English 210W—Introduction to Creative Writing           Fall 2011

Instructor: Dr. Jenny Abeles               email:

Office: KL532                                            Office phone: (718)997-4696

Office Hours: Wednesdays 1:30-2:30 or by appointment                       


Introduction to Creative Writing: Inspiration, Voice, and Craft


Hail, Muse! Et cetera…

—Lord George Byron


One convention of epic poetry is to invoke the “muse,” some supernatural entity who inspires—literally, “breathes into”—the poet, helping him or her to achieve a particular literary vision. In the line above from Don Juan (1819), Lord Byron both observes and mocks this convention, giving grudging acknowledgement to the powerful mysteries of literary composition while also showing a craftsman’s eagerness to just get on with it. Some writers have felt themselves simply to be the instruments of otherworldly powers (witness the Bible, for example), and others have seen their art as the product of painstaking craft. Exploring both inspiration and craftsmanship seems a fruitful way to begin the practice of creative writing, and in the process, you may begin to refine your creative voice.

In this course, we will reflect upon and practice the writing of poems, short fiction, and creative non-fiction, attending to such matters as inspiration, voice, form, craft, beauty, innovation, theme, revision, and the collaborative nature of peer critique and writing for audience. We will explore our individual relationships with the written word, literature, and our interior dialogues, and in so doing, aim to create a community of writers with common goals and a shared interest in one another’s success.


Course Objectives

By the end of the semester, ideally you should have:

*become a more creative, expressive, and confident writer;

*gained familiarity with a number of poetic forms and rendered poems that both exemplify and mindfully subvert traditional notions of poetry;

*continued to nourish an understanding of what creative writing offers culture and what talents you bring to the practice;

*reflected upon narrative techniques that make a good story and experimented with a number of these in your own writing;

*developed communication skills necessary for effective critique and dialogue amongst peers about improving, enjoying, and challenging the boundaries of creative writing projects;

*considered how the themes and issues we discuss might relate to your life and career, as well as to the world in which we presently dwell.


Responsibilities of the instructor

* to guide you in achieving the goals outlined above;

* to respond to your writing and progress regularly through discussion and written commentary;

* to engage in dialogue rather than to merely lecture about assignments, and

* to discuss your studies, your writing, or any other educational concern during office hours or by appointment.


Responsibilities of the students

* to be at all the class meetings and on time.  Since class participation weighs heavily in my assessment, you will begin losing points with one absence.  In the unlikely event that you do miss a class, it is your responsibility to get the work and notes you missed either from me or from your fellow students.

* to participate in class discussions and take notes in class no matter who is speaking.

* to complete all the work for the course on time.  Unless specified, all assignments must be word-processed, spell-checked, and proofread.  All students might consider becoming regulars at The Writing Center in Kiely 229, or at least dropping by from time to time.

*to attend at least one literary event during the course of the semester.

* to meet with me during office hours. It behooves both my teaching and your learning if I know you individually, if I remain aware of your personal interests, abilities, questions, and projects. When you come by during office hours, you are not bothering me, but are fulfilling your responsibilities as a student and helping me to fulfill mine as an instructor.


Reading Assignments

In order to succeed in this class, you should be prepared to engage in active reading—i.e., reading while higher cognitive functions are eager for the task and with pencil in hand. We are reading for pleasure—from Plato and Aristotle through the present-day, literary theorists acknowledge that pleasure is a major incentive for reading literature, but apart from sheer entertainment, we also seek the pleasure that comes with intellectual engagement, critical analysis, the exercise of that liveliest, most spirited part of yourself—your brain.  We read in order to learn about writing from those who have established reputations in the field. The more closely you read, interpret, analyze, and question these texts, the more you will be able to offer to class discussions and writing assignments.

Writing Assignments

Expect to write in every class and for every class we meet this semester. Much of this writing will be shared not only with me, but with your peers, and—in the case of the creative non-fiction component of the course—with a larger internet audience. The amount of writing due each week will vary depending on the form we are working on (an effective poem can be five lines long; a short story as many as forty pages…), but regardless of the quantity of your weekly writing, you should strive to make the quality of it apparent to me and your peers as well as satisfying to yourself. Many of our discussions will no doubt focus on what constitutes “quality” writing, and our ideas about this might change as the semester progresses. What is most important to me is that your work shows courage, conscientiousness, and individuality. We will produce works of creative writing—poems, stories, and blogs—and we will also write about our learning, thoughts, challenges, and achievements as serious students of the creative process.

While some of the writing we do will be informal exercises in which we can take risks and ignore rules, anything you bring to class to share should be carefully edited and proofread. To whatever extent individuals in the class wish it, we will discuss issues of grammar correctness, but as far as I’m concerned, that is not our first order of business. Finally, my use of “we” here is not merely symbolic; I, too, am actively engaged in the attempt to become an effective creative writer, and this semester I intend to learn as much about that practice as any one of you.

Peer Critique

You will work with peers on a weekly basis to vet and improve your writing. You may want to occasionally volunteer to read your work aloud to the class. Writing for an audience as opposed to just for oneself is an important part of the writing process as it allows your voice to resonate outside of your own subjectivity, and your peers can help you understand how well your ideas and intentions are understood, how clear or beautiful your writing is, and, generally speaking, how effectively you are achieving your aims as a writer. You should become accustomed to working with the same group for periods of time as well as being randomly matched. The number one rule of critiquing a peer’s work is BE RESPECTFUL. We are all vulnerable and prone to discouragement to different degrees. The number two rule is BE HELPFUL as I am not the only instructor in this classroom. You all can help me think of more rules for peer critique if deemed necessary.


Excelling in this course requires steady and consistent commitment throughout the semester, and this will be reckoned according to the care and thought with which writing assignments are completed, the consistency and quality of your peer critiques, and the value of your class participation. I will read and respond to almost everything you write this semester, but NO WRITING ASSIGNMENT FOR THIS COURSE WILL BE GRADED. That is because I would like for you to do the best work you can on these assignments rather than to merely shoot for an A (those two motivations can be incompatible, I feel); I would like to see you take risks in ways that will challenge and strengthen you as a creative writer, and I feel that you will be less willing to take risks if you feel your grade is at stake. So, no grades—instead, take risks, challenge yourself, try something different, escape your comfort zone.

All of that said, there will be three portfolios of writing due as follows:

Creative non-fiction (i.e. your blog), weeks 1-5, 10 points

Poetry, weeks 6-9, 10 points

Short Fiction, weeks 10-14, 10 points

These portfolios will consist of your two best pieces from each category and a one-page cover letter explaining your process for creating these pieces and why you consider them portfolio-worthy. If these are completed thoughtfully and thoroughly, you will get a full 10 points. If they are completed hastily and carelessly, you will not get 10 points. In other words, you will receive either 10 or 0 points, which means that unsatisfactory work on a portfolio will lower your overall average by one letter grade.

There are two other assignments:

Extended Peer critique, three pages, due week eight, 7 points

Class Retrospective, three pages, due week sixteen, 7 points

More information about these assignments will be shared later in the semester.

That brings us up to 44 points. The remaining 56% of your grade will be based on your commitment to class participation, each class worth 4 points.  In order to earn a full 4 points for a class session, you must first be present; this class should not be considered an example of the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Secondly, you must participate. “Class participation” can be an amorphous category, I realize, but in my estimation it includes such things as asking and answering questions, offering observations, taking risks, listening, reading assigned and suggested readings, not talking too much or too little, giving constructive criticism, being engaged, being timely, being curious, being conscientious, being courteous, being honest, helping peers, respecting the learning process, exploring your creativity, and enjoying yourself.  The more I perceive you engaged in these kinds of activities, the more credit you will receive for class participation.  If any of this concerns you, please see me about it—the earlier the better.  Let me emphasize that by class participation I do not merely mean talking in class; there are many ways to participate and show your commitment to the course, so I shall try to take notice of and give you credit for whatever ways work best for you as an individual.

Required Texts

Many reading assignments will be found online or will made available as either emailed pdf files or web links. If I decide that there are texts you should buy for this course, I will give you as much advance notice as possible.

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