiked, and was never seen again.  What kind of burden did his father carry?  Could you write that story?



couples at marriage counseling retreats

Families are reunions

Roommates going to church

Sisters going to a funeral



You could use any number of paragraph starters:

“Each was crazy in his own way.”

“Together, they wanted exactly the same thing, but outside the pack, each had more private (and more frightening) desires.”

“They looked alike, but could not have been more different from each other.”



Structure #2:

Read Ellison’s “Battle Royal”, which has a straightforward, chronological structure.  How does he build the tension?


This is an initiation story.  Could you write something similar from your own life experience?  What “initiations” have you been a part of? Has any felt like a battle?  Explore the possibilities.



What ISN’T said

The best story for this is probably Hemmingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

Try David Leavitt’s “Gravity” as well, though.   What isn’t said about AIDS, about the mother/son relationship, about grief, about perception?

Could you write a story about a man and woman talking about everything but a miscarriage or a stillbirth, though the subject is clearly at the center of the conversation?  How about a couple celebrating an anniversary and skirting around the knowledge that one of them has had an affair?  Could you write about a couple attending a wedding together—though the husband stays outside the temple because he has recently chosen to leave Mormonism?  How about a mother talking to her son about a girl she thinks he’d be interested in, though he has recently told her he’s gay?  Again, you come up with your own possibilities.  The key here is to leave the most important issues UNSPOKEN.

Character Study

Flannery O’Connor is one of the best authors to study for character development.  In “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”, she describes the “General” thus:

For his part, the General would not have consented even to attend her graduation if she had not promised to see to it that he sit on the stage.  He like to sit on any stage.  He considered that he was still a very handsome man.  When he had been able to stand up, he had measured five feet four inches of pure game cock.  He had white hair that reached to his shoulders behind and he would not wear teeth because he thought his profile was more striking without them.  When he put on his full-dress general’s uniform, he knew well enough that there was nothing to match him anywhere.

            This was not the same uniform he had worn in the War between the States.  He had not actually been a general in that war.  He had probably been a foot soldier; he didn’t remember what he had been; in fact, he did remember that war at all.  It was like his feet, which hung down now shriveled at the very end of him, without feeling, covered with a blue-gray afghan that Sally Poker had crocheted when she was a little girl.  He didn’t remember the Spanish-American War in which he had lost a son; he didn’t even remember the son.  He didn’t have any use for history because he never expected to meet it again.  To his mind, history was connected with processions and life with parades and he liked parades.


As you create your characters, you may assign them physical attributes, but the psychological ones are more important.  Ask yourself:

What are they afraid of?

What secrets do they carry?

What’s in their closets or drawers or purses or wallets?  Something unexpected?

What makes them laugh?


How far will they go to get what they want?

When was the last time they cried?  What kind of crying was it?

Feel free to draw several characters and create a composite—or to put several of your creations into an interesting situation.



Read Hemmingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Write a dialogue with very few speech tags, but with a lot at stake.



Integrating dialogue with action

“Hunters in the Snow”  After reading the story once, go back and read it again, underlining every ACTION that happens during dialogue.  Note how the dialogue is furthered by the action, and how the action fits in with the speech, never detracting.  See if you can identify places where the action AND the dialogue reveal something about the characters—an occasional description of somebody’s hand, for example.

Exercise: “You Still Have to Boil the Eggs”

  • Write down a brief list of what you did upon waking up this morning. (Alarm clock, etc.)  Have it comprise about ten minutes’ worth of activities
  • Now put a conflict in there. You are not awakened by a roommate or an alarm clock, but by a phone call informing you of something serious.  Don’t make it a death announcement, but something like, “You dog was hit by a car,” or “Dad had a heart attack and is in the hospital” or
    “The house (meaning the house you grew up in, not where you’re currently living) is on fire.”


Read all of the Sandra Cisneros stories and underline every word or phrase which surprised you by its unexpected effect, or by its freshnesskinshasa art 6

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