This offering in advanced nonfiction writing will function as a workshop, with a select group of students. It’s a course that will honor the spirit and tradition of “documentary” writing. The word “documentary” has meant many things over time. Here, it means a kind of nose-close observation and reportage. It means a level of being with one’s subject matter in a way that other creative writing courses don’t allow because of their format and structure. In English 155, a student writer at Penn will dare to “hang” with a topic—a girl’s high-school basketball team; a medical intern in a HUP emergency room; a cleaning lady doing the graveyard shift in a classroom building; a food-truck operator crowding the noontime avenues; a client-patient in the Ronald McDonald House near campus; a parish priest making his solitary and dreary and yet redemptive rounds of the sick and the dying in the hospital—for the entire term.
Yes, the whole term. And at term’s end, each writer in the course will have produced one extended prose work: a documentary piece of high creative caliber. This is our goal and inspiration. The piece will be 30 to 35 pages long.
Some people tend to think of the “documentary” genre (whether on film or in words) as work devoid of emotion—just the facts, ma’am. But in truth, emotion and deep sensitivity are prerequisites for any lasting documentary work. The nature of documentary, true documentary, implies moral and social scrutiny; means detailed fact-based reporting; depends on personal response to that factuality. This course will draw on specific literary and journalistic interests of the instructor that go back about 30 years.
The core reading models will be James Agee and George Orwell: specifically, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Agee and The Road to Wigan Pier by Orwell. Separately, across oceans, in 1936, in the belly of the Depression, these two incomparably gifted journalist/authors—one an American, one an Englishman—entered some damaged lower-class lives and proceeded to produce literary classics of the form. Agee went to Hale County, Alabama, to live with sharecroppers. Orwell traveled to the industrial grit of north England to observe coal miners.
Under the instructor’s guidance, the students will choose within the first three weeks. Choosing the subject is crucial. Access will have to be gained; cooperation assured. Within five weeks, rough drafts will begin to be produced—scenes, sketches, captured moments—and these will then be brought in to be read aloud to the group. This will be a way of finding the piece’s eventual form as well as making sure all participants are working at a level of continual intensity. The final product will be due at the 13th or 14th week of the term. Throughout the term we will constantly be consulting the various documentary reading models, even as we are concentrating on our own work.