As I’ve noted several times on my blog, I am currently teaching an advanced creative writing class. The experience has been very rewarding and the kids are great, but one of the best parts about it has been the capacity to choose material with impunity. I can teach what I want without worrying about reading levels or anything else. I try to keep it recent because I think it’s important for young writers to know what’s out there right now. I thought it would be fun to provide a list of the short stories I chose and some short explanations as to why. If you click the links, they’ll take you to the collection containing the piece.
1. “The Tent” (essay) by Margaret Atwood. I open with this because it does a great job describing what it feels like to write. Sometimes comfortable and satisfying. Sometimes terrifying.
2. “Smallness and Invention” (essay) by Ethan Canin and “My Father’s Friends” by William Maxwell. This essay is all about using small detail to lead you to larger realization. Too many of my students get worried about shoehorning a story in one direction when it’s much better to let things happen. Maxwell is the king of small and I use “My Father’s Friends” to illustrate the points Canin makes in his essay. It is a simple story about the narrator visiting his father’s friends after his death. There’s nothing fancy about it, but it asks so many wonderful questions.
3. “Travis, B.” by Maile Meloy. I use this story to talk about cliché. I have the students read half of it, then ask them what they think happens (it feels very predictable) before showing them the understated and surprising end.
4. “Spray” by Jonathan Lethem, “Boyfriend” by Junot Diaz, “Extinctions” by Barbara Kingsolver – I teach these three stories together to drive home the way rules can be different in different stories. “Spray” is scifi. “Boyfriend” is poor New York, and “Extinctions” is rural Kentucky. Each place has its own rules.
5. Excerpts from Our Sister Killjoy by Ata Ama Aidoo and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Another rules lesson, but these are the rules of writing. Aidoo and McCarthy both have highly idiosyncratic styles. I want my students to know they aren’t beholden to linguistic conventions when they write creatively.
6. “You (Plural)” by Jennifer Egan and “Along the Riverwall” by Colum McCann. A couple of writers who are wonderful at asking deeper thematic questions that bring depth to their writing, which is what I use these stories to draw attention to.
7. “Hejira” and “You Can’t Kill the Rooster” (memoir) by David Sedaris – Teenagers are often painfully serious when they write. I use Sedaris to show them the value of laughing, even in serious situations.
8. Excerpt from The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne and “Fever” and “Werewolves in Their Youth” by Michael Chabon – Pooh stories are great for teaching character because Milne does such a great job of defining the different personalities with little details. Michael Chabon does the same thing – his characters are what I love most about his writing – but in a more adult world.
9. “Bore-geous Writing” (essay) by Ayelet Waldman, “New York Day Women” and “Night Women” by Edwidge Danticat. The Waldman essay addresses the importance of writing necessary passages instead of just writing pretty passages. The Danticat stories provide a nice contrast. One is spare, with only the barest details given while the other uses ornate and lovingly descriptive language throughout. There is not an unnecessary word between them.