I was a sophomore in undergrad that’d somehow found myself in a fiction workshop class full of seniors. Dan Bailey was in my class. He had a story about it being the end of the world and also his birthday. He got two copies of the same Madden game. It was either in this story or different one that one of his characters felt like a molecule inside a whale’s asshole. I was never the same.
A read a poem about a man being stalked by a stork over many years, written by a Bro who played hockey and whose name I forget and who I have yet to talk to again but I think about his poem sometimes. The stork showed up to deliver a kid and never left and eventually attended the child’s funeral.
I teach creative writing at a college and I have been, on a few occasions, been amazed by my students’ stories. It’s hard to articulate exactly why except to say that they were very well well written and surprising. I’m often amazed by things my students have written, but only a few times by complete stories.
Community college lit class. This woman with really red hair wrote this story about this character who sniffed magical pixie dust. It was really good. And she read it in this amazing voice. Cerritos Community College man. Home of the dopest artist in southern california.
I had an undergrad student at UCSD who turned in a few poetic prose fragments initially in class, so that I knew there was something there. For her final project, which she also used as her senior thesis or something, she had written one of the most beautiful, amazing stories I’ve ever read. I was in shock. Another teacher and I told her that she needed to publish it immediately, but she was very self-effacing and being pressured by her parents to go to med school, which she ultimately did. Her name was Mai, and I’ll never forget that story. She managed to mix gorgeous images in paragraphs alternating with the kind of dialogue snatches with hopeless love interests; deeply charged interludes of loss and distance evoked in a few phrases of seemingly banal chat; the discussions/philosophy that kids are exploring in their early 20s, but so lightly and expertly done that it was shocking and revelatory. The world, the unbounded mind of creative questing kids was all there, for example spare angles of Le Corbusier’s effect on her, her ruminations on it, in the midst of a passage about dinnger and bowls of rice with her family; language issues (she was Asian, with first-generation immigrant parents…, very unself-conscious, tender, spacious, and sophisticated yet innocent and vernacula, a bit like Banana Yoshimoto mixed with Elizabeth Reddin’s “The Hot Garment of Love Is Insecure (Ugly Duckling Press). An utterly exhilarating original, and humbling work. I’m often humbled by my students’ work, I learn so much from them, their openness; I’m even a bit envious, since I was so crippled by perfectionism in college (the 80s) that I could barely finish anything. I actually have to get in touch with her (she’s probably an exhausted Resident at some hospital), and get this thing published. It was as though I were the student–what I learned from this girl truly changed me, and opened up all kinds of possibilities. I’d been trying to teach them that the point was not to fear failure, to embrace humiliation, be naked, see what happens, and she made discoveries that rocked my world. MAI–where are you?!
Once thought I was totally owning an undergrad fiction workshop at a small regional school. It was full of frat bros looking for an easy English credit and moony poetess types writing incomprehensible “stream of consciousness.” I was in my early twenties so I was writing pretty much exclusively about girls and romantic relationships.
This backwoods country guy wrote a short story about going quail hunting with his recently divorced uncle and watching his uncle climb a ridge alone and then off himself with a shotgun. It was a very spare, minimal story but astonishing and I felt absurd afterward.
Every poem Carrie Murphy turned in to workshop was pretty badass. We did packets of poems, usually 3-10 pages of poems, two or three times per semester. Pretty much from the start she was writing really kick ass stuff that was consistent in the small doses we got.
Also a guy named Joshua Wheeler wrote amazing stuff, though he doesn’t publish poetry. His non-fiction is brills (he’s going to Iowa next fall).
Also, Mike Meginnis was in our poetry workshop first semester and wrote the most amazing two words ever appearing in a poem: turtle pussy.
I’ve had several students in my Intro to Creative Writing class at Cornell that completely astounded me with sheer awesome. Generally, I get a lot of nature-y, we’re all at peace with the leaves stuff, I’m-a-bro-and-I-know-it joke poems, and a few rhyming Victorian imitations. But then last semester, I had my students write from paintings, and I received a triptych from one student that was about the abject body and turned language into an abject body. It was incredible, by far the most suddenly excellent poem I’ve received, and if she doesn’t take over poetry soon, I’ll be surprised. That same semester I’ve received one story on par with George Saunders’s Pastoralia without being an imitation and with a better plot. I also had another story that was a kind of mash-up between The Name of the Rose and Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell but was about a frog and a turtle and was also an origin story of God and the universe.
It’s always the case, especially at Cornell where the Intro class fulfills a writing requirement, that the most of the students tend to be not very imaginative or not interested in language or giving a reader a great experience, but it never fails that I have a few students who completely blow me away, and sometimes, like my last semester, a bunch of these students are in the same class tearing it up. I feel the students I mentioned were all leagues ahead of where I was when I took my intro class, when all I wanted to do was shock the workshop with some kind of depravity.
I don’t know how cool it is to name my students before they’ve even begun to think of publishing, but as soon as they do, I’m going to shout their names.
I am regularly impressed by the work my students are creating in workshop. I have a student writing a novel about archangels in my novel writing class and in the two excerpts I’ve read so far, he has simply blown me away.
My friend workshopped an amazing noir-ish story about beanie baby counterfeiters that is somehow both totally straight-faced and hilarious, not gimmicky at all. The beanie baby thing doesn’t come in until a few pages in, so there’s this great moment as a reader like, oh! that’s why it’s set in the nineties.
I have a stronger desire for this story to be published than with any of my own work, I love it so much.
i was in a workshop with a guy who wrote a story about a superhero on the day he decided to quit being a superhero and he was at this county fair with his girlfriend and the giant ferris wheel broke and was just rolling over people and crushing them all over the place and causing havoc and the superhero stood firm in his choice… the story was a lot better than im describing it, but its stuck with me for about 8 years now.
I once read a poem by a student who wrote about a grasshopper and it was the saddest thing I had ever read. One of the lines said ‘and I guess I’ll just choose to go away now’ or something and it just really resonated with me.
Last year when I was teaching a poetry workshop a kid in my class wrote a long sequence about Chernobyl that was very deft and subtle and so creepy, without (or maybe subtly acknowledging) that sort of disaster porn impulse that everyone (but sometimes especially new writers) have. He was a little endearingly awkward, too. A shy guy who wore a lot of black.
As a student, I’ve had several moments where I wanted to kill a person and take credit for their work. An ekphrastic poem by a girl in undergrad, before I really knew what ekphrasis was. It was in response to an undergraduate painting and the last line was “I want to kiss the fingers that made this death”–which…does that sound corny? It was a revelation to me, both that poems could be focused outward, and that art pinned to the page/canvas is a kind of death.
One workshop a student insisted on having the voice on his computer read his poem. In another workshop a student turned in a story in the form of receipts (cut out of different papers, all different sizes). But the story that blew me away the most was the story that was plot-wise, language-wise, the most conventional, but it was flawless. I had never read something like that before, that conventional or that immaculately constructed.