Reading & Composition
Stark, Raving: On Writing Madness
Do you need to be at least a little crazy to be a great writer? Is going insane just a natural reaction to the world around us? To what extent should mental health crises be medicalized, and to what extent should they be accommodated as uncomfortable parts of most people's life experiences? These are just some of the questions that we will explore together over the course of the semester.
There are few literary categories as broad and widely used as madness: since antiquity, it has become a shorthand for writers and poets who want to literalize a break from social norms or embody the destabilizing nature of the creative process. So antiquity is where we'll start, exploring the subversive spaces that the category of madness opens up, while also questioning the potential dangers of drawing a link between madness and creativity. We'll then move through several short stories before reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, through which we'll explore the relationship between the internal experience of madness and the external forces which contextualize its presentation and perception. Finally, we will read some poetry together and end the semester with Shirley Jackson's haunting novella We Have Always Lived in The Castle.
Class sessions will be divided between a discussion of the assigned texts and a writing workshop. Together, we will work on sharpening both sets of skills—close reading and critical writing. But the two tasks are not easily separable; expanding our literary toolbox allows us to produce more nuanced prose while learning to write carefully allows us to bring greater clarity to the text. This course seeks to emphasize the permeability between reading and writing as essential to producing thoughtful and well-written work.
Writing can be a maddening process—this in itself will be a recurring theme in our class—but I hope to mitigate some of that difficulty through a supportive classroom environment and scaffolded writing assignments that build up your skills as the semester progresses. Though writing is generally thought of as a solitary activity, the most interesting ideas arise through dialogue, and as we read these texts, I expect everyone to take part in that dialogue, whether that’s through in-class participation or written reflection. Throughout the semester, you will complete shorter writing assignments to refresh and strengthen your close reading skills. You will also write a longer essay, using your close reading skills to analyze the maddening nature of one of our class texts. Finally, you will write a research paper considering the relationship between the extrinsic and intrinsic factors that contribute to madness. For each of the two major essays, you will be asked to submit three drafts that show evidence of significant revision and editing.
This course fulfills the second half of the university R&C requirement, and as such, its primary function is to develop your critical reading and academic writing skills. We will be spending time breaking down how to engage critically with a text and how to compose a high-quality college essay, from brainstorming to editing. We will also focus on learning how to access and utilize secondary sources to add complexity to your argument. Please note that this course is reading and writing intensive.
I look forward to exploring the maddening world of literature together with all of you.