CREATIVE NONFICTION WRITING
W , 139A
Porter Shreve Office: 119 McIver
firstname.lastname@example.org Office Hours: W 12-2
334-4692 (and by appointment)
Required: Bill Roorbach. The Art of Truth: Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.
On Reserve: Various Essays (check
Creative Nonfiction is a disputed term, but generally speaking it encompasses three sub-genres: memoir, essay and literary journalism. Many creative nonfiction classes concentrate on one of these three, but here we’ll be writing in a variety of forms and reading a bit of everything: autobiographies of place, memoirs, personal reflections on art, meditations on the natural world, personal political writing, travel essays, profiles, critical analyses, and experiential journalism.
For the purposes of organization I’ve divided the semester’s reading into formal categories: Place, Portraits, Creative Criticism & Inquiry, Science & Nature, Society & Culture. I’ve further divided each of these categories in two: Personal and Journalistic. Under Place/Personal, for example, we’ll read mostly memory pieces focused around a locale by such authors as the funeral director/poet Thomas Lynch; under Portraits/Journalistic, we’ll read an excerpt from John Hersey’s group portrait of Hiroshima after the bomb; and under Society & Culture/Journalistic, we’ll read the beginning of Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiential study of surviving in America working minimum wage jobs.
At the completion of this course, you should be able to:
1. Identify and understand the varied characteristics of literature
2. Apply the techniques of literary analysis to texts
3. Use literary study to develop your skills in careful reading and clear writing
4. Demonstrate an understanding of the diverse social and historical contexts in which the assigned literary texts have been written and interpreted.
1-4 short (4-8 page) essays
1-3 long (9-20 page) essays.
1 presentation (each of you will present on a favorite nonfiction piece or two, no longer than 15 pages)
1 essay exercise (each of you will create an essay triggering exercise, which you will type up and distribute on the day of your presentation)
Final portfolio: 30-50 pages of polished, vivid, thought-inspiring prose.
In-class writing: what’s in a word (from Kim Barnes)
“The Undertaking” Thomas Lynch, p. 270
“At the University: Little Murders of the Soul” Vivian Gornick, p. 235
Due: photograph connected to your hometown or a triggering objet d’art
In-class writing: caption essay (from Civilization Magazine)
“Meet the Shaggs” Susan Orlean (handout)
“One Village” Naomi Shihab Nye, p. 465
Due: 3-6 page short piece
From The Liar’s Club Mary Karr, p. 143
“Tracks and Ties” Andre Dubus III, p. 118
“Country Matters” Hayden Carruth, p. 217
III. CREATIVE CRITICISM & INQUIRY
“The Dead Father: A Remembrance of Donald Barthelme” Phillip Lopate, p. 220
“Music is my Bag: Confessions of a Lapsed Oboist” Meghan Daum, p. 517
W 3/12 Spring Break
From The Silent Woman Janet Malcolm, p. 525
“The Mystery of Mickey Mouse” John Updike (handout)
Due 3-6 page short piece
IV. SCIENCE & NATURE
“Spring” Sue Hubbell, p. 429
“When Doctors Make Mistakes” Atul Gawande, p. 502
“Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp” Joy Williams, p. 286
V. SOCIETY & CULTURE
“This is What You Need for a Happy Life” Jane Shapiro, p. 275
“On Being the Target of Discrimination” Ralph Ellison, p. 206
From Waist-High in the World Nancy Mairs, p. 254
From Nickel-and-Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in
*Final Portfolio is due in my office on Wednesday, May 7
5. (Personal/Place) Captions: On the “Captions” page of Civilization Magazine, writers are asked to describe a photograph, drawing or objet d’art. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, writes about a picture of her mother and herself, and suggests what significance the simple snapshot has for the context of her family life at that moment. “Memory,” she says, “is our favorite form of time travel” and the snapshot helps to get “across the mysterious abyss of time.” To reach back into memory and begin to give yourself a sense of setting and detail, pick photographs of your own and write a “caption essay” about them.
6. (Personal/Portrait): Separate Paths: Write a memoir piece about a person you know (from your family or perhaps among your childhood friends) who took a divergent path from your own. Look at the way John Edgar Wideman explores the differences and similarities between himself and his brother in Brothers and Keepers or the way Kathryn Harrison handles incest in The Kiss. Look also at Andre Dubus III’s reflective piece “Tracks and Ties.” Use the advantages of the personal essay form to weave assertion with illustration, anecdote with commentary. Remember that this is as much an essay about you as it is about your subject. Don’t shirk on self-analysis. Use your memory and, where appropriate, your imagination.
7. (Journalistic/Portrait): Where are they now: After reading Susan Orlean’s profile “Meet the Shags,” think of your own where are they now piece (this could be personal or journalistic). Track down or, if you’re not up for that, research and track someone you remember who might have been a local celebrity for a time in your hometown or city. If I were to write this piece, I might choose Lenny Skutnick, the hero of the Air Florida disaster, which occurred in my hometown of DC when I was in seventh grade. Where is this local celebrity now? To what extent does s/he still hold on to the memory of his/her golden moment? Consider segmenting the piece between past glory and present conditions. Where does the subject live? What role does place serve in the subject’s life?
8. (Personal/Society & Culture) Kim Barnes often speaks to her writing students about "bringing their intellect to bear" as they compose their personal essays. The problem creative nonfiction writers face, she says, is how to challenge their individual stories--how to take the narrative itself and expand its breadth and reach to encompass more of the world. One exercise that she uses to help her students achieve this goal involves building an essay from a single word. First, the students each choose one word--any word--to which they are particularly drawn, a word that resonates for them. A young man just discharged from the military might choose "paratrooper"; a middle-aged woman of Scottish descent might choose "bagpipes.” Students are then required to write five sections of nonfiction revolving around this single word: The first, third, and fifth sections must be personal memories triggered by the word, and they must be written in present tense no matter the actual chronology; the second and fourth sections must be more analytical, intellectual, philosophical, and explore the word in a more scholarly way. Students benefit in particular from studying the word's derivation and history. They often find passages in religious texts and mythologies that inform the word's meaning in their own experience. Some discuss the word's appearance and use in contemporary literature or film. The goal of this exercise is to weave the word's broader application into the writer's personal experience. Ideally, the five sections weave together and inform one another and bring to the essay a kind of intellectual unity as well as a greater depth and complexity.
A Brief Sampling of Creative Nonfiction Writers by Category
Margaret Atwood, Kim Barnes, Wendell Berry, Carol Bly, Judith Ortiz Cofer, William Kittredge, Michael Martone, James Alan McPherson
Buzz Bissinger, Ian Frazier, Darcy Frey, Jim Harrison, William Least Heat-Moon, Kathleen Norris, John McPhee
James Conaway, Dave Eggers, Phillip Lopate, Hillary Masters, Katha Pollit, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, Geoffrey Wolff
Elizabeth Gilbert, Jane Kramer, Beverly Lowry, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, Studs Terkel, Tom Wolfe
III: Creative Criticism & Inquiry
Nicholson Baker, Wayne
Koestenbaum, Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Tannen, Jane Tompkins, John Updike,
IV: Science & Nature
Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, Edward Hoagland, Linda Hogan, Maxine Kumin, Barry Lopez, N. Scott Momaday, May Sarton, Richard Selzer
Edward Abbey, Diane Ackerman, Stephen J. Gould, Bill McKibben, David Quammen, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas
V: Society & Culture
James Baldwin, Tony Earley, Gerald Early, Lucy Grealy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adrienne Rich, Richard Rodriguez
Ted Conover, Joan Didion, Malcolm Gladwell, Alex Kotlowitz, Michael Herr, Richard Rhodes, Susan Sontag, Randy Shilts