First-Year Studies: Shapes, Sizes, and Sentences: First-Year Seminar in Nonfiction Writing


In this yearlong nonfiction writing seminar and workshop, we will examine, analyze, and dissect pieces of factual narrative from the perspective of their formal elements and then strive to reproduce those elements. The elements under examination will comprise the universal structures of narrative art, such as plot and character; structures peculiar to genres and subgenres, such as journalism, the essay, the biography, and the autobiography; and what could be called calisthenic elements, which represent the physical actions and movements of writing and the exercise of strength and effort of attention that those actions require. We’ll look at works according to their size—micro (or flash) nonfiction, the classic literary and personal essay, hybrid forms that live between the essay and the poem and the essay and the short story, oral history, short- and long-form journalism, full-blown memoirs—so that we can appraise the dilemmas and opportunities that size presents at each order of literary magnitude. We’ll look at works according to their shape—classical narrative shape—and the way it is either conformed to, elaborated, or violated in nonfiction writing. We will discuss the rhetorical dynamics that obtain between the different levels of organization in a piece of prose and the exchange of energy between microscopic and macroscopic realms in the ecosystem of a successful work of nonfiction art. We will talk a lot about the English sentence, read and write in equal proportions, and spend much time thinking about style. Students will be asked to write both exercises and pieces that they conceive independently; readings will range in time from Biblical narrative to famous contemporary and near contemporary texts and will include, among others, works by the author of the Book of Job, Aristotle, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Janet Malcolm, Jamaica Kincaid, Susan Sheehan, Nancy Mairs, David Foster Wallace, and John D’Agata. The differences among these writers will be reconciled by our investigating and understanding how—across time, space, race, class, gender, and culture—they deal with the same rhetorical problems and the same problems of meaning and arrive at many of the same solutions. We will, of course, also talk about race, class, gender, doubt, despair, joy, dread, happiness, and affliction—but primarily in the context of how they are embodied and transformed by the techniques of literary art. We will also step, gingerly, into new media.