Stories about writing have been a staple of my creative writing classes for many years—I often kick off undergrad workshops with Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer,” or Richard Russo’s “The Whore’s Child.” There’s never enough time for all the stories and craft essays I’d like to assign in any semester, so these meta-stories serve as handy “twofers”—works that can be unpacked for both their implicit craft lessons as well as their more explicit writing advice.
In the first fall of the pandemic, I expanded this notion into an MFA reading class intended to (partially) compensate for the ways those difficult and uncertain times threatened to limit our fellowship as writers, to my mind one of the most exciting gifts of any MFA program. I got to include several old favorites—The Friend, The Anthologist, Old School—discovered a few revelatory new ones I’d never taught before—Writing to Save a Life and Vengeance—and was able to pair books in productive/provocative ways—Roth’s Ghost Writer and Halliday’s Asymmetry with it’s Roth-like central catalyst.
But the reason I loved the class—the best reason to love any class—is for the students in it, who under challenging circumstances were a consistent pleasure to teach. I had hoped to offer them the gift of some writerly company to buoy their spirits; they ended up returning it to me tenfold.
I’d like to hope events I won’t require me to offer this class again, but I share the syllabus here because, even at the best of times, most writers aren’t in a class or program together, and we could probably all use some inspiring company in our lonely pursuit.
In these socially distanced times when the rich community experience of a writing program is inevitably curtailed, we might yet find some solace (or shared misery, which may amount to the same thing!) in the company of books and essays about the writing life. And hopefully not just solace, but artistic inspiration, ethical and professional insight, and opportunities to take ourselves both more and less seriously (and—if we tire of contemplating our own navels—maybe even the vicarious pleasures of travel).
Philip Roth, The Ghostwriter • Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry • John Edgar Wideman, Writing to Save a Life • Zachary Lazar, Vengeance • Rachel Cusk, Outline • Amit Chaudhuri, Friend of My Youth • Ben Lerner, 10:04 • Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist • Lily King, Writers and Lovers • Sigrid Nunez, The Friend • Susan Choi, Trust Exercise • Tobias Wolff, Old School
Nicholson Baker, U and I and Traveling Sprinkler • Rachel Cusk, Transit and Kudos • Zachary Lazar, Evening’s Empire • Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station and The Topeka School • Sigrid Nunez, Sempre Susan and What Are You Going Through? • Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys • Lan Samantha Chang, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost • J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello • Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and Out of Sheer Rage • Percival Everett, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell • Andrew Sean Greer, Less • Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies • Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation • Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton • Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday • Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist