Course Syllabus

Writing the Tough Stuff

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Everyone experiences personal difficulty at some point in their lives.

Writers often find that we want to write about loss, grief, trauma, or major life changes in order to both understand how our personal narrative has changed us, and to relate our changed self to the world. The course will present strategies for strong creative nonfiction writing about these subjects, and discuss cross-disciplinary research in creating trauma narratives. Each week will include a written lecture, specific reading recommendations tied to the lecture, and a writing assignment.

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
  • writing prompts and/or assignments

Some weeks also include:

  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words)

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


In this first week we’ll look more closely at what motivates us to write about trauma and other difficult experiences that have changed us. We’ll discuss how writing can be a powerful vehicle for self-discovery, personal transformation, and social change. Which writers do we admire and why? What are some vivid examples of creative nonfiction that has influenced public conversation and “made a difference”? We will discuss our “right to write.” Participants will complete an optional writing exercise to share with the group.


We’ll talk about how we choose moments for material (and how these moments sometimes choose us). Following this, we’ll talk about our purpose for writing, and theme. How can we make our stories relevant to our readers, and more than simply about us? We’ll consider the idea of “positionality,” and alternate points of view. Participants will complete an optional writing exercise to share with the group.

Week 3: SO WHAT?

Having trouble organizing your material? This week ought to help. We’ll talk about plot, and the elements of a narrative including scene, summary and reflection. We’ll consider the role of detail in creating compelling scenes on the page. We’ll also delve deeper into what motivates our central character, define the concept of Major Dramatic Question, and find our answer to the question: so what? Lastly, we’ll define the elements of an essay, and consider a handful of mentor texts with effective ledes. Participants may revise their first submission as this week’s assignment, or write something new.

WEek 4: What Happens When our Writing Meets the World?

Every text is embedded in context— the time and place it was written, when it’s being read, as well as other people’s perspectives. What happens when our writing meets its readers? We’ll discuss the potential benefits to sharing our writing publicly, and look at some “cautionary tales.” We’ll explore how the act of telling our stories publicly is political, and how it may expose us to criticism. We’ll discuss ways of reducing potential harms. Participants will write an essay or memoir draft chapter employing elements from the preceding lectures.

Week 5: Publishing, Practice & Everything Else

During this final week, we’ll discuss what we’ve learned so far about ourselves through our writing. We’ll talk about what our writing practice currently looks like, and what more we could do to support our work. We’ll talk about what steps to take next, and explore the option of publishing our writing.