Course Descriptions

Fall 2015

All WRT courses are restricted to graduate students in the Michener Center’s MFA program or graduate students in our affiliated programs in English, Theatre or RTF, unless special permission is granted.  Click for other departments’ workshops in fiction, poetry, playwriting, or screenwriting.

WRT 380:  FIRST-YEAR SEMINAR, Writers & Their Obsessions

Anthony Giardina
Thursdays, 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
FDH Seminar Room

In this class, we will explore the work a group of novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters did when they either stepped out of their customary genres to write about their interests and obsessions in other forms, or when they attempted to incorporate those obsessions into their own work. What happens when writers set out to explore their seemingly non-literary interests? How do they manage to make those interests “literary”, and how did they have to bend and expand the scope of their work in order to do it?

The works we’ll be reading and discussing will be chosen from among the following:

(Poetry) The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck, February in Sydney, Yusef Komunyakaa, “The British Countryside in Pictures” by James McMichael.  (Novels) Nosferatu by Jim Shepard, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, City of God by E.L. Doctorow, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover.  ( Plays)  Via Dolorosa by David Hare, Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere-Smith, Enron, Lucy Prebble.  (Screenplays) The Third Man, Graham Greene.  (Nonfiction) But Beautiful and Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion, “On Boxing” by Joyce Carol Oates

Writing assignments will take the form, initially, of short pieces.  Each week, in the class following the one  where we discuss the subject a given group of writers explored (sports, music, nature, movies, politics), you will bring in a short piece, to be read aloud in class, on the same subject. This is not to be critiqued, but simply to be read and shared. Then we will conclude with one longer work, based on your own obsessional- or extracurricular- interest. This can be in any form you choose (story, essay, poetry, play, screenplay), but this time it will be workshopped.


Jim Crace
Wednesdays, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
FDH Seminar Room

The main purpose of this class is to workshop student manuscripts and to provide encouragement for fiction projects. It will be a meeting of friendly professionals doing their best to be generous and helpful.

It is presumed that any writer accepted by the MFA program will be gifted and industrious. However, group sessions will start from the premise that raw talent is rarely enough to produce the best work or to forge a writing career. The course will, therefore, investigate the challenges and rigours of a professional writing life and hope to provide relevant skills and strategies. As well as receiving and offering painstaking and supportive reactions to colleagues’ manuscripts, students will explore the possible responses of critics, publishers, line editors, publicists and readers to their work.

We will address some of the following issues:

Have students identified and developed their strongest and most natural writing voices?

Are they working on  the right novel or story collection for their skill sets?

How to deal with setbacks and surmount obstacles – everything from writers’ block and rescuing a failed narrative to knowing when to abandon a project?

Is the manuscript ready yet? Has it been appropriately edited? (There will a weekly focus on editing techniques).

What is the book’s strongest pitch? Who are its readers, what is its constituency?

What strategies will help writers cope with the rare successes and the common disappointments of seeking an agent or editor and then making a work public?

The course will comprise approximately eight manuscript workshops. Students will need to find the courage to bring their problems rather than their achievements to the table. Writers need to pay more attention to their weaknesses than to their strengths. The philosophy of this workshop is that feedback, no matter how critical, is not an affront but an essential support.

A further four sessions will be role-play encounters in which students (with their own manuscripts under scrutiny)

*respond both to project proposals and to finished work as a publisher’s panel might,

*fillet the prose as a line editor would,

*offer the kind of critical and commercial responses that mark the publication of any book.

The remaining sessions will look pragmatically at the Writing Life, its rewards and its dilemmas.

There are no required texts, but there will be required reading throughout the course – not only the submitted work of colleagues, but also short pieces which highlight some of the technical decisions to be made before embarking on a story or a novel – tense, voice, tone, point of view, etcetera.

To summarise, the course aims to strengthen the writers’ resolve by facing up to rather than dismissing the personal and professional problems they will inevitably encounter.

[The instructor expects to be available to all students for private meetings during his semester in Austin. These will be the kind of discussions -intimate and supportive- that you might have in the future with your agent or editor.]


Elizabeth McCracken
Tuesdays, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
FDH Seminar Room

The good news and the bad news is: there are no rules. When it comes to writing, a piece of fiction succeeds or fails only depending on how it obeys its own rules, when it teaches the reader how to read and enter the particular fictional world. In our workshop, students will read each other’s work with generosity and optimism and rigor, to understand each piece’s best intentions and try to help the author to fulfill them-to learn, in other words, not only how to be critics, but how to read our own work critically. We will discuss in class and in conference both the smallest details of writing fiction as well as its loftiest aims.


Dean Young
Mondays, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
FDH Seminar Room

This is a class for practicing poets.  The majority of our class time will be discussing the work generated by the poets in the class.  Each student is expected to submit one poem a week and be an active and prepared participant in workshop discussions.


Anthony Giardina
Wednesdays, 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm
WIN 1.164

This course will examine a number of plays, each of them attempting either to affect a political outcome, or else commenting on one from the vantage point of historical distance.  How does the playwright’s choice as to where to position him or herself determine what the play becomes-  its effectiveness, its ability to endure as a viable work? When does a documentary approach work, and what kind of room is there for the literary imagination – for imagining history- when an actual event is being recorded?  What is the place where journalism and playwriting meet, and is that a good place for playwrights to think about going?  We’ll begin by looking at three iconic American plays of the highly politicized 1920’s and 30’s: Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. We’ll then jump ahead to the post Vietnam era, where selections will be made from among the following: David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (Vietnam), Eric Bentley’s Are You Now or Have You ever Been? (McCarthyism), Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (the AIDs crisis),  Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (feminism in the 80’s), Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (the 1991 Crown Heights riot), David Hare’s Stuff Happens (Iraq) and Via Dolorosa (Israel and Palestine), Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter (gender and American politics), August Wilson’s Radio Golf (Pittsburg politics), Lucy Prebble’s Enron (the meltdown of an American business).

At the end of the semester, students will be asked to write a paper, choosing from among a group of contemporary plays, all written within the past few years. Among the plays suggested for the final project: Larry Wright’s Camp David, about the 1978 peace accord between Begin and Sadat , Robert Shenkan’s All the Way, about Lyndon Johnson’s shepherding of the Civil Rights bill through Congress. The Originalist, John Strand’s play about Antonin Scalia, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, about downwardly mobile Americans Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, about Muslims in America, and The City of Conversation, Anthony Giardina’s play about the political divide in America over the past thirty years.