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Examples Of Creative Non-Fiction Essays

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The Art of the Personal Essay:  Thinking, Being, Conversing, Disagreeing, Meditating & Confessing  (C)

Debra Marquart

The essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method.  The idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writings.  To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed.

 –Philip Lopate, “Introduction,” The Art of the Essay

In this presentation, we will look at a sequence of short stand-alone personal essays in order to investigate the origins of the form and to speculate about its future possibilities, especially the personal essay as a form that allows the exploration of the life of the mind, as well as the anecdotal and the subtle, intangible moment.  Where is there room for the personal essay in a world so preoccupied with its showy cousin, the memoir?  What are the common features—if any—between memoir and personal essay?  Often characterized as inward, tentative, conversational and ruminative, personal essays have the capability to imply multitudes of thought and experience.  In his “Introduction” to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate writes that the personal essay is a form “that is able to make the small loom large” as the author “simultaneously contracts and expands the self” into narrative.  Lopate describes the personal essay as a form of “inverse boasting” in which the author is able to take the “small, humble things in life” and turn them into a “grand meditational adventure.”  For this class, participants are encouraged to bring a micro-essay or mini-festo (100 words or less) of their own personal writing, inspired by the required readings that suggest the future forms and innovations that might grow out of the rich traditions of the personal essay.  

(Please e-mail for a pdf of the following readings.)

Required Reading:

Philip Lopate, The Arts of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present

Read:             Philip Lopate, “Introduction” (pp. xxiii – liv)

                        Seneca, “On Noise,” and “Asthma” (pp. 3 - 9)

                        Sei Shonagon, “Hateful Things” (pp. 23 – 28)

                        Michel de Montaigne, “Of a Monstrous Child” (pp.  57 – 58)

                        Walter Benjamin, “Hashish in Marseilles” (pp. 370 – 375)

                        Natalia Ginzburg, “He and I” (pp. 422 – 430)

                        Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (pp. 479 – 504)

                        E. B. White, “Once More to the Lake (pp. 532 – 538)

                        Edward Hoagland, “The Courage of Turtles (pp. 656 – 662)

                        Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That” (pp. 681 – 688)

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

            Read:  “On Keeping a Notebook” (pp. 131-141)

                        “On Morality” (pp. 157 – 163)

 bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism

            “Killing Rage: Militant Resistance” (pp. 8 – 20)

 Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

            Read:  “On the Rainy River” (pp. 41 – 64)

                        “The Lives of the Dead” (pp. 253 – 273)

Jamaica Kincaid, “Biography of a Dress”  (pp. 200 – 206)

(reprinted in The Truth of the Matter:  Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, Ed.  Dinty W. Moore)

Ander Monson, “Essay as Hack”

Best American Essays 2009, Ed. Mary Oliver

            Read:  Barry Lopez, “Madre de Dios” (pp. 87 – 93)

                        Ryan Van Meter, “First” (pp. 177 – 180)

Susan Power, “Vision”

Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF Writers Offer Each Other(C)

Cait Johnson 

Many writers bridge the worlds of poetry and CNF—Wendell Berry, Mark Doty, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Mary Karr spring to mind, for instance—but whether or not you write in both genres, it’s good to know that each offers rich gifts to the other. Together we will explore those gifts and the ways we can all benefit from them to create stronger, more powerful work.

Please bring a short (one page) example of your own poetry or creative non-fiction and come prepared to do in-class timed writing exercises, working in pairs from a prompt, and more, as part of our appreciation of the love affair between poem and creative non-fiction.

Required Reading:

Mary Karr, Viper Rum

Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed

Suggested Reading:

Gary Paul Nabham, Cross-Pollinations

The Reflective Voice in Memoir (& Fiction) (C, TH)

David Mura

In most memoirs the writer recounts the experiences of a younger self.  In certain memoirs there is also the strong presence and voice of the narrator in the present; this narrator in the present reflects upon the experiences of younger self in ways the younger self could not have expressed.  Some refer to this narrator in the present as the reflective voice. 

This presentation will explore the various ways memoirists have used the reflective voice.  The reflective voice can be the voice of maturity and experience which then interprets the past and past self to the reader.  At times the reflective voice will use a particular lens or language to view the experiences of the younger self (therapy, class, gender, race, sexual preference, etc.).   

Another way of understanding the reflective voice is through first person narrative in fiction, particularly autobiographical fiction, where there is the strong presence of a narrator viewing and interpreting the experiences of a younger self.  In both memoir and first person fiction the reflective voice pronounces judgments upon the younger self and the events of the past.  It is through the depth and accuracy of these judgments that the narrator provides not just insight but establishes the reliability of her narration.   All of this leads to some theoretical discussions about the boundaries between memoir and fiction.

Required Reading:

Marguerite Duras, The Lover

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments

Pdf. with readings from Maxine Hong Kingston, V.S. Naipaul, Garrett Hongo, Mary Karr, James Baldwin

Suggested Reading:

Frantz Kafka, Letter to his Father

The Fragmentary Imagination:  New, Ancient, and Experimental Forms of Nonfiction (C)

Debra Marquart

The sub-genres of nonfiction writing are complex and myriad.  The variations—old and new—are dizzying, making it difficult for a nonfiction writer to find his or her own voice, form, and approach to getting nonfictional material onto the page.

In this presentation, we’ll first contextualize the genre by looking briefly at the spectrum of sub-forms that fall under the heading of nonfiction writing (such as autobiography, memoir, personal essays, philosophical essays, research nonfiction, reportage, immersion journalism), then we’ll spend the class time discussing more experimental forms and variations (such as fragmentary writing, lyric writing, associative essays, storytelling, revisionist fairy tales, and faux-memoirs). 

We’ll discuss short pieces from contemporary books, as well as short selections from John D’Agata’s two anthologies, The Next American Essays (which focuses on experimental forms of nonfiction) and The Lost Origins of the Essay (which focuses on unique forms of nonfiction writing across time, dating back to 1500 B.C.E.)  We’ll also look at some examples of performative nonfiction texts in the work of the performance artists Karen Finley and Coco Fusco. 

Required Readings:*

Biss, Eula, Notes From No Man’s Land:  American Essays (“Time and Distance Overcome,” pp. 3-13)

John D’Agata, Ed., The Lost Origins of the Essay

  • Kamau Brathwaite, “Trench Town Rock,” pp. 601-646;
  • Theophrastus of Eressos, “These Are Them,” pp. 23-26;
  • Mestrius Plutarch, “Some Information about the Spartans,” pp. 29-31;
  • Bernardino de Sahagun, “Definitions of Earthly Things,” pp. 107-112.

John D’Agata, Ed., The Next American Essay,

  • Sherman Alexie, “Captivity,” pp. 295-299;
  • David Shields, “Life Stories,” pp. 339-341;
  • Jenny Boully, “The Body,” pp. 435-466;
  • Joe Wenderoth, “Things to Do Today,” pp. 467-472.

Michael Martone, Blue Guide to Indiana (selection TBA).

Debra Marquart, The Horizontal World:  Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, (“Sustainable

            Agriculture:  The Farmer’s Daughter Revisited,” pp. 253-264)

Ander Monson, Vanishing Point:  Not a Memoir (“Solipsism,” pp. 91-104).

Lia Purpura, On Looking: Essays (“Autopsy Report”)

 * For a pdf of required readings, please send an e-mail request to

Going Home to the Impossible: the Strange, Explosive Power of Pedro Páramo (C)

Carolina De Robertis

Juan Rulfo’s slim novel Pedro Páramo is arguably one of the most influential texts of the twentieth century. Published in the author’s native Mexico in 1955, it received immediate acclaim and went on to intensely inspire the writers who would become known, in the 1960s, as the Latin American Boom Generation. The story opens with a young man promising his dying mother that he’ll go back to the town of Comala to find his father. The town is a surreal landscape of whispers, dead denizens, haunted memories, girls who drink blood. Nothing is solid in Comala; reality shifts and murmurs; death and life, the real and the impossible, merge and dissolve like fevered dreams.

For Gabriel García Marquez, Pedro Páramo was one of the two most influential texts of his earlier years (the other was Kafka’s Metamorphosis), to the point where he committed the entire thing to memory so it could fully suffuse him. Writers throughout the world who are indebted to Latin American “magical realism”—among them Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, José Saramago, and many more—are also indebted to Pedro Páramo, whether or not they have read it. It is one of those foundational books without which literature simply would not be what it is today.

What is it about this little book? How does it go about shaking readers open? We’ll explore the text and the many resonant questions it raises, with an eye toward what this text might open or inspire in our own work.

Required Reading:

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

“Thingified Pleasures” (C )

Barbara Hurd

A hundred and fifty years ago, Neruda admitted: “I have a crazy,/crazy love of things. . . many things conspired/to tell me the whole story.” And now Albert Goldbarth, in a poem entitled “Some Things,” confesses, “I’m weary of every gasleak/of abstraction. Conscience. Self-determination./Ominscience. Lassitude. Freewill./ . . . for now give me things” (italics mine).

Behind such thinking is the notion that that which is well-described will resonate beyond itself. There is, in fact, a long tradition (often called Dinggedicht) in which the writer focuses on a concrete object and, with the help of the imagination, connects it to the not-so-visible or, less grandly, reveals the thing itself in a new light. (It’s actually called being a writer.) In this seminar, we’ll take a look at some poems, prose poems, and miniature essays that demonstrate ways in which ordinary, unexamined objects of our lives are transformed into “thingified pleasures.”

Packet of material will be available through Blackboard.

Metaphor: Reviving the Ancient Alchemy (C)

Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Nancy Holder, Michael Kimball, Bruce Pratt, Elizabeth Searle

Over the past century, as more and more of our stories have been told onscreen, popular fiction writers have developed an increasingly visual style. At the same time, our fiction has seen a diminishment of metaphor.  This is a real loss, since modern brain science has proven what Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Homer knew long ago: a good metaphor triggers readers’ imaginations and sensory receptors in uniquely powerful ways. This panel will explore the hypnotic power of metaphor—and ways we can open our imaginations to receive metaphors as we create.

Required Reading:

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Lorrie Moore “You're Ugly, Too”'re%20Ugly%20Too.pdf

Denis Johnson, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”

Sylvia Plath: The following three poems

The Surgeon at 2 a.m.

In Plaster


Writing Our Lives, Writing the Lives of Others: Art, Betrayal, and Witness (C)

Ted Deppe

Whether we write memoir, fiction, or poetry, the greatest material for our art comes from our own lived lives.  But since our writing usually involves other people too, what consideration, if any, should the artist afford those who appear in our pages?  The author’s imperative is to write down what is essential about our lives, but is there any need to balance that with the rights of others?  Does the answer change if the author is also in a position of power (parent, health care professional, teacher, etc.) in relation to those people he or she is writing about?  We will consider poems, short stories, and essays and investigate what they have to tell us about ambition, responsibility, and craft.

Required Reading:

James Joyce, “The Dead,” short story in Dubliners

Jenny Boully, “Too Many Spirits Who Begged to Be Let In,” lyric essay in

Seneca Review, Fall 2007, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 143-154

Mark Doty, “With Animals,” poem in My Alexandria (reprinted in Fire to Fire)

Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” short story in Reasons to Live

Richard Hoffman, “Afterword, 1996,” from the memoir Half the House

Annie Deppe, “Walking Glen West,” poem from Sitting in the Sky

Ted Deppe, “Admission, Children’s Unit,” poem from The Wanderer King

Debra Marquart, “To Kill a Deer,” chapter from the memoir The Horizontal World

Broken Eggs, Bloody Hearts, and Other Sur-Realities: Discovering—and Writing—the Imagery that Haunts You (C, CC)

Cait Johnson

What images pop up again and again in your writing? In your dreams? In your everyday life? When we become the detectives of our own inner vision, mining it for clues, we open the door to a rich and resonant world.

We’ll take as our example Carole Maso’s Mother and Child, a surreal novel based on the author’s own life-events and dreams. With in-class writing exercises and some help from synchronicity, we’ll find out how can we create strong, unexpected work by exploring our own deep cosmology. Bring a dream journal, if you have one, and a one-page sample of your writing.

Required Reading:

Carole Maso, Mother and Child