Course Syllabus

The Building Blocks of Personal Essay

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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 a 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 essays, as well as participate in optional writing assignments and class discussions.

How it works: 

Each week provides:

  • 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:

  • writing exercises and/or prompts
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 2,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and 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 expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.


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.