Course Syllabus

The Curious Writer: Fitting the Pieces Together

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The collage memoir—a literary assemblage or mosaic—lets us enjoy the  creativity of blending various elements; the result is a fresh take that can add up to far more than a personal story.

In this class, you get to ignore the limitations of traditional narrative and use several means for inspecting why you remember something the way you did. The process of collecting thematic bits of material—poetry, historical records, lists, and micro-essays—and finding the through line can shape a story in ways you never imagined.

Maybe you have thematic pieces you’re ready to string together, or maybe you enjoy a variety of styles and can’t land on one. In this course, you will take inspiration from authors and books and aesthetics you may never have considered before. We’ll look at authors like Joy Harjo, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Joan Fiset, Rebecca Brown, Kevin Sampsell, and Sarah Manguso, whose hybrid works blend poetic forms with essay and philosophy. You’ll receive a reading list and ways to continue building on your work independently. In this course, we will challenge ourselves and get out of our comfort zones.

Each week provides:

  • WEEKLY PROMPTS to help you generate new writing
  • INSPIRATION in the form of written lectures and selected readings

After the course closes, you will receive a zip file containing all of the course content and the work you developed during the month. You’ll also continue to be a member of our Creative Nonfiction Writing Classes’ Community Page where you can share writings and calls for submissions, recommend books, and stay connected with other writers.

Week 1: Paying Attention

Do you have pictures or diary entries from which to draw inspiration? Is there a painting, a letter, or something hidden in the deepest bottom of a drawer that still feels consequential? Sarah Manguso said about her memoir Ongoingness: “Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.” We will scavenge for documents of intimate moments that inspire to create.


Collage memoir often looks like a bunch of material that, if sorted and separated, might not seem to fit together. Birds, when they build their nests, are not overanalyzing; they are focused on what they can use to build their home. This week, you’ll practice thinking as a collector of material and seeing your work as craft. You know, like the birds—some of the mud might stay, some might go.

Week 3: Winding the Clock

A “ticking clock” (and there can be many within a story) is simply a time limit. Limits in time are not necessarily about creating high drama, the suspense of an actual ticking bomb, but about introducing tension, which we know helps move readers along. Having a day, or a month, or a season as your deadline for something in your life can cause the kind of stress that makes for compelling words on the page.

Week 4: Imitate and Repeat

It’s in classes like these that we learn how to give ourselves permission to copy another person’s writing style. We’ve read something that knocks our socks off, and we wish we could do that, too. The reality is, we will never be another person; we will only be ourselves. Imitation is a form of practice, and through it emerges clarity of self and the development of a unique style. We will look at sample readings, respond, and write a new version. By the end of the course, you will have found new and unexpected ways to tell your story.

“The Curious Writer” was developed by Sarah Cannon for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Sarah Cannon is the author of The Shame of Losing (Red Hen Press), which was a Finalist for the Washington State Book Awards in 2019. Her essays have been featured in The New York Times (Modern Love column), Salon, Bitch magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, where she helped launch the inaugural Lighthouse Writers’ Conference and Retreat for MFA alumni in Port Townsend, WA. She lives in Edmonds, WA.