ENG 493: Creative Non-Fiction

Prof. Bleeg 3 credits

          Creative nonfiction is an expansive genre that includes memoir, the personal essay, the lyric essay, and literary journalism. How published writers define creative nonfiction as an overall genre varies greatly. One reason for this is that truth and how one tells the truth are disputed territories. While writers disagree on what constitutes creative nonfiction, most agree that when one presents a piece of writing as nonfiction, it means the author has attempted to recollect and lay out real events to the best of his or her ability. Beyond that, how the writer goes about presenting the events is the creative part. So, we will not only discuss questions of truth and truth-telling, we will also engage with the tools and techniques writers employ to create artful and compelling works of nonfiction. These include techniques traditionally associated with fiction writers, such as developing characters, setting, scenes, dialogue, and conflict. The author must also find a focus, an individual voice and style, and perhaps most of all, a writer can never underestimate the importance and the power of specific, vivid details.

          Another technique involves notes. Most authors do not have photographic memories, so they tend to take copious notes about what they observe and also what they were thinking at a particular time and in a particular place. These may include notes about what the posters in a doctor’s office say or details about Virginia’s recent earthquake, a 5.8 centered in Mineral, causing streetlights to jounce, liquor bottles to fall from stocked bars, and California to make fun of East Coast citizens. Such details can be culturally revealing. Writers also collect things—letters, articles, photographs—Oliver Sacks, for example, collects elements of the periodic table. Writers do research too. If you take away only one thing from this course, this is what you should take away: To a significant degree, it is the specificity of the details that sets good writing apart from the mediocre. Thus, one requirement of the course is to become accustomed to writing in a journal or small notebook. A notebook is a physical record of your attempts to notice the world in your mind and the world around you more deliberately. You will mine your journals and memories and do research to find the particulars that lead to incandescent, honest nonfiction.

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