Aesthetic Diversity + Imitation = My Short Story Class
In honor of National Short Story Month, I thought I’d share this course with you, a short story survey that focuses on imitations. I always include this picture on my syllabus, a visual representation of my pedagogical approach.
In the film, School of Rock, Jack Black draws this diagram on the chalkboard as a prelude to teaching his students how to be a rock band. I tell my students that my course is about constructing a similar chart for contemporary short fiction, not simply to “label” styles or approaches, but because I want to teach my students how to have a comparative and genealogical conversation.
To that end, we discuss these questions: What is a short story? What circumstances contributed to the form’s emergence and evolution? How did certain rhetorical and stylistic features (such as ending with an epiphany, the story as “slice of life,” the surprise ending, the adage “show don’t tell”) become maxims and why? How have writers of short stories invented and re-invented the form? In what way do some short stories function both as “story” and as that author’s aesthetic credo? What is “the traditional short story,” and how did it come to be traditional?
What’s your aesthetic?
I practice something I call aesthetic diversity. This approach is grounded in my belief that every apprentice writer is, innately, congenitally, cognitively, who s/he is. My job as a teacher is to facilitate, to help my students discover and determine their own predilections and preferences in terms of aesthetic, form, and even genre.
On the first day of class, I present my students with two quotations and ask which “rings a bell” with them?
William Gass: “What one wants to do with stories is screw them up.”
Willa Cather: “I don’t want anyone reading my writing to think about style. I just want them to be in the story.”
Their answer probably indicates that student’s particular aesthetic, what principles of art they value.
When students have strong feelings for or against a particular story or author, I encourage them to consider what this reaction might be teaching them about their aesthetic preferences, about what they value in what they read and write. They learn an important lesson in my class: how to discuss a story that isn’t “their cup of tea.”
Students write a series of imitations, which must demonstrate their thorough knowledge of that story’s unique signature through mimicry. The first day, I show them this Shawn Mitchell interview with Benjamin Percy in Fiction Writer’s Review.
“On occasion, if I truly admired a story, I would scribble out its design in a yellow legal tablet. Paragraph One: Character A introduced in job-related action that reveals personality; Setting at war with character and creates sinister mood; Theme hinted at in last sentence via weather and lighting. And on and on, blow-by-blow, like you said. And then I would try to borrow that skeleton and paste my own flesh upon it, creating an entirely different story with the same beats. That was a great learning experience.”
Inspired by this idea, I turned “imitation” into a three-step process:
Step 1: doing a descriptive outline, following Ben Percy’s method of describing a story “beat-by-beat” Here’s an example of a descriptive outline.
Step 2: an imitation or mashup, etc. a creative response
Step 3: a critical paper about what you learned about the writer/s aesthetic in the process of doing Step 1 and 2, a critical response.
Remember: immersive mimicry is more about process than product. The stories that emerge from this exercise are often very deliberately similar to the source text. Some students learned the most by doing a kind of madlib with the source texts, mimicking by substitution. Most, however, combined macro or structural imitation (mimicking overall structure of story, scene & summary, paragraphs) with micro or stylistic imitation (mimicking sentence-level decisions, diction, figurative language, but not to the extent of a mad lib).
This kind of imitation is encouraged.
But so is this.
Here’s the reading list. We read between 5-8 short stories per week. We moved fast. I chose to sacrifice the benefits of close reading for the benefits of coverage. Ultimately, my goal was to expand each student’s repertoire of short stories.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace” Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi” Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain” Sherwood Anderson, “Hands” Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Pet Dog” Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants” Ring Lardner, “Haircut” Willa Cather, “Paul’s Case,” John Steinbeck, “The Chrysanthemums” John Updike, “A&P” Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl” William Gass, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” Robert Coover, “The Babysitter” Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings” Grace Paley, “Conversation with My Father” Donald Barthelme, “A City of Churches,” “The School” Cris Mazza, “Is it Sexual Harassment Yet?” Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home” Raymond Carver, “Are These Actual Miles?” Mary Robison, “Pretty Ice” David Leavitt, “Braids” Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues” Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing” Barry Hannah, “Testimony of Pilot” Ethan Canin, “The Year of Getting to Know Us” Andre Dubus, “A Father’s Story” Ron Hanson “Wickedness” Dan Chaon “Big Me” and “Falling Backwards” Stuart Dybek: “Pet Milk” and “We Didn’t” Jayne Ann Phillips , 4 flash stories from Black Tickets Tina May Hall, The Physics of Imaginary Objects Richard Yates “The Best of Everything” Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” Lorrie Moore “People Like That are the Only People Here,” Charles Baxter, “Gryphon” Ben Percy, “Refresh, Refresh” John Cheever, “The Swimmer” Rick Moody “The Grid” Russell Banks, “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person” Jennifer Egan, “Great Rock & Roll Pauses by Alison Blake” Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” Sherman Alexie, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” Junot Diaz, “Fiesta, 1980″ Gish Jen, “Who’s Irish?” George Saunders, “Sea Oak”