Course Syllabus

Experimental Forms

View Course

Explore new structures, hybrid forms, and nonstandard narrative perspectives, and discover a variety of strategies for innovation in nonfiction writing.

What are the limits of creative nonfiction? what point does an essay leave the world of fact and enter the realm of fiction or poetry? Are the borders between these genres rigid and unyielding, or are they porous? How can a writer move seamlessly between them during the course of a single essay in order to communicate more effectively the complexity of his or her experience? In this class, you will explore a variety of strategies for innovation in nonfiction writing. You’ll study new exhilarating developments in the genre, encountering the work of many contemporary practitioners of the craft, and discuss which subjects lend themselves to these cutting-edge techniques. You will learn about experimental structures, hybrid forms, and nonstandard narrative perspectives, writing one short 500 word vignettes and one 3,000 word essay.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words)
  • optional video/tele conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.

Week 1: Experimental Structures—Breaking the Rules

Most essays proceed in a linear, chronological fashion—And then we did this, and then we did that. Throughout the week, you’ll talk about strategies for deviating from this standard structure in order to dramatize complex, multifaceted stories. Among other things, you’ll discuss nonstandard essay structures, including: fragmented chronology; flashing backwards and flashing forwards; braided storylines; and the bookended essay. You will practice these techniques by writing a 500-word micro-essay that deploys one of these innovative structures.

Week 2: Hybrid Forms—Incorporating Other Genres

Oftentimes essayists forget that you don’t have to rely solely on your memories to construct an essay. The class will overlook the other textual sources that inform your experiences—the assorted testimonies that can be in conversation with your own interpretations of events. During the week, you’ll talk about how your essays can be a collage of other genres, appropriating material from newspaper articles, poems, song lyrics, business brochures, diary entries—whatever—in order to locate the meaning of your experiences. You’ll talk about how these sources can be integrated effectively into your essays.

Week 3: Nonstandard Narrative Perspectives—Letting Go of the First Person

Writing creative nonfiction doesn’t always mean excavating the terrain of the self. There are countless examples of essayists who have done enough research and have taken enough care to tell other people’s stories compellingly and sensitively. This week, you’ll talk about strategies for writing about other people’s experiences. You’ll review narrative perspectives used by fiction writers to animate the lives of your characters—particularly, second-person, third-person-omniscience, and third-person-close—and you’ll discuss ways you can use these perspectives in nonfiction writing. You will also submit a 3,000 word essay this week. The submission should respond to one of the assignment prompts and draw on the lectures and class discussions.

Week 4: Revision—Recalibrating the Methods of Your Experiment

Whenever you use a nontraditional approach, you must make sure that it contributes to the success of your essay. This week, you’ll talk about how you can determine whether the experiments in your essays are necessary and worthwhile, and how you can adjust your approach to best serve the purpose of the piece. You will also share your Week 3 essay with a small group of classmates for Peer Critiques.

Week 5: Publishing

While some experimental structures will offend classical tastes, increasingly these strategies have been accepted by major literary magazines and publishing houses. This week you’ll discuss print venues that are interested in experimental work. The lecture will also talk about matching your aesthetic sensibility with those of the right magazine. More generally, the class will talk about expectations for the submission process, as well as strategies for increasing your chances to land your work in print.