ENG-W 311: Writing Creative Nonfiction

This course, which introduces students to the genre of creative nonfiction, takes students on an historical as well as theoretical foray into not only how this genre developed (from proto-creative nonfiction like James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), but also how the genre is traditionally conceived by practitioners and writers. To that end, students read and analyze some of the finest examples of creative nonfiction available—both historical and contemporary, novels and short works—and learn to internalize the kinds of discipline and habits of observation that good writing demands.

In order to develop a course that would be relevant and beneficial for the greatest number of students, we also focused on the basics of essay writing, and I was able to successfully incorporate a number of tools and activities normally associated with the teaching of writing in first-year composition: says/does/because analyses, freewrites, peer reviews, and so forth. Students readily took to these activities, and one even cited the says/does/because analysis as a useful tool that s/he uses in other coursework, too. The rest of the evaluations of this course were quite positive, with more than one student commenting on my enthusiasm, my ability to lead effective discussions, and my tendency to push students out of their “comfort zones.”

The only negative qualitative comments from this course focused on the quantity of readings and the number of books I had students purchase for this course. It is true that we didn’t have an opportunity to get to one of the novels that I put on the syllabus, as one student points out, and the next time I have an opportunity to teach this course, I am going to make the difficult decision of which of my texts to cut from the list. I am currently thinking about assigning excerpts from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (rather than trying to work through the entire 450-page volume) so that students can get a sense of Agee’s inimitable writing style and the way he takes on such challenging and delicate subject matter as poor white sharecroppers in 1930s Alabama.

The genre of creative nonfiction complicates the boundaries of what we normally think of as imaginative writing (e.g., fantasy novels, contemporary short fiction, romance, most “Literature”) and writing about real people, places, things, and events (e.g., journalism/nonfiction or documentary writing). So while it’s fair to say that creative nonfiction is rooted in “reality” or things that have actually happened, the genre also plays fast-and-loose with what we might think of as “truth” and gleefully incorporates figures of speech, rich imagery, and other stylistic elements that we might normally associate with literary texts. For this reason and others, I believe that ENG-W 311 is the ideal course in which to encourage students to experiment with perception and different ways of seeing the world. The genre combines elements of both fiction and nonfiction in a sometimes highly self-conscious fashion, which is certainly part of creative nonfiction’s appeal. But this also allowed us to explore the “epistemology of writing”: in other words, the course challenged students to think of writing not as a way of merely recording and transmitting a pre-set message or objective “slice of reality,” but a way of constructing what we think of as objective reality in the first place.

I designed the course to be equal parts (1) writing workshop, (2) overview of both classical and contemporary examples of creative nonfiction, and (3) extended course on the nonfiction essay. Students read some of the finest examples of creative nonfiction writing available; internalized and imitated these models; practiced the kind of discipline a good writing habit demands; and had their work read, critiqued, and interpreted by a small group of smart, sophisticated readers.

Learning Outcomes

  • Deploy rhetorical, grammatical, and stylistic principles relevant to the writing process and creative nonfiction;
  • Participate in a community of writers and share your works-in-progress in a small workshop environment;
  • Write clear and effective nonfiction prose;
  • See and imitate the ways in which professional writers, critics, and commentators make sense of (and report on) the cultures, discourses, and world(s) they inhabit;
  • Read and analyze long, complex works of creative nonfiction;
  • Understand and speak (and write) intelligently about the history and the development of creative nonfiction as a genre.

To successfully complete this course, you must…

  • Show up to class well-prepared and ready to learn. We will have important class discussions, in-class writing exercises and activities, impromptu workshops, etc. every time we meet, and these activities are pivotal to your success in this course. Don’t miss class.
  • Be willing (and able) to read actively and thoroughly. Just “getting through” the assigned readings will not ensure your success in this course. You must “read actively” (more on this later) to be able to understand what you have read.
  • Be willing (and able) to plan, draft (write), and revise. This is a writing studio/workshop, so you will be expected to write several short essays and reading responses.
  • Be willing (and able) to spend several hours’ worth of time and energy on your partners’ drafts and projects.
  • Be willing (and able) to actively participate during writers’ workshops and give specific suggestions on your partners’ drafts and projects.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

The highest possible score in each category is a 5.00 = “Strongly Agree”; the lowest possible score is 1.00 = “Strongly Disagree.”

ENG-W 311: Writing Creative Nonfiction Spring

2015 (31237)

1.)   The course was well organized.  4.50
2.)   The course objectives were clear to the students.  4.88
3.)   There was general agreement between announced course objectives and what was actually taught.  4.63
4.)   The instructor explained the subject clearly.  4.88
5.)   The instructor summarized the major points in lecture or discussion. 5.00
6.)   The instructor made effective use of class time.  4.63
7.)     The instructor was well prepared for class meetings.  4.38
8.)     The amount of reading was appropriate for the course.  4.75
9.)     In relation to other courses of equal credits and level, the workload in this course was appropriate.  4.63
10.)  The amount of material covered in the course was reasonable.  4.63
11.)  The course required more time and effort than others at this level.  4.37
12.)  The grading system for the course was clearly explained.  4.63
13.)  Grades were assigned fairly and impartially.  4.00
14.)  The instructor collected enough evidence for valid grading.  4.25
15.)  The exams accurately assessed what I have learned in this class. 4.75
16.)  The instructor showed a genuine interest in students  4.75
17.)  The instructor was readily available for consultation with students. 4.75
18.)  The instructor stimulated my thinking.  4.38
19.)  The instructor stimulated class discussion.  4.63
20.)  The instructor promoted an atmosphere conducive to learning.  4.88
21.)  Compared to other instructors I have had, this instructor is outstanding.  4.86
22.)  Compared to other courses I’ve taken, I learned more in this course. 4.83

Course Evaluation Summaries (Qualitative)

Spring 2015

“The most valuable thing I learned was how to read into why an author would write what they do, where they do. Being able to do a says/does/because review of a piece is incredibly useful to me in my courses now.”

“There was a lot of work, which helped push the mind and challenge the student.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] no extra space between the name, title, and paper. Haha. How to write a great creative nonfiction piece and how to write papers in a new way of thinking.”

“I liked the material and the opportunity to expand my writing skills.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] creative writing and how to process papers.”

“I liked the freedom and openness of the class.”

“Sometimes, the class got a little sporadic and it got confusing what was going on.”

“The most valuable thing I learned this semester was more about myself as a writer.”

“It looked bad having a fourth assigned book we didn’t get to. It didn’t cost much to get, but I could have gotten a different book.”

“I liked how free it was to write whatever, but with some guidelines.”

“I didn’t like all of the reading.”

“I learned, in general, how to be a better writer.”

“Dr. C is very enthusiastic and this translates well into his course. The reading material, especially the first book [Capote’s In Cold Blood], was entertaining.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] dunno.”

“Cook is very open and honest with his opinion and teaching style, which allows us to be able to adapt our writing.”

“The readings besides Thompson were a bit dull. => Fact that we barely got through Blue Highways.”

“I learned how to adapt to a teachers grading, and try to pass his class.”


Click here for the Course Syllabus (Spring 2015) and here for the Course Syllabus (Spring 2018).

Click here for our first Workshop Draft prompt on developing a “Personal Soundtrack” and here for our second Workshop Draft prompt on “Deep Mapping.”

Click here for the Guidelines for Final Portfolios handout.

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