Stringing the Beads: Craft Your Personal Essay

with Joanna Penn Cooper

stringing the beads personal essay writing course

June 26, 2024
4 Weeks

Original price was: $345.00.Current price is: $295.00.

Zoom calls 6/29 & 7/13 from 12-1PM Eastern

In this course for intermediate writers, you’ll learn to more powerfully shape your life-based personal essays. We will focus on identifying that which moves us (or baffles us) as seeds for our writing; grounding our writing in specific images and scenes; learning how to make conscious choices about how and where the essay will “move”; and revising drafts to make them really compelling for a reader, in terms of voice, style, and subject matter.

As Phillip Lopate notes in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, “The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions…. This freedom can be daunting.”

Together, we will confront the two main challenges of the personal essay form: 1. allowing ourselves to really notice and contemplate what we’re interested in—those ideas and observations that tug at our interest as seeds for possible essays; and 2. shaping our ideas, observations, and memories into compelling scenes (which become the building blocks for compelling essays).

The class will run asynchronously in the Wet Ink platform, meaning that you don’t have to be available to meet at any specific times. Instead, you can access the materials on the online platform and work with them at your own pace. There will also be two optional Zoom meetings. We will not have class the week of Thanksgiving.

This course is intended for intermediate writers: those who have taken courses in creative nonfiction before, or who are perhaps already skilled in another genre.

Learning and Writing Goals

Learning Goals

Students will learn:

  • To identify and work with those scenes, memories, or details of everyday living that draw their attention.
  • To focus on finding the key image, memory, or scene for each section of a personal essay or selection of memoir-based writing.
  • To give your writing immediacy.
  • To experiment with different kinds of “movement” in a piece of writing (for example across time and space; between the concrete and the abstract).
  • Strategies for reworking existing drafts to make them more compelling.
  • To identify and work with those scenes, memories, or details of everyday living that draw their attention.

Writing Goals

Students will write:

  • Short (300-500 word) responses to at least two writing exercises per week.
  • A final essay of up to 10-12 pages (2,500-3,000 words)

Note: For this final essay for this class, you can either come with an essay that you are interested on revising, or you can produce a new essay from the material you generate from exercises over the course of the four weeks. (Or some combination of the two.)

Zoom Schedule

We will meet on Zoom twice in this class: 

Saturday, June 29th, from 12-1 P.M. U.S. Eastern Time.

Saturday, July 13th, from 12-1 P.M. U.S. Eastern Time.

Weekly Syllabus

Each week will include written mini-lectures, readings, writing prompts, and chances to enter into discussion with your peers and instructor. You will also receive written feedback from both instructor and peers on your writing.

Final essays will receive thorough written comments from the instructor on how your essay is working in terms of organization, voice, pacing, and the key moments/images on which the essay hangs.

There will also be two optional videoconferences with me to discuss the writing process and craft issues.

Week 1: Grounding in the Now

We will examine how specific memories, details, or scenes from everyday life can tug at a writer and be a way in to creative production. We will also look at how we might ground introductions in image. We’ll read essays from Jo Ann Beard and Kim Barnes as models.

Week 2: Expand and Contract

This week’s lesson will focus on deciding how much you need to provide your reader in a given scene, in terms of context, characterization, and detail. We will also examine how different types of “movement” can enliven a piece of writing. Finally, we will look at how the revision process can function through a process of expansion and contraction. We’ll read short essays and excerpts by Diane Seuss, Dorothy Allison, Sonja Livingston, and others.

Week 3: Engaging the Self and Other

We will look at what it means to be engaging and engaged, as it relates to your voice/style. Other topics we may cover in relation to “engagement” are:

  • Being in dialogue with another thinker or writer in your piece
  • Experimenting with using imagined audience to get at what’s at stake
  • Reassessing as you write whether you believe what you are saying

We’ll consider work by Sabrina Orah Mark, Nicole Sealey, and others.

Week 4: “What Is in There”?: Finding the guiding question

In our final week, we’ll deal with the idea of the “crux moment,” a moment in a piece of writing that carries extra energy, thinking about how they function in the work. We will examine how you can tighten/focus a piece of writing, even as you allow for mystery. Some of the most interesting writing has an unanswered question or set of questions at its center. We’ll consider work by Ross Gay and Ann Daum, among others.

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June 26, 2024
4 Weeks

Original price was: $345.00.Current price is: $295.00.

Zoom calls 6/29 & 7/13 from 12-1PM Eastern

joanna cooper writer


Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014), a book of lyrical prose vignettes, and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press, 2014), a book of poetry. Her recent chapbooks are Wild Apples: A Flash Memoir Collection with Writing Prompts  and Comfort Event, a collaboration with Todd Colby (both from Ethel Zine & Micro-Press).

Joanna holds a Ph.D. in English (American literature) from Temple University and an MFA in Poetry from New England College. In her teaching career, she has held full-time visiting positions at Marquette University and Fordham University. Joanna taught flash memoir and lyric essay for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation for several years, and she has served as an editor at Trio House Press. She is an editor-at-large for the literary zine Ethel, and she currently works as a freelance editor and writing coach through her business Muse Writing & Creative Support. She has been a frequent contributor to Good Letters, the online component of Image Journal, and her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.