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Instructor Class Description

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Lowell A Brower
ENGL 384
Seattle Campus

The Craft of Prose

Intensive study of various aspects of the craft of fiction or creative nonfiction. Readings in contemporary prose and writing using emulation and imitation. Prerequisite: ENGL 283; ENGL 284.

Class description

"Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all." Voltaire (1694-1778)

Opening Scene There the future storyteller sits, at his grandmother’s feet, listening. His grandmother’s face is aglow with firelight, but there is something else illuminating it too, something ecstatic, which seems to possess her as she sings out the tale’s repeated chorus, as she mimics the ogre’s speech patterns, as her voice leads the story’s hero into and out of trouble and always towards transformation. The future storyteller watches the grandmother closely. He imitates her hand movements as she sweeps the story along with them, sways his head along with hers as if he’s a miniature shadow. He mouths the words after she says them, like a silent echo. He lets the story wash over him, abandoning himself to its current, absorbing all of it that he can.

After the grandmother has gone to sleep, the future storyteller lights a torch from the hearth and goes out to meet his four friends at the beach, where they gather each night. “Ninayo” he says – “I have one.” The friends take seats in the sand at his feet, and he feels his face become his grandmother’s. He hears the rhythms, the emphases, the cadences of his grandmother’s voice coming out of his mouth. He sees four pairs of awed eyes staring up into his as he sings the chorus again, as he mimics the ogre’s rough speech, then leads the story’s hero into and out of trouble and always towards transformation. Midway through he realizes that he’s forgotten a key aspect of her grandmother’s story which makes the next dramatic event impossible, but rather than let the others know, he forges ahead, feeling his grandmother’s story slip away, and feeling a new story, his own story, begin. The four pairs of eyes remain in awe. He sees four pairs of hands moving along with his own, four shadowy heads swaying, four mouths silently echoing each word he says. The storyteller continues...

For most of human history this is how storytellers have been born: sitting around fires, enchanted. Let this class, then, be our hearth fire. Let our course readings be an enchanting blaze of pages that our literary ancestors have kindled. Let them singe our fingers. Let them consume us. Let us ignite.

OK, but what the heck does that mean? Course Goals: This course is based on a dirty but beautiful little secret. Namely, that writers are not some superior race of inspired beings with a special relationship to gods or muses, but actually just members of an ancient tradition: a guild of pen-wielding readers and thinkers who hone their craft not in solitary fits of inexplicable genius, but in world-embracing, ancestor-worshipping, mindful imitation. Great writing, alas, takes much more than talent. Sorry, but it’s true. It takes a lifelong apprenticeship to the words, sentences, and paragraphs that make up the stories that you love.

And love is a prerequisite.

This course is ideal for students who sit up at night marveling at their literary heroes, in love with their prose. Our aim in here will be to make the magic a little bit less unfathomable. We’ll look at how writers are able to awe and enchant us in practical terms. To do so, we will be using the atelier method, like a classical painting studio: we will study masterworks and do our best to imitate them, thereby internalizing invaluable techniques, strategies, and aspects of narrative structure.

The bulk of class time will be devoted to engaging with published fiction, studying storytelling techniques, imitating masters, and respectfully rigorous peer workshopping. We'll read and study a wide array of fictions, from ancient folktales and myths to 19th Century short stories to postmodern collages to autobiographical essays. We'll read about rock stars and talking chocolate bars, disgruntled soldiers and failing strippers, mourning mothers and sadistic goose-hunters, but our eyes will always be on structure rather than content. Our literary journey will take us around the world, from Alabama to Zanzibar, as we examine the tricks of patterning, rhythm, and dramatic arrangement that keep audiences rapt, no matter where they live. There will be brief lectures on key craft elements such as prose style, voice, pacing, point of view, dialogue, narrative time, character, and formal experimentation as they relate to story structure, but our primary focus will be on the practice and imitation of these techniques as they are demonstrated by the masters. To this end, we'll be completing lots of in-class exercises as well as weekly writing assignments (literary echoes, rewritten passages, forgeries, and theft blueprints). At the conclusion of the course each student will compile a final portfolio of revised and beautiful literary echoes, but it is my hope that you'll leave with something more than that: that you'll have fallen in love with the ritual of writing, and been awed by a few clusters of words, that the works we read will have ignited something ecstatic inside of you, and that imitation will have brought you one step closer to originality.

Still Fuzzy? We sill be studying and imitating various masterworks in terms of narrative structure (by which I mean how the story is constructed and arranged and patterned in terms of scene vs. summary, narrative exposition vs. dramatic movement, internal vs. external action, causality vs. digression, present moment events vs. flashbacks, etc. vs. etc.)

We will be studying and imitating structures exemplified by:

Ancient myths, modern epiphanic short stories, realistic short fiction and essays, epistolary stories, postmodern and experimental prose, and “short shorts”.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Lowell A Brower
Date: 10/14/2008