Teaching Old and New Stories Together

oldnew1Against my better judgment, I agreed to teach a fiction workshop this winter in Charlottesville at WriterHouse. The class is fun and the “students” are all good writers, but it is kind of a pain to spend 90 minutes on the road (45 minutes each way) each week; on top of that there is the unpredictable Winter weather that always threatens to disrupt.

In any case, though, I agreed to do it and put together a course that I’ve written about before (Digging Deep). The main focus of the class is the workshop of student work, but I wanted to introduce learning components as well, so each session has a focus on one fiction element and we talk about that for a while to start things off. Then we look at a couple of published stories, especially with that element in mind.

For example, Setting was our topic last night. First we talked a little about various aspects of setting (place, time, and culture), and then we looked at two stories from Best American Short Stories 2014 (my source for all the “new” stories in the course). Lauren Groff’s story, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” was helpful here, because it is largely set in a swamp, and that has significance for the meaning of the story. We also looked at Joshua Ferris’s “The Breeze,” a very New York City story, quite a different setting.

But what I’m also doing in this class is pairing the newer stories with classics, so last night we also discussed “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, one of my favorites. Again, our focus was on setting. This approach is working quite well, I think, because sometimes the older stories can be dismissed as being out of fashion, but in my view there is still plenty to learn from them. The newer stories are helpful, too, because we see how contemporary writers are accomplishing some of the same things.

Other pairings I’ve used in this course:

“The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Chekov and “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates.
“This is Not a Love Song” by Brendan Matthews and “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima
“Hover” by Nell Freduenberger and “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever.

And in the coming weeks we’ll do these:

“The Night of the Satellite” by T.C. Boyle and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
“Long Tom Lookout” by Nicole Cullen and “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
“A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” by David Gates and “Gusev” by Chekhov

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