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EN994 Nonfiction Writing Workshop

Tutor: David Vann (Room G02, Millburn House)

Office hrs: usually Wed/Thurs 3-4pm


Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Memoir, personal essay, travel and adventure writing, nature writing, ‘literary journalism,’ and investigative journalism. Creative nonfiction is a vague and unfortunate term, of course, and the entire field is a mess, but that’s what makes it fun. We’ll consider memoir in relation to fiction and confession, with a brief look back to Augustine. For personal essay, we’ll start with Aristotle and the critical essay, then discuss Seneca and jump into our own time. We’ll consider travel and adventure writing in relation to each other and to memoir, and nature writing in relation to the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists. We’ll also consider a few examples of ‘literary journalism,’ such as The Perfect Storm and River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, and also an investigative piece on ocean acidification. We’ll look at possibilities and limitations in each genre, and I hope these discussions will carry over into the workshop as we consider your own works in progress. We’ll discuss language and craft in detail, including structure and strategies for revision. We’re attempting a useful workshop, in other words, against the backdrop of a brief but broad survey of the field.

The writing requirements, totaling 10,000 words, are two new pieces of creative nonfiction (both of which will be workshopped) and a critical essay of 2,000 words. You can write in any of the genres we’ll be discussing. You must write new work (and no ‘multiple submission’ or ‘group work’ allowed). Your two pieces can be two chapters from a longer work, and you can come up for workshop just once with a longer work instead of twice with two shorter pieces.

I’ll email the published readings to you as PDFs or Word files. I’ve kept the number of pages fairly light, and I’ll expect you to read each of the selections twice, the first time for its effects and the second to look more carefully at how it was made.

Finally, you’ll be reading the works in progress of your peers, and I’ll expect you to comment on these works with respect, hard intelligence, and thoroughness. You’ll need to read each piece up for workshop at least twice and offer a written comment as well as participate in the workshop discussion.

I don’t grade your pieces when you put them up for workshop but consider instead your final portfolio, which includes your two creative pieces and your critical essay. Here’s how the grade will be weighted:

Creative pieces: 75% together

Your critical essay: 25%

Your two creative pieces are due as you come up for workshop (handed out to the class a week ahead of time), and your final portfolio, which includes your critical essay and your two creative pieces, revised or unrevised (your choice), is due on one of the mysterious dates of your choosing provided by the system here (something like your choice of Feb, May, or never). Your final portfolio should not include new creative pieces that I haven’t previously seen.

The module will be a good one only if all of us attend, arrive on time, and are well-prepared. Missing class really is unfair, also, to the student whose work is being discussed that day. So to put it more bluntly, your attendance at every class is required, and lateness is not appreciated, because it distracts. If there’s a problem, I reserve the right to drop you. If you have a real excuse to miss class, I need notification by email to If you miss a class, it’s your responsibility to contact another student in class to find out what you missed and to make sure you’re prepared for the next class.



Week 1 St. Augustine, Confessions (I’ll provide in class)

Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life (pp 3-8)

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (pp 1-11)

2 Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (pp 7-13)

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior (pp 3-22)

Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (pp 11-19)


3 Begin workshop of student work (3 manuscripts per week)

Aristotle, “The Kinds of Friendship” (online link)

Seneca, “On Noise” (pp. 3-8)

4 James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (pp 85-114)

5 Ann Hodgman, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch” (pp. 157-162)

Philip Weiss, “How To Get Out of a Locked Trunk” (pp. 150-156)

6 Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Darkening Sea”


7 Frances Mayes, Under The Tuscan Sun (pp 1-25)

Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence (pp 3-25)

8 Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (author’s note & pp 3-32)

Kira Salak, “The Vision Seekers”

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm (pp XI-11 and 136-146)


9 William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (online link)

Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude” (online link)

10 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp 3-33)

Gretel Ehrlich, “The Solace of Open Spaces” (pp 467-476) and “The Source of a River” (pp 208-211)

Secondary reading list (mostly the full books that we’re reading excerpts from in the module)

St. Augustine, Confessions

Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life, In Pharaoh’s Army

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Frances Mayes, Under The Tuscan Sun

Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence

Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek