Writing Creative Nonfiction

Course No. 2154
Professor Tilar J. Mazzeo, Ph.D.
Colby College
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Course No. 2154
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn details about each stage of the writing process, from conducting preliminary research to making final revisions.
  • Learn what three things every good book must have, and discover how to balance ambiguity with enough information.
  • Investigate ways to make a good pitch, get published, build an audience, and become a stronger writer.

Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Tilar J. Mazzeo

About Your Professor

Tilar J. Mazzeo, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Writing Creative Nonfiction is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 139.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Most informative course I've ever taken I write magazine articles, which are a form of creative nonfiction, and purchased this course to help me with my work. The professor leaves no stone unturned when it comes to writing, and the content can be applied to many genres. The lecture on free independent discourse was alone worth the price of admission! The lectures were clear and concise and every one informative, and I filled an entire copybook with notes for future reference. I cannot recommend this course enough. I gave it 5 stars because I can't give it 11.
Date published: 2018-11-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Writing Creative Nonfiction The material is fine but the professor is so irritating in tone and presentation I am having a hard time finishing the course. She beautifully enunciates, a feature I appreciate in any speaker, but for some mysterious reason has eliminated the "t" in the word "sentence" and unfortunately, it's a word she uses repeatedly. Unavoidable, of course, given the material, but the absence of the "t" just makes me grind my teeth. Also, irritatingly, she asks the audience to confirm her statements, as in "Right?" over and over, and the swings in her voice from high register to normal are amateurish and oh so irritating. I could not recommend this course to anyone who is sensitive to these kinds of things. She sounds like a high school kid seeking assurances from her teacher. Ugh. Yes, the material is fine, but I can hardly listen without wanting to throw my ipod out the front door.
Date published: 2018-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative, helped me tremendously Aptly named ... great course! I have written two non-fiction books. First a business book, followed by a biography. This course was a great asset for both providing insight into writing techniques to improve story telling, readability, and reader connection to the content.
Date published: 2018-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from After decades of technical writing that included four books, a hundred or so articles, and a seeming infinity of engineering reports I thought it might be entertaining and perhaps useful to add some "creativity" to my non-fiction. Dr. Mazzeo helped me a lot with that! This course presents ways to enhance and broaden the impact of non-fiction while preserving the need to stay non-fictional. Her discussions of attribution, voice, and research are particularly useful. Spending twelve hours with such a delightful, motivated, energetic, and enthusiastic professor is a special treat. Thinking ahead to what writing genre I want to try next, this course did a wonderful job of illustrating the boundaries of the non-fiction I know, creative non-fiction, and pure fiction. I learned from and enjoyed this course.
Date published: 2018-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title. How trite! Ms. Mazzeo's gesticulations are designed to hypnotize you. Then the concepts and ideas guarantee it. This single course compares and contrasts good writing and bad writing. You have a real tendency to read things differently and with more perspectives and perspicaciousness than you had before.
Date published: 2018-08-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Did Not Meet Expectations With reluctance, I report that I would not recommend this course to a friend. I say ‘reluctant’ because it was not devoid of worthwhile ideas, just not enough of them in a 24-lesson set for me to identify this as effective and efficient instruction. I do not wish to return this course for a refund, though, and I will acknowledge a few positives from it before commenting further about why I withhold overall recommendation. The concept of ‘foreshadowing’ was presented clearly. I valued the professor’s clever suggestion that trying to write a personal ad for a character would be a good way to prepare for introducing him or her into my manuscript. Dr. Mazzeo’s Lesson 17, on ‘Writing the Gutter—How to Not Tell a Story,’ was a real eye-opener. Her advice on approaching agents and publishers seemed practical. Dr. Mazzeo’s particular style of physical gesturing and her tendency to read from a teleprompter in short, choppy phrases were relatively minor causes of distraction during the course, though other issues seemed much more significant. One was that too much very general advice on writing was presented, not topic-specific enough to meet expectations for a course ‘about’ creative non-fiction. If the target audience was meant to be active writers now wishing to tackle creative non-fiction, then we probably didn’t need to be lectured about similes, metaphors, etc. If the audience was expected to be neophyte writers, then ‘Writing is hard work!’ was stressed far too often to be encouraging. Approximately half of the lessons’ illustrative examples were not drawn from actual non-fiction sources. I would have greatly preferred to be shown how a successful creative non-fiction writer used ‘cliff hangers’ to close chapters, rather than how novelist Dan Brown did it. Showing me a great opening line from a non-fiction classic would have had greater relevance than time spent on the opening of a C. S. Lewis children’s novel. Dr. Mazzeo is herself a best-selling creative non-fiction writer who shared a few examples from her own books, and she might well have shared more. One of the tips that Dr. Mazzeo cited repeatedly was that good writers do not let momentum ebb. She repeated that one and other tips so frequently, and she recapped so often what had been covered in prior lessons (little needed with a DVD course) that the ebbing of momentum was itself a weakness of the course. Similarly, though she taught us that every sentence counts in good writing, and that each one should advance either character, conflict, or narrative arc, it felt like mere ‘marking time’ when she frequently interjected extraneous remarks such as “Did you get all of that?’ and ‘Is your head spinning again?’ I may have rated this course more highly if there had been a tighter focus on creative non-fiction over a total of two or three DVDs instead of four.
Date published: 2018-08-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good content, but the lecturer is distracting It's been a few years since I purchased this, and thought to recommend to someone else. I did learn important elements from this DVD, but like other reviewers have said, the lecturers hand movements drove me crazy! I hope you record this, because the information is valuable.
Date published: 2018-07-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Don't get the video The professor hand movements are distraction! Period.
Date published: 2018-06-27
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