CNF Syllabus

  • In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Lee Gutkind. WW Norton. 2004
  • Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Dave Eggers. Vintage. 2001.
The Course:
Creative Nonfiction is like essay writing on acid. (The essays are on acid...not the writers.) Lee Gutkind, the editor of, a terrific magazine devoted to the genre, says that creative nonfiction pieces are true and real stories that are told “using scenes, dialogue, close, detailed descriptions and other techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers.”

Creative nonfiction has been around for a long time, usually called “new journalism” or “literary journalism,” and that last term is actually the best marker for the genre. If you've ever read a lengthy article or feature in a popular magazine like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harpers - some of the best examples I can point you toward - you've read creative nonfiction. Other forms traditionally associated with CNF include: feature writing, travel writing, nature writing, science writing, and the memoir.

Some writers you may have read whose work probably falls into the genre would include: Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Sebastian Junger, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, Dave Eggers, and of course the unfortunate - although megarich - James Frey, whose 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces came under fierce attack (by Oprah and many others) for not being quite truthful enough.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is a book we’ll read this semester, and in my mind it’s the best and most creative memoir of the past decade. It strives for a number of CNF’s most lofty goals, and even when Eggers falls short, his ambition is thrilling.

Since this is a writing course, part of the new Creative Writing minor and emphasis, you'll be asked to do a fair amount of writing. We will study the genre a bit through our readings in the other text, Lee Gutkind’s In Fact, but our chief goal is to develop our own essay writing skills.

Your writing will be discussed in class – workshopped. You’ll meet with me occasionally to have a conference about a piece of yours in progress. You'll be required to submit at least one of your pieces to a magazine or journal for possible publication.

In-class discussion takes up the majority of our class time. In order for these discussions to be worthwhile, you need to be familiar with the material. I run the discussion in a fairly informal way; I ask questions and try to move the conversation along, but for the most part it’s up to you. If you are unprepared or willing to discuss the work in class, it is likely you will not pass.

Each on of you will present a 10 minute report over an assigned reading. This means you’re in charge of the content and the specifics of the first part of our discussion. We’re trying to learn and extract ideas from the readings, so your job will be to discuss the material and also suggest to us how the material can be useful to our own writing. This can be a rather involved project, and outside research is expected.

Should you miss a class, you’re not expected to provide me a written excuse; I treat all absences as the same. Things that you miss in class (information and discussion) are impossible to recreate, but you should make attempts to meet with some of your classmates and find out what we discussed. Anyone who misses 3 classes should consider dropping the class.

Passing off anyone else’s work as your own is plagiarism. I expect you to comply with the college's Honor System, which can be round on page 194 of the 2006-2007 Student Handbook. If I discover any of the work you do in this class is plagiarized, I shall report your name to the Honor Council, and you will fail this course.

I’ve established an online weblog (blog, of course) for this class at: All of our assignments will being at that location. I will convey assignments to you through it, and we will even operate our rough draft process through it. I’ve sent invites to everyone’s school email addresses, and the instructions to join the blog should be fairly easy to follow.

Twenty-six points are available over the course of the semester, and they correspond to letter grades as the chart below denotes:

A: 23-26
A/B: 22
B: 20-21
B/C: 19
C: 17-18
D: 15-16
F: 0-14

Class Grade - 6 points
The class grade is a subjective grade I give you based on your “performance” in our general class discussions. Typically, a bad grade can be earned in one of three ways: 1) by not taking part in our discussions, 2) by not preparing enough to take part, and/or 3) by not being in class enough to take part in a substantive way.

5-6: Someone who has been a reliable and constant positive force in class and who has never missed a class, and who did a sterling presentation.

3-4: A reliable and constant positive force who may have missed a class, but did a good presentation.

2: A mostly positive force in class, but sometimes unprepared to fully engage us. Someone who has likely missed more than one class.

1:Someone who has not contributed enough to be a positive force through poor attendance, poor participation, or poor preparedness. Likely someone with a poor presentation.

Presentation Grade - 4 points

4: Completely successful completion of the assignment. Persuasively and imaginatively pursues the task. Substantial and cogent. Error free.

3: Mostly successful completion of the assignment. Solid work, but lacking elegance, power, or vision. Perhaps minor errors.

2: Competent work, but nothing in this stands out as exceptional. Lacks depth.

1: An unsuccessful assignment. Assignment not properly addressed. Unsatisfactory.

Essays - 4 points each (4 essays)

You get the opportunity to write four essays or articles. Each one will be discussed more fully in class, and each varies with regard to topic, style, etc. These pieces will range in length from roughly 4 – 10 pages, depending on the topic and assignment. Essay styles will be discussed, topics will be generated and presented to the entire class, and then essays will be workshopped in class and conferenced with me before due dates.

Grading Narrative

4: This is a superior piece of writing. It clearly and adequately forwards a point that is almost completely supported throughout the essay. The language is sharp. The paper is clear, focused, and free of spelling, typographic, and/or grammatical errors. It is separated from other essays by its originality and/or style. It shows excellent critical thought, and is elegant, thoughtful, and persuasive.

3: This is a good piece of writing. It’s very solid work, but lacks some of the innovation and sharpness of better articles. There’s a good point that is mostly supported throughout the essay. Transitions are here, but are not compelling or not vital. There may be very minor spelling, typographic, and/or grammatical errors. It typically contains certain shortcomings, notably routine errors, occasional monotony in expression, lack of originality, and/or ambiguity in purpose. It displays good critical sense, and is interesting enough to hold a reader throughout.

2: This essay is an average piece of writing, acceptable college work. It meets the re­quirements of the assignment, but does not go beyond the assignment in any way. There is likely a point to it, but it is either far too broad or narrow, or merely not sup­ported throughout the essay. Most likely there are spell­ing, typographic, and/or grammatical errors, but not so much as to hinder a normal reader from getting the point of the essay. There is nothing outstanding, compelling, original, or thought provoking in the essay. It lacks originality, significant purpose, or point of view. Its critical power is only passing. It will likely lose many readers.

1: This essay falls below acceptable college stan­dards. It may partially address the assignment, but it lacks insight as to the goal of the essay. Its writer has not understood or addressed the assignment. It may express a point or have some direction, but it is likely inappropriately sized for the assignment. Paragraphs exist on their own without adequate movement. Sen­tences are poorly constructed and spelling, typographic and/or grammatical errors appear frequently. It likely contains some of these flaws: monotonous sentence patterns, imprecise use of words, rambling organization, and repetition of ideas. It lacks critical thought.

0: This grade is only given to an unacceptable piece of writing. It has a rich variety of flaws. It may have no thesis or support. There are flaws of organization and development. It likely includes an unacceptable number of grammatical errors. Shows no real understanding of the assign­ment.

Tentative Article List

This list is subject to change and amplification as we move through the semester.

  • Using “Celestial Navigation,” “Prayer Dogs,” and “Why I Ride” from the Gutkind text, write a personal article that attempts to explain a topic you’re passionate about. “Why I Ride” is closest to the form I have in mind, but the level of detail and background in “Celestial Navigation” is to be admired and aimed for as well.
  • Using what we learn from discussing and reading “The Three Spheres” and “Being Brian,” write an article that deals with identity. Explore any variety of elements that make up your identity. Additional requirements for this article come specifically from “The Three Spheres,” especially the need to include a secret that you slowly reveal to the reader, and the need to include a dramatic and apt metaphor (like her piano as family metaphor).
  • Either, write an article that plumbs the depths of what you can discover about one of the historical documents distributed and discussed in class, or use techniques from the first 165 page section of the Eggers book to write a “tiny” memoir that uses specific techniques that come from AHWOSG’s chapter 4 & 5.
  • This final article will be discussed in greater detail in class. But it’s probably best characterized as a “feature” article, which will require that you choose a subject who you can interview, shadow, and research. The two Matt Taibbi articles we’ll discuss in class will display some of the chief elements of the paper, but you will also be expected to use skills we learn from the Wideman piece in the Gutkind text.