The Art of the Personal Essay: Mining the Real World for Stories Worth Exploring

This class is not currently available.


Long live the versatility of essay! Of all the genres, essays might be the most expansive. They let you tell stories. They explore ideas. They encourage you to reject easy conclusions, instead granting you the freedom to revel in questions and curiosities. It is a form that allows you as a writer to look with wide open eyes at the world and ask what it is you see there and what it might mean.

This class will focus on common approaches to the personal essay, from memoir essay to lyric and, in doing so, highlight common subjects of popular interest, from the environment to art. We won’t shy away from the hard stuff, either, but will take time to discuss questions about fact v. fiction, the risks of writing about family, the imperfection of memory, and more. With weekly lectures and examples, recommended readings, and suggested creative exercises you will learn how to take the stuff of your own life and transform it into prose that elevates the personal to the universal.

Who should take this course

  • Those curious about the “creative” in creative nonfiction.
  • Those looking looking to practice fresh approaches to factual material and in search of new models for inspiration.
  • Those who have a story to tell and are looking for a reason to sit down and tell it in a supportive environment.
  • Those hoping to develop their observational, descriptive, figurative, and narrative muscles.
  • Those wanting to think deeply about their immediate worlds.
  • Storytellers, essayists, writers, humans.

About the InstructorNell Boeschenstein

Nell Boeschenstein has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Dartmouth College. She currently teaches essay, memoir, feature writing, and criticism at Sweet Briar College where she also serves as the Interim Director of the Creative Writing Program.

Prior to Sweet Briar, she taught writing for two years at Columbia, and before she began teaching, Nell worked as a producer for the public radio programs Fresh Air with Terry Gross and BackStory with the American History Guys, and as a writer and editor for weeklies and magazines.

Her work has appeared The Guardian, Newsweek, The Believer, The Rumpus, The Millions, Guernica, and The Morning News, where she is a contributing writer, among other places, and her essays have been featured by Longreads and Longform.

Her writing has been anthologized in The Rumpus Women, Vol. 1 and her radio work has been featured on 99% Invisible. She has received residency fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Albee Foundation, as well as numerous college grants. She is at work on a collection of essays—personal, reported, and lyric—themed to the idea of “lost colonies.”

Nell most definitely challenged me and my writing by always encouraging me to "push it a bit further." She is a great teacher!

Student at Sweet Briar

The way Nell teaches is very rich and unique. Her class made me a more confident, and a better writer.

Student at Sweet Briar

Nell teaches in a way that is both engaging, amusing and educational. She had a lot of patience and always demonstrated her interest in teaching her students how to be better writers. I highly recommend her courses.

Student at Sweet Briar

Basic Registration ($199)

  • Weekly slide-based lectures, each examining a different approach to the genre through examples that offer insight into how to approach subject and structure. Incorporated throughout the lectures are basic writing tips intended to help you draft two or three of your own personal essays.
  • Two weekly recommended readings, one to reinforce the lecture of the previous week and one to introduce topics that will be covered the following week.
  • Short examples of work that illustrate the lessons of each lecture and provide fodder for emulation.
  • Weekly writing assignments for completion at your own pace and designed to help you find your writing “voice” and identify the stories and ideas about which you are passionate.
  • Writing prompts to help jog the memory and exercise and strengthen the muscles of observation.
  • Suggested further readings and recommendations for magazines and websites that publish creative nonfiction.
  • Weekly online office hours (1 hour) where you can chat with Nell in real time via Zoom (video, audio, and text).

Advanced Registration ($399)

Everything in the basic package plus:

  • Participation in a private forum, where we can share small writing samples from the weekly assignments and writing challenges that present themselves as we move along together in the course.
  • 30-minute one-on-one meeting at your request (via phone or Zoom) for us to work together on any aspect of your writing.
  • A critique of 25-30 pages of your writing at the end of the course. I will discuss strengths and weaknesses, provide direction and encouragement, while looking at both the style and content of your writing.

Bonus lectures for advanced students

If you wish to study personal essay further, the following lectures will be available as self-study for advanced students:

  • Juxtaposition and Association: The essay’s versatility allows it to use the techniques of juxtaposition and association to access fresh meaning and emotional depth, much in the way that poetry is able to do. But it’s not a matter of placing two random anecdotes or descriptions beside each other; their must be a method to the madness. 
  • The Small Writ Large: Essay excels at taking the small piece of ordinary life and finding in it larger meaning. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Virginia Woolf’s short essay “The Moth,” in which she observes a moth on her windowsill. By looking at this and other examples, you'll learn about intimacy and observation and how to develop those skills. 
  • The Review as Essay: A review does not always have to be thumbs up or thumbs down, one star or five stars. Sometimes a current book, movie, meal, etc. prompts you to think about the larger story or context behind said book, movie, meal, etc., and writing a review can give you a good excuse explore that larger story or context. You'll learn the value of a “hook” when you’re interested in pitching your writing to publications and how to balance that hook with what it is you really want to talk about without sounding like you’ve mounted a soapbox with a bullhorn in hand. 
  • The Art of Revision. Facing the blank page is terrifying, but a lot of the time what you first write down changes. That’s because much of the work of writing is done in revision. Learn techniques for revision and how to approach your own work with the critical distance needed to make a piece of writing that’s not working more effective and to make a piece of writing that’s not quite there yet stronger.

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, Skype, or phone—to be arranged based on your preferences and instructor availability.
  • Written critiques for advanced students will be delivered privately via email.
Example of what the course 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 (May 16): An Introduction to the Essay

In this class you will get grounded in the genre and receive an overview of its history and development. We will look at questions ranging from what constitutes an essay to where we read essays to the topics essays tend to tackle. With a whole world to mine for subjects, finding something to write about should never be a problem. And yet, that what-to-write-about question persists, which is why we will also discuss what kinds of stories you want to tell. We will also touch on some basic writing tips and the importance of revision.

Recommended Reading:

  • Excerpt from Philip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay
  • “Living Like Weasels,” by Annie Dillard

Week 2 (May 23): Writing about Place

One of the richest perennial subjects for an essayist is the landscape — urban, rural, suburban. That landscape can be a present home, a lost home, a temporary home, or a place the essayist is just passing through on her way elsewhere. We will look at a few examples of essays concerned with place, focusing in particular on writers’ use of sensory detail to bring a variety of ecosystems to life on the page. How you can make a landscape that has been seen many times by many other people your own as well as a new and exciting place for a reader to explore? Let’s talk about that, too.

Recommended Reading:

  • “City Limits,” by Colson Whitehead
  • “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard

Week 3 (May 30): The Memoir Essay

Another popular approach to essay writing is to mine your own life for stories worth telling. By examining the roles of narrative arc and structure, we’ll unpack how you might reconstruct your own past in order to create art. We will consider where the line between fiction and nonfiction as well as the risks taken when writing about the self and, inevitably, loved ones. We will think also about the nature of memory, the virtues of dispassionate distance, and what it really means to make “art” out of life.

Recommended Reading:

  • “Night” by Tony Judt
  • “Elegy to a Country’s Seasons” by Zadie Smith

Week 4 (June 6): Elegies, Odes, and the “On” Essay

Essayistic elegies and odes reflect the poetic forms that inspire them. In these kinds of essay the writer considers loss and/or love and, in doing so, reveals something more universal about our relationships to what we lose and what we love. “On Self Respect.” “On Going a Journey.” “On Marriage.” What I call the “On” essay is ubiquitous. It is often non-narrative and allows the writer to consider a larger idea through the lens of examples and anecdotes from his or her own life.

Recommended Reading:

  • “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion
  • “Reservation Drive-In” by Sherman Alexie

Week 5 (June 13): The Lyric Essay

The lyric essay is where poetry meets the essay form. The lyric essay places cadences, sounds, imagery, association, and metaphor center stage, moving the spotlight away from narrative as the structuring force. We will explore the differences between the lyric essay and the prose poem, as well as what poetic techniques you can use easily use in your nonfiction prose. What makes a good metaphor? Why is powerful, emotionally resonant imagery so important to good writing? These are questions we will tackle. Lastly, we will consider the joys of reading aloud, not to mention the benefits of readings one’s own work aloud, be it to yourself in an empty room or to a packed audience of strangers.

Recommended Reading:

  • “The Raven” by Barry Lopez
  • “Down in the Holler” by Elena Passarello

Week 6 (June 20): The Personal Response to Art

The cliche is that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That may be so, but it hasn’t stopped writers from taking music as their subject matter and thank goodness: there have been some incredible essays written as a result. Writing in response to other people’s art – be it writing or music or painting or sculpture or dancing or acting or architecture – is as inevitable as breathing. In this class we’ll talk about what we can learn about ourselves by writing about and examining the art that others have produced.

Recommended Reading:

  • “Vermeer in Bosnia” by Lawrence Weschler 

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur | Jane Friedman

  2. Hi, Jane. Is it possible to download the slideshow lectures? I’m hungry for the material, particularly the part which will help me “identify the stories and ideas about which you are passionate”. Thank you!

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