In truth, I love David Rakoff's writing so much that I would have made the effort to take a class with him no matter where he was teaching. Fortunately, I discovered that he was teaching a class in the familiar essay at Stony Brook's Manhattan campus, so getting there was easy. However, being a superb writer is no guarantee that someone will be an equally excellent teacher, so I prepared myself for possible disappointment, with the attendant stages of denial, anger, rage, homicide, and incarceration. Didn't happen. David gave us an exemplary reading list featuring a broad sampling of the familiar essay form to cut our teeth on. And he could not have been a more attentive or insightful reader of student writing. His thoughtful critiques were accompanied by concrete suggestions for improvements ranging from deft restructuring that allowed a piece to fall into place; ways to polish a joke to a gem-like gleam; or choosing just the right word. He also had a treasure trove of cultural references stored in his personal gray-matter database that he shared liberally, much to our benefit. The man is incredibly smart, and funny, and gracious to a fault, and it was a true privilege and pleasure to be in his class.
I'd also like to give a little shout out to my fellow students. Although I was non-matriculated, almost everyone else was in the MFA program at Stony Brook, which clearly fosters a culture of mutual respect and generosity. Or maybe they were all just really nice people who don’t let their talent inflate their egos. In any case, I was the appreciative recipient of their individual and collective intelligence and their willingness to offer constructive criticism and snacks.
Carrie Cooperider, SPD Student
Much like postal workers, the participants in Meg Wolitzer's Saturday fiction intensive had to slog through snowstorms, torrential rainstorms and hurricane-like winds to make it to her class this Spring semester (and some of us endured cancelled flights and got stuck in New Jersey blizzards and didn't always make it) but the class certainly "delivered." After teaching for over 30 years I found being a student and sitting (more or less) in a chair from 10-6 pretty tricky, but Meg and the class made it all worthwhile. "Try and explain why you're doing this and people will think you're crazy," she warned us, but we all were crazy about Meg, the class, and the opportunity to learn in such a nurturing, and spirited environment. As a new MFA student I am inspired by the like minds, but completely diverse backgrounds, of my fellow students. The program is all that I hoped for (although, really, the weather might try and cooperate a bit.)
Ricki Miller, MFA Program student
Great writers do not always make great teachers. Ursula Hegi, an award-winning author and Stony Brook Manhattan faculty member, has the distinction of being both. I took her novel intensive course offered through Stony Brook University's Manhattan campus last fall. The commitment to take this class was not a minor one: I live in California and so had to make three cross-country trips in order to participate. It was well worth it. Throughout our three weekends together, Ursula proved to be an exceptional instructor. Her writing and reading assignments were well-considered and purposeful; her oversight of class critique sessions masterful. Not once in the course of the workshop did I ever wonder at the value of the criticism being offered by my fellow students or the instructor. I attribute the high caliber of feedback to Ursula's insistence on thoughtful, constructive participation. As far as lending her own insight, Ursula is able to draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience that extends far beyond her immediate professional career and projects. I left her workshop with a long reading list that I'm still making my way through. Perhaps most striking about Ursula is the degree to which she holds herself responsible for the advancement of her students. Under her watch, you will improve and also produce. For my part, I finished up the workshop with three solid chapters of a brand new novel--the product of one of Ursula's writing prompts--that has since become my thesis project. A better use of my time or money I know not.
Holly Hubbard-Preston, MFA Program Student
As a journalist, I wrote long and short articles as an impartial observer, careful never to get personal... at least I did my best to just "report." I tried hard never to get involved. I didn't realize that I adhered to the same format when I wrote fiction. Ursula Hegi helped me to see this. She made me realize that a novelist, a writer of fiction, must speak from the heart, must get personal, must be involved. For this, I'll be forever grateful. Further, she encouraged me never to give up. Three is the magic number, Ursula said. Since I had already completed two projects, three, she reiterated, is where you'll succeed. For this encouragement, I’ll always be appreciative. In addition, I know for a fact that Ursula gave every other class participant the same individualized assessment and just as much support.
DB Saxton, non-matric student
I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to study with David Rakoff as I am a huge fan of his writing. Because of his work, I was expecting a lot, specifically a lot of humor and one exceptionally smart Jewish man. He more than delivered. He is a brilliant and humorous lecturer thus making class both informative and highly entertaining. His feedback was helpful and his insights were often surprising and unexpected. He encouraged us to approach our topics from unconventional points of view serving to make our writing more original. Ultimately, because he’s so damn smart, he inspired me not only in my writing but also to be a better reader so people will think I’m smart too.
Michelle Silverthorne, SPD Student
This workshop cemented my passion for writing and it was without a doubt the best experience of my academic career.
Elaine C. Rooney, SPD Student
Walking into the first class at Stony Brook Manhattan, I’m not sure what made me more nervous: that it was being taught by Matt Klam, ‘Whoa!’ or that it was going to be 7 hours long, ‘Ugh.’ Both of these worries quickly dissipated and by the time the first day of class ended, I’d decided that Matt was one of the best creative writing teachers I’d ever had and that at the end of 7 hours I was left wanting more. Matt was insightful, relevant, and energetic. The readings he chose for us were directly related to issues we were struggling with in our own writing, and his feedback on our work was second to none. My fellow students were engaging, encouraging, and fun to be around. Most importantly, though, the workshop environment was a safe and non-judgmental place to write, share, discuss, and create new work. I look forward to all that the new program at Stony Brook Manhattan has to offer.
Suzanna Filip, MFA Program student
The Inaugural Manhattan Intensive was spectacular. As has been my experience of other Stony Brook Southampton Writing Courses, this was the best type of gathering in which to learn and be inspired and energized to continue. For me, each has its benefits. Of course, Southampton is beautiful and the very surroundings and immersion with readings and living together provides a wonderful freedom and writing space. I couldn't have anticipated how such an environment could have been created in the middle of NYC one day a week. It was. Not only was it convenient for me to fit the intensive into my usually busy NYC life, but, during these hours, I was in a womb and an environment created by the focus, company, thoughts and thoughtfulness of others, all led by Matt Klam.
Judith Caporale, SPD Student
As a graduate of the Southampton MFA program, I was already well aware of Matt Klam’s brilliance as a teacher: conscientious, thoughtful, funny, insightful, encouraging, and entertaining. So I jumped on the opportunity to take a class with him again, this time a series of day-long intensives in Manhattan. Just as I had hoped, the days flew by, and my creative brain, which had been dormant for far too long, was suddenly stimulated. I left every class excited to return home and write.
Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard, MFA Program graduate
It's no small task to keep a class engaged for eight hours, four Saturdays in a row—especially as the semester winds down. But that's exactly what Matt Klam did. With energy, humor, and thoughtful feedback, Matt made the class both a workshop and a means for producing new work. Writing prompts that include a minivan full of tomato sauce, a ghost, and a single tear are bound to lead to interesting writing. The intensive nature of the course created a bond between classmates, too; each provided extensive feedback and support for one another's work. As a student who lives at Southampton, the weekly jaunt to Manhattan offered a different and stimulating experience.
Diana Gallagher, MFA program student
It's almost absurd to think that I earned academic credits for doing what I love and for forging relationships with so many talented writers. I certainly hope that this workshop format continues in future semesters. Saturday classes and a location close to Penn Station made it easy for those of us who work and commute. Not only was Matt a wonderful mentor, but I was also in awe of the talent of the workshop participants.
Carri Ann Horner, MFA Program student