Online Course

The Building Blocks of Personal Essay

January 09 - March 19, 2023

Level Intermediate

Learn the building blocks of writing a personal essay and connect your experiences to larger truths about our world.


Additional Information

Each of us has stories that are worth telling, but how can we fit the messiness of our lives through the narrow corridor of an essay? How can we resuscitate those moments on the page so that they live in the readers’ imaginations with the same force and freight as when we experienced them? How can we dramatize these events so that they attain the qualities of literature?

Over the course of ten weeks, students will learn the building blocks of writing a personal essay—establishing a compelling narrative persona, creating strong characters, conjuring vivid descriptions, and building satisfying plots. Most importantly, students will learn how to connect their experiences to larger truths about our world. To do so, we’ll dissect the work of published authors and tweeze out for examination various elements of the personal essay. We will also look at contemporary trends in creative nonfiction, discussing recent developments in voice, essay structure, and hybrid genres. Students will write three 2,500-word essays, as well as participate in optional writing assignments and class discussions.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Detail and Description

This week we will put a handful of classic personal essays under our critical lens to discuss the DNA of creative nonfiction—concrete details. We will also discuss some strategies for developing evocative descriptions. Students will be asked to complete a 500-word optional writing assignment that puts these strategies into practice.

Week 2: The Blueprint of a Scene

What makes an effective scene? How do they heighten the stakes of our stories? How is a scene different from exposition? For which moments in our stories do we use scenes? Many times we as essayists try to avoid scenes because we can’t remember exactly what was said or what happened. This week we will talk about how to account for those gaps in our memory and how to construct scenes that both propel the plot and add emotional depth to our stories.

Week 3: Establishing Character and Conflict

Our best stories usually hinge upon a clear conflict--a thwarted desire, an unexpected complication, a frayed relationship. This week we’ll talk about the importance of having a clear conflict and the differences between internal and external conflicts. We’ll also discuss strategies for ensuring that our characters aren’t stock caricatures but exist on the page as real people. Students will participate in a short exercise about sketching characters.

Week 4: Personae—The Many Voices of an Essayist

One of the most difficult things to achieve as an essayist is a compelling narrative persona. This week, we’ll talk about developing an authorial sensibility that effectively mirrors who we are as people. We’ll also discuss how different subjects will require different narrative voices and how we can recalibrate our narrative approach to suit these particular topics. Finally, we’ll devote a portion of this week to looking at nonstandard narrative perspectives, such as using the second- or third-person point of view to dramatize other people’s stories. Students will be asked to complete a 500 word optional writing assignment on narrative voice. Students will also turn in the first of three 2,500 essays.

Week 5: Structure—How to Scaffold Our Experiences

This week’s discussions will be centered on the various ways we can organize our essays. As one might expect, different structures can yield different effects, so we’ll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of using fragmented chronologies, braided storylines, topic-based structures, and other forms. Students will read a variety of essays that use some of these structures.

Week 6: The Nature of Truth

One of the most persistent questions that comes up in creative nonfiction classes is “what do we mean by nonfiction?” How do we as essayists claim to approximate the truth? What authority do we have in doing so? How can we present a subjective interpretation or reality without intruding upon the sanctity of facts? How can we present our memories even though they might be skewed by emotion or warped by time? This week, we’ll talk about how to navigate such questions as we write about potentially sensitive topics. Furthermore, we’ll address the ways in which the haziness of our memory can take our essays in interesting structural and thematic directions. Students will turn in the second of three 2,500 essays.

Week 7: Research—How to Find and Incorporate Outside Help

It would be silly to think that we’re limited solely to the limited the narrow parameters of our memories when we sit down to write about our lives. Not only can we call upon the usual suspects—books, magazine articles, academic journals—but we can also find essay fodder in the most unexpected of places—our parents’ diaries; our baby books; our father’s tax documents; the sermons of our childhood pastor; the lecture notes from our first college philosophy class; the brochure for the army our brother consulted when he decided to enlist. We’ll also discuss strategies for incorporating this research into our essays in ways that preserve the seamlessness of the narrative.

Week 8: Moving from the Personal to the Universal

Since grade school, many well-meaning teachers have told us that writing is an act of expression, but this definition often encourages flowery, me-centric writing and might allow us to think that our essays can be cathartic burst of emotions without any concern for who’s reading them. To my mind, writing is an act of communication, a transmission between two consciousnesses (writer-to-reader) facilitated by a well-dramatized, well-crafted story. In order for this communication to be successful, we essayists must figure out ways of connecting our experiences to larger ideas.

Week 9: Revision

This week we’ll discuss the most crucial phase in the writing process—revision. We’ll review common mechanical and conceptual issues, and discuss strategies for pruning our prose of fluff, re-structuring the paragraphs, and locating and cultivating larger themes in our work. Students will be given a checklist to guide them during revision. Students will also submit their final 2,500 essay of the term.

Week 10: Publishing

Entering the literary marketplace can be daunting, so this week’s lecture will be devoted to demystifying the experience. Aside from reviewing the basics of how to write a cover letter, how to interpret rejection letters, and how to pitch your work to agents and publishers, we’ll also talk about finding and submitting to literary magazines that match our aesthetics and sensibilities.

View Complete Syllabus

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Please Note

It is not uncommon for classes to fill up before the end of early registration, particularly in the last few days before the deadline. If you know for certain that you wish to take a particular class, we recommend registering early. If you'd like to be added to a waitlist for a sold-out class, please email our director of education, Sharla Yates, at [email protected].

Hear from our Students

Creative Nonfiction’s online writing classes have helped more than 3,000 writers tell their stories better.

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I enjoyed reading other peoples work and getting feedback about my own work– the handouts/video links and class lessons were also very informative and relevantly paced to the give structural guidelines.

Catherine O’Neill

Online Course FAQs

  • What day and time is my online course?

    Our courses run asynchronously; meaning, you will NOT need to be online at any particular time. Assignments for CNF classes are given on a weekly basis; you should submit each assignment by a given deadline, but in most classes you will have at least an entire week to complete the assignment. We realize that our students live in many different areas and have different work schedules, so classes are designed to be flexible. Courses feature one live conference session, which does require that you be online at a particular time; however, participation in this session is completely optional, and instructors make an effort to offer times that can accommodate most students. This is scheduled by the instructor after class begins. If you are not able to participate in the live conference you will still be able to view a recording of it during the remaining weeks of the class. Please note that there are no video conferences in boot camp courses.

  • What makes CNF’s classes different from other online programs?


    Some online programs work on a “synchronous” model, which requires you to be online at an assigned time each week. The asynchronous model used in our classes means that you do not have to be online at any particular time of day, and can approach the class assignments at your own pace based on your schedule. While some optional events—such as class video conferences—do take place at a specific time, the majority of class activities can be completed according to your schedule.

    Intimate Classes

    Classes are small—limited to 14 students per section—which means you’ll receive individual attention and feedback on your work.

    Experienced Instructors

    Good writing instructors not only need to be skilled writers, but also need to have experience in teaching what they know to others. That’s why all of our instructors are professional writers with extensive teaching experience.

    Substantial and Meaningful Writing Assignments

    Many online writing programs ask you to complete short writing exercises each week, and only near the end of the class are you invited to write a single essay or chapter. At Creative Nonfiction, we recognize the value of exercises, but also believe that completing an essay or chapter is the best way for developing writers to really explore how all the elements of creative nonfiction work together. Writing complete pieces also leaves you with a sense of accomplishment and with work you can share when the class is completed. For this reason, in our classes you are invited to submit longer pieces multiple times during a course. See course syllabus for more information.

    Sense of Connection

    We realize that it is difficult to find one’s writing community—which is why we now offer every new student membership to a Community Page where you can meet with other CNF students, during and after class.

  • What are your community standards?

    Creative Nonfiction is committed to creating a welcoming and comfortable experience for all staff and participants regardless of gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disabilities, neurodiversity, physical appearance, ethnicity, nationality, race, age, or religion.

    We expect that staff and participants will treat each other with respect in all interactions. We will not tolerate discrimination or harrassment in conjunction with any of our programs. Harassment could include but is not limited to:

    • Repeated disruption of classes, lectures or discussion
    • Deliberate intimidation
    • Unwelcome sexual attention
    • Comments or displayed images that harmfully reinforce structures of oppression

    Community posts violating any of these guidelines can and will be removed from the page at any time. Anyone asked to stop harassing behavior is expected to comply immediately.

    Harassment does not include respectful disagreement or critique in good faith. Reading and writing, by their nature, include exposure to controversial, challenging, and sometimes offensive language. We encourage all participants to follow the peer review guidelines provided by their instructor.

    When you join a course you agree to…

    • respect others and respect their writing;
    • maintain the privacy of all submitted work;
    • treat others with respect;
    • not infringe on anyone’s copyright;
    • not harass, abuse, threaten or impersonate another user; and
    • not use libelous, obscene, or abusive work.

    Online Communication Guide

    Online communication happens without the benefit of body language and tone. Therefore, it can be easy to misinterpret. The following tips may help participants engage in civil, intelligent, vigorous discourse without impugning the personal dignity of others:

    1. Start from a position of generosity (i.e. assume that people mean well)
    2. Address your post to someone or to the group. Instead of “Hey” or just jumping in to your post, try “Hi All” or “Hi [Name].”
    3.  Don’t be afraid to use emoticons and/or exclamation points! 🙂
    4. Please avoid ALL CAPS whenever possible, as they tend to come off as RUDE or YELLING.
    5. Avoid harsh or offensive language of any kind. If you’re in doubt, try rewording or reconsidering your post.
    6. Sarcasm is very difficult to convey in writing — best to avoid it.
    7. When interacting with your peers, please consider that some may have limited experience with English, online education, and/or creative writing. It’s a good rule of thumb not to write anything you wouldn’t say if that person were standing in front of you.
    8. Often writers from underrepresented groups are asked to explain everything for an assumed monolithic audience (often cis/white/hetero/masculine/able-bodied, etc. etc.). As you respond to peers’ work, keep in mind that you may not be the writer’s intended audience, and leave room for the possibility that the writer is writing for a group of which you are not a member. (For more on this, listen to this episode of Code Switch for an in depth conversation.)

    See your course for additional feedback guidelines provided by your instructor.

  • How do I find my course archive?

    All course work is saved in Wet.Ink. When the course closes, you can find the archive by logging in to your account, and choosing “Past Classes.” Archives include course content (lectures, readings, writing prompts, etc.), your posts and writing submissions, and any feedback given on your writing. The course archive will not include your classmates’ writing submissions.

  • What do the course levels mean?

    FUNDAMENTALS—open to all levels.
    Our fundamentals courses are designed for those who are new to writing or new to creative nonfiction, as well as those who could benefit from a back-to-basics review on how to effectively and intentionally use elements of the writer’s craft.

    INTERMEDIATE—prerequisites suggested. 
    Our intermediate courses are designed for writers who have some experience either in the genre or CNF’s courses. Past course participation is not required, but we do recommend starting with one of our fundamentals courses, especially Foundations of Creative Nonfiction.

    ADVANCED—prerequisites for enrollment. 
    Our advanced courses are for writers who have completed two previous online courses (not including self-guided courses) with Creative Nonfiction (one must be an intermediate level course).