Want to try something new this quarter? How about a course that encourages you to defy the rules of conventional writing and take your style to the cutting edge? If your writing gurus include Julio Cortazar, Haruki Murakami, or even William Faulkner, chances are you like to play with a little literary fire. New online creative writing instructor Tantra Bensko invites you to take your traditional story plotline and blow it to smithereens.

Tantra, an award-winning fiction writer and poet who has more than 100 creative writing publications to her credit, will be teaching Writing Experimental Fiction (Online) this spring. The Writers’ Program recently asked Tantra to shed a little light on the subject of experimental fiction.

Sara Bond: So, I’m sure many students are wondering: what exactly is experimental fiction?

Tantra Bensko: Experimental fiction is literary fiction with an artistic and unique presentation. When the writer puts the story together in a way that rebelliously breaks rules for a purpose, whimsically plays around with writing conventions or stomps on tradition with combat boots, that’s experimental fiction.

SB: How do you recognize experimental fiction?

TB: If the characters are always people, tension builds based on conflict, and stories make rational sense, then you are most likely reading traditional fiction. In a mainstream book, the author will most likely stick to one narrator and everything will tie up at the end and be explained. Experimental writing, on the other hand, mimics life by leaving things untied. Time and plot are very often jumbled and juxtaposed; characters are flat and actions are unbelievable, making the reader feel as if he or she has just run through a fun-house. Actually, Lost in the Fun House by John Barth is a great example of experimental fiction.

SB: You give students the option to send you a photo of themselves in an experimental form for your upcoming course. Is there a connection between the experimental writer’s photo and their writing?

TB: In addition to the photo, I ask students to write creative bios to accompany stories. While mainstream magazines look for a list of publications and awards and a mug shot, magazines that publish more eccentric work often like more quirky bios and photos that give the flavor of the piece. So the photo is to prepare for sending something to a magazine, and also to express to the other students what sort of style of writing to look for from that writer. Each writer will have his own goals, and we’re critiquing the stories based on that, rather than on traditional ideas of what is required to make a story. At the beginning, students may have a hard time keeping it all straight without some visual as an anchor. A plain photo isn’t as much help as a photo that is creatively done to represent the voice of the writer.

SB: When did you decide to become a writer? What influenced you? And why experimental writing?

TB: I never related much to regular consumerist society, TV, popularity requirements, pop music, class rings, and clothes bought at Walmart, so my writing has always leaned towards experimental. In high school, I wrote an experimental novel manuscript inspired by William Faulkner. I was influenced by the biographies of great writers, innovative artists, composers, dancers, filmmakers, scientists, and spiritual masters. My goal was to add great things to this world.

SB: Any advice for new writers out there?

TB: When your writing is ready, enter some inexpensive contests you feel you have a chance to win. Submit to magazines that have editor’s picks, as you don’t have to pay a fee and they send select published stories to the Pushcart Prize. Apply for residencies and send out to magazines regularly, making sure to keep good track of what you send and when you sent it. Don’t do things that compromise your image to the world. Don’t get impatient…and don’t take rejection personally.


Sara Bond is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events.


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