Writing (and Reading) the American Short Story
with Vincent Scarpa
March 13, 2024
In this course, we will explore the short story in depth, deepening your command over this vital literary form. Throughout the six weeks, we will devote rigorous attention to the short story form, coming to better understand elements like plot, tension, character development, structure, and style. You will apply this learning to a new short story (approximately 10 to 25 pages) that you will write and revise throughout the course.
The short story has a rich tradition in America, with classic practitioners like James Baldwin and Flannery O’Connor. When one reads and studies them, one is immersed not only in literary history but in actual history — the cries and chatterings, silences and commotions of a nation in flux. In our reading, we will undertake a deep-sea investigation into how these writers develop and craft their stories, how they demonstrate in their prose the shape and rhythm of their attention and thinking, and how they bring their singularity to the page via their style.
By bringing our focus to some classic American short stories published since 1950 — as well as the stories written by our fellow participants — we will develop together useful strategies and acquired knowledge that will both enrich our own writing and refine how we process meaning-making in short fiction.
Of equal importance, you will generate your own short story of approximately 10-25 pages. These stories can be generated from in-class prompts, inspired by an element of a story we’ve read together, pulled from life, or some combination thereof.
Each week, you will read 2-3 classic contemporary short stories, averaging 30-35 pages of reading per week. In a weekly 90-minute Zoom session, we will discuss these stories on an anatomical level — discussing elements such as structure, character, and style — and see what we can absorb from these stories and thereby impart to our own stories.
This Course is For:
- Anyone with an interest in learning more about the art of short story.
- Writers who want to better understand and thereby more effectively create stories, by reading and analyzing well-crafted examples and using what they learned to write their own stories.
- Writers with any degree of experience — be it none at all, or quite a lot — are welcome, so long as you are interested in dedicating six weeks to reading and writing short stories.
Beginning Wednesday, March 13th we will meet on Zoom at 7:00PM Eastern.
Learning and Writing Goals
In this course, you will:
- Develop a more nuanced understanding of the mechanics of short fiction, including plot, tone, tension, character, style and more.
- Learn from the best, by read the works of several great, American short story writers.
- Analyze how successful short story writers craft their work in order to influence your own.
- Expand and enlarge your own creative practice, resulting in the construction of their own idiosyncratic stories.
By the end of the course, you will have generated a short story (approx. 10-25 pgs.), written with the aid of in-class prompts and inspiration. Your story will be workshopped and you will be provided feedback by fellow participants and the instructor.
Week One: Place in Fiction (Or, Revisiting Some Classics)
Required Reading: “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin; “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor
We will begin with these two legendary practitioners, and look especially close at how each writer’s use of place helps ground the story in a felt reality.
Assignment: Each week you will write and submit up to five pages of your short story for feedback.
Week Two: Lives in Tense Miniature (Or, Creating Meaningful Suspense)
Required Reading: “Health,” and “Escapes,” Joy Williams; “Emergency,” Denis Johnson
We will look to these stories from Joy Williams and Denis Johnson for clues on how to generate tension, as well as pay close attention to how both writers shape and organize their stories, and how that creates meaning for the reader.
Week Three: Minimalism (Or, Tone and Meaning)
Required Reading: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Amy Hempel; “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver; “Yours,” Mary Robison
We will look at these three stories as a sort of capsule class on “minimalism,” devoting our attention to how style can generate meaning-making.
Week Four: Complex Characters (Or, Dinner Parties in Fiction)
Required Reading: “Dance in America,” Lorrie Moore; “The Burning House,” Ann Beattie
Using these stories by Moore and Beattie as examples, we will discuss how to create characters that are rich with complicity and idiosyncrasy, and are therefore memorable.
Week Five: Imparting Thematics (Or, The Tunnel at the End of the Light)
Required Reading: “At the End of My Life,” Beth Nugent; “Antarctica,” Laura van den Berg
We will turn to these two stories to look at how each writer develops a sense of a story’s thematics or “aboutness,” identifying what it is that seems to matter to the writers of these stories, and thereby what they are trying to communicate.
Week Six: Contemporary Practitioners (Or, Where Is the Story Going, Where Has It Been)
Required Reading: “Leak,” Mary Miller; “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over In Silence,” John Edgar Wideman; “Natural Light,” Kathleen Alcott
For our final class, we will look at three more recently-published stories for ideas about where the short story might be headed next.
Student Feedback for Vincent Scarpa:
March 13, 2024