Course Syllabus

Advanced Personal Essay: Finding a Way Through

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Transform actual people and events into characters and plot elements, and turn your personal anecdotes into publishable essays.

“If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.” – Hilary Mantel

Transforming actual people and events into characters and plot elements in an essay can be disorienting, but this is how we turn what would otherwise be journal entries—written for the author’s benefit—into literature, which exists for the benefit of readers. This class is designed for those who have already explored the basics of personal writing and wish to explore specific techniques for turning a personal anecdote into a publishable essay. Specifically, you will look at some typical structures of the personal essay, and how those formats help authors avoid common pitfalls of the form, such as getting lost in a giant pile of information and/or coming off as solipsistic/maudlin. This class emphasizes searching for the best material, and trying out various approaches. Great essays start with the best material possible, because you can revise a medium idea all you want and it will likely never become incredible. (As a metaphor: you can be the best jockey in the world, but if the horse isn’t amazing, you will not win a race—the horse in this metaphor is your material.) So the class focuses on craft, but it also focuses on how to find and select the best material.

Some of the forms we’ll explore:

  • Flash (up to 1000-word) essay
  • Reported Essay
  • Collage essay;
  • Portrait of another as a portrait of self;
  • Narrative-driven essay; and
  • Confessional essay.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • Written lectures and a selection of readings
  • Discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor

Some weeks also include:

  • Writing exercises and prompts
  • An opportunity to get peer and instructor feedback on a flash essay (up to 1000 words) and a feature-length essay (up to 4000 words)
  • An optional video conference open to all students in Week 2 (which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly in the class to receive instructor feedback on your work.


Week 1: Getting Started / Sourcing Material

This week you’ll learn about the ways writers locate promising material for personal essays. How much ground (i.e. time and space) can an essay reasonably cover? How many characters does a good essay have? You will also get to know your classmates and receive your initial writing prompt. Finally, you’ll make a list of potential subjects you might want to write about.

Week 2: Approaches and Pitfalls

This week you’ll read examples of several forms of essays and examine how the authors avoid common pitfalls. The instructor will offer examples, from his own work, of first drafts versus published drafts from the Guardian, and the NYT’s “Modern Love”. This week we will also have a video conference.

Week 3: Structure and Form

We’ll discuss the difference between scene and summary and explore how you can balance these two approaches in crafting an essay. You will read portions of several essays and will write new work from two prompts. First brief writing samples are due for instructor review.

Week 4: Tone and Voice

This week we’ll look at what tone and voice can contribute to an essay.  You will read two essays and examine the variations in tone and voice between them. You’ll also experiment by writing the opening of one essay in two different ways.

Week 5: Theme vs Motif

The lecture and reading this week will focus on how essays with less “plot” use theme and motif as binding ingredients to create  purpose and direction. Workshop begins! You will receive guidelines on how to respond to one another’s work.

Week 6: Structure

This week is dedicated to structure and how the outer framework of an essay can reflect and strengthens its focus and make space for more stories and information. . We’ll read and discuss an essay by John McPhee, a master of structure. You’ll also read an essay about structure from John McPhee. This will also be the second significant workshop week.

Week 7: Setting and Space in Essay

This week you will look at how a clear setting, when handled carefully, can heighten emotional impact and build atmosphere in personal essays. Along with that, you’ll also learn how setting is often overused in essays.  Finally, this week in addition to workshopping, you will listen to the Leslie Jamison interview with David Naimon from the “Between the Covers” Podcast.

Week 8: Dramatic Tension and Plot

This week we’ll consider essays that are “plotted”—that is, that contain overt or covert dramatic tension. How can you create tension, and how do you know where to start or stop (or pause) a narrative for maximum effect? In addition to workshop this week, you will  turn in further ideas for essays or expand on some of the ideas you had earlier.

Week 9: The “Drama of Ideas”

David Shields has often remarked, in various ways, that what distinguishes essay from fiction is that essays offer the “drama of ideas” (whereas fiction presents “drama of action”). This week’s reading is  an essay by Lauren Slater that perfectly embodies this notion. This is the final week for workshopping.

Week 10: Revision and Marketplace

In this final week you’ll learn specific techniques for revision and self-editing. You will also learn about the different marketplaces for personal essays, both in print and online. You will also learn about residencies, artist colonies, summer workshops, MFA programs, and other resources that can help you find a writing community and connections to other writers.

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