Every Tuesday afternoon, nine highly–motivated students and soon–to–be–published authors file into Fisher Bennett Hall.They sit in a circle with professor Jay Kirk and prepare to workshop each other's work for three hours. Rather than culminating in a final exam, this real–world class at Penn culminates in a published magazine: XFic.
Though this may seem like any other creative writing class at Penn, there is a key difference: students have the guarantee that their work will get published.
Throughout the semester, these students work hard to create this final product, which functions as a a student–run journal. The class is run exactly this way—everyone has a position and everyone also writes content. Students agree that it's not just a class—it's a job.
Sydney Gelman (C'20), the managing editor, says, "XFic is basically a genre that Jay Kirk, who is our mentor and founding father, and my idol, came up with. It's experimental nonfiction, which means that you try to create your own plot and do things that are unexpected. So, you basically become the protagonist. In most of the stories, we're kind of writing about things that we are doing. So you become the protagonist, and you try to basically do things to alter the world around you. That's why it's experimental."
Kirk is an accomplished writer whose writing has appeared in GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Chicago Reader, The Nation, Nerve.com, Peregrine, and Cimarron Review. Kirk encourages students to go out of their comfort zone and test the typical boundaries of nonfiction and long–form writing. Throughout the semester, Kirk emphasized that writing is all about choices, and his students can choose to be passive audience members or make the radical choice.
Cece Chen (C ‘21), the Outreach Director, says, “You make the radical choice on how you want to structure your writing. You want to make it more interesting to read, and work more of your emotions and experiences in.”
Every class, three student–authors remain completely silent as they receive comments on their writing from their peers. Kirk, who has an impressive amount of experience in the world of magazine writing, chooses to have these students remain silent for the hour in which they receive feedback, because once their writing is published, they will not be there to explain as people are reading it.
The class encourages a community dynamic, and Cece says, “Honestly, the class I think is so, so cool, because you learn so much from reading how other people write."
Sydney explains, "You always go into [the workshops] thinking these pieces are so different than my writing… Jay and other people are saying about how to make it shorter, and how to center the narrative so it's not chronological but it flows, and how to get the reader involved, and all of that still applies to my piece."
For Sydney's piece, she went on dates with men she met through dating apps and did not tell them that she was basically trying out a stand–up comedy routine. With the frequent use of dating apps among college students, Sydney thought, "This is a weird social dynamic that's going on, and I wanted to play with it. Also, I think it's hard for young people to write on romantic encounters in ways that are genuine."
In order to join the class, students had to submit a long pitch to Kirk for a piece that they wanted to write. When most people think about nonfiction, they think about straight reporting, but this class challenges that notion—it encourages students to take more of a narrative form with their writing, and embrace the middle ground between fiction and nonfiction.
One of the highlights of the class, Cece explains, is that, “The class kind of forces you to get out of your comfort zone a lot… [and] talk to people I normally would not talk to.”
On April 23, XFic will host a launch party in which there will be live readings to give a preview of the journal. Any students with an interest in becoming a published writer in the fall should attend the launch party.