All in the Family: Uncovering Your Family History and Transforming It Into Memorable Creative Nonfiction

This class starts on Feb. 1, 2016, and is appropriate for all skill levels.

Have you ever wanted to put into words the stories of your life, and to preserve the stories passed down to you?

Have you wondered where to find information about your family history?

And how you can incorporate all of that research and memory into an effective narrative that moves others without stepping on anyone’s toes?

This 10-week course will focus first on the research process, then on the appropriate writing styles to craft the research into memorable creative nonfiction. Through a series of weekly exercises, you will learn where to go to discover your family’s past, who to talk to, how to take and organize your notes to help you structure a narrative outline, and ultimately use what you’ve unearthed to generate compelling storylines with suspense and lyrical beauty.

Who should take this course

  • Anyone unsure of where to start researching family history and incorporating that research into a written story.
  • Those who need the confidence to write openly about family and personal stories, and writing strategies to help open the door to deeper personal insights that honest reflection can reveal.
  • Someone who has done a fair amount of research already, but now needs to organize that information and use it to create an effective storyline.
  • Those wishing to improve their general writing skills, working on story arcs, lyrical description, imagery, tension, resolution, dialogue, setting the scene, and incorporating personal reflection.
  • Essayists, memoirists, dabblers, dreamers.

About the Instructor

Benjamin VogtBenjamin Vogt has a Ph.D. in creative writing (double dissertation, poetry and memoir) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an M.F.A. from The Ohio State University, and has taught nearly 60 English classes while receiving four awards for his work with students. Benjamin’s writing has appeared in over 50 publications like Creative Nonfiction, Orion, and The Sun, as well as in eight anthologies, including The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (University of Iowa Press).

He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received grants or awards from The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Ropewalk Writer’s Retreat, as well as several university fellowships.

Benjamin is the author of two chapbooks and a poetry collection, Afterimage (SFA Press), and writes a weekly garden column for while freelancing for other publications. He is currently at work on a 90,000-word memoir about his family’s homesteading the Oklahoma prairie in the 1800s, which incorporates genealogy, family interviews and diaries, natural and cultural history, environmental advocacy, personal reflection, and even some fiction.


Ben pushes students because he sees the potential in us to write the way we should. He has us build up our confidence, and it helps throughout the class.

Paul M.

I don't know how you worked your magic, but I have a new vision of my project, a couple of scenes, and a pretty solid narrative arc to get me going. Thank you for your guidance, advice, and well-timed lessons.

Kathy M.

Ben is very motivational and is really good at connecting with students. He WANTS to see us do well and that felt really nice to have.

Brittany N.

Basic Registration ($325)

  • Weekly video lectures full of ideas that will challenge and motivate you to begin your journey toward writing about your family.
  • Weekly research and writing assignments for you to complete at your own pace; at the end of the course you should have performed a good deal of research which has led to a written piece of roughly 20-30 pages.  
  • Tips and links to helpful websites and organizations that provide information on genealogy, history, science, and culture.
  • Writing prompts that will help jog your memory, focus your project, and develop descriptive precision and narrative arcs.
  • Suggested timeline, with step-by-step guide to plan your research and writing project.
  • Examples of essays that serve as guides or touchstones to emulate as you work on your project.
  • Weekly online office hours (1 hour) where you can chat with Ben in real time using Zoom.

Advanced Registration ($675)

Everything in the basic package plus:

  • Participation in a private workshop-oriented group. With Ben and other students, you can share successes, failures, and questions based on weekly assignments as you move along together in the course.
  • Three opportunities to submit a writing sample to the instructor. The first opportunity will be during Week 3 and can be up to 5 pages; the second opportunity will be during Week 6 and can be up to 10 pages. You will receive a 1-page written response if work is submitted. A final 2-3 page written response will be offered on 25-30 pages of your writing at the end of the course. Ben will discuss strengths and weaknesses, provide direction and encouragement, while looking at both the style and content of your writing.
  • A 30-minute one-on-one live office hour session. Scheduled at your request (via Zoom or Skype) to work together on any aspect of your writing.

Technology Platforms Used for This Course

  • This course is conducted entirely online, so you'll need a reliable internet connection.
  • Course materials, lectures, and assignments will be available to view and download through a private course site hosted by Jane Friedman. You'll also be able to interact with other students through a forum and post messages to the group.
  • Live office hours will be conducted through Zoom, which works on virtually all types of devices (Mac/PC, tablet, and mobile). You can join using a webcam if you have one, or you can join with audio only. If needed, you can also join by phone.
  • One-on-one meetings will be conducted through Zoom or Skype—to be arranged based on your preferences and instructor availability.
  • Written critiques will be delivered via email.
Example of what the community site looks like—click to enlarge
Example of PowerPoint lecture—click to enlarge
Example of what the Zoom meeting room looks like (without people)—click to enlarge

Weekly Schedule (Subject to Change)

  • Week 1 (Feb. 1): What’s The Story You Want to Tell? We’ll focus on where to begin the narrative journey, and then explore how and what to research to develop that story.
  • Week 2 (Feb. 8): Organizing Research. Doing the reading and interviewing is the easy part, now how do you put that research into easily-found documents to refer to as you write? How can you begin to see the story outline as you go through this process of organizing?
  • Week 3 (Feb. 15): What’s the REAL Story You Want to Tell? It’s very likely that research has opened up some new and deeper reflections, maybe even totally changed your topic. We’ll write to explore that new story and see what else needs to be discovered.
  • Week 4 (Feb. 22): Walking on Eggshells. One of the biggest obstacles in writing nonfiction about family is fear – not only in your abilities as a writer, but also the idea that loved ones will read your essay. How can we be brave and follow the story through to the core? How can we risk honesty and up the ante for our writing?
  • Week 5 (Feb. 29): Setting the Scene. Description and detail are key to involving the reader, helping them see and feel their way into a narrative; it’s also key to helping you open up and remember even more.
  • Week 6 (March 7): High Wire Act. Watching someone risk their life in a high-stakes situation brings us to the edge of our seats, wanting more. We’ll look at what tools you can use to create not only engrossing moments, story arcs, and structure, but how you can make the reader an essential part of the action.
  • Week 7 (March 14): Bet You Didn’t See That Coming. Writing and researching creative nonfiction surprises the writer as much as the reader. How can you show some of this process on the page as part of the story? How does personal reflection add tension, create another dimension to scenes, and help you face pesky fears and doubts?
  • Week 8 (March 21): Who Said That? Dialogue isn’t just a way to make the page look more interesting, it’s an essential tool to prying open the creaky doors of memory—even it it’s almost totally made up.
  • Thanksgiving Week — no class
  • Week 9 (March 28): Living in the Moment. Being a writer means fostering equal parts devotion, passion, obstinacy, and faith. The biggest breakthroughs happen when you’re the most tired and frustrated, and learning to acknowledge those moments—and how to deal with them—will reinvigorate the writing process and your life.
  • Week 10 (April 4): Revising and Polishing the Draft. Where does the real writing happen? Draft after draft after draft. We’ll explore the major and minor issues you should be addressing, then create a timeline for continued work on your project.


The comments in workshop were helpful, one-on-one times with Ben were particularly helpful, and his expecting much from me was perhaps the most helpful so that I was pushed to grow instead of just gliding by like I have with previous writing classes.

Luke H.

Ben entices students to think passionately. Rarely does he ever allow his own ideas to infect the opinions of his students; instead, he allows them to flourish at their own pace.

Michael A.


  1. Would this course be appropriate for one who wants to write about a particular community and its 5 generations?

  2. Pingback: Taking the Risk to Write Deeply About Your Family History | Jane Friedman

    • It depends–if it’s successful enough, we’ll bring it back! If you’d still like to consider joining, you’ll have access to all course materials for a full year after the course ends, and you can make special arrangements with Ben, if needed, to submit work on a delayed timeline.

    • Hello, Evelyn! You can access the materials and lectures at any time convenient for you—they’re all recorded. However, the live office hours depend on the professor, and will be at varied times to help ensure everyone has a chance to talk directly with the professor during the course. (You can make time requests!) Ben is in the U.S. central time zone, if it helps to know. If you’d like to set up a staggered payment plan, feel free to contact me at

  3. Like Renee the timing isn’t good for me but it is exactly what I am looking for. I could benefit from all the resources even if my work wasn’t submitted. Might that be an option?

  4. Pingback: Taking the Risk to Write Deeply About Your Family History | Online Self Publishing Book & eBook Company

  5. Hi Jane, Trying to sign up for the advanced level of this course but both credit cards have been declined (impossible). Is there a bug? Cheers, Mimm

  6. What a great idea for a class! I’d take it, but even if it was possible for me to write my family well, there’s plenty of jerks in my writing, and they’re already paranoid.

  7. Pingback: Details Help Writers Overcome Their Fear | Jane Friedman

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