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  AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NARRATIVE FACT PIECE

In Christopher Buckley's explanatory piece "Creative Nonfiction" (the flagship reading for the Introduction to Creative Nonfiction Course, included in this course's reader in case you didn't take that course or don't recall the reading), he spends some time describing a certain kind of autobiographical writing: memoir-based pieces that involve little or no research. If you've taken a creative nonfiction course before, you certainly have experience with this kind of writing. Buckley goes on to discuss another prose sub-subgenre called the "fact piece": writing that is "based ... on whatever catches your interest" but that also incorporates "source materials immediately available - library, internet, periodicals, TV and radio reports" along with interviews with experts. In this advanced creative nonfiction course, your first assignment (and the main graded piece for the quarter) will fall into that latter camp, involving both autobiographical narrative and research.

The current assignment will resemble other pieces of creative nonfiction you've written and/or read. It will focus on an experience or a series of related experiences drawn from memory, and it may rely upon literary devices such as plotted scene development, dialogue, description of settings, shifting points of view, figurative language and poetic devices such as symbolism, metaphor, simile, and allusion. It may have a narrative form, linear-expository essay form, or a non-linear form that uses segments, flashbacks, and disjointed time frames. However, this piece will differ from previous pieces of creative nonfiction you've written (at least for me, if you've taken the introductory creative nonfiction course), in that it will incorporate quoted and/or paraphrased material from Web sites, journals, magazines, interviews and so forth ... and it will be graded as such.

The following are some prewriting stages that will help situate you within this assignment. Feel free to follow them to the letter, or to veer wildly from them, if you feel inspired to proceed in a different way.

1. Thinking about a subject

The ideal subject for an assignment of this type is an ongoing activity, condition or phenomenon with which you are familiar, and with which you have been involved for some time. This can relate to areas as wide-ranging as an academic discipline, a sport, a medical condition, a unique family history, a celebrity or a fascinating individual with whom you are familiar, a job, a geographical location, a pop-cultural phenomenon such as a music concert, festival, movie, or television program, a technology-related issue such as cyber-dating or online gambling, a social group or subculture, a local event, an artistic passion, a volunteer position. As an example of the latter, I have included toward the end of the reader a piece I wrote a little while ago about the Snowy Plover project on Sands beach next to Isla Vista. That piece relies mainly upon my own memories and first-hand experiences at Coal Oil Point Reserve, but it also brings in facts that I gathered from Web and journal research, and from interviews. I've also included a similar nature-based piece by local author Gretel Ehrlich. For this first stage, think about some topics that might genially combine personal experience and a bit of research, and jot down one or several. Your main question/criterion at this point should be: what will be the most engaging (i.e. fun?) to write about?

2. Freewriting to select a subject

Do a bit of freewriting on the first of the topics you jotted down, considering the question(s): What is your experience with this topic? Why did you choose it? Write your answers in a sentence or several, and then note briefly the kinds of research you might bring to bear on this topic. Go through this freewriting process for each of the incidents you jotted down. This freewriting stage will probably begin to give you some sense about which topic you want to select. You will probably write more about one topic area, or you might simply feel more energy as you pursue a certain line of thought. Follow the energy - it will lead you to in the right direction!

3. Discovering a narrative vehicle

Within the broad topic area you have chosen, some narratives should emerge to illustrate your feelings and/or broader thematic points. While this piece will rely upon research to some degree, it's still a piece of creative nonfiction, and creative nonfiction is driven by scenes and stories. Make some notes about one or several narratives and/or scenes that might form the centerpiece for this assignment, and begin to flesh them out with some jottings about detail: settings, characters, sense impressions, internal feelings and conflicts, and so forth.

4. Doing some initial research

The final draft of this piece will ideally incorporate several outside sources. Take some time to begin searching the Web for material that might meet this requirement. The ideal piece would synthesize a range of materials: a quote from a book, some information from a journal, material from a Website, quotes from a newspaper, information from an interview with an on-campus expert, and so on. Much information can be found on the Web, using search engines such as Google and Altavista. Other credible information can be found by using InfoSurf, the UCSB Library's online Web interface, which contains databases for academic journals, popular magazines, newspapers local and nationwide, and books. If you're not familiar with the online library resources on this campus, come talk to me at the front of the lab, and I'll help you get started.

5. Starting the first draft

You now have a Lego starter set of materials to help you begin assembling this piece: some topic ideas, some personal experiences, and some initial research sources. As you begin to assemble the first draft for this piece, I strongly suggest that you begin with the narrative(s) you began to outline in Stage 3, relating a first-person story (or stories) in chronological sequence. Later on, you can break your narrative line into segments, if you decide that's the best rhetorical approach, and you can use the research material to explain or develop specific points that emerge as you set up the narrative. If you want to read some models for this assignment, this reader contains several, mostly toward the beginning; the later pages of the reader contain more experimental, less research-based forms. However, please don't feel constrained by these pieces; you have creative license and my blessing to invent new and felicitous forms, as long as your "fact piece" is written from a first-person perspective and contains the requisite research.

6. The assignment restated; length and due date

As you undertake to write a first draft, keep in mind that the basic, bottom-line assignment is this: Write a creative nonfictional "fact piece" that contains narrative elements drawn from your experience, supplemented with factual material quoted and/or paraphrased from several outside sources. The assignment should be at least four pages long, double-spaced ... but it may be much longer, if you have momentum and want to make it a more extensive work. Your minimum portfolio requirement for this course is twelve pages, and the Fact Piece assignment may be expanded to comprise the entire portfolio, if you wish ... although I'm hoping you'll try some shorter, more experimental pieces as well. The Fact Piece is due any time before the end of the quarter, but I'm hoping you'll get a final draft to me at least a week before the end, so that I can grade it and give it back to you; this is your main graded piece for the class, and it's nice to have a sense of your course grade going into the final.


 
  Revised 7/15/06 MP