ENG-W 311: Writing Creative Nonfiction

Course Description

Creative nonfiction is an exciting genre to read and to write. It complicates the boundary between what we normally think of as imaginative storytelling and writing about real people, places, things, and events. Most people associate imaginative writing or fiction with, say, fantasy novels, contemporary fiction, romance, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, and most of what we call “Literature,” while we think of nonfiction as writing about real events: journalism, documentary or travel writing, personal essays and memoirs.

Creative nonfiction (or “CN”) combines the best of both worlds, fusing elements of fiction and nonfiction by emphasizing the creative potentials of everyday life and simultaneously honoring the strangeness of reality. This is certainly part of the genre’s appeal. So, while it’s fair to say that creative nonfiction is rooted in reality or things that have actually happened, it also plays fast-and-loose with what we might think of as “truth” and gleefully incorporates figures of speech, rich imagery, exaggeration, creative characterization, and other stylistic elements that we might normally associate with literary texts.   

This course will 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. Together we will read some of the finest examples of creative nonfiction writing available; read, internalize, and imitate these models; practice the kind of discipline a good writing habit demands; and have our work read, critiqued, and supported by a small group of smart, sophisticated readers.

Learning Outcomes 

  • Identify and discuss primary elements of the genre of creative nonfiction;
  • 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.

Reflection and Revision Statement (2018-2021)

When I originally conceived and taught this course, it was more of an historical survey of creative nonfiction that also happened to have a reasonably involved workshop component. In other words, the primary focus of the course was on introducing students to the genre of creative nonfiction and taking them on an historico-theoretical foray into how the genre developed, from proto-creative nonfiction like James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to more contemporary works like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and the late Miriam Engleberg’s touching graphic novel Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. Students read and analyzed some of the finest examples of creative nonfiction available—both historical and contemporary, novels and short works—and learned how to internalize the kinds of discipline and habits of observation that good writing demands.

When I revised the course in the spring of 2021, I knew that I wanted to maintain that focus, but I also wanted to make room for more in-class writing, group writing, and workshopping. That is, in the previous version of the course, which was quite popular with students, I felt that I had allowed the survey function of the course to take over; in order to develop a course that would be relevant and beneficial for the greatest number of students (many of whom had never taken an advanced writing course before), in the revised version, I tightened the focus 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 to achieve this goal.

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.”

This course revision also addressed the only negative comment that I had ever received on the course, which was that there were too many readings and thus too many separate texts to purchase. Usually I take these kinds of criticisms with a grain of salt; students often complain about heavy reading loads, and in a 300-level English course, heavy reading loads certainly come with the territory. But this comment carried some weight with me because I had come to realize, upon reflection, that assigning a 450-page tome like Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, gorgeously written and brilliantly conceived though it may be, was simply not feasible in a course where so many other things had to happen in such a short period of time. 

I also came to realize that the reading list lacked diversity. (As much as I love the inimitable writing style of James Agee and the emotionally-charged photojournalism of Walker Evans, it tends to raise some eyebrows in this day and age when students and administrators see a book about “praising famous men” on the reading list.) So, I had the perfect opportunity to cut down on the longer readings and introduce the students to a more diverse group of writers. I accomplished these tasks by assigning the wonderful creative writing anthology Creating Nonfiction by Doug Hesse and Becky Bradway. 

Based on the evaluation feedback in the spring of 2021, I made the right move. In the item that asks students to rate the textbook, I received a perfect “5.00.”

Since the genre of creative nonfiction complicates the boundaries of what we normally think of as imaginative writing and writing about real people, places, things, and events, it’s fair to say that creative nonfiction is rooted in “reality” or things that have actually happened. However, 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. By including more readings by a more diverse group of authors, I was able to help expand students’ perceptions by helping them to see how different writers approach the same themes, events, and objects differently. This revised focus 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.

Based on student feedback and my own research and reflections, I re-designed ENG-W 311 for the spring of 2021 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 Syllabi, Course Evaluations, and Other Materials 

Course Syllabus (Spring 2021)

Course Schedule (Spring 2021)

Course Evaluations (Spring 2021)

Teaching Observation Letter by Dr. Erin Doss (Spring 2021)

Teaching Observation Letter by Dr. Jim Coby (Spring 2021)

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