An Investigation of what Academics can Learn from Literary Non-fiction, particularly the Essay and the Memoir

A Call for Participation for 2016-2017

Sarah Beckwith and Toril Moi

The English Department has generously sponsored a working group on “Writing and Academic Work” for 2016/17. We are writing to invite anyone interested in the topic to participate in the year’s work. If you are interested, please attend our planning meeting on SEPTEMBER 6th at 5.30pm in 314, Allen Building.

The project builds on several related convictions. Good writing is good thinking. As such it is integral to intellectual work, not a stylistic layer added on to pre-existing thought. Moreover, writing is a craft. It is a central topic in literary studies and its essential medium. Paying attention to the craft of writing helps improve our own academic writing, and also helps those who wish to do so to communicate to non-academic audiences, to common readers who care about literature and culture.

We will spend the year investigating the essay and the memoir, two flourishing non-fiction genres. We will focus on essays and memoirs that deal with topics similar to those explored by academics engaged in literary and cultural studies broadly defined. We have in mind essays and memoirs focusing on language, literature and ideas, and/or reading, writing and learning. (See for example, classics and pioneers of the genre such as Montaigne’s Essays, twentieth century classics by writers such as Joan Didion, Guy Davenport, Susan Sontag, or Cynthia Ozick, or more recent writers such as Eula Biss, and Leslie Jamison, but including the example and investigations of the form pursued by John D’Agata in a series of collections; books which focus in more personal ways on reading such as Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe, or Rebecca Mead’s My Life With Middlemarch, or Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Save Your Life. We are also interested in innovative recent work such as Helen MacDonald’s extraordinary meditation on grief and hawking, H is For Hawk. (These are examples, neither exhaustive nor definitive).

The group will meet 5 times per semester, as a reading and discussion group. The task of the group is to learn to read as writers, and to discuss ways in which we may or may not be able to use some of the writing strategies we discover in our own work. Each participant must also commit to writing a memoir, essay, or “memoir-essay” (or fragment thereof) during the year. At the very end of the spring semester, we will then meet for a final full-day retreat to discuss our own writing efforts.

We will also have a public event called “Writing Is Thinking,” co-sponsored by PAL (Duke’s Center for Philosophy, Arts, and Literature; http://www.dukepal.org). For this event, we will invite an outstanding writer and teacher of writing to give a talk and conduct a workshop. The dates for this event will most likely be either Friday 24 or Friday 31 March, 2017.

We are looking forward to seeing you at our meeting on September 5th.

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