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Writing Creative Nonfiction

Writing Creative Nonfiction

Course No.  2154
Course No.  2154
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

We all have a story we want to share with others. Maybe it's a funny or dramatic moment in your everyday life. Perhaps it's an unforgettable trip overseas or a heartwarming family reunion. Or possibly even the life of a close relative or public figure that has inspired you in some unique way. Regardless of the story or experience, there's no better way to write, record, and share it than through the power of creative nonfiction.

Bringing together the imaginative strategies of fiction storytelling and new ways of narrating true, real-life events, creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing part of the creative writing world—and the fastest-growing part of the market for books as well. It's a cutting-edge genre that's reshaping how we write (and read) everything from biographies and memoirs to blogs and public speaking scripts to personal essays and magazine articles.

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We all have a story we want to share with others. Maybe it's a funny or dramatic moment in your everyday life. Perhaps it's an unforgettable trip overseas or a heartwarming family reunion. Or possibly even the life of a close relative or public figure that has inspired you in some unique way. Regardless of the story or experience, there's no better way to write, record, and share it than through the power of creative nonfiction.

Bringing together the imaginative strategies of fiction storytelling and new ways of narrating true, real-life events, creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing part of the creative writing world—and the fastest-growing part of the market for books as well. It's a cutting-edge genre that's reshaping how we write (and read) everything from biographies and memoirs to blogs and public speaking scripts to personal essays and magazine articles.

But learning the secrets and techniques of creative nonfiction offers you so much more than just insights into this exciting style of writing. Mastering the art and craft of creative nonfiction can

  • help you write more effectively in a variety of professional and personal situations,
  • provide dynamic new ways for you to preserve life experiences as they truly occurred or as you felt them,
  • allow you to share your stories in ways that other people are sure to find compelling, and
  • open up new windows on how you think about your own personal history—and the personal history of others.

Whether you're looking to launch into a new professional career as a creative nonfiction writer, dabble in the genre as a pastime, start a personal blog, or simply get inside the mind of a creative nonfiction writer at work, you'll find much to learn from and enjoy in Writing Creative Nonfiction. These 24 lectures by award-winning writing instructor and Professor Tilar J. Mazzeo of Colby College, a New York Times best-selling author, are a chance for you to explore the entire process of writing creative nonfiction, from brainstorming for the perfect idea to getting your final product noticed by literary agents and publishers. Filled with helpful tips and techniques, memorable examples from well-known writers, and engaging exercises, it's a learning experience that proves that—with the right instructor—writing creative nonfiction can be mastered, practiced, and enjoyed by anyone with a desire to share his or her personal story.

Explore All Aspects of the Creative Nonfiction Craft

More dynamic than a simple how-to writing guide you could find in a bookstore, Professor Mazzeo's interactive lectures are a chance for you to learn right alongside a master professor and best-selling writer as she guides you through all aspects of the process.

  • Fundamentals of creative nonfiction: Many of the lectures unpack fundamental concepts and principles involved in writing creative nonfiction. These include narrative arcs, captivating beginnings, sentence variation, perspective, characterization, dialogue, and metaphors. You'll uncover ways to decide how to best employ them to fit your particular work as well as to make your writing more engaging—without breaking the nonfiction contract with your reader.
  • Writing process: Pulling from her own personal experience as a writer, Professor Mazzeo guides you through each stage of writing creative nonfiction, from researching your topic to revising your first draft. Along the way, she offers tips and advice for everything from working around the problem of missing sources to pushing your way through writer's block to finding a community of writers who can offer you constructive criticism.
  • Publishing tips: How do you find the right agent? What goes into a successful book proposal? How can you find out which publications are the right venues for your pieces? In a series of lectures centered on the practical business of marketing and publishing your work, you'll discover the answers to these and other questions about getting your start as a published—and maybe even professional—writer.

Learn Tricks of the Creative Nonfiction Writer's Trade

"I'm an English professor and a writer myself,"notes Professor Mazzeo at the start of her course. "And what I can tell you is that there are tricks of the trade; things that published writers—the people whose books you've read and enjoyed and recommended to friends—learn from doing over and over.”

Every lecture of Writing Creative Nonfiction is filled with these tricks of the trade; nuggets of information, insight, and advice that you can learn from and use whenever you sit down to tell a personal story. Whether you're planning on tackling a memoir, a piece of travel writing, a personal essay, or nearly any project in which effective (and truthful) storytelling is required, these and other tips and tricks revealed in this course will go a long way toward building a powerful toolkit you can use any time you sit down to write.

  • Include three things every good story needs: You know you've got a good story to work with when it has a narrative arc, dramatic tension (conflict that works as an obstacle), and interesting characters who experience and try to surmount obstacles.
  • Introduce ambiguity: Free indirect discourse doesn't require attribution of speech or thought and invites readers to attribute your thoughts to the thoughts of the character. Whether your readers accept or reject the invitation, you've been truthful about not making claims of fact and have maintained the nonfiction contract.
  • Write the "gutter”: Giving your readers two pieces of information and trusting them to use their imaginations to transform them into a single storyline (filling in the "gutter”) is a great way to avoid overnarrating. Engaging their imaginations also makes them a more active participant in the story you're telling.
  • Draft a pitch instead of an outline: While pitches are normally written to secure contracts for nonfiction works, they can also be a helpful way for you to avoid getting stuck when you're having difficulty outlining your story.

Practice with Exercises Crafted by a New York Times Best-Selling Author

With Writing Creative Nonfiction, you're not just learning from a dynamic writing instructor. You're learning from a prolific nonfiction writer whose books—including the New York Times bestseller The Widow Cliquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It—are examples of the form at its best: factual and honest while being genuinely engaging reads.

Professor Mazzeo brings the same skill and experience to her course that she's brought to her creative nonfiction work. And to help you practice and hone your newfound skills, she has crafted specific exercises to help you tap into your inner writer. For example, you'll

  • take an event in front of you and write a page of detailed description (without actually saying what's happening) to witness the effects of showing, not telling, about specific moments;
  • write a couple of paragraphs using both direct and indirect discourse to learn the strengths and weaknesses of either approach to storytelling; and
  • write a pitch for an imaginative travel piece (its story, its characters, its arc) in 100 words or less to see how well you can propose a piece of writing to a prospective editor.

Who knows? Perhaps one of these or the other exercises will spark that great idea that sets you on your way to writing creative nonfiction that engages your reader—and even sells.

Throughout the entire course, Professor Mazzeo's passion for her craft and her devotion to sharing her knowledge and instilling confidence in fellow writers are constant. "You need to write what's in you; in your mind and in your imagination,"she says. "And you need to tell a great story.”

And that's exactly what you'll learn how to do in Writing Creative Nonfiction. By the conclusion of these rewarding lectures, you'll have the knowledge, tools, and, most important, inspiration you need to discover your stories and finally start telling them the right way.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Welcome to Creative Nonfiction
    Welcome to the world of creative nonfiction. In this first lecture, investigate how something called nonfiction can be “creative,” how different perspectives can provide unique ways to tell a story, and more. In addition, preview a road map for the lectures ahead and some of the exciting techniques to be learned. x
  • 2
    Finding the Story
    Professor Mazzeo introduces you to the three things that every good story must have: a narrative arc, some kind of conflict, and character. She also guides you through two engaging exercises that help train you to recognize these elements in both short conversations and a single historical photograph. x
  • 3
    Honoring the Nonfiction Contract
    What’s the line between historical fact and interpretation? What are your responsibilities to your memories, even distant ones? How do you write about things beyond your experience and do it truthfully? Find the answers to these and other important questions on the ethical issues and dilemmas of writing creative nonfiction. x
  • 4
    Writing Great Beginnings
    In this lecture, explore how to successfully undertake the hardest part of telling a great story: beginning it. You’ll discover the characteristics of a powerful opening sentence, examine great opening lines by famous writers such as Sylvia Plath, uncover several strategies to generate ideas (including the “story starter”), and more. x
  • 5
    Show, Don’t Tell
    “Show, don’t tell”—it’s the mantra of creative writing teachers everywhere. But what exactly does it mean? Strengthen the descriptive powers of your writing by tapping into the importance of handling verbs and using more precise words, with insightful examples of both right and wrong techniques taken from published works of creative nonfiction. x
  • 6
    Launching a Narrative Arc
    Plotting a narrative arc is a part of the creative process that can seem overwhelming even to very experienced writers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here, learn basic structures—the linear, quest, and frame narratives—you can choose from to imbue your stories with drama and tension. x
  • 7
    Cliffhangers and Page Turners
    Every story needs good pacing, and that’s where chapters come in. What does an effective chapter do, and what does it look like? Professor Mazzeo uses a series of examples to show how chapters can effectively deepen your story’s narrative arc and—most important—keep your readers reading. x
  • 8
    Building Dramatic Sentences
    Unpack the technical aspects and secrets of sentences that create pacing and tension. First, investigate the importance of word order in your sentences. Next, explore the effectiveness of compound sentences. Finally, uncover how changing different sentence types in your writing can dramatically alter the impact of your work. x
  • 9
    Rhetorical Devices and Emotional Impact
    Take a closer look at more rhetorical devices that can dramatically alter the quality and impact of your creative nonfiction. Among the devices you explore: parallelism, anadiplosis (repeating the word at the end of a clause at the start of the next), isocolons (clauses of the same length), and alliteration. x
  • 10
    Putting It All Together
    Here, Professor Mazzeo walks you through the revision process, which is just as important as the actual writing itself. Using the skills and techniques you’ve learned in previous lectures, you’ll take a brief story and explore numerous ways to improve and enhance its sentences, its dialogue, its perspective, and more. x
  • 11
    Revealing Character in Words and Actions
    First, learn why details are so essential to creating three-dimensional characters in creative nonfiction. Then, investigate the stylistic pros and cons of writing from three different points of view: first person, second person, and third person. Your (surprising) case studies for studying the importance of these two topics: personal ads. x
  • 12
    Creating Compelling Characters
    Explore working with characters that don’t play starring roles in your narrative (minor characters) as well as unlikable characters no one likes to deal with in real life (antagonists). How do you write about minor and flawed characters that move your narrative along while still being portrayed three-dimensionally? x
  • 13
    Character Psychology
    Investigate the role metaphor plays in revealing the psychological motivations of complex characters. Among the skills you learn are using metonymy (where something associated with an object is used to represent it) and deciding when to use direct discourse (directly quoted speech) or indirect discourse (attributing speech without quotation marks). x
  • 14
    Getting Inside the Heads of Your Characters
    Focus here on the unique advantages of using free indirect discourse, which provides a productive ambiguity by balancing on the line between a character’s thoughts and words and those of an author-narrator. You’ll see this at work in an excerpt from one of the masters of the form: Virginia Woolf. x
  • 15
    Using Narrative Perspective
    Professor Mazzeo reveals even more different narrative perspectives you can use to frame your stories and provide your readers with an entry point into your work. After a quick review of “I” and “you” point of views, you’ll zero in on three modes of the third-person perspective: omniscient, objective, and subjective. x
  • 16
    Shaping Your Voice
    What is an implied author? How do you develop one in your own nonfiction narratives? What is “purple prose,” and why is it such a common error by beginning writers? How does it undermine great creative nonfiction? Get answers to these and other questions in this lecture on the power of narrative voice. x
  • 17
    Writing the Gutter—How to Not Tell a Story
    While it may sound counterintuitive, smart creative nonfiction writers know when not to tell something. Discover how learning when to keep quiet can actually be a storyteller’s most powerful tool—creating drama, strengthening a sense of suspense, and allowing readers themselves to become active participants in your work. x
  • 18
    Dialogue Strategies in Creative Nonfiction
    Professor Mazzeo reveals how to recognize—and overcome—the challenges of writing dialogue in creative nonfiction, where nothing can be made up. Focus on three keys to good dialogue: using it to intensify character and propel narrative; writing it to sound realistic (but not too realistic), and making sure it’s not overwritten. x
  • 19
    Researching Creative Nonfiction
    Delve into research, a skill that all successful creative nonfiction writers need to master with real aplomb. You’ll learn where (and where not to) look for materials for your creative nonfiction, what to do when you get stuck with your research, how to evaluate the reliability of sources, and more. x
  • 20
    How to Not Have People Hate You
    As a writer of creative nonfiction, you have an immense responsibility to your subject (and your readers). Investigate ways to tell your stories dramatically and truthfully—all while avoiding conflict with your subject. Two of the tips you learn here: Use comedy extremely carefully and watch out for turning living people into simple stock characters. x
  • 21
    Revising Your Work
    Think a bit more about the revision process. Who are the right people to read a work in progress? What are the differences between positive and negative feedback? How do you manage the complicated feelings behind and investments in your work—especially when facing constructive criticism from your peers? x
  • 22
    Building Your Audience
    You’ve finally written the piece you’ve always wanted. Now what? In the first of two lectures on breaking into the world of publishing, learn how to take a realistic approach to the process, how to determine who your audience is, and how to write a solid book proposal for a potential agent. x
  • 23
    Getting Published
    Finding out where to get your work published. Deciding which publication is right for your work. Crafting a successful pitch to an editor. These are some of the topics covered in this insightful lecture on the art and crafting of marketing and showing your creative nonfiction to a world of readers. x
  • 24
    Being a Writer
    Conclude the course with a look at the habits of effective writers. First, learn several steps you can take to silence your internal critic and survive writer’s block. Then, examine seven ways you can make space in your life for writing, including setting concrete goals, reading more, and befriending other writers. x

Lecture Titles

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Tilar J. Mazzeo
Ph.D. Tilar J. Mazzeo
Colby College

Dr. Tilar J. Mazzeo is the Clara C. Piper Professor of English at Colby College in Maine and the New York Times best-selling author of The Widow Cliquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It and The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume. Professor Mazzeo earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. In 2008, she won the Gourmand Award for the Best Work of Wine Literature in the United States for The Widow Cliquot. She is also the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma and Back Lane Wineries of Napa. Her travel, food, and wine essays have appeared in a range of national publications, including Food and Wine magazine. Professor Mazzeo held the prestigious Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence position at The George Washington University. Her lessons, exercises, and advice on the art and craft of creative nonfiction have appeared in collections including Now Write! Nonfiction: Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers.

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Reviews

Rated 3.6 out of 5 by 53 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very helpful for aspiring writers, some quibbles [audio download review] First, this course probably is likely of interest to those who write (or want to write) for a living. It may interest readers a bit to get an idea of the "behind the scenes" aspects too. It is also very help to fiction writers, and indeed a lot of the examples she draws from to make her points comes from fiction. For those who write for fun, this course is good as well. I'm an aspiring author in the literary fiction genre as well as others (my day job is very different, sadly). Content: Very helpful, at least for me. Some highlights: +landing an agent. Since the professor is a published author, her insights are invaluable. She gives us the no nonsense low down. +how to begin your book, .i.e. what makes a great starter. Even though I've read about this in writer's magazines, books etc. I learned some new approaches from her. For me, very useful in deed. Examples were given as well. +how to write a "narrative arc" and she gives examples from her own experiences from writing a biography. This was very insightful. +she gives writing assignments, and comments on them later (in broad terms of course). It's the closest thing you can come to an actual MFA course. +what is nonfiction and how can we distinguish it from fiction (more difficult to do than you would think) Some quibbles: -The use of Dan Brown. Why use a trite (if bestselling) fiction writer in a course on nonfiction? Yes, I get the idea that she was showing how to write good intros and endings to chapters to keep the reader hooked, but I found his writing to be contrived and silly (exactly what readers do not want in creative nonfiction, they want real plausible stories). Presentation: +Great inflection, pacing, enunciation. -Uses "After all" way too many times. She should choose a different transition. After all, supposedly she wrote the transcripts, so you would think she would have spotted that! Her speaking is somewhat close to Prof Paxton's from the 1066 course. Value: Great! If you consider what it would cost to get an MFA. Of course, in an MFA you would get valuable feedback from teachers and peers, but as Stephen King pointed out in his book "On Writing" you don't really need an MFA to be successful, so he recommended against them (with qualifications). I scarfed this one up, and walked all through Madison with my headphones on during beautiful days. People who saw me thought I was listening to Lady Gaga perhaps, but nope, I was listening to something much more useful for me anyway. Recommended! May 14, 2012
Rated 1 out of 5 by Couldn't make it through the course I don't know if it was the material so much as the presenter. As she speaks, she pushes both arms in front of her for emphasis. With every third word or so. It detracted from her message. Also, I found in watching the audio, she presents exercises with no warning to write things down that you will need for the exercise. So, I told myself that I would just watch it through once, then go back and do the exercises. It has been about a month and I haven't made it through the second lecture. This course wasn't for me. November 3, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Splaat! Two syntax errors in her first paragraph. Gives creedance (not a real word according to the OED) to the old saw: Those who can"t ...I will continue to persevere since this lady must know something and that something could be worth the effort. Maybe! October 14, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Windup Doll The description of this course sounded intriguing, so I ordered the DVD set.. But I could not tolerate more than the first lesson because the professor's video presentation skills are so distracting. She moves back and forth across the stage while endlessly repeating a single odd hand gesture, much like a windup doll. And she does read the teleprompter convincingly, frequently pausing and adding inflections in unnatural places. These problems are so distracting, it's difficult to focus on the content. She probably knows the topic extremely well, and may do a superb job of delivering the same content in a real classroom, but on-camera delivery requires certain skills that she clearly does not have at this point. The audio version is surely less distracting. August 19, 2014
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