Graduate Creative Writing Course: Trauma and Witness

An investigation into the stylistic, theoretical, and technical elements of different creative genres, such as fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and/or writing for performance, through contemporary literature, literary theory, and writing exercises. This course is provided in both a seminar and a workshop format and concentrates on the analysis of contemporary literature as well as the production, critique, and revision of student writing.

COURSE OBJECTIVES: Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to

  • Discover and design strategies for the composition and revision of poems, short stories, nonfiction essays, and/or writing for performance

  • Participate constructively in the workshop process by critiquing the works of fellow students

  • Integrate the terms, techniques, and theories of the craft within their own writing

  • Detect contemporary trends in the literature of witness and trauma theory

  • Analyze literary texts of witness from a variety of genres through the lens of contemporary trauma theory

  • Evaluate poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama from a writer’s perspective based on theories of the craft

  • Devise research techniques for creative projects.


  • Carolyn Forche (ed.) Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness

  • Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (eds.), Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, 

  • Psychoanalysis, and HistoryCathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History

  • Margaret Edson, Wit

  • Toni Morrison, Beloved

  • Elie Wiesel, Night

  • One or more craft books in the genre(s) of your choice


  • Portfolio of creative work 45%

  • Scholarly book reviews (2, 15% each) 30%

  • Presentation 15%

  • Weekly assignments 10%


Final portfolio (50%): Over the course of the semester you will be expected to compose at least five creative projects in at least two genres (fiction, poetry, writing for performance, creative nonfiction) to submit to group and/or individual workshops. You will also turn in a final portfolio at the end of the semester containing the original drafts of your work and substantial revisions of four of the five projects. In addition to the creative projects, you will also perform an analysis of the writing and revision process you used to reach your final drafts based on the theories of craft and the theories of trauma and witness we have explored throughout the semester.

Scholarly book reviews (30%): You will complete a total of two reviews of books in different genres dealing with witness; a substantial list of works for you to choose from will be provided for you, or you can choose a text of your own with my permission. Each review will be 4 to 6 pages in length and will explore the text at hand in a scholarly manner that examines issues of craft and places the work within the context of contemporary literature of witness and trauma theory. You will also introduce each text briefly to the class in an informal presentation.

Presentation (10%): You will research, prepare, and present to the class a lesson plan based on your personal interests. Your lesson may consist of either an aspect of the theory and literature of witness/trauma or an aspect of the craft that introduces students to a particular element of creative writing.

Weekly assignments (10%): In addition to the formal creative assignments, you will also complete weekly exercise assignments designed to help generate material and explore new approaches to subject matter; you’ll be required to complete ten of these weekly exercises throughout the semester. Sometimes we will have time to work on these exercises in class. All exercises should be posted to Blackboard by 12 midnight on a Wednesday and cannot be turned in late. The exercises will be graded on the extent to which you are willing to pursue what the prompts ask of you.


Week 1
Introductions; workshop nuts and bolts; imagery
What it means to witness, what it means to grieve
Exercises 1 & 2 posted to Blackboard by Wednesday midnight

Week 2
Voice; representing the trauma of war, death, and loss
Readings:  Poems from Against Forgetting: Trakl (79-81); Owen (81-84); Lorca (152-156); Kunitz (245-249); Levertov (329-333); Simic (349-355); Ritsos (509-513); Elytis (513-519)
Writing to witness, writing to grieve: Kowit, Addonizzio, Laux (handout)
Due: A one-page experiment/ rough-rough draft in any genre
Exercises 3 & 4 posted to Blackboard by Wednesday midnight

Week 3
Dialogue; character; representing the trauma of illness
Readings:  “Writing as a Way of Healing,” Louise DeSalvo; Wit
Due: Creative project I
Exercise 5 posted to Blackboard by Wed. midnight

Week 4
Workshop; structure and story; representing the Holocaust
Readings:  “Education and Crisis” in Testimony
Night(first half)
Due: Exercise 6 posted to Blackboard by Wed. midnight

Week 5
Workshop; presentation(s)
Readings:  Night(second half)
“Introduction” and “Unclaimed Experience,” Unclaimed Experience
 Poems: Hecht (327-329); Radnoti (368-373); Levi (373-377); Celan (379-385)
Due:  Creative project II
Exercises 7 posted to Blackboard by Wed. midnight

Week 6
Workshop; book reviews
Readings:   Poems from Against Forgetting: Akhmatova (101-108); Mandelstam (121-124); Tsvetayeva (124-128); Brodsky (141-145); Milosz (437-433); Symborska (455-460); Herbert (460-4667); “Traumatic Departures” and “Traumatic Awakenings” in Unclaimed Experience
Due: Book Review I
Exercises 8 posted to Blackboard by Wed. midnight

Week 7
Workshop; presentation
Reading:     Beloved, Part I
Due: Creative Project III
Exercises 9 posted to Blackboard by Wed. midnight

Week 8
Workshop; presentation
Reading:    Beloved, Part II
“Bearing Witness” and “An Event Without a Witness,” Testimony
Due: Exercises 10 posted to Blackboard by Wed. midnight

Week 9
Workshop; presentation
Reading:     Beloved; Petar Ramadanovic, chapters on Belovedin Forgetting Futures: On Memory, Trauma, and Identity (handout)
Due: Creative Project IV
Exercises 11 posted to Blackboard by Wed.midnight

Week 10
Workshop; book reviews
Reading:    Plays, The Twisted State (handout)
Poetry from Latin America: Vallejo (570-573); Neruda (573-579);
Parra (579-587); Dorfman (613-629)
Due: Book Review II due
Exercises 12 posted to Blackboard by Wed.midnight
Individual conferences outside of class

Week 11
Workshop, presentation
Reading: From Vietnam: Komunyakaa (691-694); Weigl (703-707); Fenton (708-711); From The Things They Carried, Online
Due: Creative Project V
Exercises 14 posted to Blackboard
Individual conferences outside of class

Week 12
Workshop, presentations of book reviews
Reading: The Year of Magical Thinking      

Week 13
Final workshop, revision
Reading:The Year of Magical Thinking

Portfolio due and open class reading during our final exam period