John Sheehy writing

Course overview
Required reading
On workshops


Fundamentals of Creative Nonfiction

Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 - 12:50, D38

John Sheehy and Gloria Biamonte

Office Hours


In this class we will explore the creative possibilities of nonfiction. We will read in a variety of genres-memoir, journalism, biography and autobiography, oral history and the nonfiction novel-and we will write in a number of styles using a full range of techniques. The reading list will be substantial, including works by Truman Capote, Norman Maclean, Susan Orlean, Azar Nafisi, Ivan Doig and others. But the real focus of the class will be on writing and our talk of writing. We will try to do as much writing as we can, and to talk about it as much as we can, availing ourselves always of what we can learn from reading the work of others.


  • A River Runs Through It
  • Brothers and Keepers
  • In Cold Blood
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
  • This House of Sky
  • Refuge
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • The Fire Next Time
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran
  • Hard Times

Course Logistics

This course will be driven, in large part, by your writing. The point of most of our writing this semester will not be to revise or to polish but to experiment: to try new things, new techniques, new points of view, new voices, new structures, and to see what happens when you do. You will write a few things that you will probably want to come back to later. You will write a few more things that you will probably never want to see again. You will learn from writing both such things. But in either case, when you are finished we will ask you simply to move on, to move forward, and to try something else. Revision will come later.

The class will include writing workshops, which will generally take place on Thursdays and for which we will divide into smaller groups, and discussion sections, which will take place on Tuesdays and will involve the class as a whole. Discussion sections will always happen in D38. For workshops, we will divide into two groups, which we will call (imaginatively!) "Group 1" and "Group 2." (We might consider other designations later, as, for instance, "Group A" and "Group B," or some cub-scout-esque nonhierarchical designations like "Sharks" and "Beavers," but for now let us just say "Group 1" and "Group 2.") Groups will alternate with instructors from week to week: Group 1, for example, will meet with John (in D38) for workshops 1, 3 and 5 and with Gloria (in D29A) for workshops 2, 4, and 6, etc. This pattern will continue until the final paper, which we'll workshop all together.

OK, you may find that a bit confusing. If so, don't worry: it will all make sense in practice. But here's the important part: in order for this course to work, you need to be good to each other. What that means, chiefly, is that you need to be supportive, enthusiastic and thoughtful with each others' work in workshops. But what it also means is that you need to give everybody -- the instructors and the other students in the class -- enough time with your work to allow them to be supportive and enthusiastic and thoughtful about it. This entails some logistics:

  • If workshops are on Thursdays, you need to finish your writing each week by Monday at 10:00 a.m. You should make enough copies for everybody in the class.
  • In the box outside John's office door you will find folders for everybody, including John and Gloria. Leave a copy of your writing each weeek in each folder, including those for people who aren't in your workshop group.
  • Everyone should be able to pick up his or her folder by Monday at noon.

For workshops

Before workshops, you should read everybody's papers, including those by students not in your group. You needn't write formal comments on the papers of students who are not in your group, but you should write some comments for the students who are. Above all, you should come to a workshop prepared to offer your thoughts on each piece of writing you've been given. You should try to be thoughtful, respectful and honest to each other, and you should expect the same from the rest of us. The people in your workshop are your colleagues: treat them and their work in a way that helps.


In keeping with our emphasis on process over product, this course will be graded on a portfolio basis. You will not receive grades on workshopped papers as you go along. Instead, you will be graded on a portfolio you present at the end comprising what you consider to be your best work.

Over the course of the semester you will write eight short papers prompted by assignments we give you; in the last month you will write a longer one of your own devising. Your final portfolio will include a revised version of this long paper, and revisions of any three of your shorter pieces. Your final grade in the course will then be figured according to these criteria:

Participation (i.e., participation in workshop and classroom discussions, timeliness, general level of (a) vim, (b) vigor and (c) verve in your dealings with the other human beings associated with the class, not to mention the instructors.)
Portfolio (weighted, probably, toward the longer paper, but with an eye toward identifying your best work)

Tentative Course Calendar

All dates subject to change depending on not much more than whether Sweetie's has cinnamon twists on a given day or Tuesday turns out to be a bad day to stop sniffing glue. Or, you know, more academic concerns. Sure. Those.


In class

Reading for the day

Thursday, Jan. 19

Introductory class
First writing assignment given, due Monday by 10:00


Tuesday, Jan 24

Discuussion: "I" in personal and non-personal writing Read: Forche and Girard 38-56, bring examples for class

Thursday, Jan. 26

Paper 1 Workshop  

Tuesday, January 31

Discussion: structure, beginnings and endings Consider Doig, preface and the first and last pages of each chapter; Capote, last scene in "Answer", Forche & Girard, "WhatThey Don't Tell You about Hurricanes" (223-29).

Thursday, Feb. 2

Paper 2 Workshop  

Tuesday, Feb. 7

Discussion: structures

Read, in F&G, "Braided Heart" (14-24), "Saying Goodbye to 'Once Upon a Time'" (25-33), "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer" (57-66)

Outline: Fadiman and Williams

Thursday, Feb. 9

Paper 3 Workshop  

Tuesday, Feb. 14

Discussion: writing the self (bring examples for discussion) Read: "Putting Yourself on the Line" (handout), consider Wideman, Maclean, Williams.

Thursday, Feb. 16

Paper 4 Workshop  

Tuesday, Feb. 21

Discussion: writing somebody else (bring examples for discussion) Read: F&G, 67-86

Thursday, Feb. 23

Paper 5 Workshop  

Tuesday, Feb. 28

Discussion: writing about place (home) (bring in examples for discussion) Consider: Doig, Maclean, Williams, Wideman, Baldwin

Thursday, Mar. 2

Paper 6 Workshop  

Tuesday, Mar. 7

Discussion: writing aboiut place (away) (bring in examples for discussion) Consider: Capote on Holcomb, Fadiman on Merced and Laos, others. . .

Thursday, Mar. 9

Paper 7 Workshop  

March 11-26

Spring Break

Tuesday, Mar. 28

Prospectus for long paper due
Discussion of longer pieces


Thursday, Mar. 30

Discussion of interviews and interviewing Consider Terkel, others. . .

Tuesday, Apr. 4

Conferences on long paper  

Thursday, Apr. 6

Workshop Paper 8  

Tuesday, Apr. 11

Individual conferences  

Thursday, Apr. 13

Individual conferences  

Tuesday, Apr. 18

Individual conferences  

Thursday, Apr. 20

Individual conferences
Long Paper due April 21


Tuesday, Apr. 25

Long paper workshop -- whole group  

Thursday, Apr. 27

Long paper workshop -- whole group  

Tuesday, May 2

Course wrap-up. PORTFOLIOS DUE MAY 5.  






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