Dispatches | January 31, 2012

Before I took over as editor of textBOX, The Missouri Review’s absolutely free online anthology of exceptional fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from its archives, I used the site for a few semesters in the fiction workshops I teach at the University of Missouri. It was a great accompaniment to a craft manual, which was, in my case, Janet Burroway’s excellent Writing Fiction. Burroway divides her book into chapters that cover big topics like plot, point of view, setting, and theme. Each chapter features two or three stories that serve as examples of each topic in action, but for especially sticky topics, I wanted more examples. For instance, to supplement the chapter on point of view, I gave students Seth Fried’s “Loeka Discovered,” which is written in collective first person.

I also found textBOX useful for troubling the conventions of the undergraduate workshop story. While it is generally easier for a student to write a successful short story that takes place over the course of a day or a few hours, there are many fine stories that unreel over months or years, moving characters across counties, countries, and continents. I gave students “Eleven Beds” by William Harrison to show them one way a story can cover vast temporal and literal ground. My students and I had a good time (well, I know I did) mapping the shifts in time and place and tracing the subtle way Harrison renders the shifting dynamics of the central romantic relationship.

Though I have not yet had the chance to use textBOX this way myself, I can envision it as fodder for a workshop organized thematically. Before textBOX’s inception, I taught an intermediate workshop on the literary fantastic. If the site had been available, I could have augmented my story selections with “The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender (a devolving boyfriend!), “Drowned Edward Tug” by Mary Bucci Bush (ghosts!), and “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” by Robert Olen Butler (just how it sounds!). There are twelve short stories on textBOX with more to come, and I can already see other thematic groupings: stories that have strong settings, stories that take place in a specific historical moment.

Interested in trying textBOX in your classroom? You could assign a textBOX piece to fill a spare day in your schedule. Each piece has accompanying discussion questions and writing prompts, reducing your prep time. Send your students a link to the piece, have them print out and bring to class the PDF that includes the piece and accompanying study materials, and you’re ready to go. Or you could use a textBOX piece to introduce students to another genre. Maybe you feel your fiction students could benefit from a discussion of a textBOX poem’s close attention to language or you’d like to get your poetry students thinking about the construction of narrative in nonfiction. TextBOX is an easy way to do so.

Have you used textBOX in your fiction, nonfiction, or poetry class? Can you think of other ways textBOX might be helpful to instructors?