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Creative Writing: Making Photo Texts

ENGL 010.910

Starting in the 1940s, the writer-photographer Wright Morris attempted single-handedly to jumpstart a new genre of fiction: the photo-text, which told its stories half in prose, half in photographs. The photo-text was revolutionary, because the photograph had, since its advent in 1839, been held up as the great authenticator of reality, not as an instrument of fiction. Ranging from short magazine pieces to a full-length novel, Morris’s photo-texts asked impertinent questions: Why must the photograph prove anything? Why can’t it be the jumping-off point for fantasy? Indeed, does documentary photography, with its claims to representing real life, not already depict a fictive world? Contemporary readers didn’t buy it: they expected photos to serve as evidence, and didn’t know what to make of photos used to further a fiction. Today, however, Photoshop and the digital image have prepared audiences for a multitude of photographic fictions in books and literary magazines. The Internet brims with photograph/text combinations that no longer seem unnatural, and instead entice us with their ability to reshape the world in new, fascinating ways. In this class, we’ll read a variety of photo-texts (by Morris, Langston Hughes, Ishmael Reed, W. G. Sebald, Carol Shields, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others), and then we’ll create our own photo-texts. We’ll learn to integrate photographs into our own writing in a way that is not merely illustrative but rather integral to the stories we tell. What happens when photos are released from their duty to ground the narrative in facts? What happens when we turn photographs into the backdrop against which imaginary characters work out the dilemmas of their lives? What happens when the photograph, no less than the written word, becomes the raw material out of which we spin recognizable human truths?

This is a writing class that centers mostly on fiction and creative nonfiction. Our writing assignments will help us to craft setting, character, voice and style, point of view, dialogue, exposition, plot and conflict, and other elements of prose. Students are not expected to be skilled photographers: the photographic component is about responding to and integrating images creatively. We’ll workshop each other’s photo-texts in class. By the end of the course, each student will have created a portfolio of revised photo-textual fiction and nonfiction. Some experience using and access to a digital camera is useful. We will review the basic photo-editing functions of MS Word. (And camera phones are acceptable, if the images can be downloaded.)

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