English 322: An Exercise in Writing and Self-Kindness

Professor Fox Poses for a Portrait
Professor Faulkner Fox poses for a portrait

When I was younger, I always fantasized about heading up North. I wanted to leave my hometown in Mississippi behind, and say farewell to the magnolia trees, to the humid summers and SEC football. The North was where culture was, and in my mind, it was where writers went.  

I had a particular fascination with New York. I associated the city with writing workshops, like Sackett Street or Gotham Writers. I was drawn to the intimacy of those spaces, and their dynamism, too—places where my prose and ideas could find harmony somewhere within a diverse chorus of voices. 

I didn’t end up studying in New York. But I’d find that very kind of energized intimacy in a course here at Duke. Last spring, I signed up for English 322, an intermediate-level workshop in the writing of creative nonfiction taught by Professor Faulkner Fox. 

The choice of nonfiction may seem unusual— “creative writing” brings to mind images of elaborate poetry or rich fiction. In her course, though, Professor Fox makes a strong case for this easily overlooked genre. “The personal essay is a form that is about voice,” she tells me. “So it’s perfect for students that are trying to find their voice.”

While developing this class, Professor Fox aimed to break down common preconceptions about nonfiction writing. So often, she notes, is nonfiction associated with “ponderous, solely intellectual pieces,” or with narratives of trauma. “Yeah, I included some heavier pieces, but I also wanted some that were laugh-out-loud funny!” 

Her choice goes beyond a simple desire to expose her students to different types of writing (though that was a consideration, too). It’s part of a broader, more democratic vision of writing. “You can really write a great personal essay about anything,” Professor Fox argues. “It’s all about the quality of the attention that you pay to the material. It’s not about how salacious that material is.”

Professor Fox also emphasizes the necessity of an inclusive environment. “A workshop needs to be a safe space—even when it’s not a pandemic. Even people writing humorous essays are dealing with vulnerable material. You can’t do that in a caustic or overly critical atmosphere. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t giving each other direct feedback. It’s just with the intent of helping people say what they want to say more deeply.”

Professor Fox’s careful preparations paid off. English 322 was unlike any other course I’ve taken to date. Once a week, my class of twelve met, to read the works of David Sedaris or James Baldwin, and to share our pieces, our criticisms—and crucially—our praises. And together, we grew as class, in the kind of vibrant spirit of collaboration I’d always desired. 

What’s stuck with me, now, a year later, is Professor Fox’s doctrine of self-kindness.

“Duke students tend to be perfectionists. In creative writing, some of what you need to do is unlearn the things you learned in high school. Paradoxically, the skillset that got you into Duke, you have to set aside initially in writing classes.”

“Perfectionism is incredibly essential in editing. But when you’re beginning a piece, you need this kind of kindness and openness with yourself that’s impossible without allowing yourself to write shitty.”

I’m not the only one who found the course valuable. “I learned a lot about the writing process,” says my former classmate Chris Kuo, a sophomore majoring in English. “And Professor Fox pushed me to focus on sensory details and concrete imagery, to allow those details to speak for the reader.”

Graduating senior Lenna Catrett likewise heaps praise on the course. “Professor Faulkner-Fox is an extremely thoughtful and intelligent professor and writer,” she tells me, “and her feedback on my writing has been so insightful.”

And, Catrett adds, “This class was full of students like me who love words and stories. I always felt happy and at peace to come into a classroom with peers who wanted to read and write and learn as much as I did.”

While English 322 is not offered next fall, Professor Fox readily anticipates the return of in-person classes. “There’s some great advantages of virtual learning,” she qualifies. “But there’s a whole level of teaching taken away. I miss being able to read and understand the room. I was not aware of how much information I was getting from that until it was taken away.” 

If you want to take a course with Professor Fox, she’ll instead be teaching “Plays that Change the World,” an exploration of influential plays throughout history with a creative writing component. She taught this class for the first time last semester, but the course will be taught in-person for the first time in Fall 2021. Professor Fox is optimistic: “Hopefully we can go out to plays that are in actual theatres!”