Short Writing Assignments

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Short Writing Assignments

Day One: Stories are comprised of two parts: summary and scene. Summary provides broad swathes of information while scene provides detail. Generally, scenes contain dialogue, action and minute detail whereas summary does not. This assignment asks you to consider the differences between these two elements, differences that we will discuss more comprehensively in class.

“Rock Springs” by Richard Ford-- Notice how the story begins in summary and then transitions into scene at the top of page 164. What does Ford manage to accomplish with summary in the first two pages and how is that challenged by the scenes that dominate the rest of the story? How does he manage this transition seamlessly? Consider the two transitional paragraphs (“It was that very…..”) Citing specific examples from this text, what might Ford gain (and lose) by introducing his story in summary? What, more generally, are some of the benefits of summary and scene?


Day Two:

“Chopin in Winter” by Stuart Dybek-- One thing to avoid in writing fiction is the feeling of a story floating through empty space. Rooting a story in a specific, recognizable and real world pays dividends in all other aspects of the work. Consider, citing specific examples, how Michael, Marcy and Dzia-Dzia interact with their setting. How does this illuminate the characters and benefit the construction of the story?

Day Three:

“Emergency” by Denis Johnson-- Good dialogue is very difficult to write. It must sound plausible while still achieving all the work that artistic (and therefore unreal) language must do to further plot and character. Choose two or three dialogues within this story and articulate why (or why not) these are successful to you. What words MAKE them successful or hold them back? How many different things are these dialogues accomplishing and how are they doing so? What do the way these characters speak tell us about them as people?

Day Four:

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver—One of the difficulties with writing stories is that good people are fundamentally boring while bad people are fundamentally unlikable. A good writer must either make a good person interesting or a bad person likable. Carver chooses the latter. Consider our protagonist in this story. How would you describe him? What are his quirks, hobbies, foibles and baggage? How does Carver lessen, forgive or repaint these over the course of the story and what is the effect on you as a reader?


Day Five:

“Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan. One of the strongest tools within a writer’s arsenal is the tension between past and present. Often, this manifests as a tension between heritage and identity. How is everything in Meimei’s life a struggle between these two poles? How does she navigate them? How does Tan reflect this tension in both obvious and subtle ways?


Day Six:

“Moonwalk” by Susan Power. Much like Tan, Power profits from the tension between opposing cultures. However, while Meimei is a young protagonist living through these tensions, the characters in “Moonwalk” are older. This allows memory to complicate the tension. How do memories complicate the tension between heritage and identity within this story? How are Margaret’s memories reflective of her current life and of Evie and Lydia’s own struggles?

Day Seven:

FICTION ASSIGNMENT ONE DUE

One way to introduce dramatic tension into a piece is to make use of a limited narrator—one who either through age or infirmity cannot make the same connections made by the readers. Both Stephanie Vaughn and Joyce Carol Oates make use of this trick in their stories, “Dog Heaven” and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, respectively. Choose one of these two stories. Where does the writer make use of the narrator’s limited understanding of the world, and how does it produce tension within the story? Is this something the character did not know at the time but would know at the completion of the story? Something the character wouldn’t know at the completion but would know as she retells the story to us years later? Something the character never knows but we are expected to know immediately? Something the character never knows but we eventually figure out ourselves? How does this knowledge inform the remainder of the text?

Day Eight:

“A Vintage Thunderbird” by Ann Beattie-- In every relationship (in both life and literature), there is a constant power struggle. Nobody portrays this struggle more adroitly than Beattie. Consider Nick and Karen. How is this struggle manifest in both obvious and subtle ways and how does this struggle ultimately provide the central tension of the story? What, specifically, are the mechanisms of power that each of these characters employ against one another?


Day Nine:

“Testimony of Pilot” by Barry Hannah. Perhaps the hardest thing to navigate within a short story is the passage of time. Indeed, to jump ahead is to violate one of Aristotle’s three unities. For this reason, most stories take place in a single span. However, Hannah moves forward multiple times in this story. What choices does he make in crafting this story that allow him to jump ahead when he needs to and what is gained from the jumping ahead? Consider the techniques we have discussed throughout the term and how Hannah uses them to suit his specific purpose. How do these jumps inform each of our new meetings with Quadberry and the narrator?


Day Ten:

FICTION ASSIGNMENT TWO DUE

“Train” by Joy Williams and “Cody’s Story” by Richard Olmstead. Speaking of Aristotle’s Poetics, trapping characters within a confined space is a good way to ensure unity of space. Consider one of these two stories—how does the writer leverage the confinement of space into tension? How (and where) do we see it manifest on the characters? What is gained by this choice and what is lost?

Day Eleven:

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. Here O’Brien makes use of a list narrative as a productive device to further his story. How does the lengthy enumeration of specific details (an anatomy, in this case, of the things carried on the hump) serve the story? Consider what some of these characters choose to carry and what it suggests of each of them and the unit as a whole. Consider how these choices play out over the course of the story.

Day Twelve:

“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen. This story, perhaps more than any other, makes use of every one of the other elements we’ve discussed above. Choose one facet of this story (setting, dialogue, summary and scene, character) and articulate for me how Hansen’s choices affect your understanding of the story itself.


Day Thirteen:

“Talk of Heroes” by Carol Bly. This story is a lengthy character study of an intriguing man yet much of the pleasure in the story is the way in which Emily’s character ultimately becomes the more compelling. How does Bly employ the ambiguities of history to complicate our understanding of both Willi Varag and Emily Anderson?


Day Fourteen:

“Lawns” by Mona Simpson. How does Simpson capture the naïve yet disaffected voice of youth in her piece? Where do we see it and how does it affect your sympathies in the story?


POETRY

Day One:


Robert Lowell: “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”, “Memories of West Street and Lepke” and “Skunk Hour”.

To many poets, all of life is prologue to death. Choose one of Lowell’s poems and write about how his speaker explores the relationship between place and decay and what conclusion you seem to reach upon completion of the poem.


Poetry Day Two:

Elizabeth Bishop: “The Armadillo”, “Filling Station”, “In The Waiting Room”, “Poem”.

To Bishop’s speakers, as to many of us, human’s place within the natural world is tentative, destructive and ambivalent. Explore this notion within one of the poems selected for today.

Poetry Day Three:

Swenson: “Teleology” “Staying at Ed’s Place” “Strawberrying.”

Voight: “Winter Field.”

Nature has always been a common topic for poetry but in contemporary poetry this subject matter is fraught with historical and ecological concerns. Choose one poem from today’s assignment and write about how the poet articulates, emphasizes and complicates nature as an ideal and actual presence.

Poetry Day Four:

O’Hara “Why I’m Not a Painter”, “Having A Coke With You.”

Plath “Lady Lazarus” “Fever 103”.

It is difficult to develop voice in a poem without being showy or distracting. Choose one of the poems from today’s selections and provide me with a reading of the character’s voice. Then illuminate how this voice is being used to ensure the poem’s success.


Poetry Day Five:

Hugo “Graves at Elkhorn”.

Simic “Prodigy”.

Pinsky “Dying”.

Not surprisingly, many different poets have chosen as their nominal subject matter death. Choose any two of the poems from the above and compare the speakers’ views (and capacities to understand, articulate and accept) this reality.
Poetry Day Six

POETRY ASSIGNMENT ONE DUE

J. Wright “At An Executed Murderer’s Grave” , “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”. Matthews “107th and Amsterdam”.

Snyder “I Went into the Maverick Bar”.

As with fiction, place has a tremendous impact on identity. Choose one of the poems from above and consider how the speaker’s identity is challenged or altered by the setting of the poem. How does he seem to feel about both the space and himself when in it? Why?
Poetry Day Seven

Levine “You Can Have It”.

Hirsch “My Father’s Back”.

Lee “This Hour and What is Dead”.

Alongside (and not always separate from) death, family is a common theme of much poetry. As with death, choose one of the poems from the above and consider what sense the speaker is able to make of his/her own family situations and how s/he is able to arrive at this conclusion.

Poetry Day Eight

Hecht: “A Hill”, “Third Avenue in Sunlight”, “’More Light! More Light!’”

One poet for today. Write a lengthy character sketch of Hecht’s speaker. Tell me what you think about him and why? How does an analysis of the text inform your understanding of the speaker?
Poetry Day Nine

POETRY ASSIGNMENT TWO DUE

Nemerov “Writing”, “Money”.

Wilbur, “Looking into History”, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”.



One of the trickiest things to do is to try to translate another creative form into poetry. Here we see poets struggling either with ekphrastic poetry (poetry based on art) or else the poetry of ideas, rather than things. Choose one of these poems and compare it to (if applicable) the physical work upon which it’s based or else your own preconceptions of this idea. How does the poem challenge your own assumptions?

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