EGL 302: Nonfiction Writing, Fall 2023

Reading material and exercises for the first iteration of this class come verbatim from the excellent book, Teaching Auto-Ethnography: Personal Writing in the Classroom, by Melissa Tombro. Many thanks!!

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Classic non-fiction pieces (list in progress):

“The Dead Man at Grandview Point” (audio), Edward Abbey

Welcome to our Class!

  • Wednesday, September 20: Homonyms & Colons, Dashes, Italics

    “Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities (Wikipedia)

    Homework: Read “If You Ever Find Yourself,” by Erika J. Simpson, BAE p. 257-269, and write a response here

  • Monday, September 18: An Important Space (or Event)

    Chefchaouen, Morocco from lonelyplanet

    This Reedsy page has some succinct notes on creating setting in a piece of fiction writing, but its tenets hold true for autoethnography, as well.

    Exercise: Describing this Room (Tombro). Take ten minutes to create an in-class narrative about your current classroom space, without talking about the people in the room. Objects, colors, anything observed with the five senses—except people—are all valid.

    Writing #4: An Important Space Essay (Tombro)

    One page, single-spaced

    Due Monday, 9/26

    Describe a room that is not your own but that is occupied by an important person in your life. At no point should you mention anything directly about the person. Instead, try to convey who lives in or uses this room by describing in detail the objects contained in the room and the room itself. Make sure to use your five senses to flesh out this description.

  • Wednesday, September 13: Grammar Hammer Again: Apostrophes & Homonyms

    Homework: Read “It Had to Be Gold,” by Justin Torres, pp. 71-78 and write a response here.

  • Monday, September 11: The Grammar HammerApostrophes (make-up for Friday’s class)

    Homework: work on Writing #3, Memory Moment, due 9/18, before class, on Canvas

    Read your Self as Character writing aloud?

    Mechanics Packet (hard copy–please bring to class every week)

    Writing #3: Memory Moment: (2 pages, single-spaced)

    A memory is not necessarily something that happened a long time ago. Rather, a memory is something that is past, something that is reflected upon. It can be something that happened last week or a moment from your childhood, but for our purposes, it is something that has happened before this assignment was given.

    For this assignment, choose a memory that has multiple levels of meaning for you. It is important not just to create a narrative about one particular thing but to think about the complexities of the memory and why you find it worthy of exploring in an essay. Subtext and intention are crucial.

    You should re-create details as accurately as possible, even talking to friends or family members who might help you remember aspects of a memory. All good writers of memoir research their own histories. This is because memory is fallible and other people might be able to shed important light on our experiences.

    Focus especially on re-creating characters, yourself included, who were involved in the memory. Use dialogue to let these characters speak, and choose details to convey the nature of relationships.

  • Wednesday, September 6: Ethnographic Writing–You as the Subject

    1. What is ethnography?

    “Ethnography is a genre of writing common in the social sciences, especially anthropology. A comprehensive study of a culture, an ethnography informs its reader through narrative immersion, often using sensory detail and storytelling techniques alongside objective description and traditional interview style.” Thompson Writing Program, Duke U. (Here’s their great handout!)

    Auto-ethnography: You are a topic of interest! You are a character!

    2. Some Basics to Consider Before Starting:

    Do you keep a journal? Consider keeping one for this class.

    The “Who cares?” factor: The importance of audience. You need to have one. Also, your audience must include you.

    Creating subtext: see this infographic on theme

    3. Let’s read some auto-ethnographic writing

    Hanatomy,” by Hannah Lajba, student, from the Tombro book

    Jamaica Kincaid reads her poem, “Girl

    4. Universal Discussion Questions

    Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?

    • Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?

    What else would you like to know?

    • Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?

    • Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?

    • How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece?

    • How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece?

    • Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?

    • Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?

    5. A device is something we will practice with in many of the writing assignments—a tool that allows you to tell a story in a logical way when you might not otherwise have been able to tell it organically in the structure of your narrative. The following are short descriptions of devices used to define character in a piece of writing:

    Neziah uses her history with eyeglasses to define her character.

    Emma chooses defining moments from a series of ages, presented chronologically, to define his character.

    Zachary describes his struggles with low self-esteem to establish his character.

    Justine examines her history of relationships with others and her tendency to cry to examine her character.

    Hannah uses humor to examine her body and define her character.

    Jeffrey shows himself as an overworked student in order to define his character.

    Joomi uses her height as a frame to examine her character.

    Short exercise: write a one sentence description of a device that you can use to explain yourself as a character.

    Homework, due Monday, September 11:

    Self-as-Character Assignment (one page, single-spaced), by Melissa Tombro

    We all love a good character, someone who is complex yet relatable, full of all of the human foibles we are aware of, who may act differently from what we could ever anticipate.

    This is by far the hardest assignment of the semester and also your first major assignment. Unless you have been honing your persona in writing for many years, you will have a hard time with this piece.

    For this assignment, you will need to write a self-portrait. There are many ways you can do this. You can identify a structural element that allows you to move through personality traits, use interesting qualities or amusing actions to form a story or create narrative story lines that let us see you at your best and worst. So much of writing this piece is about making choices.

    However you approach this piece, make sure to focus on yourself in an interesting way. In other words, for better or worse, make yourself a character we want to hear and care about.

    This work will be shared with classmates during class discussion.

  • Friday, September 1: Deep Observation Assignment

    Prompt: Spend at least twenty minutes in a public space, observing one person you have never seen or met before. The person need not be someone who strikes you as interesting. In fact, somebody who appears to be less than interesting to you is often the best choice for this assignment.

    This is a difficult assignment for a number of reasons. It is hard to find someone who will be still and accessible for twenty minutes; if the person moves, move with him or her. The subject also might become aware of being observed. This is not a problem; simply talk to the person if he or she inquires, or move on to another observation if it seems at all bothersome to the person being observed. Your goal is not to make someone uncomfortable but to pause and consider your environment and those who inhabit it.

    Using your five senses, take notes on everything around you and everything about the person, focusing on the subject’s appearance, how she carries herself, her actions and interactions, the way she interacts with her environment, any speech you might overhear, the feeling, look, smell and feel of the space your subject inhabits.

    After you have finished taking notes, as close to the observation time as possible, construct a narrative description of this person and his or her life based on the details you have recorded.

    This is a fiction-writing assignment based on real observation and will be shared during class discussion.

  • Wednesday, August 30: The 5Rs and the Importance of Deep Observation

    Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize fictional (literary) techniques in their prose – from scene to dialogue to description to point-of-view – and be cinematic at the same time. Creative nonfiction writers write about themselves and/or capture real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world. What is most important and enjoyable about creative nonfiction is that it not only allows, but encourages the writer to become a part of the story or essay being written. The personal involvement creates a special magic that alleviates the suffering and anxiety of the writing experience; it provides many outlets for satisfaction and self-discovery, flexibility and freedom.

    Lee Gutkind, from “The 5Rs of Creative Nonfiction

    The 5 “R”s, in a nutshell:

    1. Real Life/Reportage”–You’re busy students, but you do have lives worthy of thinking and writing about. Why not write about what you know?
    2. Research”–Oh yeah. You don’t know everything about what you know. What’s still out there to learn? What have you missed, or misunderstood?  
    3. Reflection”–Your thoughts are vital parts of your writing but must include an interest in what your reader might want (or not want) to read.
    4. Reading”–We’ll do a lot of it in this class, don’t worry. We need to see what some of the best nonfiction writers do, and how they do it.
    5. Riting”–That too :). Get ready.

    A little bit of Annie Dillard’s magnificent An American Childhood

    Online journals available to CSUMA students, where good literary non-fiction is published:


    The New Yorker

    Vanity Fair (print only in library)


    Rolling Stone

  • Hello, Writers!

    This semester, we will be investigating your personal writing, and helping you discover the personae living inside of you!

    Over the course of the semester, I will be asking you to create responses through something called freewriting

    Freewriting is also known as stream-of-consciousness writing—essentially writing whatever comes to mind on a particular subject. The theory behind freewriting is to allow your mind to make connections among given topics and your own thoughts and experiences. It is not meant to be an edited piece of formal writing, but rather an exploration of your responses to a particular topic.

    Throughout this course, it will be necessary to make connections with one another and focus on communicating clearly and effectively with classmates. This first exercise will help you get to know your fellow students, consider the focus for the class, and also to get acclimated to sharing your writing with your peers.

    For this exercise, I would like you to write about the terms personal writing and academic writing and what they mean to you. You will be writing continuously for twelve minutes.

    The goal of a freewrite is to keep your pen or pencil to the paper for the entire length of time I give you to write. It is natural for the mind to wander. Often in life we are thinking of many things at the same time: class, how hungry we are, what time it is. When you feel as if you have run out of things to say or you find you can no longer focus on the topic, don’t stop writing! Simply continue to write about what is distracting you and carefully make your way back to the topic. These pieces are not collected or graded, so do not edit yourself. Write whatever comes to mind in response to the prompt. Be prepared to read this writing out loud for the class. We will define the two terms as a group based on your contributions.

    Exercise: Freewrite Assignment, from Teaching Autoethnography: Personal Writing in the Classroom,  Melissa Tombro

    Homework for Wed., August 30: read this essay: The 5 Rs of Creative Non-Fiction, by Lee Gutkind and write a 250-word response here.

    “Life imitates art, all groundings in fiction are based in reality. I’m someone who runs to fiction as it’s an escape from reality. A fantasy world is a place I can’t touch so it can’t hurt me, which isn’t even the case all the time. I’ve cried and grieved for characters who have never existed. Nonfiction writing can have the same draw as well. In the examples of the five R’s, the essay on surgery pulled me in. I’m reading about a world that I am so far away from, It might as well be fantasy. Knowing that person on the table is real, that the person with their lungs and heart are pulled from their body, to be replaced with new organs. I can not help but empathize with the doctors and the writer and women and especially the husband and parents. To hear your dead son’s heartbeat again, giving life to someone who would die senselessly is moving.” –Kyle Marshall

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