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PORTRAIT EXERCISE

(Suggested by Scott Russell Sanders)

Write a short (750 words) portrait of another person. This person should be real, not invented. Try and decide what is essential about the person you are portraying. Sanders writes: "Instead of merely cataloging traits, consider ways of revealing the person through narrative summary, through scenes (including dialogue), or through the narrator's perceptions and judgments. Try to establish some dominant impression, even if it means, for the moment, ignoring some contrary qualities."

Collected Exercises for Creative Nonfiction

Melodrama as Personal Drama
What is the “biggest” event that ever happened to you or someone close to you? What is the closest you’ve come to living inside a Lifetime movie? Strangely enough, it is often these big events that are the hardest to get across on paper. Maybe, living in our self-conscious age, we feel a little awkward when something really happens....and maybe we fear being melodramatic when putting those events on the page.
Write about a big memory that is important to you or someone close to you. (Better yet, if this is a memory you may have been afraid to approach) Don’t worry so much about getting the memory exactly right or about striking the right tone (for now). Write honestly and simply. Try making it a scene. Slow it down. Draw it out. Show us something happening detail by detail.
For now just focus on getting it down on paper.



  1. Memory as Scene

Try to write about a memory that is important to you. It could be an important emotional event in your life or just something that stuck. Don’t worry so much about getting the memory exactly right. Write honestly and simply and try to make it a scene. Slow it down. Draw it out. Show us something happening detail by detail. Don’t rush or overfill the sentences. Use dialogue and action verbs and don't spend any time telling us what things “mean.”

Write the memory in the past tense. Read the first short chapter in Tobias Wolff as an example. Tell it plainly, without frills, and let the material carry it a la Wolff. Try not to color it too much as the narrator. Take it one thing at a time: practice endurance with the scene. Don’t give up on it.

Imitation Exercise
Re-read a paragraph of two of the Scott Sanders essay. Then, re-read it again. Let yourself absorb the rhythm of the sentences, the variety, the use of transitions or non-transitions. Without further thought, write a paragraph or two (or more) in the voice of the passage, propelled by the active verbs. Over-do it at first if you like. You can always pare back later. “Excess is preferable to deficiency.”—Samuel Johnson. Don’t worry about copying, plagiarizing, anything....just write. Try to write in the rhythm of the writer. If it makes it easier, copy the sentence variety and, to some degree, the subject matter: “My Aunt smoked pot....”
Later, if you like you can set to tearing it apart the piece you imitated. What makes it distinct? Voice? If so, how would you categorize that voice? What elements is it made up of? What about other strengths? The characters? The way info presented? Details? The sentence variety and pacing? Read it through a few times with pen in hand and really try to determine where its strength comes from.

Some of the books and essays I have used in class over the last three years.


BOOKS

The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

Patrimony by Philip Roth

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach

ESSAYS

Joan Didion "Goodbye to All That"


Scott Russell Sanders "Under the Influence"

James Baldwin "Notes on a Native Son"

Natalia Ginzburg "He and I"

Kai Maristed "Nicotine, An Autobiography"

Reg Saner "Technically Sweet"

Wendell Berry "An Entrance to the Woods"

Annie Dillard "Seeing"

Henry David Thoreau "Walking"

These texts are far from set in stone and are, in fact, always changing. For example, last term a student suggested I take a look at the just released Vivian Gornick book. I ended up reading a few excerpts to the class, and they responded so enthusiastically that we decided, mid-term, to buy and read the book as a class.

GENERAL BREAKDOWN FOR BEGINNING

CREATIVE NONFICTION STUDENTS
1. WRITING EXERCISES:

Since this is a beginning workshop I will stress getting started. We will do a lot of exercises, both in and out of class, over the first two weeks. I would like students to do a little writing every day, to get into the habit of putting words on the page. It may be difficult, particularly at first, to come up with material, and so for each class I will bring a specific assignment. The purpose of these assignments is not to make you jump through hoops but to, hopefully, spur you toward writing that goes beyond the assignments.

Remember: the exercises are just a jumping off point. Go with what excites you.
2. DISCUSSION OF READING:

Take notes on your reading. I am not asking you to do a lot of reading but I am asking you to do it well. Underline, note techniques and craft, generally make a mess of the books. With each reading I will ask you to note one technique and be ready to speak about it in class. This is not a literature class and by technique I do not mean "theme" or "meaning." I mean the way the author keeps verbs active or uses quick cut transitions from paragraph to paragraph. You are not expected to know technical terms--we will learn and discuss them as the term progresses. For now just notice what is being done and comment on it.


3. CRAFT DISCUSSION/MINI-LECTURE:

I will usually discuss a craft issue from the reading and demonstrate how it was used or could be used. I will tie this in with the day's assignment.

4. STUDENT WORKSHOP:

After the first two weeks we will usually workshop two pieces of student writing each day. For those who have not been involved in a workshop before it is essentially a roundtable discussion of a student's work. Out of simple politeness it is best to lead with some positive comments and, obviously, to avoid the purely mean. But the critical suggestions for improvement are the essence of the workshops, and, as writers, we need to be able to face criticism. Again the stress will be on craft and execution.

For each workshop please type up a page of comments for the workshopee. Please hand a copy of those comments to me.

SAMPLE REACTIONS TO WORKSHOP ESSAYS

FOR ADVANCED CREATIVE NONFICTION
Here are three reactions that I

returned with workshop pieces this past fall in my advanced creative nonfiction class at Harvard Extension School (unfortunately I didn't save any of the reactions from my beginning class this past summer.) As you will quickly see, these are not prose masterpieces, but I include them in hopes of conveying the two elements that have become part of my teaching style as it has matured: an intense, enthusiastic involvement with the students' work, and a detached, craft-oriented attitude toward working through problems and challenges in the text.


I have included reactions to three different types of essay. The first is a fairly light piece on the Red Sox and relationship problems, and the second is an essay on weight obsession by a woman who is both doctor and mother and who had written a much stronger first piece (I continue to work with her on the weight piece). The last piece is by the son of a famous regional politician writing about his father's assassination. The son, a tough-minded and obviously talented writer, was struggling to find a way to write about a subject that had haunted him since childhood.
I included the final piece not just because I think the writer will eventually publish a strong book, but because the subject matter, as extreme as it is, is not entirely atypical in these classes. Subject matter in recent classes has included cancer, homelessness, death of spouses and parents, and one student's arrest for manslaughter after running someone over with a car. The trick as a teacher dealing with this type of material, if there is a trick, is to have the maturity to balance the need for craft and distance with an understanding that the writer is a person who these things actually happened to.

(I changed their names.)

Advanced C.Nonfiction

November 29, 2001

Eric,

There is much here that is lively, admirable, and well-written. As with your last piece this one is filled with humor and vivid description. And, perhaps reacting to the reactions to that piece, you have attempted to tunnel deeper.
Having read it through three times I am still not certain why it doesn't seem to cohere for me. The opening has the makings of a great scene, the descriptions of the game are strong and the hints at the bar fight well executed, but there is something a little disconnected about the threads. Though Mo and the Sox should pull it all together, they don't really, at least for me. The childhood of a Red Sox lover seems like another essay, though, if placed more strategically, it would certainly work as a theme in this one. My question is: what is at stake here? Is it really answered in the last paragraph by saying it is "a fate beyond your control." Maybe, but I didn't feel properly prepared for the conclusion.
Some ideas:
1. You can classify this one under "brainstorming," but it occurred to me that the last line could be the first. That is we could have the rainy game frame an early litany of Red Sox tragedies, emphasizing the way you imagine your actions influence the team's fate. This last is a potentially hilarious subject, involving "magical thinking," like that in so-called primitive cultures.
2. If we had the above suggestion as background, could we then simply see much of the drizzly game? I am thinking specifically of the heckling, which is very strange, especially considering the state you are in, but also very interesting. For instance instead of the witty comment

("deft knowledge of American culture") just describe how her Dad looked over at you when you yelled the obscenities.

Overall, this is my major suggestion: show us the incident itself. For instance just put us there in the stands with you and your swollen face and crazy heckling and her father staring at you and her mother soaking wet and miserable. And, of course, Janice, who we need to see--right now she is just a kind of cliche laundry list of characteristics described in a flashback ("sassy," "witty"). In the same vein, we need more about what happened to you and your face.

3. Following #2, if the scene carried the essay then there wouldn't be so much pressure on Mo and the Sox to hold things together. The Mo coincidence could be a coincidence and not the umbrella it serves as now.
I hope this is helpful, Eric, and I suspect I'll be able to describe what I'm trying to get at a little better in class. There is a lot of lively writing here and the more I think about it the more I see that a very exciting essay could emerge.
D.G.

Advanced C. Nonfiction

November 29, 2002
Dianne,
While the writing is tight, funny, and strong, I think you have run up against a real challenge as far as subject matter. How to "make it new"? As readers (and in my case a reader who teaches creative writing), we are facing a subject that we have seen more than a few times before. So the question becomes: how will Dianne claim this as her own?

For me the answer is that you do this most vividly when you contrast this infuriating "personal background music" with your very solid accomplishments as doctor and mother. ("...if I could stay up all night with desperately sick patients and cranky babies, I should be able to resist stale Halloween candy.") There is humor, as well as poignancy, in the picture of such an accomplished person brought down low by food. That said, I felt myself wanting even more specificity, something by which you claimed the subject as definitively yours. This is the old paradox: a great essay needs in the end to have general, universal implications, but the only way we get there is through individual detail. It was that detail that I wanted more of.


Some ideas/ suggestions:

1. I think it's a little bit of a strategic error to begin with the radio show. There is a second-handedness to this, a second-handedness that tends to plague pieces about "subjects." For me the piece picked up when you started to bring it home to you. You might consider chopping the head off the essay to get to your story. At the same time, you do need to introduce the more general subject, but maybe you can do so through your own words and with your own authority. Also, as a rule, I don't think re-told jokes and anecdotes work very well in personal essays. (Even though the bad radio station bit on page 5 is apt and funny.)

2. I didn't feel entirely sold on the ending: A dog's lick and--presto--the obsession is gone. I am not saying that this is not what happened, just that as it was on the page I didn't quite go with it. Could you build up to it more or at least honestly acknowledge that this was a quick and sudden end to something that had plagued you.

Likewise your "bigger ending," that is the Dillard-esqe analysis of the last paragraph which answers the question you posed on page three. Not that I don't like that paragraph--in fact I like it a lot--but I wanted it to be slightly more complicated. Maybe this simply goes back to the fact that I didn't quite believe this part of you was gone.

That said, there is a lot I do like about the essay. It's funny, sharp, well-observed, and takes us through a quick, witty summary of one aspect of your life. It's just that, particularly given the subject, I was hoping for something more personal and quirky.

I hope this helps, D.G.

(I guess it's always a question of feel: in this case I had already developed a rapport with Ben, knew he had written several novels, and felt he could handle a direct approach despite the difficult subject matter.)

Advanced C. Nonfiction

October 11


Ben,
I usually start out these notes with little pep talks but your essay is so obviously strong, brave, and well-written that I will dispense with this part quickly (there, done) and get to the suggestions.

When we workshop this today I will break my own rule and begin by asking you if the book you are writing will be taking a personal slant in the fashion of today's piece. I hope it will, but I assume it won't because of the obvious loathing for the more personal forms of writing that comes through in the self-conscious asides. The voice that emerges in the scenes seems brisk, no-nonsense and that same feel is evident in the asides, but laced with more anger. What it is angry at is the question. As it stands now it sounds angry at the form itself, at workshops(!), at the very idea of confession, as if to say: "None of this fancy crap for me."

There is a built-in conflict of course. The narrator, who is telling the story of the murder, wants the murder to be less of his life. Does telling it finally begin to exorcise it or does telling it merely repeat? If the narrator's loathing for the form is part of the literary strategy than it needs to be done with more clarity.

I think the asides make for a very interesting contrast with the narrative sections but I find myself wondering how much control you have over this material, or, to put it better, whether you know why you are coming at it from this angle. You tell us directly that you don't want to write about yourself, but here you are doing it, and boy are you pissed, like a gruff businessman who's been forced into therapy. Isn't it possible to simultaneously write about yourself and things bigger than you?
Certainly that's what you seem to have done, and done well. You are likely the only one who smells any whiff of "sob story" in these objectively-told, narratively-irresistible stories. I am dwelling on this part of your essay for so long because it gets to the point of the Vivian Gornick book I quoted in class. What is the story for this narrator now? That he wants the murder to be less a part of his life as you say? From where and to where is he journeying? Most importantly: what it the best choice of narrator to tell this story?
This could be a very strong book if you found the answers to these questions.
A few small things:
1. The interjections add a lot to the piece but you need to slim them down and make them more clear.
2. Your scenes are great. I've made a few notes in the text where I was confused, but great details about your family, especially in painting your relationship with your father in a few quick strokes. Beautiful really.
3. All the "is"s and "this"s ("is hate," "when you read this") get a little confusing, as well as lending a limp feel to the first section. You might consider applying the active verb exercise I'm going to give out next week to the first part of family scene. Not the Scott Sanders "caricature" verbs we talked about, but a little more action.

I hope this is helpful. It is so strong and is close to becoming a great piece. I look forward to reading larger sections of the book.

David Gessner

A FEW EXERCISES

I realize I have included a lot (too many) of these. Just wanted to give an idea of possible ways I try to generate ideas and suggest techniques in my classes.

USE TO PREP

My feeling is that with college students, particularly literary-minded college students, the same things that they have relied on--a facility in writing essay test answers and term papers--can be a serious handicap when it comes to writing creative nonfiction narrative. My experience has been that this is an even more thorny problem in nonfiction than fiction, since they equate "essay" with the kind of essay they know. In reaction to this, many of my early exercises are an attempt to get them to think in terms of scenes, not themes. (I have found Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life to be particularly helpful in this battle.)

Creative Nonfiction Exercises

David Gessner

First Day:


Your Writing and Reading,

Past, Present, and Future


Write a history of yourself as a writer and reader. Make a story out of it. How have you evolved as a writer to this point? How would you like to evolve from where you are? Do you have goals? Do you not want to have goals? Why not? What kind of stuff do you like to write? What do you think you're best suited to writing?
Where do you hope to be as a writer five years from now? Ten?
"Writers are readers driven to emulation," said Saul Bellow. We read something we love and think "I could do that...." Write a little bit about books that you have loved and books, if any, that have inspired you to write.
Make a family tree of your reading influences.
Here are a few more questions to spur you on. Use or disregard them as you see fit:
How did you first get interested in writing? (make a scene out of it) What were the first books that had real impact? What does your literary family tree of influences look like? What were the first books that made you think, "I want to write something like that?"

What was the first thing you wrote that made you proud?

What was the first thing you wrote that made you think "I am the greatest writer who ever lived"?

Which teachers or writers have influenced you? What do you admire about them and what would you like to emulate? Do you dream of writing a book? Books? About what?
When (night? morning? on vacation? when it rains?) have you written well in the past? What is your ideal writing time? What are your current writing habits? What would you like your writing habits to be in the future?
What do you hope to get out of this class? What part does it play in the master plan? Is there a master plan?

What sort of creative nonfiction would you like to write?


MEMORY AS SCENE

Try to write about a memory that is important to you. It could be an important emotional event in your life or just something that stuck. Don't worry so much about getting the memory exactly right. Write honestly and simply and try to make it a scene. Slow it down. Draw it out. Show us something happening detail by detail. Don't rush or overfill the sentences. Use dialogue and action verbs and don't spend any time telling us what things "mean."


Write the memory in the past tense. Read the first short chapter in Tobias Wolff as an example. Tell it plainly, without frills, and let the material carry it a la Wolff. Try not to color it too much as the narrator. Take it one thing at a time: practice endurance with the scene. Don't give up on it.

EXERCISE 2

(AFTER READING SANDERS)
1. Take the piece you wrote and circle every passive verb--every was, were, is etc..---and note how long each sentence is (eye them or actually count the words). Then take the piece and re-work it, first making the verbs active and interesting. Make the verbs drive the piece. Replace "is" with "gouges." Then, vary the sentences, going form short to long, staying long, then back to short. Play with it and see what you come up with.

2. Re-read a paragraph or two of the Scott Sanders essay. Then, keeping his rhythms in mind (and ear), write a paragraph propelled by the active verbs. Over-do it at first if you like. You can always pare back later. "Excess is preferable to deficiency," said Samuel Johnson.

PLACE EXERCISE

Think of a place that has been important to you. Really imagine it in its specifics. Then begin listing particular smells, tastes, textures. The more specific you can be the better--specific colors, names, shapes. Watch out for "beautiful"s and for adjectives and adverbs in general. If the sentences come, go with them by all means. But don't worry if you are only rendering the place in caveman prose. Just get it down.

COMBINING PLACE AND MEMORY SCENE

Return to the details you dredged up about a particular place and now use those details. Have the first-person narrator (you) walk into that place in the present tense. ("I walk...I see two pear trees...etc.) Then have that place prompt the memory that was our first exercise. This will feel awkward and unnatural at first, and may also come out that way on the page, but forge ahead. Go into that past tense memory and then re-emerge into the present and the place. Play with the transitions and see how you can give it a "natural" feel, despite the obvious artificiality.

SHOW AND TELL

"SHOW DON'T TELL," is an axiom repeated ad nauseam in fiction workshops. The luxury of creative nonfiction is that we get to show and tell. We can not only present scenes, concrete details, and dialogue, but can then turn around and comment on the ultimate meaning of what we have shown. Of course it must be done a little subtly, or we come off like pompous windbags. But it can be done.
Look at the nonfiction you admire and see if you can find examples in class of this intertwining of thought and action, generalizing and scene. Then try your hand at it.

Add a "tell" ending to the last exercise you wrote. See if you can do it without sounding too phony. Attempt to mix your feelings, generalities, and thought into the writing without being heavy handed. Consider: What's a good mix? It's different for everyone--think about what is best for you, given your strengths and weaknesses. What part do transitions play in this? What are possible transition techniques?

EXERCISE 6:

IMITATION EXERCISE

Take a piece of nonfiction writing you really like, or better yet, love. It can be something we've read in class or something you read long ago or whatever. Just as long as you love it. Read it through once and then again. Read it out loud. Let yourself absorb the rhythm of the sentences, the variety, the use of transitions or non-transitions.

Then, without further thought, write a paragraph or two (or more) in the voice of the passage. Don't worry about copying, plagiarizing, anything....just write. Try to write in the rhythm of the writer.
Later, if you like you can set to tearing it apart the piece you imitated. What makes it distinct? Voice? If so, how would you categorize that voice? What elements is it made up of? What about other strengths? The characters? The way info presented? Details? The sentence variety and pacing? Read it through a few times with pen in hand and really try to determine where it's strength comes from.

EXERCISE 7:

PORTRAIT EXERCISE

(Suggested by Scott Russell Sanders)


Write a short (750 words) portrait of another person. This person should be real, not invented. Try and decide what is essential about the person you are portraying. Sanders writes: "Instead of merely cataloging traits, consider ways of revealing the person through narrative summary, through scenes (including dialogue), or through the narrator's perceptions and judgments. Try to establish some dominant impression, even if it means, for the moment, ignoring some contrary qualities."
EXERCISE:

MINI-SCENES

I spoke briefly during the last class about the "mini-scenes" Roth uses throughout Patrimony. For instance look again at the paragraph at the top of page 61 (the nursing room concert scene.) The scene of the concert is vivid, and here, within it, we have a one sentence scene: "The violinist smiled at her whenever their eyes met, and this led several of the women around me to turn to each other and whisper admiringly, 'He's looking at his wife.'" This is an example of Roth always trying to bring details alive. For instance he could have simply written, "The violinist looked adoringly at his wife," but instead makes it into a scene that delights us.

Take a page or two of something you've written and try to infuse it with more active scenic details. Look at how Roth interjects these into the main story and try to do the same with a piece of writing you've done. Use dialogue and active description to bring minor details alive.

EXERCISE 9:

BOOK PROPOSAL

Write a letter to an editor or agent proposing a specific book or essay you have been thinking about.

Think about how and why you want to tell this particular story in this particular way, applying the "situation" and "story" elements we have been discussing in Gornick's book.


One of the standard things that writers include in proposals is a kind of overview of similar books, what has been written that is like the book/essay you are writing and how is your book/essay unique. Suggest your approach to the subject--humorous, removed, factual etc--and why you should be the one to write it, and how you would pull it off.
This exercise is not designed to help you get six figure contracts as much as to get you to think about why and how you are going to write whatever it is you want to write. If you get the contract, that's fine, too.
EXERCISE

SIMPLE SCENES

Take something you've written so far that you like--a sentence, a detail--and stretch it into a scene. Slow it down. Draw it out. Show us something happening detail by detail. Don't rush or overfill the sentences. Use dialogue and action verbs and don't spend any time telling us what things "mean."
Look at Tobias Wolff as an example. Tell it plainly, without frills, and let the material carry it a la Wolff. Try not to color it too much as the narrator. Consider taking something that might have only been a sentence (or a few) in your original piece and stretch it into a full page. Take it one thing at a time: practice endurance with the scene. Don't give up on it.

EXERCISE:

ACTIVE VERB EXERCISE

1. Take the piece you wrote on Tuesday and circle every passive verb--every was, were, is etc..---and note how long each sentence is (eye them or actually count the words). Then take the piece and re-work it, first making the verbs active and interesting. Make the verbs drive the piece. Replace "is" with "gouges." Then, vary the sentences, going form short to long, staying long, then back to short. Play with it and see what you come up with.

2. Re-read a paragraph or two of the Scott Sanders essay. Then, keeping his rhythms in mind (and ear), write a paragraph propelled by the active verbs. Over-do it at first if you like. You can always pare back later. "Excess is preferable to deficiency," said Samuel Johnson.
This is one I have done in the past over the course of two or three classes, giving the first two as if they were unrelated exercises and tying it together with the third.

THREE PART EXERCISE

1. PLACE EXERCISE:
Dredge up details about a place that was or is important to you. Just concrete details. Sketch down a list of smells, sounds, tastes, etc. It doesn't have to be a pastoral place, just a place with personal resonance.

2. MEMORY AS SCENE:


Try to write about a memory that is important to you. It could be an important emotional event in your life or just something that stuck. Write honestly and simply and try to make it a scene. Don't worry so much about getting the memory exactly right. Worry, rather, about it working as scene. Use all the above techniques we have discussed--sentence variety, dialogue, active, driving verbs.

3. COMBINATION OF #1 and #2:


Return to the details you dredged up about a particular place and now use those details. Have the first-person narrator (you) walk into the place in part one and have that place prompt the memory from part two. This will feel awkward and unnatural at first, and may also come out that way on the page. Play with the transitions and see how you can give it a "natural" feel, despite the obvious artificiality.
EXERCISE:

SHOW AND TELL

"SHOW DON'T TELL," is an axiom repeated ad nauseam in fiction workshops. The luxury of creative nonfiction is that we get to show and tell. We can not only present scenes, concrete details, and dialogue, but can then turn around and comment on the ultimate meaning of what we have shown. Of course it must be done a little subtly, or we come off like pompous windbags. But it can be done.

I will read some examples in class of this intertwining of thought and action, generalizing and scene. Look at the nonfiction you admire and see if you can find more. Then try your hand at it. Take an idea or belief that's important to you, and illustrate it. Not by climbing on your soapbox--which you can do a little, too--but by dredging your memory for an appropriate scene. Then show us that active scene, using the "fictional" techniques of dialogue, description, concrete detail, etc...
Finally, see if you can mix your feelings, generalities, and thought into the writing without being heavy handed. Consider: What's a good mix? It's different for everyone--think about what is best for you, given your strengths and weaknesses. What part do transitions play in this? What are possible transition techniques?

EXERCISE 7:

BOOK PROPOSAL
Write a letter to an editor or agent proposing a specific book or essay you have been thinking about.

Take a walk and think about how and why you want to tell this particular story in this particular way, applying the "situation" and "story" elements we have been discussing in Gornick's book.


One of the standard things that writers include in proposals is a kind of overview of similar books, what has been written that is like the book/essay you are writing and how is your book/essay unique. Suggest your approach to the subject--humorous, removed, factual etc--and why you should be the one to write it, and how you would pull it off.
This exercise is not designed to help you get six figure contracts as much as to get you to think about why and how you are going to write whatever it is you want to write. If you get the contract, that's fine, too.

ASKING QUESTIONS

Think a little about the passage I read from The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. What is the situation for the essay/memoir you are working on? Ask yourself who is speaking in your piece and why? What is your narrator like, which parts of you have you selected--the cynical parts, the jolly parts, the bemused parts--and why? Why is this the best narrator for the job of telling this particular story?

Apply these questions to Roth and think about the choices he has made.

MINI-SCENES

I spoke briefly last week about the "mini-scenes" Roth uses throughout Patrimony. For instance look at the paragraph at the top of page 61 (the nursing room concert scene for those with different editions.) The scene of the concert is vivid, and here, within it, we have a one sentence scene: "The violinist smiled at her whenever their eyes met, and this led several of the women around me to turn to each other and whisper admiringly, 'He's looking at his wife.'" This is an example of Roth always trying to bring details alive. For instance he could have simply written, "The violinist looked adoringly at his wife," but instead makes it into a scene that delights us.

Take a page or two of something you've written and try to infuse it with more active scenic details. Look at how Roth interjects these into the main story and try to do the same with a piece of writing you've done. Use dialogue and active description to bring minor details alive.

PORTRAIT EXERCISE

(Suggested by Scott Russell Sanders)


Write a short (750 words) portrait of another person. This person should be real, not invented. Try and decide what is essential about the person you are portraying. Sanders writes: "Instead of merely cataloging traits, consider ways of revealing the person through narrative summary, through scenes (including dialogue), or through the narrator's perceptions and judgements. Try to establish some dominant impression, even if it means, for the moment, ignoring some contrary qualities."

If you need examples, look at Wolff's portraits of his mother and Dwight, or the portrait of the father in "Under the Influence."

IMITATION EXERCISE

Take a piece of nonfiction writing you really like, or better yet, love. It can be something we've read in class or something you read long ago or whatever. Just as long as you love it. Read it through once and then again. Read it out loud. Let yourself absorb the rhythm of the sentences, the variety, the use of transitions or non-transitions.

Then, without further thought, write a paragraph or two (or more) in the voice of the passage. Don't worry about copying, plagiarizing, anything....just write. Try to write in the rhythm of the writer.
Later, if you like you can set to tearing it apart the piece you imitated. What makes it distinct? Voice? If so, how would you categorize that voice? What elements is it made up of? What about other strengths? The characters? The way info presented? Details? The sentence variety and pacing? Read it through a few times with pen in hand and really try to determine where it's strength comes from.

REVISION EXERCISE

(WARM-UP FOR FINAL REVISION)
Think revision. Take a a page from a piece of writing (preferably one we have workshopped) and tear it apart. Look at my comments and the comments of your classmates. Go nuts on it. Make the verbs more active, make the ideas more vivid, cut the words drastically down. Read it out loud and see if it stands up. Make a mess of it. Use the "Random Thoughts on Revision" sheet I handed out as a guide.
We all have a tendency to consider our words precious once we spill them out. But, as I've said before, revision is the real work of writing. This does not mean changing a word or two. It means really tweaking and tightening, and changing. Use this as an experiment in revision.

THOUGHTS ON REVISION

(USE THIS FOR YOUR FINAL)

1. "I hate it," isn't an uncommon reaction when returning to a piece of writing after a time away from it, just as "This is the greatest thing ever written" isn't uncommon when in the throes of inspiration. The trick is to come back to a piece with a mindset somewhere in between the two extremes. That is to come back with a "new head," calm, practical, aware that what you are approaching isn't either the worse or greatest piece of writing ever produced, but something that can be tackled, re-worked, improved.

2. It's easier to have a "new head" when there's actually another head. That's the reason that editors exist. You simply can't see everything yourself. Is there another individual, hopefully a writer who knows something about craft, who can read for you consistently? Is there someone in this class who offered you sound critiques? Consider calling/mailing them about exchanging pieces. Sometimes a single external sensibility (that is, a person) can help as much as a class.
3. What really irked you during your workshop? Not just stupid comments but ones that hit home..."Honesty is the first step in greatness," said Samuel Johnson and one thing that revision is about is honesty. It's worth asking yourself a question you can pay a psychologist to ask you: What am I avoiding? Other questions to ask yourself: Where am I being dishonest? Glib? Taking shortcuts? Where am I inserting an opinion/generalization/idea that I haven't really thought out? Why did I include this? What does it mean to me?
4. Often our own writing is interesting to us because it happened to us. Is it interesting to a stranger? Don't come to your work with an overly critical attitude--"It's all boring"--but do ask yourself why someone else would be compelled to read it. It never hurts to ask: Am I being self-indulgent? (I usually answer yes, and continue on.)
5. Do the active verb assignment from a few weeks ago again. Unless you have a specific mood in mind, think active.
6. Is there a reason you aren't turning something into a scene or at least a mini-scene? Is that reason laziness?
7. Use earthy details to deflate pomposity. It's worth remembering that for every glistening lily we see there exists a can of Alpo dog food.
8. Smell, taste, touch, sound. Is your piece taking place in a a sensory vacuum? Overdo it--you can always scale back.

9. To paraphrase Bernard DeVotto, "Revision separates the women from the girls." Remember revising doesn't have the la-la nearly hallucinogenic thrills of some first drafts. It is about work, craftsmanship, thought. But it can be very satisfying in a different way.

1FALL 2004

David Gessner

CRW 309-001 INTERMEDIATE CREATIVE NONFICTION

E-mail: Gessnerdm@uncw.edu

This workshop focuses on writing creative nonfiction, a genre which includes and combines the personal essay, memoir, new journalism, nature writing, and the literature of place.
Books:

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Goat by Brad Land
Requirements:
1. Two completed nonfiction pieces, one of which will have been substantially revised by the end of the term. A cover letter detailing the process of revision should accompany the final revised piece.
2. Throughout the term we will have occasional writing exercises, most from the Roorbach. I expect three completed exercises, roughly one per month.
IF YOU MISS CLASS PLEASE GET THE ASSIGNMENT FROM A CLASSMATE.
Attendance:

Consistent attendance is essential. If you are absent without medical excuse more than twice, you are eligible to be officially excluded and failed.

The class is primarily a workshop. Due to this, and the need to get an intelligent, thoughtful dialogue going, I will ask that for each piece you read, you give me a copy of the comments that you give to the piece's author.
Grading:

25%--Completion of response pieces, critiques, exercises.

25%--Class participation.

50%--Final essay. Based on both quality and sweat.


Reading:

August 23

Introduction

All reading is due the date assigned.

For THIS Class please read:

* Scott Russell Sanders, "Under the Influence." p 733 in Lopate

* Joan Didion "Goodbye to All That." 681 in Lopate.

August 25

Autobiographical writing exercise. “Melodrama as Personal Drama”

* Lopate's Introduction in The Art of the Personal Essay.

August 30

Start Roorbach. Chapters 1 and 2.

Two weeks on Roorbach.

September 1

Roorbach 3 and 4.


September 6–LABOR DAY HOLIDAY
September 8

Roorbach 5 and 6.


Sept 13

Roorbach through end


Sept 15

* Read The Situation and the Story through page 42.

* This includes an analysis of "In Bed" by Joan Didion so please also read this short (3 page) essay that begins on page 689 of Lopate. And the Harry Crews hand-out.
Sept 20

* Gornick 42-52

* Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles." Pg 657 in Lopate.

* Harry Crews handout. "Why I Live Where I Live."


Sept 22

* Gornick 52-77

* Ginzburg's "He and I" in Lopate. Pg 423.
Sept 27

* Gornick 77-89

* Baldwin "Notes of a Native Son." Pg 587.
Sept 29—Finish Gornick
Oct 4--Read This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff--through page 85.
October 6--Wolff--through 178.
October 11--Finish Wolff.
October 13--Goat by Brad Land. Through page 71.
October 18

Land. Through page 144


October 20—Finish Land.
October 25—Lopate TBA

October 27–TBA

Nov 1–TBA

Nov 3–TBA

Nov 8–TBA

Nov 10–TBA

Nov 15–TBA

Nov 17–TBA

Nov 22–TBA

1FALL 2004

David Gessner

CRW 309-001 INTERMEDIATE CREATIVE NONFICTION

E-mail: Gessnerdm@uncw.edu


This workshop focuses on writing creative nonfiction, a genre which includes and combines the personal essay, memoir, new journalism, nature writing, and the literature of place.
Books:

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Goat by Brad Land
Requirements:
1. Two completed nonfiction pieces, one of which will have been substantially revised by the end of the term. A cover letter detailing the process of revision should accompany the final revised piece.
2. Throughout the term we will have occasional writing exercises, most from the Roorbach. I expect three completed exercises, roughly one per month.
IF YOU MISS CLASS PLEASE GET THE ASSIGNMENT FROM A CLASSMATE.
Attendance:

Consistent attendance is essential. If you are absent without medical excuse more than twice, you are eligible to be officially excluded and failed.

The class is primarily a workshop. Due to this, and the need to get an intelligent, thoughtful dialogue going, I will ask that for each piece you read, you give me a copy of the comments that you give to the piece's author.
Grading:

25%--Completion of response pieces, critiques, exercises.

25%--Class participation.

50%--Final essay. Based on both quality and sweat.

Reading:

August 23

Introduction

All reading is due the date assigned.

For THIS Class please read:

* Scott Russell Sanders, "Under the Influence." p 733 in Lopate

* Joan Didion "Goodbye to All That." 681 in Lopate.

August 25

Autobiographical writing exercise. “Melodrama as Personal Drama”

* Lopate's Introduction in The Art of the Personal Essay.

August 30

Start Roorbach. Chapters 1 and 2.

Two weeks on Roorbach.


September 1

Roorbach 3 and 4.


September 6–LABOR DAY HOLIDAY
September 8

Roorbach 5 and 6.


Sept 13

Roorbach through end


Sept 15

* Read The Situation and the Story through page 42.

* This includes an analysis of "In Bed" by Joan Didion so please also read this short (3 page) essay that begins on page 689 of Lopate. And the Harry Crews hand-out.
Sept 20

* Gornick 42-52

* Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles." Pg 657 in Lopate.

* Harry Crews handout. "Why I Live Where I Live."


Sept 22

* Gornick 52-77

* Ginzburg's "He and I" in Lopate. Pg 423.
Sept 27

* Gornick 77-89

* Baldwin "Notes of a Native Son." Pg 587.
Sept 29—Finish Gornick
Oct 4--Read This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff--through page 85.
October 6--Wolff--through 178.
October 11--Finish Wolff.

October 13--Goat by Brad Land. Through page 71.

October 18

Land. Through page 144


October 20—Finish Land.
October 25—Lopate TBA
October 27–TBA

Nov 1–TBA

Nov 3–TBA

Nov 8–TBA

Nov 10–TBA

Nov 15–TBA

Nov 17–TBA

Nov 22–TBA

Nov 29–TBA

Dec 1–LAST DAY OF CLASSES. FINAL REVISION AND COVER LETTER DUE.




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