The Daily Themes of Peter Matthiessen

I’m a tutor in English 450: Daily Themes this semester. It’s a legendary class; famous alumni include Calvin Trillin, who wrote about it for The New Yorker (“No Telling, No Summing Up”), and Peter Matthiessen, who died last April.

When I describe the class, I usually repeat the story that Matthiessen’s first published piece began in Daily Themes. But I’ve been wondering: is this true? It looks like it is. But what was the published piece? And what was the theme? What follows is as close to discovering the answer to those questions as I’ve gotten. (Which bring up more questions: e.g., was the story published before he graduated, or after?)

The next step, it looks like, would be visiting an actual physical library.

Daily Themes (now English 450), is a Yale Classic. Its disciples write a 250-500 word “theme” five days a week for every week of the semester—a practice that encourages odes to childhood and puppy love, eavesdropping at street corners for inspiration, and, eventually, an addiction to writing. Daily Themes has been in existence since about 1901, and its list of famous graduates is long.

Beinecke Top Tens: Daily Themes

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen published his first short story, written in his Daily Themes class, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1951, the year after he graduated from Yale.

Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701 – 2001, J. D. McClatchy, Ed.

Yet another member of Fenton’s spring 1950 fiction writing class was Peter Matthiessen, author of such major works as The Snow Leopard (1979), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) and Shadow Country (2008). Like many students in the class of 1950, Matthiessen served during World War II before enrolling at Yale. He showed tremendous early promise as a writer, publishing a story in the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. On the strength of that, Fenton arranged for him to return after graduation to teach in in Daily Themes and the Short Story writing class during 1950-51.

—Scott Donaldson, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel.

—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt “Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86,” The New York Times, 6 April 2014

In Case It’s August of 2014 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 245a…

(Cutting and pasting, basically, from this.)

…Then I’d recommend reading what I wrote a year ago about applying to 134a. My suggestions about writing sample length and the letter of application both still apply.

And make sure to read what Emily has to say about how you can improve your chances of being accepted to an undergraduate creative writing workshop.

As I wrote before, I really hope these suggestions are helpful. I’m absolutely delighted to be teaching Introduction to Writing Fiction again. It’s a fun and challenging class.

Good luck!

In Case It’s Mid-December of 2013 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 245b

Then I’d recommend reading what I wrote in August about applying to 134a; my suggestions about writing sample length and the letter of application both still apply.

And make sure to read what Emily has to say about how you can improve your chances of being accepted to an undergraduate creative writing workshop.

As I wrote in August, I sincerely hope these suggestions are helpful. I’m absolutely delighted to be teaching Introduction to Writing Fiction this spring—it’s going to be a fun and challenging class. (Note that the deadline for applications has been extended until noon on Monday, December 16.)

Good luck!

Chag Sameach

I was walking out of Phelps Hall after teaching my Reading Fiction for Craft class. An Orthodox Jew—a Chabadnik, a Lubavitcher, I’m guessing, since he was doing outreach—approached me with a lulav and an etrog. Excuse me, he said, are you Jewish? I am! I said, Chag Sameach! During the brief time that I was both a Jew and a Brooklynite, I never really wanted to deal with these guys, but tonight, I welcomed it. Chag Sameach, he said, you have time for a quick mitzvah? I do! I said. He put the lulav in my hand. Repeat after me, he said, and we said the lulav blessing. Halfway through the prayer I realized out of the corner of my eye that he had a partner who was also asking passers-by if they were Jewish. Then he put the etrog in my other hand, and we said the Shehechiyanu. The Chabadnik seemed like a happy teacher when I caught up with him in the prayer, when I wasn’t just repeating after him. I thanked them for the mitzvah. Now my right hand smells like etrog, like I’ve been holding a lemon, except something different, more exotic, something sweeter than a lemon. I don’t want to wash my hand.

In Case It’s Late August of 2013 and You’re a Yale Student Interested in English 134a

A prospective student recently wrote with a question about applying for English 134: Reading Fiction for Craft. It was a good question: the Word doc application (which, as of this writing, you can take a look at here) says to “Paste below a writing sample of approximately 5-10 pages of poetry or about 4,500 words of prose, double-spaced.”

On the off chance that you, the person reading this, are a Yale undergrad, and you’re here because you’re thinking about applying for English 134, and it’s August 2013 (or some month in the future when the following answer remains helpful), I’m going to quote part of my answer here, with a few other suggestions for my class in particular and writing classes in general.

Here’s what I said about writing sample length:

I would suggest that you consider 4,500 words to be a maximum length, rather than either a minimum, or even a ballpark to aim for. Other professors may have different feelings about this, but to me, what matters most here is quality, not quantity.

On a side note, this question affects writers throughout their careers. A writer I know recently was reading applications for a fellowship, which required a writing sample with a maximum of 30 pages. He said that he saw applications where writers felt compelled to add, say, 10 pages of weak work on top of 20 pages of excellent work, thinking they were helping their chances, when in fact they were lowering their chances.

The very next sentence in the writing class application might cause confusion as well. It says: “For the statement of purpose, please write a short paragraph about why you wish to take this specific writing course.”

Or maybe not confusion, exactly—but it’s bound to lead to short paragraphs that are nearly identical. Why does anyone want to take a writing class in college? Because they love writing, because they’ve always loved writing, because they’ve been writing stories ever since they were little. Which is all true and beautiful, but it says more about our cultural and socioeconomic circumstances than it does about the applicant as an individual.

For the prospective student who wrote, I highly recommended this page on Emily Barton’s website.

“All of her suggestions on how to improve one’s chances at being accepted into an undergraduate writing class are great,” I said, “but my favorites are the last two on the list.”

I’ll quote them here for emphasis:

7) When crafting your letter of application, try to let the professor know what makes you unique as a person and writer. Are you a student in the sciences who’s never tried writing before but passionately wants to? Is there something specific about your interests, background, experience, or influences that might give you a unique perspective in workshop? Are you hardworking, persistent, eager to learn about revision but unsure where to begin? Those things are interesting and make you stand out. In letters of application, students often claim to be monomaniacal about writing—most letters, in my experience, declare that the applicant has been writing since first grade, or something of this nature. (Not an uncommon circumstance, in a culture in which we take cheap, readily available paper for granted.) Those things may be true, and you can mention them if they are; but also remember that a professor may wish to admit a diverse group of students to allow for lively discussions. If your letter is honest, straightforward, and expresses something about your particularity as a person, this helps her to do so.

8) Also remember that anyone who devotes herself seriously to her own writing is likely an avid reader of other authors. What current or canonical writers capture your imagination, and why? A writing instructor may be more eager to teach a room full of students she knows to be excited about, say, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, Lucretius, Zadie Smith, Deb Olin Unferth, Edmund Spencer, and Roberto Bolaño than a room full of people who have always really, really wanted to be writers.

So again, dear Yale student reading these words in August 2013, aim for brevity and specificity. I, too, have loved writing for as long as I can remember. What makes you different?

Two final notes:

a) If you don’t get into any creative writing classes this fall, see if the Yale Community Self-Led Fiction Workshops, which Emily and John Crowley started last year, are still happening. (If I find out that they are, I’ll post some sort of addendum to this blog post with more information; and the folks at the English department should know more about what’s going on with the self-led workshops soon as well.)

b) Always remember to say “thank you.”

I sincerely hope this is helpful. Good luck!

The Road to Parnassus; or, A Note on My Approach to Workshop Criticism

A decade ago—man, Nicholas Carr is right, blogging is “like mahjong or needlepoint”—I sent Maud Newton a link to a piece Jay McInerney wrote in 1989 for the New York Times about Raymond Carver, his former teacher (“Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice“).

Maud quoted two paragraphs from it about Carver’s gentle approach to teaching (“He said that there was enough discouragement out there for anyone trying against all odds to be a writer”)—but not the anecdote in the very next graf, which is a great bit, and one that doesn’t seem to be all that widely quoted or linked to out there on the Web.

I realized this this past fall, teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale. Some of my students—15 intimidatingly brilliant young minds—didn’t think my feedback on their exercises were critical enough. So I recounted the following story about Carver’s approach to teaching (starting with the last few sentences Maud quoted):

One day when I berated him for going easy on a student I thought was turning out poor work, he told me a story: he had recently been a judge in a prestigious fiction contest. The unanimous winner, whose work has since drawn much praise, turned out to be a former student of his, probably the worst, least promising student he’d had in 20 years. “What if I had discouraged her?” he said. His harshest critical formula was: “I think it’s good you got that story behind you.” Meaning, I guess, that one has to drive through some ugly country on the way to Parnassus. If Carver had had his way, classes and workshops would have been conducted entirely, [sic] by students but his approval was too highly valued for him to remain mute.

Once he sat through the reading of a long, strange story in his graduate writing workshop: as I recall, the story fleshed out two disparate characters, brought them together, followed their courtship and eventual marriage. After a series of false starts they decided to open a restaurant together, the preparations for which were described in great detail. On the day it opened a band of submachine-gun-toting terrorists burst in and killed everyone in the restaurant. End of story. After nearly everyone in the smoky seminar room had expressed dissatisfaction with this plot, we all turned to Ray. He was clearly at a loss. Finally he said softly, “Well, sometimes a story needs a submachine gun.” This answer seemed to satisfy the author no less than those who felt the story in question had been efficiently put out of its misery.

The double meaning of the punch line makes me wince, these days. But the point still resonates.

I don’t know if my (self-aggrandizing?) attempt to compare myself to Carver was at all helpful (“[Professor Hopkins] doesn’t have a hard bone in his body,” one student wrote in her/his evaluation, “but that is okay”).

In spite of my students’ criticism of my criticism, I’m not sure if I’m going to change the way I respond to student work. I don’t know if I can.

The world, as Carver said, is discouraging enough; some of us, I think, need to be the encouraging ones.

What I Said Last Night About What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Last night, at the new student orientation in the Low Library Rotunda at Columbia, all of us teaching in the university’s graduate writing program got up to introduce ourselves.

When I write “all of us,” it’s an awe-inspiring list: Deborah Eisenberg and Richard Ford were sitting next to each other, just to name two fiction writers.

We were all asked to respond to the prompt “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” and to keep our remarks under a minute; to accomplish that, we were urged to think about what we wanted to say in advance, or even to prepare some notes on paper.

Out of a few dozen writers, all lined up in a row, I went second. Here’s roughly what I said (and what I didn’t say):

My name is Tom Hopkins, and I’m teaching a seminar this fall that I’m calling “Faking It.”

I* spent a week this summer on an island off the coast of Maine. I stayed in a cottage on a lake. The cottage had a canoe. One day, I took the canoe out in the water until I came to an island—an island smaller than** about exactly the same size as this room. I found a place to come ashore, and a tree branch where I could tie up the canoe. I walked on paths soft with pine needles up a slight hill. Then I came to a clearing, a small vale.*** At the bottom of the vale, [I]n the middle of the clearing, I saw a loon. I realized that it was nesting. It was facing away from me, but then it turned its neck, slowly and deliberately, until one bright, burning-coal red eye was aimed right at me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been that close to a nesting loon, but she looked ready and able to take me out if she wanted to.

I got within ten feet of something as precious as new life, protected by love that fierce, a beautiful thing, protected by layer upon layer, hidden in a vale clearing on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean.

And that**** is what I’m hoping my seminar this fall is like.*****

* It was actually my son and me, the first time I saw the loon. But I thought the story would sound better—more fairy tale-like—if I told it in the first person. (It’s not factually inaccurate in the first person, but it is not as true as it could be.)

** I’d never been to the Low Library Rotunda before. What an incredible room! And it seemed about exactly the same size as Rum Island, in the middle of the northwestern finger of Long Pond, on the western half of Mount Desert Island, which was where we found the loon.

*** When I wrote down my notes, I wasn’t anywhere near a dictionary, either electronic or hard copy. I wasn’t completely confident that I was using the word “vale” correctly, so although I wrote it down in my notes, I didn’t read it out loud. I think the clearing where we saw the loon was too small to be a vale, technically, so omitting the word in the reading was probably the right decision.

**** I tapped the podium when I said the word “that”; the microphone was either jostled by the tap, or picked up the sound of the tap. Either way, it was audible through the speakers.

***** This feels right—it feels intuitively true—although I don’t know if I’m able to articulate the connection in a completely rational way. Since the fiction we’ll be reading in the seminar is work that either makes use of not-fictional forms within a work of fiction, or that takes on another form entirely, it seems like it’s not wrong to say that the truth or the meaning of the work is thereby buried an additional layer deep than it would be in a work of fiction that does not costume itself that way—that takes on the form, rather, of conventional storytelling (which is itself a costume or mask, but one that strives to be invisible to contemporary readers).

Addendum: the loon! Thanks, Madeline! More photos of Maine here and here.

(photo by and © Madeline Stevens)

My Live Server is My Dev Server

By which I mean: if I have a dev server, I don’t know about it; or if I’m capable of creating a dev server, I don’t recall how to do it.

For the first time in a long time, I have some free time. (Hooray!) So when I’m not working on preparing my syllabi for this fall, I’m going to (try to) overhaul this Web site.

One step at a time. On my live server. Which is to say, on the page you’re reading now.

It might get ugly along the way; but I’m hoping that any ugliness will be temporary and toward the goal of the site being prettier, swankier, and more up-to-date.

Here goes.

Addendum: I failed to do as much as I’d hoped to do—I had the dream of making this site look as close to a mimeographed piece of paper as is possible using just HTML; e.g., I signed up for a free Typekit account, and tried to use their John Doe typeface as the font for most styles in my css. But WordPress, as it’s become less like blogging software and more like a CMS, has gotten, well, harder. I may try again to get fancy with this thing, but for now, I’m sticking with the simplicity of the plaintxtblog theme.

I’ve accomplished one big thing on my to-do list, though: I’ve added a bunch of new stories—or rather, older stories, published in print, now also published here in digital form.

For now—in the current theme—you can get to them all using the navigation in the left-most column.

Faking It

Here’s my course description for the seminar I’ll be teaching in Columbia’s writing MFA program this coming semester:

Faking It

In the Preface to Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe presents the book as a completely true story, one for which he is merely serving as editor and publisher. He believes, he writes, “the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel in the form of a 999-line poem, plus its editor’s foreword, commentary, and index. Both are well-known examples of what E. L. Doctorow refers to in his essay “False Documents”: a text that mimics the shape of an accepted not-fictional form, presented as, or in the context of, a work of fiction—potentially adding to the perceived legitimacy or seeming truthfulness of that text by the reader through the subconscious recognition of the realness, and therefore trustworthiness, of the textual form itself. How do we, as readers, perceive truth? How do we, as writers, fake it? This class will read, as our principal text, David Shields and Matthew Vollmer’s new anthology Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), but we will also examine other instances of “false documents,” undependable texts, literary frauds, and other fakery, including Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Michael Martone’s Michael Martone, and Q. R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets. Although the class will focus on examples of fakery achieved with words alone, contemporary and historical examples of non-literary fakery (e.g., the culture jamming movement) and their cultural and political import will be discussed. Students will be expected to write four short (2- to 5-page) pieces over the course of the semester: all will be original, new texts, of the students’ exclusive authorship, although they may (or even should) not be presented as such.

At least, I believe I will be teaching this seminar; perhaps it is the other one, the one called Hopkins, who is the one adjuncting appointments happen to. I see his name on a list of professors… I’m the one with a car, though, so I’m hoping he can come up with some valid pages while I’m down in New York City on Thursdays this fall!

Sarabande, Tumblr, Sarah Lawrence, Yale: or, Another Good News Omnibus

—Salvatore Scibona selected my short-story collection manuscript, The Crypto-Jew’s Dilemma and Other Conversion Stories, as the runner-up in the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. This doesn’t mean publication by Sarabande Books—but still, I’m very proud of the honor.

Addendum: This isn’t a blurb, but in an e-mail, Scibona kindly described the manuscript as “a hilarious book that had me spitting with laughter”! (I added the exclamation point.)

Chris McCormick, I don’t know you, but I am grateful for the tweet and the kind words on your one way to talk about contemporary fiction blog!

—I’m teaching at Sarah Lawrence this summer, on the faculty for Writer’s Village: A Creative Writing Intensive. If you know any writers “entering the 10th, 11th or 12th grade in the fall of 2012,” I believe that, as of this writing, there might still be spots available.

—I am teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale this fall.

(Previous good news omnibus.)