WEEKEND SHOPS: ENGL 134: Reading Fiction for Craft / Michael Cunningham

Reading is FUN with Michael Cunningham, kidz.

Q. What is the craziest thing anyone has ever done to get into your course?

A. I wish I had a more colorful story than I do. No one has ever tried to bribe me — I don’t know why, I wish they would. No, people have been consistently very respectful. One of the students I actually accepted drew me a picture of a dinosaur in a top hat — she also wrote a very persuasive application — but the drawing, and the idea of dissociation of the dinosaur with the top hat really struck me. But no one has ever hired a skywriter or jumped out of a cake.

Q. How do you yourself make decisions about who to let into the course?

A. I try to decide based on a certain balance of logic and — not exactly intuition, because you can’t have intuition about form. What I will pay attention to is not only students’ broad level of interest but how they express themselves. Often it has to do with the way someone has spun a sentence on a form. I do pay attention to who speaks during class, and try to get a sense of them as entities, as someone who has an idea and expresses it a certain way. But I can’t do that for all cases because I can’t call on everyone — and there are some people standing in the hall.

Q. What makes your class different from other creative writing courses, such as workshops that require a portfolio to apply?

A. I think of my class as a sort of intro to fiction writing. Obviously it’s a combination of reading as writer and writing based on what you learn. Ideally I would like for students who take it to apply for my writing workshop next semester. But the faculty has been talking about making the undergraduate English program more open to people who are interested in writing but who are going to be physicists, or doctors. People should be able to come to Yale and take a fiction writing course without being an English major, and that’s why I don’t restrict the course to any specific major.

Q. How radically does the composition of students change the nature and direction of the class?

A. Well, this is only the third year I’ve taught the class, so I only have two classes to reflect on. But it always changes when there’s a different 12 people in the room — there’s a different tenor, a different mood to it. One group will tend more toward formal analysis, another will be more emotional, and focus on what they liked or didn’t like for various, mysterious reasons. My job is to assess who is there as quickly as possible. Say if the group tends more towards rationally dissecting the works, I’ll try to open them to the mystery and beauty of it; if they’re very emotional I’ll try to get them to look at things more analytically. With a discussion class like this, it’s like having a party every week —a very serious party, of course. But a party is always about its guests, and the job of the host is to determine the nature of the party and to do things accordingly. But mine is a very serious party.

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