Poetry Fiction - An Introduction to the Elements of Creative Writing

Assignments & Schedule

Below are some assignments from past classes...you could use any of these as a taking-off point...or not:

Dadaists and Surrealists (1914- )

What do you do when the world goes crazy? Go even crazier. That was the response of the dadaists and surrealists to the brutality of the First World War. Preferring chance to logic, thought to reason, revolution to tradition, process to product, the subconscious to the conscious, surreality (i.e. hidden reality) to surface reality, they created a powerful movement whose goal, said the poet Andre Breton, was to solve "all the principal problems of life. . . . [by] acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM." Here are a few acts of absolute surrealism you might try:

  • Make a dadaist poem (per Tristan Tzara)
    1. Cut each word out of a newspaper article
    2. Put all the words in a bag and shake it
    3. Pull the words out of the bag one by one and write them down in order or removal
  • Have coffee with a friend. One of you should write questions, the other answers without looking at the questions, like this: "What is a kiss? A divagation, everything capsizes." (Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton) Again without showing them to each other, one of you should write an "if" or "when" clause and the other an independent clause using "would" or "will," like this: "When a statue is erected to the association of ideas/the angel of the bizarre will invent the art of billiards." (Pierre Unik, Louis Aragon)
  • Write a dream: Dream visions have a long literary history. In the middle ages, they were the path to wisdom through altered consciousness. Many of Chaucer's early poems were dream visions, as was Dante's Divine Comedy. Try inventing your own dream (or describing an actual one).
  • Try your hand at automatic writing.

Contemporary poets like Andre Codrescu and fiction writers like Rikki Ducornet are continuing the surrealist tradition.

Magical Realism (1940- )

Like the surrealists, magical realists are reacting to violent political realities, specifically the totalizing domination resulting from colonialism. These writers create worlds that blend the mundane with the mythical and the familiar with the fantastic. Their bizarre creations remain believable thanks to the conventions of realistic fiction. Their goal is to return to the local and reimagine it, minus Eurocentric imperialism. That is what defines them as post-colonialists.

  • To write a magical realist story, try rewriting an ordinary story (your own or someone else's) using the strategies of magical realism: colorful settings; alternative histories; strange inventions; events that mirror those in myth, fable, and folktale; unique abilities such as levitation, telepathy, telekinesis. Or
  • Translate a folktale or fairy tale using the conventions of realistic fiction.

Contemporary magical realists include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood

The Beats (1950-1970s)

The Beats combined the spontenaity beloved of surrealists with visionary, often mystical, ecstatic quality inspired by Blake and Whitman. Like the surrealists, Blake, and Whitman, they also aspired to liberation, sexual, social, and spiritual.

  • Write a contemporary version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road titled “On the Information Superhighway”
  • Howl, like Allen Ginsberg, at contemporary middle-class life.

Confessionalism (1955-75)

Late in the buttoned-down, tight-lipped 1950s, there was a surprising revolution in subject matter as poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman began describing the agony of mental breakdown. Their poems took the suffering Romantic poet we see in Coleridge's "Dejection; an Ode" and Keats's "Ode to Melancholy" into the twentieth century. These poets are often emotionally direct to the point of brutality, eschewing the rational in the interest of absolute honesty, as do these lines of Plath's from "Elm": "I am incapable of more knowledge./What is this face, this face/So murderous in its strangle of branches?"

Confessionalism was less a political revolution than a personal one, though some confessionalists, such as Robert Lowell, combined the personal with the political. In any case, like the surrealists, confessionalists were fascinated by Freud.

  • Describe an emotional state using metaphor like Plath
  • Create alter egos like John Berryman and June Jordan.

Fluxus (1960s-)

Sponteneity, process, collaboration, visual and concrete poetry, happpenings, performance, the use of everyday objects, simplicity, and humor are all associated with Fluxus, which is still inspiring groups like Chicago’s Neo-Futurists.

  • Collaborate with a classmate on a performance piece
  • Write a concrete poem about concrete
  • Write an essay about the process of writing the essay you are writing.