Secrets & Confessions: Writing Deeply Personal Nonfiction

with Margo Steines

Personal nonfiction writing course

Note: Participation in this course is anonymous, and as such, you are free to share work that you might otherwise hesitate to bare. Please read the fine print to make sure your material falls within the boundaries of the class.*

Writing the secrets you keep inside your chest can give you a safe space to let them out into the world and explore their meaning within literary narrative. Confessional writing has a rich history in literature, and for good reason: the page is a liminal space between self and other, which can hold experiences and ideas that are too closely held to engage with in everyday life.

In this course, you will learn tools that will empower you to bring your confessional writing to the page and elevate its craft into literary work. You will develop your narrative persona, makes choices about where to be direct and where to rely on metaphor and mood, and you will gain a sense of authorial agency over your story.

Together, we will talk about the merits and deficiencies of content warnings, and how to safeguard your reader’s experience with difficult material. You will craft your own author’s note to go with your work. You will have the opportunity to share your work within the class, and you will also learn tools and strategies for reading and responding to challenging or unfamiliar material from a craft-based perspective. You will receive feedback on your work via the Critical Response Method from the class and from Margo.

*The Fine Print:

This class will hold space for a wide variety of difficult, challenging, or otherwise troublesome material, with the following exceptions:

  • expressions of (to be distinguished from experiences of) race-based violence, sexual violence, or gender-based violence
  • expressions of any variety of threat or hate speech
  • graphic erotica

If you have questions about whether your material will be a fit, please feel free to reach out.

Learning and Writing Goals

Learning Goals

In this workshop, you will study the form of confessional nonfiction writing through creative and craft work while generating drafts of new material toward your own confessional essay (or a section of a longer work of confessional narrative). The class will delve into the craft of nonfiction and confessional writing, consider the craft and ethics of writing troubling content, and explore how to use the safe space of the page to narrate experiences that are too difficult to talk about.

You will learn practical tools and techniques for first-person narrative, learn how to write an effective author’s note to pair with your work, and learn trauma-informed practices for how to care for yourself while crafting difficult material.

By the end of the class, you’ll have brought to the page material that may once have felt too dark, hard, or just plain secret to expose. You are in charge of how much you do and don’t share with your reader (and with the group), and you will learn the craft of subtlety and restraint as we go. You’ll also practice reading with empathy and compassion, and learn to read as an editor, homing your eye toward connections of ideas and language.

Writing Goals

You will leave the class with a first draft of a confessional essay or a section of a longer work of confessional narrative, and a revision plan to guide you toward its completion.

Zoom Schedule

90-minute Zoom meetings will take place each Monday beginning January 15, at 7pm Eastern.

Weekly Syllabus

Week One: Introductions and Overview

This week, we’ll introduce ourselves (anonymously) and our work to each other, establish parameters and safe space agreements, and do two generative exercises. We’ll discuss our weekly reading and the week’s independent work.

Week Two: The Roots of Confessional Writing

This week, we’ll look at the origins of confessional literature and consider how our own work can participate in that discourse. We’ll discuss how to frame your experiences in a literary context, do an idea generation exercise, and discuss our weekly reading and the week’s independent work.

Week Three: Developing Your Narrative

This week, we’ll have a process talk on self-care for writers, a craft talk on restraint and details on the page, and a craft discussion on fact, truth, memory and subjectivity. We’ll discuss our weekly reading and the week’s independent work.

Week Four: Developing Your Narrative

This week, we’ll have a process talk, and a craft talk on writing trauma without retraumatizing yourself. We’ll learn and practice some somatic tools for trauma writing, and we will discuss our weekly reading and the week’s independent work.

Week Five: Shaping Your Narrative

This week, we’ll have a process talk, a craft talk on understanding your narrative motivation, and a craft discussion on defining and shaping your arc. We’ll discuss our weekly reading and the week’s independent work.

Week Six: Writing with Care

This week, we’ll have a craft lesson and exercise on crafting a content note for your work, and a craft discussion on reading and editing from a trauma-informed perspective. We’ll discuss our weekly reading and the week’s independent work, including our process for reading and preparing to give feedback on workshop submissions.

Week Seven: Live Workshop on Zoom

This week, we’ll have our first workshop session.

Week Eight: Live Workshop on Zoom

This week, we’ll have our second workshop session, followed by a group processing session and sharing of resources for continuing this work.


Course type:

Student Feedback for Margo Steines:

Margo embodies a certain intense passion for the work of writing. It feels like she’s right there for each student, a straight forward but kind and knowledgeable partner. This course came at the perfect moment. Carol A Thomas

The course was a joy. I’m quiet by nature, but by the end of it, I found myself not only with the confidence to participate but eager to so do. It was well structured, and everyone was given a chance to contribute. Margo’s knowledge, experience, and empathy created a safe space for discussing sensitive subjects that left me not only more confident in my writing about such a challenging subject but with broader insights into life as a whole. You can’t ask for more than that. James Boud

Margo’s course was expertly structured. Her weekly readings and discussions accumulated into a satisfying intro to the literature. And her essay creation process gave me a draft and a system for making more. Ashley Walker

Margo writes with insight and incisiveness you feel in your gut. Reading her work reminds me that I am human and alive and not alone in feeling what I feel. It’s a privilege to read Margo and also to be edited by her. She’s a thoughtful editor who possesses both empathy and sharp instincts, which do not always appear in the same package. She knows how to ask you thought-provoking questions about your work that lead you to your own solutions. Rachel Reeves, journalist

Margo is an extraordinary teacher, with extremely helpful lectures, writing prompts, and course structure. This was one of the most helpful workshops I have ever participated in. I found her extremely generous and accessible with her time, and she created a class atmosphere that felt respectful and engaging. Highly recommend! Mary Simpson

Margo is a great teacher. Very professional, supportive and knowledgeable. Very sensitive dealing with a difficult topic. She created a warm and supportive Zoom environment for those who attended. Ariela Zucker

margo steines headshot


Margo Steines is a native New Yorker, a journeyman ironworker, and serves as mom to a wildly spirited small person.

Margo holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona and lives and writes in Tucson. Her work was named Notable in Best American Essays and has appeared in The Sun, Brevity, Off Assignment, The New York Times (Modern Love), the anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, and elsewhere. She is the author of the memoir-in-essays Brutalities: A Love Story.

Margo is faculty at the University of Arizona Writing Program and is also a private creative coach and creative writing class facilitator. You can read more about her practices at