At the beach near our house, on a warm day in early autumn when the tide is low and gulls coast on the blustery breeze, my son scours the shore for a skipping stone. He finds one, thin and smooth and black, that precisely fits his small hand. He ambles toward the water, heedless of tangles of seaweed and shallow pools sculpted by the tide’s egress. His rubber boots make rough imprints in the ridges of the sand. He passes the trails of white foam made by the strongest wavelets and keeps going, past the threshold of the beach and into the water. He stands with his feet covered, his arm poised, his gaze alternating between the passage of incoming water and the languid surface of the outgoing sea. It stretches across the bay, out past the peninsula of dark trees, and meets the sky at a horizon flecked with the shreds of clouds.
He throws the stone. It tumbles in the air, startling three gulls from their perch atop the breakwater, and descends in a shallow arc toward the water. It grazes the surface, makes a small splash, skips once through the veil of the splash, then falls again, vanishing. The water closes over it, restores itself like a dreamer waking from sleep. But deep inside the sheltering water, the black stone will continue to turn and spin. Far down, it will sing its forgotten songs in the dark.
And so, we begin this class in a mythological way: not with the syllabus and assignments and grades but rather with metaphor, imagery, and story. A child tossing a stone into the sea is a tiny vignette from my own story, a single moment that expands to encompass the depthless wonder of all stories. In this class I invite you to explore your own story. Who are you? Where do you come from? Who are your people? What you do you mean when you say “your people?” What stories do they tell? What tales connect you to the larger narratives of your family, your people, your culture, and to everyone?
This course is about memory, about what we preserve and what we discard, about the claim of the past on the present. Stories are the carriers of that past, and their influence is not limited to archaic mythologies. The gravity of stories reaches across the ages we’ve tried to forget, peels back the facade of the present, and reveals the past still working out its unfinished dreams.
Myths and stories are the histories of the human spirit. They are necessarily complex and contentious; their narratives interweave with the details of archaeology, anthropology, literature, religion, and many other fields of inquiry. Stories are impossible to untangle from the clamor of voices that would lay claim to truth, are never true to fact, as facts are never the whole truth. We craft persuasive tales from fragments of the past, from silhouettes, from footprints in the sand muddied by countless crossing tracks. We make interpretations, we reconstruct the old voices. And when we speak in those voices, which are also our own, the dialect of our discourse is mythological.
The scission between the mythic impulses of the heart and the intellectual imperatives of the mind lies at the crossroads of human history. The interplay between them is like the movement of waves upon a vast sea, and is the source of art, science, politics, and many other things. This class is intended to be a view from the shore of that sea, from the secure footing of the modern self seeking to understand the roots and narratives of family and culture. The stories we write in this class are intended to be like the path of a stone thrown by a child: into the ocean, down to where hidden things sing and dream and wait.
Process and Projects
Read something, then write about it. Write something, then reflect upon it. That’s the basic idea.
Writing is a deep skill – the type of skill that is complex, diverse, and personally challenging. As with all deep skills, learning to write well is hard. There are so many factors that contribute to skill development, so many things to consider, so much diversity in the forms of writing. It doesn’t even make sense to think of writing as a single skill. Rather it’s a weaving together of many skills: creativity, craft, knowledge, self-awareness, drive, discipline, persistence, judgment, people skills, and so on. Because writing is a form of communication, it’s wrapped up with the complexities of human interactions and relationships. Learning to write well is not simply about mastering the elements of grammar – in fact, grammatical mastery is one of the least important skills in writing. Sure, it’s good to know the difference between its and it’s (to use the most common grammatical error as an example), but it’s not nearly as important as finding your voice, or connecting to your subject, or doing the introspective work to explore what your writing means to you and what it might mean to those who read your work.
Within all the disciplines of deep skill, there are ongoing debates about how best to learn. In music, which instrument should you study first, or which style of music? In dance, should you start with ballet or bhangra? In physics, should you first study foundations or applications? In politics, should you start with local or global? You get the idea. Complex subjects are complex, and there is no single correct way to approach them. The same goes for writing. You could start with linguistics, or grammar, or theory, or forms, or the creative process (which is where we start, in these courses), or any number of interesting points of entry. Eventually, they would all take you to the same place: greater skill. But, with writing, no matter which path you choose, you will still do three things: reading, writing, and reflection. You would explore the literature of your particular approach (the literature of forms, or literary theory, or the philosophy of creativity); you would write in the style of your particular approach (writing in specific forms, or writing theory, or writing in a philosophical way); and you would reflect – think, feel, wonder – about what it all means and how to keep going.
Read. Write. Reflect. These are the activities involved in developing the skill of writing. If you want to improve your writing, do those three things.
The basic schedule for project submissions is that a project is due every four weeks (from the first day of the semester). The first project is due at the end of week four; the second project is due at the end of week eight, and the final project (the self-awareness assignment) is due at the end of week twelve. That’s easy, right?
I strongly encourage you to follow this schedule – one assignment every four weeks, for twelve weeks. However, you do not have to follow this schedule. Any project that you submit before the end of week twelve will be graded.
Let’s review and confirm: there are no fixed due dates and no penalties for late projects in this class. There are suggested due dates: every four weeks. But you will not be penalized if you do not submit projects on those dates. You can submit your projects at any time up until the final day of week twelve. Again; no penalties are involved. Everyone in the class has the right to delay the submission of projects up until the final day (but not beyond).
Ideas and practices regarding due dates and late penalties are legacies of a traditional educational structure that focuses on compliance and control. These traditions do not encourage creativity, and they are not sensitive to the diversity of human experience. Life happens. Sometimes things take more time, or less time, than you imagine. In this class I acknowledge the dynamic character of learning, which in turn entails that I also recognize the fundamentally problematic nature of due dates and late penalties.
This all might sound great, and I hope that the scheduling flexibility afforded you in this course works well for you. My goal in doing this is to facilitate a more fluid approach to creative work. But I also offer a cautionary note: every semester there are students who miss the final deadline and fail the course as a result. Freedom has consequences. If you miss the final submission date, there will be no further discussion about due dates and timelines. You will forfeit grades for whatever is incomplete. Try to avoid this situation.
How best to avoid it? Use the monthly schedule shown below. It works. It’s there for a reason (and the reason is that many people are not good at scheduling). If something happens in your life and you are delayed in submitting a project, get it done as close to the monthly schedule as you can. You won’t be penalized. If you get stuck, ask for help.
Whatever you do, don’t plan on submitting everything at the end. That is a terrible strategy. It will probably result in you failing or dropping out of the course. Instead, work consistently in this class. The projects are entirely doable on a monthly basis. The schedule is set up for you to do it that way. Don’t push the river.
Scheduled Dates and Final Deadline
First Project (Reading) — Week 4
Second Project (Writing) — Week 8
Third Project (Self-Awareness) — Week 12
Final Deadline for all Projects — End of Week 12
For further details, please review the specific sections for each assignment.
You can submit any project as many times as you like — until the final deadline. In fact, I encourage you to submit your projects more than once. Writing is an iterative process, after all, and later drafts are often better than previous ones (especially if you ask for feedback on these drafts). I will review each new draft that you send — until the final deadline. Typically, your grade will improve after each draft (provided you ask for feedback and that you are attentive to it). Once the final deadline has passed, the project submission period is closed and you will no longer be able to send new drafts. This also means that you will not be able to improve your grade on a project after the final deadline has passed.
A Note of Caution
You can write about anything you want. But please consider that any subject that is challenging for you to talk about openly (such as personal trauma) is a subject you should probably not write about. On the other hand, powerful personal experiences often provide excellent source material for writing, so it may be difficult for you to decide what to do. First, please use your judgment about how best to keep yourself emotionally safe within and beyond the classroom. Second, please discuss your plans (or your concerns) with me if you decide to write about personal or provocative subjects. In particular, be cautious of subjects involving violence, abuse, trauma, death, mental illness, and related themes (whether they happened to you, happened to someone else, or are imagined). These subjects reliably activate strong emotions and are often unsafe if not handled properly. While no subject is absolutely off-limits in this class, there are many subjects for which there is a risk of harm to you, to me, to others in the class, or to our shared communities. We must be respectful and careful of ourselves and our relationships with others. Please ask me for guidance if you are uncertain.
Asking for Help
People are different. Some like to learn on their own, others prefer direct and ongoing support, and there is, of course, a wide range in between. You are free to approach this course in the manner that suits you best. If I don’t hear from you, I will assume that you are working happily away, reading, composing, and getting things done. If you ask for help or feedback, I will try to be as helpful as I can.