The University of Massachusetts Amherst
Workshop and Field Trip/Craft Session Selection

Writing Labs

At the heart of the online program are Writing Labs, where participants explore creative styles, forms, subjects, and modes of writing. These lab sessions meet daily from 1:30-3:30pm EDT, for a total of ten hours of live, interactive instruction with a cohort of 10 passionate young writers from around the world. Labs are synchronous, dynamic, and participatory. The work is complex and at a college level, allowing participants to dive deep into developing their own work and exchanging feedback with one another on their creative writing projects.

Following the completion of the Writing Lab, Instructors provide each participant with a written summary of their work, evaluation of their progression toward writing goals, and future considerations for their writing.

Writing Labs are offered in Week One of the 1 and 2 week programs, and during the Winter Workshops. 

Below are the sessions that will be offered in Summer 2021. Participants will choose one lab from the options below, to attend each afternoon July 12-16.


“A Foreign Anguish” / Sounding out the writing voice

Taught by: Sarah Ahmad

In this multi-genre lab, we will think about what finding our “voice” as a writer means. What do we mean when we talk about a memorable “voice”, a convincing one, and how can we think about our own writing voices as rooted in what we do with language? Together, we will shift focus from the idea of “finding your voice” to instead playfully and intentionally looking at it as something we craft through words in order to tell a story. We’ll think about how questions of voice are complicated and enriched by questions about identity, authority, and authenticity. As part of our exploration, we will read work by writers such as James Baldwin, Garth Greenwell, Natalie Diaz, Dionne Brand, Emil Ferris, and others—ranging across genre, time-periods, and form to try to understand how these voices work.  

Our writing exercises will focus on experimentation, figuring out what is most compelling to us, the things we are obsessed about or drawn to, and how we disguise, reveal, expose, celebrate, and exacerbate ourselves on the page. What do our words carry with them across our multiple projects and creations? How can we make those choices thoughtfully, and more importantly, what do they tell us about our singular relationship to text? 


 

THE CROWS HAVE EYES TOO 

Taught by: Sarah Coates

Have you ever written something so bad it felt good? Something so terrible it made grammarians roll over in their graves, dead white men weep, your teachers tremble into dust, and you careen headlong into literary existentialism? If you did, and you liked it, this class is for you.  

In this lab our writing will be a beast that thrives beyond the edges of ‘good’.  Together we’ll rear multi-genre monstrosities—writing whose very existence haunts the idea of definition. Clichés and mixed metaphors and horrifying run-ons and fragment shards and zero plot and already done things and passive voice and bad habits and humor and grammatical disasters will be our friends. We’ll take all that good advice we’ve learned in class: “don’t mix your metaphors!”,  “don’t use too many descriptions!”, “you must have a beginning, middle, and end”—and throw it in  the trash. Instead, we’ll break the rules just to see what happens. Because some magic doesn’t spring from rote obedience.  

This will be a generative, multi-genre lab with a smaller (weird) workshop component. And you will be a cat that slaps good advice to the floor and purrs when it shatters. And your destruction will be a terrible masterpiece. 


Bodies Are Living Are Experimenting

Taught by: Julio Cesar Diaz  

“I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories other have miswritten about me, about you.”
-Gloria Anzaldúa, Speaking in tongues: A letter to third world women writers

Life is not so fulfilling, in it there are: pauses, crevices, lulls of silence that we try our hardest to drown out. What happens if we stop and instead walk into these moments. How do our selves change when our time crawls? How does society transform when its movement is slowed for all to examine? And what is different when we move back into “regular time”?  These are just a few questions participants will mull over in our time together. 

In this lab, we will experiment with how silence and (lack of) movement echo within/out the body. This is a lab seeking all types of joys and wonders that exist. Via prompts, readings, and discussions, we will create and recreate pieces that live in different genres.

Readings for this class may include poems and stories by Natalie Diaz, Ada Limon, Claudia Rankine, Carmen Maria Machado, Ilya Kaminsky, Ben Lerner, Ocean Vuong, and other writers.


When I Woke Up, I Dreamed: Writing Histories of Place

Taught by: JR Mahung

In this multi-genre lab we will explore Black, indigenous, and afroindigenous modes of understanding land to expose and explore stories of the spaces we inhabit that are often hidden, forgotten, or otherwise unacknowledged. Whether writing about a place you or your family are from, a place you frequent, or even a mental or emotional place you retreat to, this lab will provide with additional tools to praise, examine and interrogate the spaces you have moved on or through in one way or another. We will engage with numerous media forms including poetry, fiction, maps, video, and music. Potential artists we may engage with are: Dionne Brand, Hanif Abdurraqib, Nnedi Okorafor, Terisa Siagatonu, Laura Mvula, The Garifuna Collective and George Abraham.


Stories that Sustain 

Taught by: Laura S. Marshall 

When we think of story, prose fiction might come to mind first, but story is part of all forms of creative expression: poems, fiction and nonfiction, plays and films, songs and hybrids. Even with the sparest language and the most innovative forms, words can create scenes and stories that come alive in our heads and in our veins. These are the stories that nourish and sustain us. 

In this multi-genre writing lab, we will investigate the elements of narrative, exploring how writers tell stories, how story functions, and how to build our own stories. Exercises and activities for this lab will include brainstorming sessions and collage work, as well as sharing short readings to illuminate the choices writers make and the narrative techniques they use. These readings can also serve as sources of aesthetic inspiration for us as writers in our own right. 

By the end of our time together, participants will have developed new work in a variety of genres. On our final day, each participant will have the opportunity to workshop a piece of their writing in a supportive, encouraging community environment, where we will treat feedback as a gift, whether we are giving or receiving.


5 Days 5 MOPs (Magical Creatures, Objects, & Places)  

Taught by: Yvette Ndlovu 

From the Demogorgon in Netflix’s Stranger Things to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, magical creatures, objects & places have the power to scare and enthrall us. In this lab, we will discuss and brainstorm what makes a compelling and memorable imaginary creature, object, or place. We will read stories, watch short films, look at artwork & listen to recordings about underworlds, Mami Watas, vampires, Anansi the Spider, moving castles, and many more. Each day of the week will feature a new monster, a new land. We will become gods, geographers, and mapmakers as we craft places and beings that are out of this world. By the end of this lab, you will walk away with at least one unique, fleshed-out fantastical creature, object, and place ready to jump into your stories or poems. 


Reflecting Voices and Lyrical Seeking: Our Life as Fiction   

Taught by: Rabia Saeed

Friends: there has been a trend of late in the literary world; a surge in memoir and auto-fiction. In this lab we will learn how to write like the writers who have historically used the story of their lives to shape narratives, and the forms in which they have done so. What are the ways in which Proust wrote about his life in the 20th century—what was he up to and how did he make his life into literature? Why do some writers choose the form of memoir, while others call their stories fiction, or well, auto-fiction? How can you write yours, and which category will you choose, and why? 

During this lab, we will put ourselves to these questions: what is the value in writing from true life; how is the memoir and life narrative employed internationally; what is the relationship between memoirs and the writings of women? What is the relationship between trauma, auto-fiction and fragments? Our aim is to see for ourselves what we can learn from all this, and how we, as writers, can employ the best of these methods to write about our life. 


Phases 

Taught by: Alex Terrell 

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” 
―Terry Pratchett 

“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.” 
―Walter Benjamin, One Way Street And Other Writings 

Like the moon’s cycles, writing happens in phases. The first of these phases often comes to us in the dark watches of the night, maybe in a dream, or a daydream and then it haunts us until we acknowledge its presence. This is the initial spark that carries forth our aspirations towards a first draft. But how do we start? What’s our first phase and how can we be more intentional about how we move from one phase of the writing process to the next? 

Phases is a writing lab that seeks to explore these questions by engaging in different stages of writing like story notes, outlining, first draft, redrafting and general revision. We will work in these different phases based on the material we bring to lab. All levels of writing and experience welcome. Writing exercises will include tutorials on novel outlining and writing a killer first chapter!


Everyday Writing and Sheltering in Place

Taught by: Rachelle Toarmino

Surprise and spontaneity have receded from our daily experiences since early 2020. As we shelter in place and shift our experiences of work and play online, where encounters are predetermined and continuously fine-tuned by algorithms, how can we find the whimsy and chance we need to draw art from our everyday lives? In this workshop, we study how writing can come from routine and rote activities, and experiment with bringing those ideas to digital landscapes, interactions, and media. We’ll play with news headlines, search histories, memes, hashtags, and more to reimagine the internet rabbit hole as the everyday poet’s walk. We’ll look at work across genres that draws on marginalia and is grounded in everyday experiences, texts, and observations—from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems to Sheila Heti’s excel-sheet journals—and discuss how to adapt these techniques to spark new writing of our own. Participants will learn how to eavesdrop, excerpt, and effectively steal language from the world around us—whether IRL or online and at home—and will leave with a poem, story, creative essay, or other piece of writing crafted from collages of the everyday.


Poems Disguised as Other Stuff

Taught by: Lucy Wainger

We all know what a poem looks like—right? Line breaks, stanza breaks, maybe even some rhymes. But who says we can’t dress up our poems as short stories, fairy tales, or essays? Better yet, can a poem look like a recipe, a movie script, an obituary, a twitter thread, directions to the other side of the universe...? 

In this generative workshop, we’ll upend formal conventions and insist on finding the poetry in texts of all kinds. We’ll challenge each other to adopt unexpected forms (perhaps a nutrition label on the packaging of a futuristic foodstuff?) as well as distort established poetic forms to serve our own desires (ever heard of a sonnet that’s actually a fourteen-point list?). Most importantly, we’ll discover the surprising insights that arise when we pour ourselves into strange containers. 

This workshop is necessarily cross-genre, so no experience with poetry is required—the more diverse our writerly expertise, the better. Activities may include hunting for model texts, trading found forms, partnered collaboration, and whole-group discussion. Writers we look to for inspiration and instruction may include Henry Hoke, Airea D. Matthews, Monica Youn, Sumita Chakraborty, Solmaz Sharif, Sherman Alexie, and Jorge Luis Borges.


Narrative & Lyric

Taught by: Dāshaun Washington

This writing lab will explore the relationship between narrative and lyricism within creative writing. We will examine how narrative and lyricism relate and differ from one another and how the synergy of the two work together to strengthen writing. We will study how plot twists and enjambment work to further the depth of a narrative and excite readers by subverting expectations. We will study how the inclusion of rhythm and emotion within writing can be used to captivate readers. In this lab, we’ll learn how to take the literary techniques of poetry and employ them in all facets of writing. By closely reading a diverse group of skillful living poets whose works artfully exemplify narrative and lyric, we’ll determine what qualifies these works as lyrical and which techniques are used to strengthen the narratives within them. Through literary exploration and creative writing, we’ll cultivate our own practices to teach us to master narrative and lyricism within our own writing.