Daily Themes

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Daily Themes is a writing course that has been taught at Yale since about 1907.

The Yale Course

Back in 1979 I took Daily Themes at Yale with poet John Hollander (father of Martha, Class of '80, like me). It is the oldest course on the books at Yale, going back to 1907. We had to write five one-page papers per week on assigned themes. A professor gave one lecture a week and we each had a session with a grad student in Machine City, the sterile, brutalist, underground coffee corridor of the library where he would go over our writing in detail.

  • "I had never had the singular importance of something impressed upon me by so many people unexpectedly. The recent Yale graduate sitting next to me on the plane. My friends. Acquaintances. Classmates. Guest speakers. Professors. Nebulously, in the air, whispered in my ears by the lingering ghosts of Yale alumni. Constantly, in both distinct memories and vague recollections, I recalled Yalies telling me to take one class: Daily Themes. As an aspiring English major and someone who (only sometimes!) buckles under peer pressure to do something really cool, I decided to take the (literally) storied class this spring." Logan (2020).

My Summer Project with Faith

I'm starting to work with my high school daughter, Faith, on writing. Here's how I envisage it:

Each weekday, you will write a 250-350-word piece on some theme I will give you. They will be non-fiction, I think. I attach part of my Substack as a 320-word length sample. The first two themes, for Thursday and Friday, are:

Thursday, July 13: An email requesting a recommendation letter from someone. (Faith chose an email to her cello teacher.)

Friday, July 14: How to make some sort of food, such as banana bread or ramen. Not a recipe--complete sentences only. (Faith chose pizza with home-made crust dough.)

Note that 350 words is a tight maximum. LibreOffice shows word count as you're writing.

Each weekday, I will meet with you and with anyone else on Zoom who wants to join for half an hour. We in 2810 Dale Court will have laptops open and we'll solve the audio feedback problem by having the sound turned off on one of them. You can come to these even if you haven't written the daily theme. You and I will work out how to schedule these and will tell everybody else.

Usually we'll go over the previous assignment, but the first two days we'll probably go over some of my " "Aphorisms on Writing, Speaking, and Listening" or talk about the Yale Daily Themes course. You don't need to read anything in advance.

One Week's Plan

July 17. 9pm

Discuss: How to make banana bread.
Turn in: Revision of Email asking for a recommendation letter

July 18. 9pm

Discuss: Revision of Email asking for a recommendation letter
Turn in: The meaning of the word "Experience".

July 19. 11am

Discuss: The meaning of the word "Experience".
Turn in: A fraught memory.

July 20. 9pm

Discuss: A fraught memory.
Turn in: Revision of The meaning of the word "Experience".

July 21. 10am

Discuss: Revision of The meaning of the word "Experience".
Turn in: Queneau anecdote.

July 18. Write a theme about the word "experience". Do you like it as a word? You can discuss the sound, the meaning, the etymology. Perhaps describe a time you heard it or used it.(adapted from the Yale list)

July 19. Using plain, ordinary words, write a theme about a particularly fraught memory. Write the theme so that it brings such things to life for a reader but use as spare and as sparse a style as you can. In fact, don’t use any word more than one syllable in length. Explore the tension between strength (and possibly complexity) of feeling and simplicity of expression. You may, if you want, even describe the difficulty of trying to convey that intensity within the given constraints. Let particularity, precision, understatement, and implication convey emotional power. (adapted from the Yale list)

July 21. The French writer Raymond Queneau wrote a book entitled Exercises in Style in which he represented the same basic event in ninety-nine different ways. Here is the anecdote:

"On the S bus, at rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been having a tug-of-war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A sniveling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself on to it. Two hours later, I meet him in La Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why."

Rewrite this anecdote in two different styles. You can even parody or emulate two different authors. How would Fitzgerald write it? How would Milton? See how Quneau did it (you’ll need to skip the prefatory elements).

Or write an anecdote of your own in two extremely different ways/styles. Make one tragic, for instance, and one comic. Again, you can emulate or parody other styles.(adapted from the Yale list)