seminar: creative non fiction

Creative Non Fiction:  How to Read and Write It

Creative non fiction is the most dynamic genre of our day, encompassing everything from immersion journalism to intimate memoir, sparking heated controversies about the difference between fact and truth, the degree to which one may “edit” one’s life story, or, still more problematic, the stories of others in an attempt to create a text that is bold and rich.  While there are vast disagreements within the genre about what is and is not permissible, there are a few key points on which most everyone seems to agree.

Creative non fiction uses the tricks and techniques of fiction in an attempt to render a tale that is tethered to the truth.  Creative non fiction follows the mandate of  “show, don’t tell,” the writer creating scenes and dialogues and, ultimately, a full fledged story with a strong narrative engine and a highly honed plot.  The goal of creative non fiction is to tell a riveting tale about real life, in language lyrical or plain, depending upon the writer’s natural style.

In this twelve week seminar we will read and write creative non fiction, meeting one time per week in a seminar style class with the students’ own work as the centerpiece.  Students will read six creative non fiction essays and write three of their own, each class devoted to discussing the readings and the essays generated by the students.  Emphasis will be on acquiring and/or honing the skills necessary to the genre:  building scene, rendering dialogue, creating plot, weaving theme, and coming to conclusions that resonate.  Students may choose to write creative non fiction journalism or creative non fiction memoir, and the class will clarify what the differences between these two approaches are.  Students may also choose to try both approaches in an effort to clarify for themselves what their authorial proclivities are.

Students will learn, in this class, how to take just the germ of an idea and spin it into a full length story, using brainstorming and dialoguing techniques.  They will learn how to create a “map” of their work before they begin to write, and they will also learn how to take a piece through the revision process so that, in the end, each work is polished and poised.  The goal of this class is to have every student generate at least one publishable creative non fiction essay, and the class will learn, through the readings of published works and through discussions, precisely what publishable means in a world where that definition is rapidly changing due to the power and reach of the world wide web.

This seminar will proceed in phases.  In phase one, students will read published seminal creative non fiction texts in order to better acquaint themselves with the genre.

In phase two, students will learn the mapping process and then begin writing their own texts, bringing them to class for critiques, which will spur the revision process.  Students will be expected to write three creative non fiction pieces and to revise all of them at least once.

In phase three students will learn about the publishing world and how best to market their work.  We will have a guest literary agent come to the class as well as a guest editor so that students can learn first hand what the industry standards are.  We will cover everything from query letters to full length proposals; we will peruse literary magazines that appear appropriate for submission as well as learn how to find the magazines that are best suited to one’s style and subject.  Students will all submit one of their essays for publication, choosing a venue that best resonates with their work. 

By the end of this class students will be able to:

  • identify some of the seminal works of creative non fiction
  • define and understand the range and reach of creative non fiction
  • “grow” the germ of an idea into a full fledged story using various techniques
  • create a map of a piece prior to writing it
  • create scene, dialogue, setting, character and plot in the writing of a piece of creative non fiction
  • go through the revision process in an attempt to create work that is polished and poised
  • critique the work of their peers as well as accept critique of their own work
  • identify markets for the work they have created
  • understand how best to submit their work for publication
  • understand the role of the literary agent and the editor
  • be chosen to showcase best works for a literary reading

Class length:  12 weeks, 90 minutes 1x per week, day of week TBA

Class to begin in late January

Class size:   limited to 14

To register contact Laura Vilain at

Class Instructor:  Lauren Slater who has published eight books, six of them memoirs.  Slater’s book Lying, a Metaphorical Memoir, set off a firestorm of controversy and was named one of the three best memoirs of 2000 by The Washington Post Book World and one of the ten best memoirs of 2000 by

Slater’s work has been translated into 17 languages and her autobiographical essays appear frequently in O, Self, Elle, Vogue, Harpers and many other publications.  She is the recipient of a 2004 National Endowment For The Arts grant and a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT.  Her book Opening Skinner’s Box, Great Psychological Experiments Of The 20th Century was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award for excellence in science writing and won The Bild Der Wissenchaft Award in Germany for the most groundbreaking science book of the year.  Slater is co-founder of inkK, a literary and arts initiative in Harvard, MA.  Please make suggestions for literary/arts programs you would like to see in Harvard.