Personal Issues: Finding the Universal in First-Person Nonfiction
Too often, the emphasis on and in personal writing fails to consider the universality broached through local examinations. As writers, we must seek to bring thoughtfulness and introspection into this confessional landscape of bloggers and tabloids; we must be artful, intellectual, and accessible. This circumspection need not exclude emotional intimacy. As Virginia Woolf said, “A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us; but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.” A writer can discuss experiences of sex, addiction, violence, love, madness, and all manner of internal phenomena while avoiding the pitfalls of navel-gazing and insularity. In this class, students will examine the way experience, emotion, research, and intellection are integrated in the personal essay form through structure, pacing, dialogue, and other craft methods. On a weekly basis, students will attempt, through short exercises, to artfully place the subjective in the context of the larger world. We will examine published works that succeed at this in a broad spectrum of styles—from classic essays to recent, more experimental forms. Among these will be the work of Kathryn Harrison, Zadie Smith, Nancy Mairs, James Baldwin, Nick Flynn, David Foster Wallace, Jamaica Kincaid, John D’Agata, Bernard Cooper, and Eula Biss.