Writing Seminar II –– Imaginary Friends

The problem with you is that you still think you’re real.

––Ghost (1990)

Harry Houdini had one son and his name was Mayer Samuel Houdini. If you wonder why you have never heard of him—despite the many letters between the magician and his wife about his progress and eventual election as the President of the United States—the answer is because Mayer was, in fact, imaginary. As real as he might have been to the childless Houdinis, he never actually existed.

In this course, we will explore the meaning of those “friends” who follow, accompany, console, warn, and haunt us, and yet remain invisible to the outside world. Do we control them or do they control us? Why can’t we take these friends, who help us cope with the many trials of childhood, into adulthood? And what happens when we try to do so?

We will begin our investigation with My Neighbor Totoro and the eponymous creature that mysteriously visits two lonely girls. In Pan’s Labyrinth and The Turn of the Screw, we will witness two very different (and not so different) ways of coping with childhood trauma. Harvey introduces us to the surprising effect a grown man’s imaginary friend has on his family and acquaintances, while in Beloved the haunting return of a loved one leads to a far more troubling outcome. We will end with Fight Club and an encounter with one of the most destructive “friends” of all. Criticism by Avery Gordon and Slavoj Žižek will guide us as we consider the power and perversity of imagining—and whether we, ourselves, are anything more than imaginary.


Writing Seminar II –– Dolls

with a doll you are never alone.

––Margaret Atwood

The overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys… But where is the soul?

––Charles Baudelaire

In this course we will explore the meaning of objects that people create in their own image. These figures take on complex roles in both private and public life, becoming companions, lovers, children, ideals, and even oppressors. Why do we tell them our secrets? Or call upon them to enact vengeance? If a doll begins to take on a life of its own, where (in the words of Baudelaire) can we begin to find its soul? And what if it doesn’t have one? These questions will drive our journey through tales of dolls and the people who make, buy, and live with them.

We will begin our investigation with Toy Story and the toys who desire only for children to love and play with them. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, we will find a doll who produces a quite different effect on a young girl’s self-identity while in Carlos Fuentes’s Aura a young historian will describe the pleasures and perils of falling in love with a mysteriously silent woman. We will end by witnessing the revenge of the dolls in Rosario Ferré’s The Youngest Doll as well as the consequences of creating a doll that is more than human in Bladerunner. Criticism by Sigmund Freud and Donna Haraway will aid us as we consider what, exactly, it means to be a “real.” Only then may we discover when––if ever––we have truly been human.


Writing Seminar II –– See How They Run

“Everywhere you go, it’s the same people. Don’t you see what’s happening to your life, woman?”

 “Not exactly,” Jamie said.

 “You’re going to see, all right. Something is happening to your life, and you’re going to see what it is.”

 “I was afraid of that,” Jamie said.

 “If you think you’re afraid now,” the man said.

––Denis Johnson, Angels

The lamb must learn to run with the tigers.

––Angela Carter, “The Tiger’s Bride”

Running often evokes an image of individual freedom and self-discovery. But is this always the case? Romantic visions of a lawless, Bonnie-and-Clyde life are just as often undercut by the realities of the violence, loneliness, and sacrifices encountered by those who challenge their fates and their societies. Depictions of life on the run within literature and film only further complicate this conception, showing that running can be at once exhilarating and terrifying, empowering and alienating, revelatory and catastrophic.

In this course we will closely examine these literary and visual representations, following individuals “on the run” as they both evade and face the personal and social demands which constrict them. We will observe characters as they cross forbidden thresholds, considering the changes and freedoms they confront by leaving. Can those who run from their homes ever truly return? Do these journeys engender a search for self‐knowledge––or do the runners become lost and dispossessed? How does gender affect or play into these different outcomes? And, finally, how does a life on the run transform individuals and their relationships with themselves and others?

We will ask ourselves these questions as we pursue fleeing characters in books by Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, Kate Atkinson, and Dana Spiotta as well as in the films Maria Full of Grace, Thelma and Louise, and Vagabond (Sans Toit ni Loi). Using theoretical texts by Laura Mulvey and Roland Barthes in addition to our own voices and perspectives, we will consider when––if ever––individuals can stop running once they have begun.