About the program

Each year we bring a Distinguished Visiting Writer to Cornell to teach a topic-based, creative writing course. We rotate among fiction, poetry, journalism, creative non-fiction, children's literature, and a range of topics. While on campus, the writers also give public readings and/or lectures. 

2020 - 2021 Course

Fieldwork: Poetry as Investigative Practice (ENG 382)

Miriam Bird Greenberg, Block 2

What is the “responsibility of the poet,” anyway? How can fieldwork inform and enrich creative writing? What less tangible ways of knowing can poetry offer our explorations in other fields? This class will attempt to unearth answers to these questions, while approaching poetry via direct engagement with the world beyond the classroom. At the same time, it will function as a broad survey of documentary poetics and an experiment with fieldwork-derived practice as we write about (or in, or around, or…) places, situations, others’ lives and our own. We’ll read books by poets like Charles Reznikoff, Philip Metres, Fatimah Ashgar, Nomi Stone, Brandon Som, M. NourbeSe Philip, and CD Wright. For the first few weeks we’ll experiment with approaches – writing poems that draw from informal interviews with friends and strangers, utilize primary source texts, or which are paired with photographs and ‘published’ as Instagram essays – while articulating a personal ethics to guide our own work as a journalist or anthropologist might. The course will conclude with an intensive fieldwork-driven final project of 5-15 pages, or its multimedia equivalent. Class sessions will include discussion and close reading with an eye toward craft choice and ethical underpinning, plenty of directed freewriting, and workshop. We’ll also go on fieldwork explorations, hang around the train yard, map desire lines on campus, and otherwise explore ways of being a practicing poet in the world. No experience with documentary poetics or fieldwork necessary; beginners welcome.

2019 - 2020 Course

Writing Young Adult Fiction: Free-Verse Illuminations of Tough Subjects (ENG 273)

Linda Oatman High, Block 7

In this course, students will explore popular Young Adult novels tackling tough subjects and written in free verse by authors such as Sonya Sones, Laurie Halse Anderson, Virginia Euwer Wolff, as well as (new) work by the Distinguished Visiting Writer. Starting with audio poetry and the training of listening skills, and building on writing exercises and prompts, students will develop their skills in writing from the heart and from memories of their lives. No experience in creative writing is required, as the process of exploring and digging deep into the writing cave will spark each student’s individual and unique innate creativity. Polishing and revising will be covered in class, along with techniques for instilling light and hope in dark stories. The goal of the course is that each student will have at least 20 pages of their own free-verse novel completed by the end of the block, with a significant section polished and revised. A “Keep Cornell Lit” free-verse reading celebration will be held at the end of the block.

2018 - 2019 Courses

Podcasts Matter: Sound Writing as the Intersection of Literature and Social Justice (ENG 274)

Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, Block 2

This course focuses on the art of writing for podcasts and audio, playing particular attention to how the medium of sound writing can be used to explore the intersection between literature and social justice. In the class, we will examine podcasts that feature long-form interviews with authors, activists, and thinkers, such as On Being, Longform, and Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast; podcasts that present and/or conduct close-readings of texts, such as PoemTalk or The New Yorker’s Fiction, Poetry, or Author’s Voice podcasts; and we will look at podcasts that take mixed-genre approaches, such as The Organist, or This American Life. Through these and other model podcasts, students will be exposed to the wide variety of possibilities available within the burgeoning podcast medium and find inspiration for writing their own. Students will learn to pitch story ideas, research topics, write and conduct interviews, develop narrative sequences, and other skills to bring their podcast ideas from ideation to publication. In addition to independent writing projects, students will also collaborate on group writing projects to further expand their podcast writing and production skills. No experience is necessary.

When is a Clone Not a Clone? Imitation and Experimentation in Speculative Literature (ENG 381)

Mylène Dressler, Block 6

The term “speculative fiction” encompasses and traverses many forms of imaginative literature, including but not limited to the futuristic, the alternative, the supernatural and the superhero. In this creative writing workshop, we’ll study novels in each of these subcategories of the “speculative,” both to draw inspiration from their worlds and models and to experiment with them ourselves, as we ask large questions about craft and genre. What does it mean to “copy,” to approach an artform through conscious imitation? How can we add to a field of writing already so rich in examples and experiments? The clones, ghostly twins, and shadowy doubles conjured by authors Kazuo Ishiguro, Shirley Jackson, and Swati Avasthi will help us expand our understanding of the boundary-bending that energizes so much speculative writing (and that makes it so exciting), as we workshop exercises, plotlines, and imaginative landscapes, and create our own alternate worlds, at once familiar and unfamiliar. This course is open to students who may have little to no creative writing experience; just bring your love of reading, writing, imagining, and a willingness to invent and play (with the help of some amazing writers).

2017 - 2018 Courses

The Lyric Essay: Hit Me with Music (ENG 382)

Kisha Schlegal, Block 3

The Lyric Essay is a radical form of creative nonfiction. Residing somewhere between an essay and a poem, it transforms prose into song—it hits with music. In this creative writing class, we’ll consider how music informs the lyric essay and how that musicality allows writers to more deeply engage difficult issues, such as environmental degradation and social injustice. We’ll ask: How might the music of the lyric essay allow us to remake or radicalize conventional modes of “nature writing,” or “activist" literature? More broadly, what is the impact of music on prose? On our writing? What does it mean to write with musicality? Students will read lyric essays by Amy Leach, Kathy Acker, Claudia Rankine, and more. These texts, along with music itself, and a set of writing exercises will influence and prompt creative work. Students will write three lyric essays and participate in workshops. Students will also attend a live music performance and compose a collaborative class “album” of their writing to be read at a public “performance” at the end of the semester. No previous knowledge of music or creative nonfiction is required for this course; this course is open to all levels of experience.

DIY Documentary Production: Essaying in Cinema (ENG 382)

Richard Wiebe, Block 7

How does the tension between making art and making history affection nonfiction filmmaking? Should documentary filmmakers think of themselves, in the words of Ken Burns, as "tribal storytellers"? What kind of historical consciousness is produced by the documentary film? By what strategies and techniques do such films claim to represent the real? In this interdisciplinary course we will explore such questions as student become documentary filmmakers themselves. More specifically, we will explore essayistic modes of documentary filmmaking such as the essay film, video essay, city symphony, and other hybrid “genres” where fact and fiction are intertwined and the viewer and maker interact in a time-based experience. Through a variety of exercises, students will acquire skills and confidence to complete a final documentary/essay project on a topic of their choosing. No experience is necessary. 

2016 - 2017 Courses

Screenwriting: Creating Characters (ENG 382)

Brian Sloan, Block 3

Great films rely on great characters. In this screenwriting workshop, students will study and explore techniques for creating their own dynamic, character-driven films with special attention on using the tools of visual storytelling to create cinematic shorts with memorable characters. Using a series of writing exercises as well as in-class readings with actors, students will create and shape their characters from the ground up and then place them into narratives that help define and, most importantly, reveal who their characters are. Genre will be a secondary consideration as character takes center stage to create compelling scripts that are honest, emotional, and even personal. Students will not only write their own screenplays but they also will be expected provide thoughtful and constructive feedback on all other students’ work throughout the development process of the workshop’s scripts. Class participation, creative collaboration, and critical thinking about other students’ work is essential to success in this workshop. Students will create a 12-15 page screenplay that displays strong character development, with additional focus on act/scene structure and visual storytelling film language.

Live Literature: The Personal Is Political (ENG 383)

Kate Harding, Block 6

Sharing personal stories is a vital part of creating social change, but for creative writers, trying to send a message or teach a lesson can drain a story of its value as art and/or entertainment. The emerging nonfiction genre of “live lit”—short memoirs written for performance—is an excellent medium for exploring the personal and the political in creative work. How can we broach political subjects without coming across as excessively preachy or wonky? How can we draw broader social points out of our personal stories, without seeming “whiny” or narcissistic? What’s the difference between writing for the page and for a live audience? Through workshopping, class discussion, field trips, and performance practice, we’ll move toward balancing the persuasive power of a political speech with the delight of well-crafted essay.

2015 - 2016 Courses

Art, Comics, and Transformative Journalism (ENG 381)

Jacqueline Roche, Block 3

What is the role of the image in journalism? Why do photographs resonate differently from text? How can art tell a factual story? In this hands-on course, students will explore the burgeoning world of visual journalism, examining comic books, infographics, and even virtual reality landscapes as platforms for sharing information and encouraging empathy. As a capstone for the course, students will put observed methods into practice, ultimately creating transformative visual journalism projects of their own. The goal of this course is to explore how art combined with reporting can deepen public understanding of and engagement with complex topics. Readings will include critically acclaimed non-fiction graphic novels and comic books, plays, immersive infographics, and more. Students do not need to have a journalism or arts background to enroll but must be prepared to actively participate in a course that combines theory, analysis, and creative practice. You will make something new every day.

Reporting from the Margins (ENG 382)

Deborah Jian Lee, Block 7

Communities form around any number of factors: class, race, gender, sexuality, faith and politics, as well as shared narratives as broad as migration or homelessness and as specific as refugee girls escaping forced marriages or LGBTQ evangelicals clashing with church authorities. As a class we will explore various marginalized communities, learning to identify what makes each unique and how to capture their stories with nuance, respect and complexity. What sets these groups apart? What knits them together? What impact are they having on the rest of society? Students will engage these questions through readings, discussions, writing exercises, guest speakers and field trips. Most importantly, students will answer these questions and hone their journalistic skills in the real world. Students will employ the tools of immersion journalism to shed light on communities that exist on the margins of society. Each student will choose one community to focus on for the entire term; this is their “beat.” They will spend most of their time immersed in their beat, applying classroom lessons on the ground. They will learn how to find fresh stories, how to choose strong sources, how to conduct revealing interviews, how to ensure balance and accuracy in reporting, how to structure stories and how to write cinematically.

Some past visiting writers and courses

  • Mira Rosenthal, "Looking on Meaning Bare: The Art of Literary Translation"
  • Sandra Beasley, "Stranger Than Fiction: Creative Writing about the Sciences"
  • Pulitzer-Prize nominee Angie Estes, "Ekphrastic Writing" 
  • Michael Martone, "Writing the Rural" 
  • Children's writer Sarah Prineas, "The Protagonist Must Protag: a Development of Character and Action"
  • National Book Critics Circle Award winner Ross Gay, "Writing About Violence"