Creative Nonfiction in Writing Courses
These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.
Last Edited: 2018-03-09 02:18:22
Creative nonfiction is a broad term and encompasses many different forms of writing. This resource focuses on the three basic forms of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, the memoir essay, and the literary journalism essay. A short section on the lyric essay is also discussed.
The Personal Essay
The personal essay is commonly taught in first-year composition courses because students find it relatively easy to pick a topic that interests them, and to follow their associative train of thoughts, with the freedom to digress and circle back.
The point to having students write personal essays is to help them become better writers, since part of becoming a better writer is the ability to express personal experiences, thoughts and opinions. Since academic writing may not allow for personal experiences and opinions, writing the personal essay is a good way to allow students further practice in writing.
The goal of the personal essay is to convey personal experiences in a convincing way to the reader, and in this way is related to rhetoric and composition, which is also persuasive. A good way to explain a personal essay assignment to a more goal-oriented student is simply to ask them to try to persuade the reader about the significance of a particular event.
Most high-school and first-year college students have plenty of experiences to draw from, and they are convinced about the importance of certain events over others in their lives. Often, students find their strongest conviction in the process of writing, and the personal essay is a good way to get students to start exploring these possibilities in writing.
A personal essay assignment can work well as a prelude to a research paper, because personal essays will help students understand their own convictions better, and will help prepare them to choose research topics that interest them.
An Example and Discussion of a Personal Essay
The following excerpt from Wole Soyinka's (Nigerian Nobel Laureate) Why Do I Fast? is an example of a personal essay. What follows is a short discussion of Soyinka's essay.
Why do I fast? I do not mean, why do I fast now? I have settled that in terms of continuing conflict. But why do I fast at all? Why have I, at any given time, suddenly decided---I must now do without food for some time? Perhaps I ought to settle that in my mind before I am trapped in a fatal demand of my own self-indulgence.
Yes, self-indulgence. A sensual self-indulgence. It is important to separate the area of will-power from the drugged immersion in rainbow-tinted ether. For I suspect that it is the truly sensual that take easily to fasting.
Soyinka begins with a question that fascinates him. He doesn’t feel required to immediately answer the question in the second paragraph. Rather, he takes time to consider his own inclination to believe that there is a connection between fasting and sensuality.
Soyinka follows the flowing associative arc of his thoughts, and he goes on to write about sunsets, and quotes from a poem that he wrote in his cell. The essay ends, not on a restatement of his thesis, but on yet another question that arises:
Were these new kingdoms which that sage hermit sought, the kingdoms of nothing? Or did he speak, as being replete in his own being, spurning all exterior augmentation.
This question remains unanswered. Soyinka is not interested in even attempting to answer it. The personal essay doesn’t necessarily seek to make sense out of life experiences; rather, personal essays tend to let go of that sense-making impulse to do something else, like nose around a bit in the wondering, uncertain space that lies between experience and the need to organize it in a logical manner.
However informal the personal essay may seem, it’s important to keep in mind that, as Dinty W. Moore says in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, “the essay should always be motivated by the author’s genuine interest in wrestling with complex questions.”
Generating Ideas for Personal Essays
In The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, Moore goes on to explain an effective way to help students generate ideas for personal essays:
“Think about ten things you care about deeply: the environment, children in poverty, Alzheimer’s research (because your grandfather is a victim), hip-hop music, Saturday afternoon football games. Make your own list of ten important subjects, and then narrow the larger subject down to specific subjects you might write about. The environment? How about that bird sanctuary out on Township Line Road that might be torn down to make room for a megastore?..."
"...What is it like to be the food service worker who puts mustard on two thousand hot dogs every Saturday afternoon? Don’t just wonder about it - talk to the mustard spreader, spend an afternoon hanging out behind the counter, spread some mustard yourself. Transform your list of ten things into a longer list of possible story ideas. Don’t worry for now about whether these ideas would take a great amount of research, or might require special permission or access. Just write down a master list of possible stories related to your ideas and passions. Keep the list. You may use it later.”
It is this flexibility of form in the personal essay that makes it easy for students who are majoring in engineering, nutrition, graphic design, finance, management, etc. to adapt, learn and practice. The essay can be a more worldly form of writing than poetry or fiction, so students from various backgrounds, majors, jobs and cultures can express interesting and powerful thoughts and feelings in them.
The essay is more worldly than poetry and fiction in another sense: it allows for more of the world and its languages, its arts and food, its sport and business, its travel and politics, its sciences and entertainment, to be present, valid and important.
Essay 1 Assignment
First Assignment: write op-ed piece
By John B. Padgett
English 102 Instructor
Company newsletters are becoming increasingly important methods by which corporate America communicates with employees, clients, and customers, and oftentimes, the task of putting together newsletters falls upon younger, more recently hired employees--in other words, folks like you when you when you get your first job.
It is for that reason that I've decided to make your first assignment an exercise in a kind of writing you might experience in the "real world," for an audience of your peers.
The headline reads "op-ed" piece, a term referring to the "opposite editorial" page of newspapers, a page traditionally reserved for columnists, letters to the editor, and other guest opinionators. It operates as a complement to the newspaper's own editorial positions, usually expressed in an unsigned article and offering the official opinion of the newspaper's editorial board.
A good op-ed piece is topical, offering a perspective on a current item of interest to the readers of the publication. The writer offers a unique, focused look at the subject, often using both logical and emotional appeals to persuade readers.
The writer's tone is balanced and consistent, and his or her voice unique--humorous or cynical, angry or sorrowful, objective or contemplative, but definitely the voice of the writer. Op-ed pieces are the product of an individual, not a committee.
Also, while it may seem obvious, it bears repeating: the best op-ed pieces are lively, informative, and good pieces of writing.
Your assignment, then, is to write an op-ed piece on a subject, any subject, of your choosing.
I will allow you a chance to experiment with your writing somewhat--you may opt to write an opinion piece for a newsletter in your field of study or another subject of interest to you. If you'd like, you can even format your essay in a newsletter style (like this assignment sheet). But remember, you must formulate an opinion about a subject and attempt to persuade your target audience.
Regardless of which route you take, there are some things you should be aware of, so here goes:
Know your publicationOne of the worst things you can do when writing is to write in a manner inconsistent with your target medium. Just as you adopt a different tone in letters asking Mom for money than you would in a letter asking for a loan, you also must know the conventions of the place where your writing will be read.
In this case, you are "publishing" in a newspaper or newsletter, so you should be aware that newspaper articles have very short paragraphs. In general, no more than two or three sentences make up a typical paragraph.
The reason is "gray space," the way a long block of text tends to turn gray upon glancing. Also, because newspapers are printed in columns, paragraphs seem longer than they would in a book because the lines are shorter.
The most important consideration about shorter paragraphs is that they are easier for readers to read. Long unbroken blocks of text are daunting to most readers. Frequent paragraphs promise a sort of "rest stop" to readers.
Don't feel you need to keep your paragraphs wholly unified and long. In newspaper writing it is perfectly legitimate to begin new paragraphs often, even if it means continuing a thought begun in an earlier paragraph. If you've been paying attention at all, you'll notice that I have been doing just that throughout this article.
Another consideration about newspaper writing is that you must grab the reader's attention quickly. Newspapers are meant to be read quickly, and rarely are they ever read again. And if an article is not interesting, readers generally will not bother finishing it.
For that reason, it is crucial that you begin with a good lead, an opening sentence that "hooks" readers immediately and makes them want to read on. A good lead tantalizes, informs, and sets the tone for the piece. It can even be creative. For instance, an editorial on gambling in the Wall Street Journal began with a paraphrase of Dr. Seuss: "I do like gambling, Sam-I-Am, I really like it, and I can. For I can do it in a plane, on a boat, at the track, and in the rain. I can do it in a casino, with the lottery, or with Keno."
A final consideration for op-ed pieces is that it must be short and concise. Although lengths of op-ed pieces in real newspapers vary--those in the New York Times may be longer than those in smaller papers, for example--you should waste no time in getting to your point.
For this assignment, I recommend a maximum length of 800 words. If you can't get your opinion across in that many words, you should probably narrow your topic.
Likewise, a god op-ed piece cannot be too short. If the opinion can be encapsulated in, say, less than 400 words, then it probably isn't unique enough to be worth writing about in the first place. A minimum length for this assignment, then, is 400 words.
Know your subjectPresumably, since you're writing an opinion piece, you will know something about your subject. However, that doesn't mean your readers know about it, so it is important to present your knowledge sufficiently to your readers.
The key is to understand your target audience: try to think like them, anticipate what they may not understand. For example, if you're arguing about tort reform in the legal system, and you're writing for a newspaper, your readers may not know what "tort" means.
By the same token, however, if your intended publication is a newsletter for lawyers, you would not need to define "tort"--your readers would know it is a wrongful act, injury or damage not covered by a contract for which lawyers can sue.
To define a term, the first place to begin is usually with a dictionary definition, but very often that is insufficient. Other ways of defining terms include stipulation, negation and examples.
Stipulation means you're asking readers to accept a definition that may differ from a more conventional one. When a writer says "national security is at an all-time low because of current immigration laws," the term national security is being used in a way that may differ from, say, a military general.
In recent years terms such as "family" and "family values" have been the target of much stipulation as writers and politicians offer their opinion on them. Sometimes, stipulations are used to make negative ideas seem more positive, as when a terrorist group uses the word liberation to describe its activities.
Negation is also sometimes useful in defining terms. By saying what something is not, readers may get a fuller picture of what something is.
Examples also provide a means of defining a term and are among the most useful means by which a writer can illuminate difficult subjects. Justice is a term that is difficult to define in abstract, but a writer who gives examples of what it means to him gives readers something concrete by which to evaluate his argument.
Supporting your argumentRegardless of who you're writing for, you need to explain your subject and support your argument in ways that are both informative and persuasive. This is especially true of technical or complex subjects, such as economics or science.
One way is to draw comparisons and analogies that the typical reader can relate to. It is no accident that politicians in Washington arguing for a balanced budget compare our nation's spending to a family's financial situation--something most people are familiar with.
Other ways to support your argument is to use voices of authority, such as experts and statistics, and to appeal to the needs and values of your readers.
Obviously, having experts who agree with you is a boon to your argument. Keep in mind, however, that your readers may not agree who is an acknowledged expert. When Philip Morris issues a scientific report on the harmfulness of tobacco, most people view it skeptically because Philip Morris stands to benefit from a favorable report.
If you do use expert opinion, do so wisely, quoting exactly (if you quote) and establishing the credentials of your expert if he or she is unfamiliar to your readers. Often you can do this quite simply in the first attribution, as in "Harvard physicist Joseph Smith, author of The Atoms Family, says ..." By explaining that Smith is a physicist at Harvard and has written a book on atoms, you subtly suggest he is an expert who can be trusted.
Statistics, too, can and often are used in writing, but you should exercise the same reservations with them as with expert opinion. You should make sure they come from a reputable source, and you should let readers know the source.
Keep in mind that statistics can be skewed. If a glass is described as 25 percent empty, it is also 75 percent full. Statistics about gun-related deaths from the National Rifle Association may be skewed to favor the NRA's views on gun control.
Also, make sure pertinent terms are clearly defined. A few years ago, the number of farms in one state was reduced by several thousands by changing the definition of "farm" in the government agency that keeps track of such things.
Finally, don't over-rely on statistics. Too many numbers tend to convolute an argument. Whenever possible, you should use statistical information alongside appropriate comparisons or analogies that vividly illustrate the relationships. An argument about the number of drunk driving fatalities, for example, could be compared to deaths resulting from other causes, such as cancer or heart disease.
Factual evidence from acknowledged authorities may suffice for a factual argument, but when making value or policy claims (see "Know your opinion"), you may require more. In such cases, it is essential to appeal to the readers' needs and values.
Of course, to do this effectively, you must understand your audience. In a newsletter, it is often not very difficult to determine your readers' main needs and values. If you are writing for the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons, for instance, you can safely assume they are keenly interested in Medicare, pension plans, and Social Security. In fact, the AARP has been one of the most vocal supporters of these programs in recent years.
If you are writing for a general newspaper audience, it is a bit more difficult to determine your readers' needs and values, but you should still employ such appeals and hope that decent and reasonable people will share many of the needs and values that underlie your claims.
"Needs" are simply things important to your target audience. If your intended publication is the Daily Mississippian, for instance, you can assume that many of your readers will view financial aid, access to computers and libraries, and good study skills as important needs.
In 1954, psychologist Abraham H. Maslow established a classification of basic needs that you may find useful in writing arguments. His classification is arranged in a hierarchical order, ranging from the most urgent biological needs to the psychological needs that are related to our roles as members of a society:
- Physiological needs: basic bodily requirements such as food and drink, health, sex
- Safety needs: security, freedom from harm, order and stability
- Belongingness and love needs: love within a family and among friends, roots within a group or community
- Esteem needs: material success, achievement, power, status and recognition by others
- Self-actualization needs: fulfillment in realizing one's potential
Advertisements regularly cater to such needs, even in ways that may not be obvious at first. McDonald's ads, for instance, appeal to the need for food, of course, but many of their ads also appeal to the need for familial and community togetherness. Another ad, the U.S. Army's "Be all that you can be" slogan, appeals to the need for self-actualization.
Needs give rise to values, which can be defined as principles, standards, or qualities which are deemed worthwhile or desirable. Someone whose needs include belonging to a group, for instance, may "value" commitment, sacrifice, and sharing.
Values are the principles by which we judge right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, worthwhile or undesirable. They have a profound effect on our behavior, so it is not surprising that appealing to values is a key element of argument.
In the last presidential election, for example, much of the political discourse centered on "family values." While what is meant by this term is debatable, both sides readily argued in favor of family values because most Americans believe family values are worthwhile and desirable goals.
Know your opinionFinally, to write a good op-ed piece, it is crucial to know where you stand on your topic. While this may seem obvious, too often students write argumentative essays that waffle back and forth and end up arguing nothing in particular.
First, you should realize that it is an argumentative essay, intended to persuade readers to your point of view. You will offer a "claim" and then attempt to support that claim.
In general, there are three types of claims, each of which can be useful in argument:
- Claims of fact assert that a condition has existed, exists, or will exist and relies on factual information for support. In general, claims of fact are opinions drawn by inference.
It is important to distinguish between "fact" and "inference." A fact is a statement that can be verified--the number of students in a class, the law of gravity, the presence of a virus in a blood specimen. An inference, however, is an interpretation, or opinion, reached after informed evaluation of evidence. According to S. I. Hayakawa, author of Language in Thought and Action, an inference is "a statement about the unknown on the basis of the known."
Because inferences are often presented in a factual manner, it is easy sometimes to be misled into believing that they are facts. For instance, the statement "Stiffer penalties for drunk driving has led to fewer traffic fatalities" is stated factually but actually is an inference. Although it may be true, it is an interpretation of evidence, in this case, probably a comparison of statistics before and after the stiffer penalties were imposed.
- Claims of value make a judgment--they express approval or disapproval, attempting to prove that some action, belief or condition is right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, worthwhile or undesirable.
Many claims of value simply express tastes, likes and dislikes, or preferences which are not the proper subject of an argumentative essay. "Milk tastes good" is a value claim, but it would be a waste of time to write a persuasive essay on the subject.
The two most fertile areas for value claims in argumentative writing--and the two areas in which people most often disagree--are aesthetics and morality. As you might expect, these areas offer the greatest challenge to the writer.
Aesthetics, the study of beauty and the fine arts, attempts to gauge the value of works of art--books, paintings, sculpture, architecture, dance, drama, and movies, to name a few. For experts and laypeople alike, difference of opinion over the aesthetic value of works of art usually exists because they disagree on the standards by which such value is determined. Even if they agree on a set of standards, they may disagree about how successfully the art object under discussion has met these standards.
Value claims about morality express judgments about the rightness or wrongness of conduct or belief. Here, too, disagreements abound. As with aesthetics, claims about morality often depend upon certain standards or principles held by the arguer.
Regardless of what a value claim argues, often they may depend upon claims of fact as support. A value claim that democracy is superior to any other form of government, for instance, might require factual claims that define your terms and establish the standards by which you reach this conclusion.
- Claims of policy argue that certain conditions should exist. As the name suggests, they advocate adoption of policies or courses of action because problems have arisen that call for solution. The words should or ought to or must are almost always expressed or implied in the claim.
As with value claims, claims of policy often require you to build upon fact and value claims. You may need to establish with a claim of fact that there is a problem needing a solution, for instance, and then use a claim of value to argue the rightness of solving the problem.
What to write aboutRemember that this assignment is to write a persuasive essay of a specific type: a newspaper (or newsletter) opinion piece. Therefore, it is to your benefit to read as many newspaper editorial page pieces as you can in order to see real-life models of the kind of essay you are being asked to write.
Of course, the Daily Mississippian publishes editorial page pieces five days a week, and occasionally, they are quite good. However, I strongly recommend you get a taste of what is being published in other newspapers as well. Not only will you see models of this kind of writing, you may get some ideas of what to write about and/or support for your own essay.
As I mentioned earlier, you have free reign to choose a topic of interest to you, and the essay you write may be intended for a general newspaper or for a specified real or fictional newsletter. The main requirement is that you attempt to argue some topic of potential interest to your readers.
Let's go through that step by step. First, you must argue. What I mean by that is that you have to present an essay in which you attempt to persuade readers toward a certain conclusion. Don't be thrown by the more common definition of the word "argue"--this is not inherently a hostile encounter (though it can be). In essence, it is dialogue you carry on with known or unknown persons to convince them to think, believe, or act in a certain way. And whether you realize it or not, it is everywhere.
Political oratory, of course, is a form of argument, but so is a religious sermon. Advertisements assault you on a daily basis in their attempt to persuade you to purchase their products. Every time you say you like or dislike a book, a song, a television show, you make a claim of value. If you go on to say why, you are making an argument.
Second, you should choose a topic of potential interest. Since it is your topic and your opinion, it should certainly be of interest to you. Not only does choosing a topic of interest make it easier to write, it also improves you chances of making it interesting to other people, because simply put, students write better essays when they write about things they like.
Third, you are writing for readers. Consider your audience carefully throughout the writing process. Try to anticipate objections they may have. In fact, at some point you should try to shoot holes into your argument so that you can "fix" them.
Of course, as the old saying goes, there are always two sides to an issue. In fact, I would suggest there are many sides to an issue. Effective argument does not have to be fool-proof, and it is perfectly all right not to have an answer to every problem that can arise. Do not feel bad about making concessions on certain points.
Now that you have a general idea of what is involved in editorial page writing, I'll offer a few guidelines on what kinds of topics make for good essays.
First, there are some topics that often pop up in freshman composition courses that are almost never well done. Among these topics are abortion, capital punishment, legalization of drugs, steroid usage, and the perennial favorites at Ole Miss, "Dixie" and the Rebel flag issue.
The problem with these topics seems to be that students seldom explore anything unique about them.
So there is your assignment: write an op-ed piece.
- Topic: Write an argumentative essay for a newspaper or newsletter on a topic of your choosing.
- Format: Must be typed, double-spaced
- Length: 400-800 words
- First draft due: Tuesday, Jan. 30
- Second draft due: Tuesday, Feb. 6