|Creative Writing: Level One
Critical Essays on Selected Readings
The readings are to be discussed in class on the day the critical essays are due. These essays, worth forty points, must be printed out and submitted on time (this assignment will not be accepted late). Write a two-paragraph, 1½ - 2-page (double-spaced) critical response to the work. See the given prompt for each reading, as provided below.
In the first paragraph, summarize key elements of the “plot,” but also describe several (three?) aspects of the author’s craft, or style (such as point of view, figurative language, dialogue, symbolism, tone, structure, etc.) and explain how “form” relates to “content”—that is, how certain aspects of style serve or enhance the overall meaning and effect of the work. Quote the text to illustrate how the stylistic qualities complement the work. In this paragraph you are offering a close reading of the story, considering how the plot works and also how certain key aspects of style serve the story.
In the second paragraph, offer your personal, critical reaction—whether, how, why…you liked the reading, personally related to it, disliked it, felt moved, not so moved, amused; what you admired in its crafting…with an eye toward how, or whether, the piece “works,” considering the author’s apparent intentions. First-person is okay in the second paragraph, but not in the first paragraph.
[ex. “In Standing By, David Sedaris tells of his recent traveling experience, pointing out the lack of sophistication of his fellow American travelers. He begins with a scene in which… Structurally, he balances the essay between vivid scenes and thoughtful reflection. For example… At time his tone is acerbic… With engaging wit and an incredible eye for familiar yet surprising details, he captures the scene vividly, making the airplane seem like a zoo, filled with un-caged animals. He writes, “…” (#). He comes off like a comedian, amusing himself, keeping himself from going insane, snapping off wicked one-liners that create a thrilling intimacy with the reader, as if you were his invisible traveling companion, or even best friend—rather than alienate the reader, let alone make you feel incriminated yourself. As the flight goes on, the woman next to him says, “…” (#)…
I loved this essay, admired the balance of scene and voice, humor and serious insight. I am an easy target for Sedaris’s brand of humor, appreciating his satirical eye. I like being challenged as a reader, especially by someone who sees the world with such sharply focused, if cynical, vision. That said, while the detail of the vulgar decal on the boy’s shirt makes his point about obnoxious Americans, Sedaris risks seeming cruel, generalizing and ignoring real cultural differences. I wonder if his lack of sympathy prevents him from seeing other cultural differences that might be at least as interesting as the ones he lampoons. For example, last summer I traveled…]
Read the four essays, by Richard Ford, Steve Martin, David Sedaris, and Robin Black; take notes while you read: consider structure, voice, prose style, tone, descriptive detail, emotional effect. Is there a thesis? Is there an interesting aspect of the author’s self, or identity, revealed? Is there a universal quality, or message, conveyed? For the critique: in the first paragraph, write a brief synopsis of the essay you liked best, articulating the main idea/thesis, and highlighting at least two aspects of style, illustrating with well-selected text. In the second paragraph, explain why you liked this one best; compare/contrast to the other essays to illustrate your points.
“The Orphans Are Coming” by Dave Eggers OR “Difficult Girl” by Lena Dunham: consider “creative” qualities in this work of non-fiction—that is, qualities we might be more likely to expect in fiction; voice, tone, humor, etc.; structure, or arrangement, use of scene, anecdote; character development; descriptive detail.
Short fiction: third-person POV
“Separating” by John Updike: consider “close” third-person POV, limited to Richard Maple’s perspective, and how this narrative perspective contributes to the meaning of the work; other aspects of Updike’s style (figurative language, word choice, etc.); plot (identify protagonist, conflict, climax, resolution); also, how the story defies the common criticism that Updike’s work demonstrates “style over substance.”
“The Love of My Life” by T.C. Boyle: consider the overall arc of the story, how the plot moves forward, each scene with something specific at stake for the main characters; consider POV, how it shifts and why; sympathy for the characters, how Boyle creates it, sustains it, and/or how our sympathy diminishes (increases?); the “horror” of this story and how Boyle presents it, how he makes the story bearable (barely?) to read, despite the subject matter.
“In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliot Dark: consider third-person focused/limited POV; how the narration reveals the protagonist’s inner life (and what it reveals—and conceals); in medias res, i.e., how the story starts “in the middle of things,” and then goes on to reveal significant aspects of the past through memory, backstory, flashback, dialogue, etc.; the overall arc of the story, i.e., the protagonist’s conflict, the climax, the resolution.
Short fiction: first-person POV
“White Angel” by Michael Cunningham: consider POV, voice, concrete detail, tense, plot, scene v. narration… What makes the story “realistic”? What makes it feel “true,” even as we understand it to be “fiction”? Do you find parts to be “sentimental” (emotionally overdone, cheesy, sappy); or, rather, moving (emotionally powerful, insightful)? What creates suspense (examples of foreshadowing?)? Describe and explain the conflict, climax, and resolution.
“The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” by Tom Perrotta: consider the “two stories” in this story and how each contributes to the whole; consider imagery, figurative language and metaphor, symbolism; also consider the first-person narrator/character and to what extent we sympathize with him, in spite of his flaws—or because of them?
“Harriett Elliott” by Robin Black: consider first-person POV, plot, metaphors and motifs, imagery; how the author reveals Big Themes, of identity, self-expression, family and community, Belief (in God, Supernatural, etc.) and Meaning of Life, Existence, relationships (of Self and Other)…
“Brownies” by ZZ Packer: For your critique of this story, identify two or three aspects of form/style, of the kind discussed in earlier critiques and class discussions; explain how these aspects contribute to the dominant themes of the story and its overall meaning and effect. Also, incorporate and quote at least one of the criticisms on the opening pages, explaining and illustrating its veracity. Highlight key aspects of the plot, as you track the story and its qualities.
“Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy: Identify two or three aspects of form/style, of the kind discussed in earlier critiques and class discussions; explain how these aspects contribute to the dominant themes of the story and its overall meaning and effect. Also, incorporate and quote at least one of the criticisms on the opening page, explaining and illustrating its veracity. Highlight key aspects of the plot, as you track the story and its qualities.
“The Flowers” by Alice Walker: What is the arc—conflict, crisis, climax, resolution? Why a complete story, not just a scene? “Just Married” by Tony Early: how is this the narrator’s story—how is he protagonist, not just observer?
On fiction writing
On Revision by Benjamin Percy
Introduction to “Swingers” by John Favreau; introduction to “Good Will Hunting” by Gus Van Sant
Self-selected contemporary novel that has been adapted to film (see list of recommendations): ex. “Up in the Air” by Walter Kirn, “The Virgin Suicides” Jeffrey Eugenides