The experiences in your life - joys, disappointments, initiations, humiliations, religious climaxes, narrow escapes, flashes of insight, mundane routines and other incidents that are a part of your unique history - helped form the person you are now. The first piece of writing you will do for this class combines elements from two of the major subgenres of creative nonfiction: memoir and personal essay. This piece of writing will focus on your memory of a past incident - ideally one that you feel reveals an important part of your personality and/or which illustrates a general philosophical or psychological truth - and will render it in a somewhat essay-like form.
rest of the writing you will do for this course, this assignment details
in step-by-step fashion some points you might consider in putting together
this piece of creative nonfiction. Feel free to follow this instruction
sheet word for word, point by point, or - if you're one of those daring
folks who starts using your new computer without reading the manual first
or who prefers to do abdominal surgery before attending medical school
- just give the sheet a thorough once-over reading and then work on the
assignment following your own writing process.
2. Freewriting To Select An Incident
Do a bit of freewriting on the first of the incidents you jotted down; describe it in a few sentences and then write another sentence or two explaining how this was significant in your life and answering the question, "What do I want to say about myself by describing this incident?"
Go through this freewriting process for each of the incidents you jotted down. The process of freewriting should give you some sense about which story you want to select: you might have written more about one incident, or you might have felt a surge of adrenaline (or any other hormone) when writing about one of them. If you have no more feeling for one incident than another, then take out a coin from your pocket or purse and flip it: heads for the story about your pet turtle, and tails for the one about the time you saved the children from the flooded storm drain.
Your Feelings At The Time Of The Incident
- Did you show your reactions, or did you keep them hidden?
- What thoughts were going through your mind at the time, if any?
- Did you talk
about the experience at the time? If so, to whom did you talk, and what
Your Present Feelings About The Incident
- As you think
about the incident now, do you have any physical sensations or emotions?
- Do you have
a different, or more mature, understanding of the incident, now that you
- What do you
think of the way you first responded? Was your reaction appropriate, or
- What does that response say about the kind of person you were then?
-Would you react the same way now, or have you changed? If you've changed, how?
- Why have you chosen this incident? What does it say about you?
5. Discovering A Sequence Of Events Within The Incident
- whether a movie script, novel, short story, or piece of creative nonfiction
such as this - is made up of a set of events in time. When you are ready
to write the first draft of your autobiographical narrative, it will be
helpful if you've already given some thought to the sequence of events
within your incident. For the next step, do a freewrite, outlining a tentative
sequence of events for the incident. Don't try to comment on it or analyze
it now, and don't get vividly descriptive yet; save that for the next
step. Just put down everything you can remember about what happened within
the time scope of your incident, whether it was an hour or a day.
accumulated a jumble of disparate information, some organized and some
not, about your incident. Most of this material will be useful in writing
your first draft, believe it or not. Some of it will be so elegantly stated
that you can use it verbatim. More of it will be useful, but will require
some rewording or amplifying or cleaning up for the sake of style and
mechanics. Some of it will be jarring, clichéd, or just won't fit, and
you'll want to trash it. Use your "gut feelings" here: if a passage doesn't
quite sound right, revise it or trash it; don't make the writerly mistake
of including every phrase you wrote just because they help fill out the
three or four pages you think the assignment requires. Revising and deleting
with care and judgment is as important a skill for writers as is the writing
Pick and relate an incident which you feel reveals an important part of your personality or which illustrates some philosophical or psychological truth.
Minor truths are acceptable in this class.
I think of this assignment as kind of a transitional piece, one that contains elements of the academic essays you're used to writing for the university, but which incorporates elements and strategies more typically found and taught within the province of creative writing. For that reason, this first creative nonfiction piece might have a form such as ...
- An essay-like opening paragraph that: draws in the reader with a fascinating first sentence; discusses the topic generally; and ends with a statement that summarizes the abstract philosophical or psychological point you're making. This thesis might answer the question: What does this narrative illustrate about some significant psychological trait, or what timeless and universal truths about human nature does it reveal?
- A short story-like body of supporting paragraphs that contain the actual narration and are fleshed out with concrete detail and vivid description.
- A conclusion that is not repetitive but instead adds something new - maybe your current reaction to the story.
As you work on this piece, keep in mind that the above is just a suggestion for a format. This is an advanced writing course, so I hereby issue your Artistic License, which entitles you to veer from the assignment in any direction your imagination leads you. However ... if you feel like being outrageously creative and straying far from the bounds of exposition - and if grades are important to you - you might want to check with me first.