This class operates under a very simple conceit: all of us have a family. However they look, whoever constitutes them, in whatever way we define it, no one is familyless. But this commonality doesn’t equal a shared experience. For just as all of us have families, all families are, in some way, dysfunctional. This dysfunction can be pyrotechnical, made up of infidelities, cruelty, and sometimes, sadly, out and out violence. At other times the drama can be more deeply hidden, a fault line rather than the actual quaking of the earth. It’s that long look your uncle gives his wife at Thanksgiving dinner. The time your parents and your brother went away for a few days but didn’t tell you where.
These domestic fissures and explosions have been extremely fertile ground for writers of fiction. The defining maxim of the dysfunctional family, after all, comes from the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This course will be a deep dive into those own ways. We will use texts from authors like John Cheever, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolf and Mary Karr as jumping off points for our consideration of the ways in which literature can convey psychology, how domestic worlds are built up and then shattered, the impact of what is left unsaid rather than spoken, how tweaks in perspective can redefine an entire story and the universe within it. There will be some readings and writing assignments but ultimately you will produce a larger work, either standalone or perhaps the beginnings of something even more substantial, about the tensions that reside inside families. These need not be autobiographical; coming from a broken home is not a prerequisite for the course. Nor does your work need to be based in reality in any way. We will work very hard at coming up with the depth of perspective and fleetness of imagination needed to create a believable facsimile of a world that all of us have some experience with. Plan to bring your completed or in-progress work from home and to also generate new material in our weekend.
Kim Brooks was most recently the personal essays editor at Salon. Her first novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016 by Counterpoint Press, and her memoir, Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear, will be published in 2018 by Flatiron Books/Macmillan. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Michener Copernicus Fellow, her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, FiveChapters and other journals, and have received four special mentions in Best American Short Stories. Her essays have appeared in Salon, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Lenny Letter. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children.