The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish.
In this course, you will embark on a writing apprenticeship of sorts, honing your own craft and voice as you study the work of great essayists. You will be encouraged to think of yourself as a tinkerer in a literary laboratory of sorts; essays are selected to provide a sense of the rich history of modern prose, and some outliers are included. We will examine classic and very recent texts with care, but without reverence, reading for form and content, for aspects of the modern essay including tone, genre, pacing, diction, structure, targeting of audience, narrative arc, critical distance, and narrator reliability. Works will range from Emerson’s seminal essays, to the rants of the Unabomber, to New York Times “Modern Love” columns in which college students recall how they navigated awkward and anguished romantic encounters.
We will discuss questions including the following: What makes for a punchy opening that delivers information, while at the same time, inviting the reading to proceed beyond the threshold first paragraph rather than opening another browser window instead? What strategies do authors use to cultivate—or eschew—intimacy with their subject, or with the reader? How do writers borrow from other sources without letter others “take over” their work and voice? As you read and write essay, you will incorporate what you have learned, build a writing toolkit, and share your own material, receiving feedback from others. Over the course of the semester, each student will host their own writing “Debut,” in which others will focus on their work.