I've loved teaching American Literature this year. It's the first time I've had the class since I was a student teacher, so the material feels completely fresh to me. (It's also dredged up memories of my own high school experience, and the inimitable Dr. Dunn, who ultimately inspired me to take up a career in English teaching.)
My favorite facet of the course is its link to various philosophies. As we march through the history of American letters, we encounter the surge and retreat of various perspectives on life, love, nature, God, and the Universe. It's a long way from the Pequots or the Puritans to the Postmoderns, but, in the grand scheme, it's not so far a journey after all.
If I had to pick a favorite among favorites, I'd go with the Naturalists, with their scientific pessimism and earthy realism. As a junior, I was struck by Stephen Crane's cynicism, and wrote a (terrible) short story in the style of "The Open Boat." The experience changed me. (Probably for the worse.)
And so, as an English teacher, of course I've foisted that activity on my students. To help them--and you--to write a story in the Naturalist style, I have invented a template. Feel free to copy with attribution, and if you make any money on your masterpiece, I get 25%.
The Naturalist Story Template
an [average / poor / desperate / stupid / ugly / cruel ] person
struggles against [disease / poverty / racism / nature / temptation]
in [a desert / a jungle / the Arctic / a forest / the streets / factory / prison]
ultimately [losing / failing / dying / going mad / wasting away]
at the hands of [human cruelty / human indifference / an indifferent universe / inability to understand herself / bad luck]
That's it. Fill in the template, write away, and publish a bestseller.
Oh, and whatever you do, give it a third-person narrator, an ironically tragic (or tragically ironic) ending, and some faintly purple prose. You can't go wrong with purple prose.