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Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University

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Courses

The Creative Writing Program at Columbia offers intensive workshops at the beginning, intermediate, advanced, and senior levels. We also offer craft seminars in creative writing that are designed to examine literature from a practitioner’s perspective.

Please click here for information about the requirements for the creative writing major.

THE WORKSHOPS

Students in the workshops produce original works of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, and submit them to their classmates and professor for a close critical analysis. Workshop critiques (which include a detailed written report, as well as thorough line-edits) assess the mechanics and merits of the piece of writing, while individual conferences with the professor distill the various critiques into a direct plan of action to improve the work. A student writer develops by practicing the craft under the diligent critical attention of his or her peers and professor. This dynamic is meant to continually assist the student writer toward new levels of creative endeavor.

Beginning Fiction, Poetry, or Nonfiction Workshop (3 pts)

This course is open to all students, and offers sections in fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Beginning workshops are designed for students who have little or no previous experience writing literary texts in a particular genre. Students are introduced to a range of technical and imaginative concerns through exercises and discussions, and eventually produce their own writing for the critical analysis of the class.

Intermediate Fiction, Poetry, or Nonfiction Workshop (3 pts)

Permission required. Admission by writing sample. Enrollment limited to 15 students. This course can be repeated in fulfillment of the major.

Intermediate workshops are for students with some experience with creative writing, and whose prior work merits admission to the class (as judged by the professor). With sections in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, the intermediate workshops present a higher creative standard than beginning workshops, and increased expectations to produce finished work. By the end of the semester, each student will have produced at least seventy pages of original fiction or non-fiction, or twenty original poems.

Advanced Fiction, Poetry, or Nonfiction Workshop (3 pts)

Permission required. Admission by writing sample. Enrollment limited to 15 students. This course can be repeated in fulfillment of the major.

Building on the work of the Intermediate Workshop, Advanced workshops are reserved for the most gifted creative writing students. A significant body of writing must be produced and revised. Students in the advanced workshops will have taken several courses in the major already (workshops and seminars), and they bring their additional literary experience and knowledge to the classroom, which at once raises the level of discourse and potential for achievement.

Senior Creative Writing Workshop in Fiction, Poetry, or Nonfiction (4 pts)

Enrollment is limited, and is by permission of the professor. Creative writing majors in their senior year will be given priority. The senior workshop offers students the opportunity to work exclusively with classmates who are at the same high level of accomplishment in the major. Students in the senior workshops will produce and revise a new and substantial body of work. This course will only be offered by graduate faculty professors.

 

 

THE SEMINARS

The creative writing seminars provide the intellectual ballast that informs and deepens the work of the creative writing student. Students in the creative writing seminars read a book each week and engage in round-table discussions about the artistic attributes of the texts, in order to better understand how literature might be made. Only through a deep analysis of outstanding and diverse works of literature can the creative writer build the resources necessary to produce his or her own accomplished creative work.

Translation Seminar (3 pts)

An introduction to literary translation. Students will read critical essays by leading authors on the subject, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and George Steiner, and study variant translations of sample texts. They will also undertake their own translations (which may be of either poetry or prose) under the guidance of the instructor, and learn how to familiarize themselves with the literary and cultural properties of the originals. A sample translation and a short essay on translation are to be submitted at the end of the semester.

Critical Writing (3 pts)

This course will concentrate on the critical voice: the methods and means a writer uses to develop a coherent approach to arts writing and cultural criticism. Such writing involves the intellect and the senses; informed analysis and the ability to capture an art in vivid sensory prose. Students will begin by writing reviews, then move on to longer forms like essays and profiles. They will work to develop an individual voice and a clear prose style that can handle complex ideas and responses. The reading will give students the chance to discuss first rate criticism. The best critical writing offers much more than informed critical judgment. It is part of a larger conversation that should open up reactive possibilities and stir readers to ask probing questions about art and culture.

WRIT W3302 Approaches to the Short Story

The modern short story has gone through many transformations, and the innovations of its practitioners have often pointed the way for prose fiction as a whole. The short story has been seized upon and refreshed by diverse cultures and aesthetic affiliations, so that perhaps the only stable definition of the form remains the famous one advanced by Poe, one of its early masters, as a work of fiction that can be read in one sitting. Still, common elements of the form have emerged over the last century and this course will study them, including Point of View, Plot, Character, Setting and Theme. John Hawkes once famously called these last four elements the "enemies of the novel," and many short story writers have seen them as hindrances as well. Hawkes later recanted, though some writers would still agree with his earlier assessment, and this course will examine the successful strategies of great writers across the spectrum of short story practice, from traditional approaches to more radical solutions, keeping in mind how one period's revolution -Hemingway, for example - becomes a later era's mainstream or "common-sense" storytelling mode. By reading the work of major writers from a writer's perspective, we will examine the myriad techniques employed for what is finally a common goal: to make readers feel. Short writing exercises will help us explore the exhilarating subtleties of these elements and how the effects created by their manipulation or even outright absence power our most compelling fictions.

WRIT W3304 Exercises in Style

Raymond Queneau, in his book Exercises in Style, demonstrated that a single story, however unassuming, could be told at least ninety-nine different ways. Even though the content never changed, the mood always did: aggressive, mild, indifferent, lyrical, sensitive, technical, indirect, deceitful. This course for writers will look at a wide range of prose styles, from conspicuous to subtle ones. We will not only read examples of obviously stylistic prose, but consider as well how the reigning prose norms are themselves stylistic bulwarks, entrenched in the culture for various reasons that might interest us. We will read a variety of writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Renata Adler to Cormac McCarthy to Alice Munro, and more. Writing exercises, vigorous in-class discussion will be required.

WRIT W3331 The Modern Arts Writer

This course will examine the lineaments of critical writing. A critic blends the subjective and objective in complex ways. A critic must know the history of an artwork, (its past), while placing it on the contemporary landscape and contemplating its future. A single essay will analyze, argue, describe, reflect and interpret. And, since examining a work of art also means examining oneself, the task includes a willingness to probe one’s own assumptions and biases. The best critics are engaged in a conversation -- a dialogue, a debate --with changing standards of taste, with their audience, with their own convictions and emotions. The best criticism is part of a larger cultural conversation. It spurs readers to ask questions rather than accept answers about art and society. We will read essays that consider six art forms: literature; film; music (classical, jazz and popular); theater and performance; visual art; and dance. At the term’s end, students will consider essays that examine cultural boundaries and divisions: the negotiations between popular and high art; the aesthetic of cruelty; the post-modern blurring of and between artist, critic and fan. The reading list will include such writers as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Roland Barthes, (literature); James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Zadie Smith (film); G.B. Shaw, Willa Cather, Ralph Ellison, Gerald Early, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis (music); Eric Bentley, Mary McCarthy, C.L.R. James (theater); Leo Steinberg, Frank O’Hara, Ada Louise Huxtable, Maggie Nelson (visual art); Edwin Denby, Arlene Croce, Elizabeth Kendall, Mindy Aloff (dance); Susan Sontag, Anthony Heilbut, John Jeremiah Sullivan (cultural criticism).

WRIT W3333 Traditions In Nonfiction

The seminar provides exposure to the varieties of nonfiction with readings in its principal genres: reportage, criticism and commentary, biography and history, and memoir and the personal essay. A highly plastic medium, nonfiction allows authors to portray real events and experiences through narrative, analysis, polemic or any combination thereof. Free to invent everything but the facts, great practitioners of nonfiction are faithful to reality while writing with a voice and a vision distinctively their own. To show how nonfiction is conceived and constructed, class discussions will emphasize the relationship of content to form and style, techniques for creating plot and character under the factual constraints imposed by nonfiction, the defining characteristics of each author's voice, the author's subjectivity and presence, the role of imagination and emotion, the uses of humor, and the importance of speculation and attitude. Written assignments will be opportunities to experiment in several nonfiction genres and styles.

WRIT W3351 Traditions In Poetry

Lyric poetry in contemporary practice continues to draw upon and modify its ancient sources, as well as Renaissance, Romantic and Modernist traditions. In this seminar, we will explore the creation of the voice of the poem, the wild lyrical I, through closely reading female poets from antiquity to present day, beginning with Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, If Not Winter, all the way up to present avatars and noted stylists such as Mary Jo Bang (Elegy), Tracy K. Smith (Life on Mars), Bernadette Mayer (New Directions Reader), Eileen Myles (Not Me), Maggie Nelson (Bluets) and others. The identity of the poetic speaker remains a tension of revelation and concealment, the inescapable ties to memory and experience as one mode of the lyric, the dramatic tropes of mask and persona as another, though not a necessarily contradictory tendency. Students will be asked to hear a range of current and classic women poets deploying, constructing and annihilating the self: the sonnets of Queen Elizabeth and the American beginnings of Anne Bradstreet; the emergence in the 19th century of iconic and radicalizing female presences: Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and the predominance of 20th century masters who re-invented the English-language lyric as much as they inherited: Louise Bogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, H.D., Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Laura Riding, Gertrude Stein, and  Marina Tsvetaeva. As background, students will read prose works (epistolary writing, journals and diaries, classic essays as well as prose poetry), which may contextualize women’s desire and its reception in public and private space: the religious mysticism of Sor Juana and Catherine di Sienna, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, Emily Dickinson’s letters, and select passages from Virginia Woolf’s criticism and novels. Students will be expected to keep their own reading diary or write letters in response to class readings, as well as select a contemporary and classic female poet for semester-long research. Additional course handouts will be organized by particular groupings of interest to our study of desire & identity, voice & witness: Confessional poetry (Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), Cave Canem poets (Harryette Mullen and Natasha Trethaway), New York School (Alice Notley and Hannah Weiner), as well as additional contemporary poets (Lynn Melnick and Matthea Harvey). 

WRIT W3308 Short Prose Forms

Note: This seminar has a workshop component.

The prose poem and its siblings the short short story and the brief personal essay are the wild cards in the writer’s deck; their identities change according to the dealer. We will consider a wide range of forms, approaches, and styles, spanning centuries. In addition to works in English, we will read translations from the French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. Seminar discussions will be complemented by frequent writing exercises (inside and outside of class) and some abbreviated workshopping of student pieces. Each student will make one brief classroom presentation.

WRIT W3336 Translation Seminar

You don't have to be bilingual to take this course.  Several years of study of another language is enough.

In this introductory course to literary translation, students will learn about the art of translating prose and poetry. We will read essays on translation by writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Anne Carson, and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of different approaches to the craft. Students will present their own translations for discussion and become familiar with a range of perspectives on literary translation that will inform their revision process. We'll also discuss the way works in translation are reviewed and each student will review a recent translation for the end of the semester.