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Creative Nonfiction Personal Essay

Creative Non-Fiction

If representing and exploring the “real” by writing in the genre of creative non-fiction is your goal, we hope these tips about what creative non-fiction is, as well as some pointers on a few genres that are considered creative non-fiction (memoir and the personal essay) can help you. We have also included some tips about Writing Negatively About People in Your Life as well as links to some well-known examples of creative non-fiction to give you a sense of what is out there.

An Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction
What “is” creative non-fiction?
  • Creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc. This makes if different (more “creative”) than standard nonfiction writing.
  • Sometimes called literary journalism or the literature of fact, creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction, such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc.
  • Creative nonfiction should (1) include accurate and well-researched information, (2) hold the interest of the reader, and (3) potentially blur the realms of fact and fiction in a pleasing, literary style (while remaining grounded in fact).
  • In the end, creative nonfiction can be as experimental as fiction—it just needs to be based in the real.
Content of creative nonfiction:
  • It's important to clarify that the content of creative nonfiction does not necessarily have to come from the life or the experience of the writer. Say, for instance, the writer is using techniques from literary journalism to create a portrait of a person interviewed. The writer may choose to write a portrait of the interviewee through an omniscient perspective, meaning the writer wouldn't be in the piece at all.
  • On the other hand, nonfiction writers often choose to write about topics or people close to them (including themselves). As long as the piece deals with something real, or something based on the real, the writer is allowed to take the piece in any direction he or she wishes.
  • In creative nonfiction, writers attempt to observe, record, and thus shape a moment(s) from real life. Writers thus extract meaning through factual details—they combine the fact of detail with the literary extrapolation necessary in rendering meaning from an observed scene.
  • At the same time, successful creative nonfiction attempts to overlay fact with traditional conceptions of dramatic structure. While rendering meaning from an observed scene, a piece should suggest a beginning, middle and end that clearly conveys the conflict and the characters, and pushes the action toward some sort of closure.
  • In effect, creative nonfiction attempts to project a dramatic, literary framework upon everyday existence, rendering it enjoyable, enlightening and potentially meaningful.
  • While writing creative nonfiction, writers should dwell on sensory details and "show show show."
  • A piece should never just tell the reader something or summarize—this is what research non-fiction does.
Different “types” of creative non-fiction writing:
  • Due to the fact that creative nonfiction is an ever-evolving genre of writing, it is difficult to define set types:
    • The Personal Essay:
      A piece of writing, usually in the first person, that focuses on a topic through the lens of the personal experience of the narrator. It can be narrative or non-narrative-it can tell a story in a traditional way or improvise a new way for doing so. Ultimately, it should always be based on true, personal experience.

    • The Memoir:
      A memoir is a longer piece of creative nonfiction that delves deep into a writer's personal experience. It typically uses multiple scenes/stories as a way of examining a writer's life (or an important moment in a writer's life). It is usually, but not necessarily, narrative.

    • The Short Short: A short/short is a (typically) narrative work that is concise and to the point. It uses imagery and details to relay the meaning, or the main idea of the piece. Typically it's only one or two scenes, and is like a flash of a moment that tells a whole story.

    • Literary Journalism:
      Literary journalism uses the techniques of journalism (such as interviews and reviews) in order to look outside of the straight forward, objective world that journalism creates. It uses literary practices to capture the scene/setting of the assignment or the persona of the person being interviewed. It can often be narrative or heavily imagistic. Another important aspect of literary journalism is that it often stretches the idea of "objective facts" in order to better reflect real life and real people. In other words, while journalism is about being completely objective, literary journalism says that people can't be objective because they already have their own subjective views about the world. Therefore, by taking the "objectiveness" out of the journalistic process, the writer is being more truthful.

    • The Lyric Essay:
      The lyric essay is similar to the personal essay in that it also deals with a topic that affects the reader. However, the lyric essay relies heavily on descriptions and imagery. Lyrical suggests something poetic, musical, or flowing (in a sense). This type of piece uses a heavily descriptive, flowing tone in order to tell a story.

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Memoir: Tips for Writing about Your Life

Memoirs are an often overlooked subdivision of creative writing, and more specifically, creative non-fiction. They have the potential to be incredibly interesting, richly developed, beautifully moving pieces that can sometimes be confused with autobiography. Generally, autobiographies are the life story or history of a person's life written by that person. Though memoirs share some similarities with autobiographies, such as first person narration, they are more than a recounting of one's life events in chronological order. Instead, they can be descriptions of one single event or moment in one's life, rather than that life in its entirety, and tend to be written in a less structured or formal manner. Memoirs have the capacity to be funny, profound, moving, cynical, etc., and may even have resemblances to fiction in their creativity. Memoirs can focus on one specific event, place, person, etc. or they can be expanded to encompass a broader range of events, snapshots, or memories in the author's experience. Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:

Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
  • A memoir can be about nearly anything in your personal experience/life that is significant enough for you to want to retell it, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life.
  • Choose a topic that you care about, for this will make your piece more descriptive, emotional, and creative. Even though it is about YOUR life, if you care about your topic then so will the reader.
  • Seek a deeper or underlying theme within the simple description of an event etc. that the reader can connect to. Use a lot of description and imagery, if you can, to make the reader feel like they know the topic intimately.
  • There is no specific form or style that it is necessary for a memoir to have­ USE YOUR OWN UNIQUE VOICE!
  • Do not confuse memoirs with autobiography, they are NOT the same thing (as noted above). You may want to find some memoirs in the library or online in order to get a feel for the variety out there and some of the ways you might want to go about writing yours. A few examples we are familiar with are:
    • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
    • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater
    • Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
    • The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat
    Though these are longer books, memoirs can take the form of shorter, more "snapshot" like pieces as well. A memoir does not have to be a long, all-inclusive cataloguing of your life-that could be overwhelming, boring, and read more like a formal autobiography---choose a specific focus. Take creative license.
  • A memoir, though based on and rooted in truth and fact, does not have to be 100% straight laced non-fiction. Take a new perspective, get creative, find a way to make your piece more interesting, fresh, thought-provoking etc. In other words, just because this is non-fiction, that DOES NOT have to make it boring, dry, straight-forward, and humorless.
  • Though there is some controversy over what can and cannot be called memoir, Lauren Slater's book Lying is a good example of how creative you can get with this genre. Hers is specifically labeled a metaphorical memoir in order to avoid this controversy (though it has followed her anyway), and so perhaps saying something to that effect is a way of avoiding complaints of false advertising and fraud. Though you should not claim something to be true that is not, you can choose what you want to leave out of or include in your memoir. You can make it read like fiction, and you can make conscious decisions to surround your work with ambiguity that questions the nature of truth vs. fact (as Slater does). It may sound complicated, but really is quite basic: don't make claims your piece is something it's not, don't outright lie and then say it's fact, but choose your material carefully and you can do many more things with memoirs than you might at first think (see the limits of the real in creative non-fiction).
  • Finally, have fun with it! Enjoy it! Memoirs can be very emotionality releasing, fun to play around with, and can reward not only the reader but also you, the writer. Test your limits and try different ways of writing—its all about self-exploration and discovery.

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The Personal Essay: A Few Pointers

The personal essay is one of the most popular forms of creative non-fiction writing found in English classes, especially in high school but also, to a certain degree and in a more complex way, college. This kind of writing allows you to explore a topic through the lens of your own, personal experiences, reflections, ideas, and reactions. It can be one of the most powerful kinds of writing you get to do, both in its direct connection to you, the writer, allowing you to engage with material in class at a very personal, complex, and meaningful level, and also in the amount of latitude that you as a writer are afforded in terms of style, technique, and form. The following are some tips and strategies to help you think as you write and revise a personal essay, or prepare to write this kind of assignment for the first time (the topic of the essay will always vary—we are focused on the genre as a whole here).

  • Focus. In some ways, the personal essay is similar to memoir and many of the same techniques can be used effectively. It differs in that an essay is focused on one specific topic (and here, it will be explored through your own experiences) whereas the memoir has the capability to trace or illuminate several themes, topics, and ideas via the author’s life (or part(s) of that life) that he/she describes (and how he/she describes it).
  • Organization. Not to be confused with form (see below). Your essay, like other essays, should have some kind of coherent organization to it. This is not to say that you must use thesis style (in fact, we are confident that powerful personal essays follow that organization scheme less than 5% of the time). No matter how you choose to organize (and what form you use), be sure that your paragraphs and ideas flow from one to the next, connected by a common theme (trying to tackle the topic on which you are writing). It can be scattered or fragmented (if that is a stylistic/form choice you make), but the entire paper should have a relationship, even if it only becomes clear at the end. This allows the reader to follow your experience.
  • Form. One of the best parts of this kind of writing is the power given to you as the writer. There is no form, no formula, no tried and true method that you must use to be effective. In fact, to copy something that somebody else has done is not only rather boring, but also defeats the purpose of this being a personal essay. Choose a form and style that suits you and is fitting for the experience that you are describing. Try to think of the form as a part of the writing itself, not just a framework for it: the form should actually enhance and make more poignant what it is you are taking about. Push the boundaries, but don’t go too far—you are still writing an essay (and be sure that you follow any specific requirements outlined by your professor).
  • Diction/Language. Like form, in the personal essay (and creative writing generally, perhaps even, to some extent, writing in general) the way in which you say something can “mean” just as much as the form into which you place what it is you are saying. Use language to enhance what you are writing about and not just as a means to say it. Here is where you can get really creative and appropriately use linguistic “play” to explore your topic and your own relation to it in new and complex ways.
Choosing at Topic and Approach

When beginning a personal essay, you should choose a significant event in your life. This can be almost anything, but something about it should matter to you. Many personal essays hinge around a sad experience, but joy is just as strong an emotion, if not more so. As always in creative writing, you should consider why you are writing this piece: what can writing about this experience teach others? What can you learn from revisiting the memory? In a personal essay, the importance of the word “personal” is not to be undervalued. Whatever you choose to write about must be important to you, hinge around your experience, and have some impact on you.

When writing a personal essay, it is important to remember that the main character is you. This is challenging for a lot of people who are used to expressing themselves through a character or through poetry. Personal essays demand more vulnerability than either of these forms. In a personal essay, the writer should never be afraid of the word “I” in fact, it should be used as often as possible. In most situations where you find yourself straying into the first person plural (“we”) or even the third person, using such vague language as "one could" or “one would,” you will almost always find the writing becomes stronger if you replace the subject with “I.” Most of the time, drifting into vague language is a sign that you are trying to convey a message you find “too” personal and are afraid of expressing. However, it is this vulnerability that fuels the personal essay. You cannot learn from the experience unless you are honest with yourself, and readers will not be able to understand why this experience is significant if you hide yourself from view. Your character in the story can only develop if you claim the story as your own.

Revising Tips

While one of the most common kinds of creative non-fiction writing (at least in an academic setting), the personal essay is probably one of the harder assignments to revise. After all, how do you “fix” a paper that is composed of very personal ideas? A personal essay is not like a formal analytical essay-- it doesn't need an explicit thesis-driven format. Therefore, revising a personal essay can be complicated, especially when you feel as though you don't want to tamper with personal thoughts. However, a personal essay often needs someone to tamper with it in order to make it a complete piece. Below we have listed several steps that may be useful when revising or giving feedback on a personal essay (either your own or someone else’s).

  • Voice/Tone: The voice and tone are important in the personal essay because they reflect the attitude the writer is trying to get across. Is the mood happy? Sad? Is it serious? Are we placed inside the writer's head? These are all important questions to ask in order to realize the effect/the emotion the writer wants the piece to convey. Ask yourself (or the writer): Is the writer's voice consistent throughout the piece? Does it reflect the tone of the piece? Does the piece incorporate some experimental ideas? It is not necessary to have a personal essay be “experimental,” but it does need to be unique to the writer (hence the name). Some experimental ideas include: playing with the sentence structure by juxtaposing short sentences with longer, complicated sentences ... playing with word usage by including repetition or alliteration ... or playing with form by including other voices, dialogue, and points of views.
  • Showing v. Telling: Details and imagery can only help a personal essay; they help to develop a story by making it more real to the reader. A personal essay doesn't necessarily need scenes, but it does need a well formed focus or point and imagery can help to establish that.
  • Character Development: If the personal essay has characters, make sure they're developed clearly and that the relationships between the characters are developed. Dialogue between characters not only helps the reader to understand the relationships, it helps the reader to understand the individual characters and their actions. Imagery also helps with this and ties back into showing v. telling; by describing a character through details (of their actions or their appearance), we better understand a character.
  • Original Language: Everything in a piece of creative writing is subject to scrutiny, including word choice. Therefore it's helpful to look closely at language. Is the writing fresh? Are there any obvious clichés that detract from the piece?
  • Form: How a piece of creative non-fiction writing is put together is extremely important. The form not only needs to be organized well, it also speaks to the piece as a whole. Good questions to ask: Why is it organized in this way? How does this reflect your (or the writer’s) experience? It's also helpful to discuss different form techniques such as flashbacks, stream of consciousness, or different scenes that piece together a writer's main idea.
  • Fiction/Poetry Techniques: Since creative non-fiction writing is such a hybrid and multi-faceted genre, it's often helpful to use/borrow techniques from fiction or poetry. Scenes, dialogue, narrative structure, setting, and an emphasis on language are all important aspects of creative nonfiction as well.

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Writing Negatively About People in your Life

When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, the vast majority of the material is going to be from experience. Writers will write about things they have gone through, monumental events in their lives, and the people they have encountered. While the closest people in your life often leave a positive impact, what happens when you want to write negatively about them? It can be hard to feel like it is your place to expose personal parts of others without their permission for the sake of your piece. However, it is ultimately your decision what you would like to write about and what you feel is necessary to include. It is also important not to embellish or include elements of fiction in your creative non-fiction. So if that means describing an explosive fight between you and your parents or outing your sibling for a crime they committed, you as the author have the authority to do so. But if this is something that causes you anxiety or makes you feel like you’re abusing your power, here are a few things to consider.

  • One, who is your audience? If your piece is not likely to make it very far out of your classroom environment, it may not be necessary to warn the people in your life that they have become characters in your piece. However, if your piece is going to be published in some sort of way or might have the opportunity of circulating, odds are high that you will want to inform the people in your life before they find out on their own.
  • Two, what is absolutely necessary? Trashing loved ones in your life could be a necessity to the point you are trying to make in your creative non-fiction piece. However, you could also become carried away and swept up by emotion and decide to include things out of spite rather than out of need. Always reread your pieces for intention and make sure that sensitive, personal aspects of your piece are crucial to the understanding for the audience and not just fluff. When you’re playing with emotions, it is even more important to write with intention.
  • Three, do they need to know? If you still feel like you want to make your piece transparent with the people you have turned into characters, do so in a professional way and be prepared for backlash. It is important to warn them that you do delve into personal matters but that you do not wish for the audience to hold that against them and that you would not include it if you did not find it absolutely necessary.
  • Lastly, be aware that they are free to react in any way that they want to, and if that is negatively, remember to keep your integrity. Just because they have disliked their portrayal in your piece does not mean you need to filter or sensor it in any way. Be respectful of their feelings but stick to your guns as a writer.

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  • Excerpt from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris A collection of memoir-essays by David Sedaris, this particular except is from the essay entitled SantaLand Diaries, where Sedaris recounts his experience working as a holiday elf for Macy’s. It is a great example of memoir. As you read, think about the debate going on about the memoir (see handout on memoirs)—where do you see embellishment or possible “stretching of the truth” for artistic purposes? How is this different from a straight autobiography? What kinds of stylistic devices is Sedaris using that would make this a piece of creative non-fiction?

  • Excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
    This piece is a classic example of Literary Journalism (also called New Journalism). In it, Wolfe is reporting on both the sixties in general as well as Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from the period spanning the late fifties to 1965. Considered to be an essential period piece of that decade, this novel is also one of the first examples of Literary Journalism. What about this piece separates it from more traditional journalism? How is it closer to what we would otherwise consider (mistake for??) a novel? From this excerpt, can you see how this kind of journalism is considered a kind of creative non-fiction? What does this type of journalism have to offer us as readers that more traditional journalism doesn’t/can’t? This piece also demonstrates nicely the concept of “the limits of the real” in creative non-fiction—how so? (see our note on this concept under Creative Non-Fiction)?
    Note: To access excerpt, follow the link, click where it says “click to look inside” and then use the arrows to flip the pages.

  • Excerpt from Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets
    A great example of memoir. What do you see as the “point” or message of this piece to be? How does the author accomplish this? What features make this an example of creative non-fiction? Of memoir?


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 marquart@iastate.edu 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 marquart@iastate.edu.

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”


Denis Johnson, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”


Sylvia Plath: The following three poems

The Surgeon at 2 a.m. http://www.agonia.net/index.php/poetry/113815/index.html

In Plaster  http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sylvia-plath/in-plaster/

Metaphors http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sylvia-plath/metaphors/

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

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