Nonfiction Writing Program

Our Courses

Students in classroom.

The Nonfiction Writing Program offers a variety of courses each year in the craft, culture, and criticism of nonfiction.  We aim to interpret the genre as broadly as possible, helping each other delve into new forms of the genre and new ways of conceiving of the medium.

History

Every fall, the in-coming graduate class in the Nonfiction Writing Program takes “A History of the Essay,” an intensive examination of the essay that starts with the first few scraps of writing that emerged in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BCE.  From there, the course moves slowly through time, following the development of the essay in Egypt, China, Japan, Greece, Rome, Belgium, Russia, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Germany, Ireland, England, France, and America, all the while trying to figure out what distinguishes those texts that we might recognize as “essay” from those that we would classify as “poetry,” “fiction,” or “drama.”

What is an essay? the course ends up asking.  What is “essaying”? And how do we distinguish what goes on in this genre from everything else in literature? 

Workshops

Each semester, every student in the Nonfiction Writing Program is enrolled in a workshop of their choosing.  Sometimes these workshops have specific themes—such as “The Video Essay” or “Book-Length Nonfiction”—and sometimes they’re workshops that intentionally combine different forms of the genre—personal essays, travelogues, biographies, etc—in order to help spark conversations about how we go about pursing a subject and crafting an essay in different forms of nonfiction.

Every workshop aims to be rigorous, generous, exhausting, and inspiring, and is supplemented by private consultations with faculty members about the development of individual projects.

Seminars

Each semester, our students also take a variety of seminars. These courses are reading-intensive and designed to complement the work students are engaged in, and to encourage explorations into new fields of the genre. Some of the seminars being offered this year are:

Prose Style
A course that examines what makes a great sentence from a technical point of view, considering narrative voice, narrative suspense, compression, dilation, periodic versus cumulative styles, and metaphor.

The Resurrectionists
A course about re-creating and re-animating events that one never experienced or witnessed through extensive archival work and other substantial forms of research.

The Essay Prize
A course comprised of essays that have been nominated for The Essay Prize (essayprize.org) a national literary award given each year to the work that best exemplifies the art of essaying.  Judged and selected by students enrolled in the course.

The Performing Writer
How does the writer live in the world? This course addresses that question both philosophically and practically, covering topics such as how to write magazine pitches, how to find an agent, how to find a publisher, how to give a reading, and how to survive as a writer in the world without losing your soul.

The Video Essay
A survey of the essay form in film, with an emphasis on the various historic and aesthetic movements that have influenced the medium and how that medium has recently influenced printed essays. This course will also give students an opportunity to create their own video essays.

Poet’s Prose & Essays That Sing
A generative seminar of discussions and exercises on how essayists reckon with the poetic impulse and how poets reckon with the essayistic. When do we sing and when do we tell? And is there a difference between researching and searching?

Political Essays in Action
Can the creative writer make a difference? The literary essay holds a unique place in American culture in that it has a long history of functioning as both art and action. Readings in this course will examine the work of a variety of writers who have affected societal change in timely and tangible ways. 

The Published Book
A course about what makes a great book-length nonfiction. Taught in conjunction with the prestigious University of Iowa Press, students in this course will help select the winner of the new Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction, a contest that will reward the winner with a book contract.

Teaching Nonfiction
A course designed to help students develop individual teaching philosophies, as well as practical skills for teaching creative writing, including crafting syllabi, producing exercises, and maintaining vibrant classroom discussions.