Foundations of Creative Nonfiction
Creative nonfiction has become one of the fastest-growing genres in the literary and publishing community. It encompasses forms from memoir and personal essay to literary journalism, travel writing, and hybrid forms like the lyric essay, as well as many others. In this course, participants will get to experience working in a few of these subgenres by writing three essays of approximately 3,500 words. Each of the weekly lectures and readings will focus on a particular issue relevant to writing creative nonfiction, like how to go about conducting research, how to find and select subjects to write about, and how to use the scene building elements of craft to create memorable essays. There will also be optional writing assignments leading up to these larger assignments.
How it works:
Each week provides:
- written lectures and a selection of readings
- discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
Some weeks also include:
- writing exercises and prompts
- opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
- optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterward as a recording for those who cannot participate)
Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.
Week 1: An Overview of Creative Nonfiction
During this introductory week, the lecture and readings will take a broad look at the various genres and subgenres in creative nonfiction. We’ll discuss the tactics writers use to pull us in as readers and we’ll look at what distinctively marks them as creative nonfiction. Because sometimes we know what to write about but other times we may need a jumpstart, the optional writing exercise will focus on techniques for launching a topic and for further developing our ideas in depth.
Week 2: Voice and Authenticity
Having the right voice (or voices) for your subject can harness commitment and understanding from your reader. This week we’ll explore the role voice plays in creative nonfiction. Can we ever really write in an authentic voice? Through a writing exercise, we’ll learn how to draw on our own experiences to individualize our voice. We’ll also discuss how to find the “right” narrative voice for our subjects.
Week 3: Particulars of Scene
How do we weave together storytelling strategies like description, dialogue, anecdote, character development, and a strong authorial presence to engage the reader in a new world? This week will focus on the building blocks of creative nonfiction. Participants will learn how to create effective scenes that make characters come alive on the page, when to use dialogue and description to dramatize crucial moments, and how to gracefully include backstory without overwhelming the narrative. Participants will submit their first full-length essay (up to 3,500 words) by the end of the week.
Week 4: The Role of Research
This week we’ll talk about the importance of incorporating outside voices in our work, mainly those from research, and how these voices can affirm, support, challenge, and judge our own. The lecture will focus in depth on the ways to gather research—from mining our own memories and utilizing discussions from our friends and family to gathering information online or from public resources. We’ll learn how to use this research seamlessly in our work without sounding pedantic and while still maintaining the authorial voice. With the optional writing exercise, participants will learn how they can broaden the scope of their stories, shifting their work from the personal to the universal.
Week 5: Participatory Journalism
Immersing oneself, firsthand, in a life experience is one of the best research tools for creative nonfiction writers to use. This genre of writing, known as “immersion writing” or participatory journalism, was pioneered by writers like George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson. Recent practitioners of the form include Barbara Ehrenreich and A.J. Jacobs. This week we’ll follow in their footsteps and discover ways in which we can immerse ourselves in new experiences and opportunities for our writing—from taking up a new class or hobby to going “undercover” to following a particular subculture.
Week 6: Writing About Other People
This week’s focus will be on the ways we can accurately and honestly portray the subjects we write about. We’ll go over strategies for interviewing people that will let us into familiar worlds through new avenues, and we’ll discuss the legalities of writing about real people. Through this week’s lecture and the readings, we’ll see how writers use description and dialogue, as well as making sure to work in a pertinent backstory, to create individualized portraits.
Week 7: Writing About Place
Sometimes the “main character” in an essay can be a landscape—whether it is a new place we’ve visited, a place like our own hometown that we know very well, or a place we’ve merely passed through once. This week the lecture will focus on the role place can have in our writing, and, through the readings, we’ll examine the ways in which a writer’s presence can still be felt, whether up close or from afar, through the use of sensory details to make the reader feel the writer’s experience. We’ll combine our own memories with here-and-now observation to fully capture a particular place. Participants will submit their second full-length essay (up to 3,500 words).
Week 8: Polemics
Through writers like James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, and Joan Didion, we’ll look at the polemic or opinion essay, a form that allows writers to construct and share an argument based on evidence, facts, and reason. We’ll discuss the role narrative tone can play in these essays and how to use rhetorical appeals to persuade our audience.
Week 9: Credibility and Fact-Checking
What is our obligation to the people we are writing about? Creative nonfiction writers often walk a thin line between being creative and truthful. This week’s lecture will focus on issues relating to truth, accuracy, and fact-checking in writing creative nonfiction. We’ll discuss the boundary between ethical and artistic clarity to consider whether emotional truth supersedes factual truth. At the end of the week, participants will turn in their third full-length essay (up to 3,500 words).
Week 10: Structure and Form
A writer must have a repertoire of forms to draw from in shaping their work and so this week will have an emphasis on structure—what are the different ways writers can organize their ideas, images, and facts on the page, and how do these various structures affect how we understand the genre? For our final week, we’ll look at the interplay between form and content, and the readings will focus on writers who’ve pushed the conventions of narrative form.
Questions? Check out our FAQ page, or contact Sharla Yates at yates[at]creativenonfiction.org.