Straight Through the Heart

“Straight Through the Heart,” an essay by faculty member Dean Bakopoulos, appears in the New York Times Book Review.

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As each semester begins at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school nestled in the Iowa prairie, I get numerous e-mails from students pleading for a spot in my fiction workshop. The wait list is long, and as much as I’d love to take credit for the course’s popularity, I’m learning it’s less about the teacher and more about the way fiction writers approach the teaching of literature.

Many of these students aren’t English majors — in our dynamic department, majors tend to geek out on theory and critical reading courses from the start. And unlike most M.F.A. students I’ve taught, these undergraduates tend not to consider writing a career choice. They never ask for my agent’s e-mail.

Instead, each semester, I meet students who might be afraid of traditional English courses, but are drawn by the oddly warm and fuzzy phrase “creative writing.” In most academic work, we teach students to discuss other people’s ideas, before they attempt to formulate their own. We withhold the challenge of creation. But in creative writing, we read a few books and then we’re off. By semester’s end, a seeming mystery, I have a roomful of young people in love with reading stories and telling their own. Almost all of them write better sentences and cleaner paragraphs too.

I realized that what I’m really instructing them in is reading as a process of seduction. Consider how one falls in love: by fixating on certain attributes of the beloved. The way he looks in his brown cords. The way she flips her hair from her face. The flecks in her eyes, the twitch in his smile. We do not yet know the whole person, but we are lured by primal responses to a few details. We get to the classic final lines of “The Great Gatsby” or see Lily Briscoe finishing her painting in “To the Lighthouse,” and we want to go back to Page 1 and start again, to know the novel more deeply. …[Keep Reading]…

Dean is the author of the novel My American Unhappiness (2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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