Reflection: Sigrid Nunez

I started teaching in the Riggio Writing and Democracy program in 2007. My first course for the program was a seminar called “Writers on Writing.” I had never taught such a course before; I created it specifically for the Writing and Democracy program.

It had always struck me how, more than any other artists, writers are often asked to state why they do what they do. I wanted to teach a course examining ways in which writers have described their work and the writer’s place in society. The reading list for the course included manifestos, credos, journal entries, and interviews, as well as letters in which writers as mentors spoke directly to other writers about their craft and beliefs. The list began with Orwell’s essays “Politics and Democracy” and “Why I Write” and included works by Virginia Woolf, Rainer Maria Rilke, Annie Dillard, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Flannery O’Connor, among many others.

Students were asked to do exercises in which they wrote brief imitations of master writers in order to get as close as possible to the bone of those writers’ styles. We also did line-by-line analysis of student draft manuscript pages, discussing how to make every sentence as intelligible and effective as possible. Our main goal was to develop greater awareness and understanding of how our use of language reflects how we think and feel about the world.

So far, I have taught “Writers on Writing” three times. For me, the most exciting part of the course has always been seeing how students respond to the final assignment, which is to write an essay discussing their own reasons for wanting to write.

Here are some of the questions I ask them to consider: Can you describe what you believe as a writer? What is your idea of what good writing should be? How do you see the writer’s place in society? Do you share with Orwell the notion that there should be a political purpose in your work? What do you think of Pamuk’s idea that, because it’s about understanding and identifying with ‘the Other,’ all good fiction is political? What do race, class, gender, or nationality have to do with your writing? What doubts, if any, do you have about being a writer?

The second course I created for the program was a seminar called “Life and Story.” Most writers, especially in their early work, draw from personal experience. This course was intended to explore what happens when writers use material from life as a source for fiction-writing. How does one transform real experience into imaginative writing? How do a writer’s memories become a work of fiction? What is the difference between the self who narrates an event from the past and the self who actually lived through it? How is it possible for a work to be autobiographical and anti-autobiographical at the same time, or for confessional writing to avoid narcissistic self-absorption?

Our age has seen a proliferation of phony memoirs and literary hoaxes. Some of our most interesting “Life and Story” discussions focused on the possible social and cultural effects of the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, and what our attitude towards mendacious life-writing, particularly works that claim to bear witness to various kinds of social and political injustice, should be.

Finally, I teach a fiction workshop in the Riggio program. A number of students who have taken Riggio seminars with me end up taking my workshop as well. I am always pleased when this happens. Observing how the work done in the seminar influences the students’ fiction-writing has been one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as a teacher.


Sigrid Nunez has published five novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, For Rouenna, and The Last of Her Kind. She has also been a contributor to numerous journals, including the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Threepenny Review, and The Believer.  Among the awards she has received are a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. She has been visiting writer or writer-in-residence at Amherst College, Smith College, Sarah Lawrence College, Washington University, Baruch College, and the University of California, Irvine.  She has also been on the faculty of Columbia University and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

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