We are made of molecules and memory. All the molecules in a human body, including those that somehow (nobody yet knows how) store memories, are replaced on average every seven years or so. Our genes make sure the new molecules do more or less what the old ones did, which is why our friends can still recognize us by face or voice or gesture in spite of the ever-changing material make-up of our bodies. We recognize ourselves not so much by what we see in the mirror as by what we remember — about family, friends, places, travels, traumas and triumphs and routine doings, about the books we’ve read, movies we’ve seen, conversations we’ve had, food we’ve eaten — about everything, in fact, that has lodged in memory.
In this course we will read and discuss a number of recent American memoirs and autobiographies that examine the way memory works to establish a sense of self, to discern or create patterns in experience, and to weave the thread of an individual life into the fabric of history. I approach these questions as a writer and as someone wishing to make sense of life, rather than as a scholar, critic, or theorist. The class will be conducted as a discussion, not a workshop: our focus, in other words, will be on the published work we’re reading.
Here are some of the books I’m considering: Kim Barnes, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country (Anchor, 1996); Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (Harper Perennial, 1999); Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere (University of Georgia, 1997); Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005); Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001); Patricia Hampl, A Romantic Education (Norton, 1999); Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (Penguin, 1990); Barry Lopez, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (Vintage, 1999); James McBride, The Color of Water (1996); Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Houghton Mifflin, 1993); Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Milkweed, 1999); Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America (Penguin, 2002); Scott Russell Sanders, A Private History of Awe (North Point/Farrar, 2006); Mark Spragg, Where Rivers Change Direction (Riverhead, 1999); Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Vintage, 1992); Tobias Wolff, The Boy’s Life: A Memoir (Grove Press, 1989).
We will read perhaps eight to ten books, and we will spend one or two weeks on each, depending on its length and complexity. You will be asked to write for each book a short (500 words or so) response, which may be either "creative" or "critical" (to use those clumsy categories). For example, you might analyze a formal or conceptual feature of the reading, or you might write a passage of memoir applying some feature of the reading to your own life. In addition, you will be asked to write a longer (15-20 pages) final essay, which, again, could be either creative or critical.
Grades will be based primarily on the quality of your written work, and secondarily on the quality of your participation in class. The course is open to students in the Ph.D. as well as the M.F.A. program, and to qualified students from outside the English Department.
By permission of the instructor: Send me a message by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or leave a note in my mailbox (Ballantine Hall 442) briefly describing your reasons for wishing to take the course, and anything about your background that seems pertinent. I do not need to see a writing sample, but please include your telephone number, mailing address, and email address. I will respond as soon as possible, to let you know whether you have been admitted.