We're In This Together:
A Cross-Genre Popup Class For Sitka Fine Arts Camp Writers Past & Present

“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.”
—Peter Handke

Course Description

One of the greatest aspects of being a writer is finding a home in a literary community. After all, writers write from anywhere: many have crafted exquisite works despite war, famine, hardship, illness and despair. It is, in fact, a writer’s job to bear witness, and as these things so often go, very rarely does a writer control what, exactly, they are witnessing. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the very necessary cancellation of the 2020 Sitka Fine Arts Camp, all Sitka Fine Arts Camp writers—past and present—are invited to come together and share in a week-long interactive, collaborative virtual creative writing course. We’ll engage our eyes, our brains, our hearts, fight isolation, and draft new material that is both shaped by and in spite of the global pandemic and cultural moment that keeps us physically separated. This class will be full of cross-genre readings, collaborative discussions, and writing exercises that probe deeper questions about art, form, and the elements and craft of creative writing. Perhaps most importantly, it will provide each of us a literary community despite our isolation. We’ll explore what happens when we come together: online, and in one another’s presence, and certainly in our art. Come ready to share ideas, art, and stories, whatever they look like so far.

Sign Up

To be eligible to enroll, you must be a former SFAC student or an enrolled student for the 2020 Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Because our classes will occur daily on a virtual medium (Zoom or Google Hangouts), you must also have access to an Internet-enabled computer. If you meet these qualifications, please enroll! The class is pay-what-you-can, with all proceeds going directly to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. If you are able, please make a donation to support the place we all hold near and dear.

Virtual Classroom

You can access our virtual classroom here from 12-1pm Alaskan time (4-5pm EST) Monday through Friday.

Monday, June 22

Introductions. Discuss how we're feeling in this moment; discuss what we want from this time together.

 

Read the following short piece, "We Wanted More," from Justin Torres' bestselling novel We The Animals. Listen for the natural rhythms and upticks in Torres' language. Consider his use of repetition, the way it invokes a sense of desperation. Focus on his imagery: how specific, how visceral. Specificity is what makes writing interesting. How has Torres' tapped into this truth?

Next, clear your mind. Think about what you want, what you miss, what you love, what you fear. What speaks to you most about this time, this cultural and historical moment, these many thoughts and feelings and disruptions in your day-to-day. How can you write about this by employing repetition and specificity? You may even adopt the phrase “we wanted” or "we + [verb]" to begin.

If you write creative nonfiction frequently, or you want an escape from this moment, you might consider delving into fiction or even poetry. Create a character and imagine their wants, their nostalgia, their loves, their fears. Once again, feel free to adopt the phrase "we wanted" or "we + [verb]."

 

Write. Aim for 500-750 words for prose or 30 unstructured lines of poetry.

Tuesday, June 23

Option to share some work from yesterday.

 

Read the following short essay, "Fear of an Invisible Threat," published by Kerry Howley in The New Republic. Consider the ways in which Howley attempts to explore her fears about the coronavirus by way of a children's book and her young son's fascination with microbes. In many ways, this essay does exactly what we know the best essays do: they take, as Bernard Cooper writes, "some small aspect of what it's like to be human" and magnify it, enlarge it, inhabit it in such a way that it makes space for others to feel, think, and relate. Often, as we know, this "small aspect of what it is like to be human" is personal: the author's son's children's book, or her son's fascination with an invisible world. But it is through the act of essaying that the writer—in this case, Kerry Howley—inhabits a larger world and bridges the divide between the personal and the universal, creating a shared sense of experience about something much larger than a microbe (an invisible world, her mother, a global pandemic).

After you've read the essay, consider your own lives over the past several months. What has changed? Which "scenes" from your own life (if you were to consider the past a play-back reel) stand out from this time? Now, consider the smallest change you've noticed. The smaller, the better. In Kerry Howley's case, it was her son's fascination with very small things, which then blossomed to her own understanding of her child's fascination, to eventually what that meant, in reality, for her mother. Go small. Go unexpected. If you're sick of writing about the pandemic, choose another subject that is eating at you, worrying you. Find a small observation that lends itself to a bigger examination of that subject. How might you use this tiny detail, image, or moment to describe and explore a larger feeling, thought, or idea?

 

Write. Aim for 500-750 words, and work towards specificity and scene-work (description of place, interaction, movement of character, dialogue) whenever possible.

Wednesday, June 24

Option to share some work from yesterday.

Read excerpt from "Pastoralia," by George Saunders. Note the incredible expository restraint and the way in which Saunders allows our narrator's profession and circumstances to come through authentically via showing (as opposed to telling). Note the ways in which he trusts the reader to make connections and inferences. Note, too, the level of specificity he has prescribed the elements in his story--everything from the capitalized names of things to the food they are given to the dialogue, which is anything but generic or stock.

Next, create your own character who works a strange job or in a strange environment--either drawing from a job you know well, or something altogether imagined. Brainstorm, making a list of the objects your character may interact with on a daily basis. Make a list of the tasks he/she/they have been assigned. Create an additional coworker or two, and possibly a boss, and describe them briefly in one sentence, sure to give them a specific personal problem that percolates into their professional life (divorce, diet, loathed by stepson, allergic to cats, etc.) and a specific thing they love (cats, magnets, a restaurant, a band).

Write. Aim for humor, specificity, and humanity--make us both love and pity your character.

Thursday, June 25

Option to share some work from yesterday.

 

Read a selection of free verse poems, including "A Small Needful Fact" by Ross Gay,"Home" by Warsan Shire, "Allowables" by Nikki Giovanni, and "Thanks," by W.S. Merwin. A free verse poem, otherwise called a blank verse poem, is a poetic form in which the poem does not follow any rules regarding rhythm or rhyme and has no set structure, though occasional patterns of sound or rhythm may emerge. Consider the way both Ross Gay and Nikki Giovanni begin with a small truth--a fact, an organism--and develop it within the space of only a few lines into a symbol. Consider the way in which the repetition of the word "thanks" in Merwin's poem carries an increasingly hyperbolic meaning, allowing the poet to expand from small things he seems genuinely thankful for to larger, darker things whose gratitude we're less certain of.  What does the final line of Merwin's poem suggest? Does it feel surprising, considering both the repetition and the earlier content of the poem? Why might such a transition be useful?

Choose a feeling of your own that you wish to explore a little deeper. Borrowing Gay, Giovanni, and Merwin's use of building, write a free verse poem that attempts to illuminate the complexity of this feeling and the way you see it embodied in the world. Once again, remember that specificity is what makes things interesting for readers--get as specific as you can. If you feel stuck, you're welcome to craft an imitation of any of these poems. Simply add, "After [title] by [author]" beneath the title to ascribe credit.

Write. Go back and trim, reshape. Aim for a beautiful, authentic poem, whatever that might look like.

Friday, June 26

Option to share some work from yesterday.

 

Read Laurie Rachkus Uttich’s “My Mother Wants To Return to 1985,” published in Brevity Magazine. Consider the ways in which the present in Uttich's essay shows up as one long scene (our narrator sits and visits with her mother in a Florida assisted-living facility until she falls asleep, worries about her own family, and then drives home) but how, in between, she moves her mother into the past, into 1985 more specifically, and then she moves herself to join her before returning them both to the present. This transition—beyond being surprising and interesting for a reader, because it is unexpected and a relatively advanced technique—also helps to shed insight on the mother, her daughter, and their unique family dynamic. In many ways, it also imitates the mother’s mind, which in old age is wandering.

As writers, we are the god of our own language, and we can do whatever we want, move wherever we want to move in the spaces within our pages. All too often, we forget. This exercise is meant to help us remember.

To begin, consider a subject you’re interested in—a person, ideally, though it may also be a place or object. Consider the memories you have with this subject, and then consider the memories you wish you had. I can remember, for example, a gift I received for my seventh birthday—an extensive rainbow gradient market set containing some 75 colors—but not the family trip to Florida that the gift culminated in, the alligators we saw, my grandmother or grandfather or their faces. I can’t remember what my mother’s relationship to her parents was at this point, nor can I remember whether my brothers and I got along. Maybe it means nothing, but as a writer, I could easier make it mean something more. If I was writing an essay about having a better relationship with my mother than she had with her own mother, for example, I could use the memory I do remember to highlight what a good mother she was—how she knew what would bring me joy—and I could wonder openly on the page about her own birthdays at that age, how it was celebrated or not celebrated. I could suggest that I didn’t remember her interaction with her parents in that Florida backyard swimming pool perhaps because it did not register to me that relationships between parents and their children often varied, that I was one of the lucky ones. I could end with an image of mother, perhaps, floating alone on an inner-tube in a public pool somewhere in Massachusetts, where she grew up, watching her mother not watch her. The point is: as a writer, I can play god, and I can use time and memory to solidify ideas I have about the world. Make no mistake: it’s a task to be executed carefully and with respect, but the fact remains that writing is subjective, just like memory.

 

Begin by writing in scene, either in the present or the past. The challenge of this exercise will be to draft a present-day scene of your own and interrupt it to intersperse the past into its folds, moving neatly between past and present simply by using paragraph breaks and, if needed, a transitional sentence. You’re welcome simply to move in and out as a way of demonstrating contrast, or you can work a little harder by using these movements as a way of interrogating the past or, perhaps, your memory. I’ve often found that the most interesting moments in nonfiction often come from admissions of the unknown: what an author does not remember, what an author remembers but can’t say why, conceits that indicate that indeed memory is subjective, flawed, and oftentimes inefficient. Sometimes, memory fails us. Sometimes, it hurts. As you work, consider adopting some of these phrases, which might help you transition or synthesize towards the end of your essay:

                                              I used to think/imagine _______. Now I know/imagine ______.

                            I don’t remember ______. I don’t remember _____. What I remember now is __________.

                                                  I’d later learn __________. But all I knew then was ___________.

                                                     I know now that _________, but in my memory, __________.


Write, weaving in and out as need be, but work to end in a specific and descriptive image of the person.

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