Course Syllabus

Writing the Tough Stuff

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Complete Syllabus

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.

Week 1: Why Write About Grief, Loss, and Trauma

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.

Week 2: Writing the Tough Stuff

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: Creating Complicated Characters

In real life, there are no heroes or villains. Accordingly, the main characters in our stories need to be individual, complex and fully revealed. This week, we’ll consider all the ways to show our stories’ characters’ authentic natures while discussing the challenges to do so. Who are the characters in your life? What makes them interesting and important? What motivates characters to act as they do? Participants will write an essay or memoir draft using the craft techniques explored so far.

Week 4: From Truth to Art

Are memoirs completely true stories? Or, is it more accurate to say— as memoirist Judith Barrington does— that “there is no more an absolute truth in memoir than there is in life”? This week, we’ll discuss how the realities of memory, as well as subjectivity, impacts the factual accuracy of our writing. We’ll talk about factual versus emotional truth, and consider a couple recent day controversies where memoirists got in trouble for “bending” the truth. How creative can we get when we’re writing creative nonfiction? We’ll ask and answer this question. Participants will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 5: 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 6: Language
This week, we’ll turn from what we’re saying to more carefully consider how it’s being said. Language shouldn’t call too much attention to itself… or should it? We’ll consider this question, as well as how language is another aspect of character. We’ll define figurative versus concrete language, and talk about the Ladder of Abstraction. We’ll look at examples of figurative language that works, and discuss why.

Week 7: Integrating Research into Our Writing
Creative nonfiction is not obligated to be as factually accurate as journalism. That said, writers can research public information and include exposition in our narratives to strengthen our credibility and support our arguments, as well as stimulate memory. We’ll discuss techniques for conducting research beyond Google. Participants will have an optional “field trip” and writing exercise to share with the group.

Week 8: 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 9: Revision
There are two types of edits: the ongoing edit and the draft edit. We’ll discuss both, as well as some methods for gaining perspective. Writing “the tough stuff” requires emotional honesty and balance. This week, we’ll consider when to pull back, what to leave out of our writing and why, and how to integrate your story of change into the larger world. Participants will complete an optional writing exercise to share with the group.

Week 10: 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.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page, or contact the Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]