Syllabus

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One Person, Real and Imagined
Larissa MacFarquhar
Creative Writing: Nonfiction
Spring Term
Tuesdays 2:30-5:20
[email protected]
What are the differences between nonfiction and fiction, apart from the obvious? In this
course we will think about the nature of nonfiction by comparing it to fiction, through the
form of the profile: a story focused on one person, real or imagined, who is not you.
(Memoir is a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction that we won’t be focusing on in this
course.) What are the particular pleasures and excitements of writing nonfiction, and
what are its frustrations and limits? What is the difference between the sort of intimacy
you can feel with a real person and with a fictional one? We’ll think about what kinds of
stories nonfiction is especially good at, and what kinds of stories fiction is better at. We’ll
talk about the things it’s hard to pull off in nonfiction (e.g. omniscience), and things it’s
hard to pull off in fiction (e.g. coincidence). We’ll think about the ethics of writing about
a single person: how you treat different sorts of people (famous versus ordinary, for
instance), and what difference it makes whether they’re real or not.
In addition to the reading, you’ll be writing one short (around 800 words) and one longer
(1,500-2,000 words) nonfiction profile. For the longer one, you’ll need to interview
someone; for the short one you can interview someone or not, as you wish, but the
quotations must be accurate (i.e. written down at the time, or recorded—not merely
remembered). Also, in the course of our discussion of really terrible writing, you’ll be
producing some yourself.
My hope is that all this will inform and complicate your thinking about whether you want
to write nonfiction or fiction or both.
Texts:
David Remnick, ed., Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker
Course packet
Jan. 5: One Writer Three Ways: Ernest Hemmingway
A story about a real person, a story about a fictional person, and a profile of
Hemmingway himself.
--“Scott Fitzgerald,” “Hawks Do Not Share,” and “A Matter of Measurements,” from A
Moveable Feast (1920s)
--“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936)
--“How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” by Lillian Ross, in Life Stories (1950)
Jan. 12: To Quote or Not To Quote
What happens to a story when you quote your subject, and what happens when you
don’t? What about when you quote other people talking about him? What changes when
you adjust the proportions of speech and description? And what is the effect of dialogue?
--“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese (1966)
--“The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’,” by Tom Wolfe (1972)
--Edie, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton (1982) (excerpt)
--“Requiem for a Dream,” by Larissa MacFarquhar (2013)
Jan. 19: Another Writer Three Ways: David Foster Wallace
A story about a real person, a story about a fictional person, and an extended interview
with Wallace (from the book that was made into the movie The End of the Tour) which
shows some of what is exciting and excruciating about interviewing.
--“Up, Simba,” from Consider the Lobster (2000) (excerpt)
--“Host,” from Consider the Lobster (2005)
--“The Depressed Person,” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1998)
--Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by David Lipsky (2010) (excerpt)
Jan. 26: Adjectives, Punctuation, and Ornamentation of All Sorts.
How much is too much?
--“Stanley Parker,” by Kenneth Tynan (1948)
--“Noel Coward,” by Kenneth Tynan (1952)
--“Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale,” by Kenneth Tynan, in Life Stories (1978)
--“The First Tycoon of Teen,” by Tom Wolfe (1965)
Feb. 2: Contempt
What is the difference between contempt for the living, contempt for the dead, and
contempt for people who do not exist?
--“Forty-One False Starts,” by Janet Malcolm, in Life Stories (1994)
--“A Hunger Artist,” by Franz Kafka (1922)
--Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (2010) (excerpt)
800-word nonfiction profile is due this week.
Feb. 9: The Other Person in the Room
What difference does your presence make? Why might you put yourself in the story, and
why might you leave yourself out?
--The Journalist and the Murder, by Janet Malcolm (1990) (excerpt)
--Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003) (excerpt)
Feb. 16: Bad Writing
What makes it so deliciously terrible? And what are the rules of the bad-writing genre?
--“Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell (1946)
--several choice examples of bad writing to be given out
Bring a laptop to class. You will spend a short time hacking out a truly dreadful piece of
writing, whose subject will be specified.
Feb. 23: Admiration
Why do we often assume that good characters are boring and simple while villains are
fascinating and complex? And why is that belief so much stronger in fiction than in
nonfiction?
--“Father Sergius,” by Leo Tolstoy (1911)
--My Traitor’s Heart, by Rian Malan (1990) (excerpt)
March 1: Do It Yourself
1,500-2,000-word nonfiction profile is due this week. We will read some of these aloud
and discuss them in class.
March 8: Self-Fictionalizing Characters: Imposters, Passers, and Something Even
Stranger
Want to know how to create a convincing character? Ask an imposter.
--“The Education of a Prince (Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky
Romanoff),” by Alva Johnston, in Life Stories (1932)
--“White Like Me,” by Henry Louis Gates, in Life Stories (1996)
--“The Memory Thief,” by Philip Gourevitch (1999)
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