English 354: Introduction to Creative Nonfiction
(Annotated Sample Syllabus)
It is sometimes comforting to know that others seem to fail as often and as oddly as we do…and it is even more comforting to have such stories told to us with style, the way a writer has found to an individual expression of a personal truth.”
--Scott Walker, Editor
Essays, Memoirs & Reflections
In this course, you will learn how to translate personal experience and research into effective pieces of creative nonfiction. We will strive to define the term “creative nonfiction” by reading work across a broad spectrum of content and form, and you will learn how to read these pieces both as a scholar and as writer. We will also delve into the ethical considerations that come into play when writing from “real” life.
Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (Second Trade Edition), Miller and Paola
The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, Williford and Martone
Brevity, an online literary journal: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/
Several handouts that you will print from Blackboard (you must bring them to class)
In this introductory creative nonfiction course, our objectives are to:
1) Gain a better understanding of yourself as a writer; insight into your process as a writer; shortcuts to getting words on paper, and/or a breakthrough in revision methods.
Grasp some basic concepts about creative nonfiction: what the terms implies, the forms it takes, the craft elements necessary to its success.
Refine your grasp of syntax and grammar so that you can write effective prose.
Begin thinking about the ethical implications involved when writing about your own life and the lives of others.
Learn how to read published nonfiction writers as models for your own work, and learn how to read your colleagues’ writing with authority, compassion, and insight.
Learn how to interact effectively in the group workshop, so that you may develop your own reading/writing groups in college and beyond.
Attentive and Active Participation is Vital. You will be allowed TWO absences; any more than two absences will adversely affect your class participation grade. You will be expected to actively participate in class discussions and small-group workshops, thoughtfully responding to both assigned texts and your colleagues’ work. I expect you to complete the assigned reading before each class, coming to class prepared with passages underlined, questions, and comments.
In-Class and Out-of-Class Writing. Each week we will do in-class writing exercises designed to help you generate ideas, begin new pieces, and/or revise existing work. Some of these may remain fragments or beginnings; others may wind up as complete short essays in themselves. You must write for the entire time given for the exercise. If you feel you cannot write anywhere but in your writing space at home, then you shouldn't be in this class. If you refuse to do the writing in class, or if it is obvious you are not doing the work, you will be asked to leave, as your disengagement will affect others. Out-of-class writing assignments may be done alone or in a group.
Brevity Presentations: See Handout for specific details.
A Midterm Essay and a Final Portfolio. These are graded assignments. You will build on the work we do throughout the course to complete these writings. Your grade will reflect your class participation (including the Brevity presentation. I will give you handouts on these assignments as the time draws near.
A Note on Content: In this class we will not tolerate work that is intentionally offensive. This is not the place to express gratuitous violence or graphic sexual content, nor will we tolerate hate speech toward any group of people. We might encounter work that is able to negotiate sexuality and violence in effective ways, and these might be questions that spur some of our discussions, but it will be my call if I feel your work is inappropriate in the context of this class.
Part of being in a creative writing class is learning how to be a responsible and effective member of a literary community, to be aware of your audience and of the purposes of different types of writing. If you feel this guideline is a restraint on your creative process, this will not be the class for you. Persistent use of offensive language or content that creates a hostile environment will result in a failing grade.
Some Essential Questions to Guide our Reading and Writing:
What is “creative” about “creative nonfiction?”
When does the “creative” part become fiction?
What are the ethical considerations writers must take into account?
What writerly techniques are most effective in this genre?
How do writers effectively structure pieces in this genre?
How do we characterize a strong “voice” in this genre?
How do we overcome inhibition while writing in this genre?
What about writing other people’s stories? Who “owns” the story?
How does a writer gain access to memory? How can this memory be represented both accurately and aesthetically?
How do writers incorporate research in creative nonfiction?
Why are personal stories interesting to others? What makes them “universal?”
What are your particular questions about creative nonfiction?
English 354 Class Calendar
Anyone can write if you read. I mean, anyone can begin to write if that's what he or she wants to do…. You've got to just read and read and read.
Thursday, Sept. 22: Intro, syllabus, Lynda Barry
[“Lynda Barry” is an interview with the cartoonist on the nature of creativity, broadcast on the radio show To the Best of our Knowledge. It provides some wonderful language to use about the creative mind vs. the thinking mind, and it’s funny too. I play this for the students on the first day, and we discuss the points that resonate with them: http://wpr.org/book/091122b.cfm]
Tuesday, Sept. 27
Read: “Where to Begin” in TIS, and “Introduction” by Scott Russell Sanders in Touchstone. Underline any passages that to you either explain the genre well and/or bring up more questions. Come prepared to discuss these passages in class.
Bring: Type up a passage from a book or magazine or blog (or something else) that to you seems to fit into the category of creative nonfiction (1 paragraph or so). After typing up the passage, write a paragraph that explains why you chose this passage, what it means to you, where you first encountered it, and what makes it strong or memorable. Make TEN COPIES of this single page document.
Intro to Brevity magazine in class. In-class writing.
[Each student, throughout the course of the quarter, will choose an essay from the online journal Brevity to present to the class. Here is the actual assignment:
“Brevity Magazine: Brevity is an online journal that publishes short-short creative nonfiction (under 750 words) in quarterly editions. You will read through current and back issues of Brevity, choosing one piece that you feel exemplifies strong voice in creative nonfiction. You will write up a response to this essay (up to 1 page), pointing out the craft elements that make this piece and effective short essay and/or write your own small essay (or the start of one) as a direct emulation or imitation of this piece. You will post the link to the essay and your response to it on Blackboard, so the class can use your research as a resource, as well as printing out a copy for me.”
We then start each class with one or two of these presentations, and if time allows, do in-class writing based on what the students have done.]
Thursday, Sept. 29
Read: TIS, Chapter One: The Body of Memory and “First” by Ryan Van Meter (Blackboard Handout: PRINT OUT THIS ESSAY and bring it to class. Underline any passages that stand out to you, in either positive or negative ways.)
[I use “First” as an excellent example of how to use present tense in creative nonfiction; the power of sensory details; the ability to suspend a moment in time; and how to create effective turning points. It is available online at: http://www.gettysburgreview.com/selections/essays/index.dot?inode=2616195&pageTitle=First&crumbTitle=First&author=Ryan%20Van%20Meter&story=true
But a nicer version is available in Van Meter’s Book: If You Knew Then What I Know Now, or in Best American Essays, 2009]
In-Class writing. [I have students emulate “First” and/or do “The earliest memory” exercise from TIS]
Tuesday, Oct. 4:
WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Do at least one more exercise from the “Try It” Section of Chapter One in TIS. Type one up and bring FIVE copies to class. (1-3 pages, double-spaced).
Read: “Burl’s” by Bernard Cooper in Touchstone
Thursday, Oct. 6:
Read: Chapter Two: Writing the Family, in TIS,
Read: “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” by Paisley Rekdal (Blackboard handout, print out and bring to class) “The Coroner’s Photographs (Blackboard Handout, print out and bring to class)
[These two handouts show different ways of approaching family material. “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” is available in her book of the same name, or online. “The Coroner’s Photographs” by Brent Staples is always very powerful for students. It is available in his book Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White]
Read: In Touchstone: “Interstellar” by Rebecca McClanahan.
Tuesday, Oct. 11:
WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Do at least two Try-it Exercises from Chapter Two of TIS AND/OR type up and revise any in-class writing from Thursday, Oct. 6; type these up and bring two copies of each to class (1-3 pages each).
Read: David Sedaris, “Repeat After Me” in Touchstone
Thursday, Oct. 13:
Read: “Reading History to My Mother,” by Robin Hemley in Touchstone.
[I use this essay as a way to talk about the use of form and visual elements in creative nonfiction]
In-class writing: Bring a family photo to class.
[I have the students write about their own photos, but also about each other’s.]
Tues, Oct. 18:
Writing Assignment: Draft of Midterm essay due: Bring FIVE copies to class
Read: Chapter Three of TIS: Taking Place.
Read : “Living Like Weasels” by Annie Dillard, and “A Small Place” by Jamaica Kincaid, both in Touchstone.
Bring: Bring a physical object to class that, to you, represents a particular place. In-class writing.
[Note: if you’re on semesters and have more time, this would be a good place to insert Chapter Four: “The Spiritual Autobiography”]
Thurs, Oct. 20:
Read: TIS Chapter 15: Sharing Your Work: The Writing Group and Workshop”
[Use this chapter to create guidelines and “best practices” for workshop discussion.]
Workshop on Midterm Essays.
Discussion of revision.
Tues, Oct. 25:
Writing Assignment: Final Draft of Midterm Essay Due; BRING TWO COPIES
Read: Chapter Five in TIS, “Writing the Arts.”
Read : “Somehow Form a Family” in Touchstone
In –class writing
Thurs, Oct. 27:
Read : Chapter Six of TIS: “Gathering the Threads of History.”
Read “Leap” by Brian Doyle, in Touchstone. In-Class Writing
[For in-class activity on the day you read these, do the exercise “Dating a Significant Event.”]
Tues, Nov. 1: Read TIS Chapter Seven: “Writing the Larger World” and TIS Chapter Eight: “Using Research to Expand Your Perspective.”
[If you are teaching on semesters and have more time, break this reading up into at least two sessions.]
Read: “The Hazing of Swans” Suzanne Paola, in TIS “Sample Essays”
Read: “Moon Snail” by Barbara Hurd [available in Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Creative Nonfiction. OR take this as an opportunity to look at some Brevity pieces or other works in Touchstone.]
Thurs, Nov. 3:
Writing Assignment Due: Incorporating historical or cultural background into a personal story. Bring 3 copies to class.
Tues, Nov. 8:
Read: TIS Chapter Nine: “The Tradition of the Personal Essay”
Read: “Consider the Lobster” David Foster Wallace, in Touchstone
Thurs, Nov. 10:
Read: Chapter Ten in TIS: “Playing with Form: The Lyric Essay and Mixed Media”
Read: “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay” by Brenda Miller, in “Sample Essays” in TIS.
Read: Anthony Farrington, “Kissing” and Dinty Moore, “Son of Mr. Greenjeans” in Touchstone
[ You can also show the students Dinty Moore’s wonderful “Google Maps” essay: “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” available online: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=117518500794242822937.00046c27922ecb66b6fca]
[Note: the last two weeks are pretty packed with reading for the quarter system. If possible, and you have time, spread these out, with more writing in between, or drop one of the TIS chapters.]
Tues, Nov. 15:
Read TIS Chapter Eleven: “The Particular Challenges of Creative Nonfiction”
Read: Jo Ann Beard, “Fourth State of Matter” in Touchstone
[For a current—February 2012—controversy in creative nonfiction ethics, check out the heated conversation on Brevity’s creative nonfiction blog about the liberties John D’Agata takes with facts in his recent work: http://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/how-negotiable-is-a-fact-in-nonfiction/]
Thurs, Nov. 17:
Read: Chapter Twelve: The Basics of Good Writing in any form and Chapter Thirteen: The Writing Process and Revision.
Writing Assignment: Draft of Final Essay due, bring Two Copies to class.
In-class work on revision.
Tuesday, Nov. 22: Workshop
[If you are teaching on the semester system or have more time, you can use a week to study Chapter Eleven: “Online Writing and Social Media” and/or Chapter Sixteen: “Publishing Your Creative Nonfiction.”]
Thurs, Nov. 24: Thanksgiving, no class
Tues, Nov. 29: Workshop Draft of Final Essay. Bring Two Copies to Class.
Final workshop in small groups; review and reflection. Class evaluations
Thurs, Nov. 30: Final Reading; Class Anthology; Final Portfolio Due