Course Syllabus

Zen of Process

View Course

As you connect and synthesize your ideas, you’ll see how a strong voice and structure emerge in your work—elements that, ultimately, make readers want to turn pages.

Storytelling is a basic human impulse. It sounds easy—and sometimes it is, once we tap into our deeper expressive power. The problem is not always finding the time to write, or even what to write, but how to make the connections with our material so that we can be true to our own unique perspectives.

In this self-guided class, you will learn how to recognize natural patterns and connections, and practice synthesizing them for top emotional impact. No matter the length of your project, this means asking questions about your narrator’s goals, your favored style, and yourself as a writer and human. You will have opportunities to experiment with making connections in your work without fear of consequences.

This isn’t about being the smartest or most intellectual writer, but it is about having the most heart and asking yourself the hardest questions. As you connect and synthesize your ideas, you’ll see how a  strong voice and structure emerge in your work—elements that, ultimately, make readers want to turn pages.

Week 1: Smart with Heart

We will use a modernized approach of the “Hero’s Journey” to look at what makes us tick as writers. What are we better at that anyone else, and how can we capture that in our story? Exercises include summarizing our story using three adjectives, developing a “logline”, creating a purpose statement, and addressing how to avoid bravado in our narrative. Reference material will be: Living the Hero’s Journey: Exploring Your Role in the Action-Adventure of a Lifetime by Will Craig and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

Week 2: Check Out This Pattern!

In this session, we will look at the natural connections to the work you’ve already done. What have you been in the habit of doing that works, or that doesn’t? What kind of language makes time fly as you read it? Strategies for synthesizing those connections will include a lesson on “clustering”—a brainstorming technique that opens and clears the creative pathways, often undoing old habits that aren’t working. Reference material will be Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico, Ph.D.

Week 3: Lies, Lies, Lies

Memoir or memoir-like essays can do many things with the form, but in order to have impact, they require a certain degree of brutal honesty. In this session, we will address some tough questions: What are the lies in your story—the ones you’re telling yourself and the ones you’re telling others? Which are the ones you can stand to admit? We’ll work together to connect the dots and get to our deepest truths.

Week 4: Hybrid, Lyrical, Fragments, Oh My!

We might love a certain style but what we produce looks and feels like something different. We will explore different forms by reading short pieces and generating work based on our reactions, mimicking style at times. We will engage in a creative letter-writing exercise and process feedback from peers with the intention of coming closer to learning about our own limitations and gifts.

“The Zen of Process” 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.