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Creative Non-Fiction Workshop

ENGL 135.301
instructor(s):
M 2-5:00

Do you feel you have a fresh perspective on life's goings-on? Did you look at a building today and wonder what's going on inside? Is there an event, a person, an idea that you think has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, under-appreciated?

If so, come and investigate with me. We will spend the semester doing our best to write out of that paper bag that is made up of our curiosity, our observations and our prejudices. The best creative non-fiction explains, but it also makes us run to learn more about the subject.

We will have a special emphasis this spring on humor, perhaps the most difficult type of writing to pull off. We’ll look at different definitions and styles of humor, from Woody Allen’s to Mark Twain’s to, with good fortune, your own.

I've been lucky enough to spend a career writing such stuff and look forward to finding out different ways of doing so from you. We will be reading some of the best magazine and newspaper writing of the last century - and hopefully be writing some of it as well. We will talk about essays, arts reviews, general features and even sportswriting.

Students will be required to write at least two pieces of magazine length (2000 words or more) and several shorter pieces. The longer pieces will be presented to the class for workshop criticism. While there are two texts ("The Art of Fact," edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda and “Fierce Pajamas,” edited by David Remnick), we will also read current newspapers and magazines and discuss contemporary styles in non-fiction writing. Since I am a practicing journalist, you will be subjected to reading my pieces as well - and I intend to be subjected to your criticism.

Those who choose to take this course should read the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine and the New York Times Sunday magazine that will appear two days before the class so we have a basis for discussion that day. Come in with ideas on how you might have written the stories differently.

Requirements:

Those two essays of at least 1500 words (min. 6 double-spaced typewritten pages) to be workshopped in class by the class. One of them will be recast/rewritten as a final paper.,P. Nearly weekly shorter writing assignments.,P. Discussion in class and in workshops. ,P.

Attendance in class. I understand that this is college and there are numerous reasons for missing classes. Once with a good excuse is acceptable. More than that and I will give jaundiced looks with arms folded and left foot tapping uncomfortably. Some attribute to Hemingway the line, “The secret to life is showing up.” Whoever said it, it is good advice.

Deadlines. Writers who blow deadlines are either (a) eccentric, (b) disorganized or (c) so incredibly talented that no one seems to mind. If, in your case, it is (c), you certainly don’t need this course. If you are a (b), then I hope you will, if nothing else, learn writerly organization here. And though I am a great believer in (a), proof of eccentricity for me takes at least 16 weeks.

Grades will not be given on individual papers. Your final grade will depend on a collective experience. While the longer essays will generally be given greatest weight, progress itself will be a virtue. Originality and execution in the shorter assignments may well outweigh the longer papers – it would be hard to penalize someone who does better work in shorter bursts. Participation in class discussion, while mandatory, is better infrequent and pithy than constant and superfluous.

I grant that this is a fluid and subjective grading method, but, then, so would putting grades on every fragment of work. I am, however, notorious for filling the margins of papers with tiny, hand-written (often difficult-to-read) comments, praying that they show I care about everyone’s work. You can at any time ask me how you are doing. I will most likely give a long-winded answer that will confuse and, probably, frustrate you. But my goal in the class is wound up in the utopian hope that you will all end up better writers and thinkers for having spent a semester with me and the others in the class.