Sample Lessons

Below are just a few lessons I’ve used in Fiction courses, both with The Loft Literary Center and Gotham Writer’s Workshop. All the curricula below is written by me.

The Power of Admiration
craft topic: Character

We read a passage from James Salter’s memoir Burning the Days. In it, he talks about the man he most admires in the world, a man he served with and flew planes with in the Korean War. We examine the passage, and write a similar few pages describing someone in our lives whom we admire, someone who holds, or held, us in awe. The results are always surprising—how much writing style changes when we write in praise of, laying bare our affections. At times, heartfelt admissions are what readers need to hear from protagonists in our fiction. Characters who love and admire are human and relatable—like us.
It’s a three-stage lesson: then students turn to something already written. In it, we identify a character who admires, even loves, another character. Let’s say you identify a character named Joan. Well, then you simply write a passage from Joan’s point of view, or about Joan, in the third person. Next thing you know, readers have a rich characterization of Joan through what she admires in people. And there’s a full, in-depth picture of the friendship or relationship at hand. Readers probably feel much closer with the protagonist for having them in. The reader probably cares more than ever about the protagonists’ goals, desires and conflicts. That is to say, the plot they are involved in.

Skewed Views
craft topic: Character

We read the short story “Rafe’s Coat” by Deborah Eisenberg. Major award winner—hello—and a wildly impressive writer. We examine how the unnamed protagonist hides from her own feelings and how it is only by reading between the lines that readers understand the true nature of her friendships and loves. To understand the flamboyance of this narrator’s dysfunction, we must understand how she masks her flaws with description and vain talk. She harbors arrogant cultural biases and aggrandizing self-perceptions. But people aren’t truly flawless.
From this amazing story we learn how to bring a skewed character’s views to life. In that sense, it’s like the opposite of the Salter lesson, in which (if we’re imitating him) we are direct and unrestrained. Students then write a passage about a character who is blind to his or her own folly in some scenario. It’s very challenging, but gives fiction writers a great tool, one they can draw on to broaden the types of closeness they can employ in narrative fiction, whether in third or first person. Not every character is an enlightened being, after all, and sometimes it’s more interesting for a reader to have to make some voyeuristic judgments.

The Past in the Present
craft topic: Character

In Marissa Silver’s short story “Night Train to Frankfurt,” we look at the rich past interwoven between an adult daughter and her ailing mother, in a story about their travel to a last-ditch effort to cure the mother’s cancer. We look at the ways the past is written into the present and work on similar techniques in a new or existing piece of fiction. The result is bringing depth of character, a sense of real time, the weight of many events, to our stories. A plot, after all, is defined as a sequence of events, connected, linked by causation.