Taking a creative nonfiction course online is a great way to improve your writing, or even just to hold yourself accountable to writing creative nonfiction.
If you haven’t taken creative nonfiction online classes before, though, it can be difficult to know if a particular creative nonfiction writing class is the right fit for you. In this article, we’ll look at seven things to consider when choosing an online creative nonfiction writing course.
1. What creative nonfiction is
Most folks know right away what you mean when you say “fiction” or “poetry.” But “creative nonfiction” isn’t always so clear. What makes creative nonfiction “creative”? What makes it different than general “nonfiction”?
Creative nonfiction comes down to two things: its goals, and its writing techniques.
As a creative nonfiction instructor, I believe it comes down to two things: creative nonfiction’s goals, and creative nonfiction’s writing techniques.
Creative nonfiction’s goals.
In general nonfiction, like a newspaper article or a history book, the goal is to communicate information clearly. Readers want the facts—who, what, when, where, how—and the writer’s job is to give them that information as directly as possible.
Creative nonficiton’s goal is to depict what the novelist Henry James called “felt life”: not just what happened, but what it felt like to live through it.
Creative nonfiction also gives the facts, but it goes a step further. Its goal is to depict what the novelist Henry James called “felt life”: not just what happened, but what it felt like to live through it.
There’s a big difference, for instance, between reading a headline like “Local Woman Climbs Everest,” and actually being there with her.
General nonfiction aims to tell you who she is, how she achieved the climb, and so on. Creative nonfiction wants you to know all that—and more importantly, to experience what it was like for her to be hip-deep in snow, watching a new storm roll in.
Creative nonfiction writing techniques.
To create this “felt life” experience, creative nonfiction adapts the techniques of other forms of creative writing to nonfiction.
Like novels or short stories or poetry, creative nonfiction depends on imagery, metaphor and symbolism. Unlike those forms, though, creative nonfiction also has to be true!
Like fiction or poetry, creative nonfiction depends on imagery, metaphor and symbolism.
That makes it a uniquely challenging form to write, and that’s where great courses in creative nonfiction can be a big help!
Check Out Our Upcoming Creative Nonfiction Writing Courses!
The Hero’s Journey For Storytellers
with Gloria Kempton
May 5th, 2021
Structure your story and give it meaning with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.
Creating the Visual Journal
with Lissa Jensen
May 12th, 2021
Go beyond narrow definitions of “journaling" to include visual images and let writing give what is seen a new voice. Surprise yourself.
Tales From The Memory Palace: 6 to 250 Word Memoirs
with Giulietta Nardone
May 19th, 2021
If you want to be an in demand storyteller in the digital age, you need to get in, get out and get going. In this "short" four-week memoir writing adventure, you'll learn to scope out, swoop down and snatch up important memories from your life then speed write them into miniature masterpieces.
Experiments in Genre: Finding Creative Inspiration by Messing Up the Rules
with Jonathan J.G. McClure
June 2nd, 2021
Can you translate the movement of a dance into a poem? What happens when you write a story in the form of a multiple-choice quiz? Learn to take your work in rich and unexpected new directions by subverting and blending genre conventions.
Writing Autobiographical Fiction
with Jack Smith
June 16th, 2021
Learn to depart from "what really happened," and write compelling fiction from your own life experiences.
2. What kind of creative nonfiction you want to write
There are many different kinds of creative nonfiction, just like there are many different types of fiction.
As a fiction writer, you might want to write a realistic coming-of-age story, or a gritty murder mystery, or a high fantasy novel.
There are certain skills that would apply no matter what—your ability to create convincing characters, for instance, or to create and resolve tension in the plot.
At the same time, there would be important differences: the way you go about creating tension in the coming-of-age story would look pretty different than in the murder mystery.
For that reason, if you’re primarily interested in writing the coming-of-age-story, a fiction writing class focused on murder mysteries could help you to some extent, but it still wouldn’t be the best fit.
The same goes for creative nonfiction courses. Under the umbrella of creative nonfiction, there are all kinds of very different types of writing.
Under the umbrella of creative nonfiction are many distinct types of writing.
For instance, you might be interested in Literary Journalism—that is, journalistic writing that focuses on creating “felt life” as it reports events.
Or you might be interested in lyric essays, close cousins of poetry where the focus is on the lyricism of the language itself, whose aim is to translate ordinary life into something stranger and more vivid.
Or say you’re interested in writing a memoir. You might be interested in traditional memoir—telling some part of your own life story in a novelistic style, with yourself as the first-person narrator.
Then again, you might be interested in something more experimental. Maybe “autotheory,” where autobiography blends with critical theory and philosophy, as in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Or perhaps what the memoirist and poet Beth Ann Fennelly has called “micro-memoirs”: extremely short mini-memoirs that, when read all together, create a sort of memoir-by-mosaic. Or even a mix of essayistic social analysis, memoir, and poetry, as in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
Maybe you want to try out a bunch of different styles of creative nonfiction, and see which ones you like best.
Depending on your goals and the kinds of creative nonfiction that you enjoy, you’ll find some creative nonfiction writing courses to be a better fit than others.
That’s why it’s important to read the creative nonfiction course description and syllabus. If you’re still not sure, go ahead and reach out to the instructor—we want students who are really engaged by the material, so we’re always happy to help you decide if a class is right for you!
3. It won’t be high school all over again…
A lot of us have unpleasant memories of having to write essays in high school, and I have good news—writing creative nonfiction is nothing like that. No one is going to make you memorize The Elements of Style or scold you for not having a thesis statement. You may choose to write essays, but they’ll be nothing like the five-paragraph ones you had to write in school.
Creative nonfiction is exploratory, experimental, a way of discovering something you didn’t know when you started writing. There’s nothing rote about it.
The word “essay” comes from the same root as the word “assay”—to explore, to test out. Creative nonfiction stays true to this original spirit: it’s exploratory, experimental, a way of discovering something you didn’t know when you started writing. There’s nothing rote about it. In this way, it’s much closer to fiction and poetry than to those high school essays.
4. …But it will be a lot of (fun!) work!
When you take online creative nonfiction writing courses, you’re going to read. A lot. You’ll read even more than you write—and it’ll make your writing better.
You’ll read even more than you write—and it’ll make your writing better.
In my creative nonfiction online courses, I give students a wide range of examples of published creative nonfiction to read. I give examples from fiction and poetry too, since creative nonfiction writing techniques draw heavily from those forms.
It may seem strange that a course about writing asks students to spend so much time reading instead, but there’s a good reason for it: by reading a wide range of examples, you can learn what you like and what you don’t.
And by rereading your favorite pieces like a writer—taking them apart, analyzing how they work and what makes them so engaging—you can discover how to apply the best parts of their technique to your own work.
In another article, I’ve compared this process to learning to build a house: sure, you could probably figure it out with enough trial and error—but you’ll get a much sturdier house in much less time if you study some finished houses before you break out the saws and hammers.
5. You’ll participate in a workshop
Most creative nonfiction writing courses are designed around the “workshop” model. That’s because it’s a tried-and-true approach to learning to write more effectively—it’s the same method used by MFA programs and undergraduate creative writing departments.
In a workshop, all the students in the course (plus the instructor) give detailed feedback on one another’s work.
In a workshop, all the students in the course (plus the instructor) give detailed feedback on one another’s work. Your classmates will tell you what they liked about your piece, what didn’t work as well for them, and how they’d suggest you could improve it.
I realize this sounds a bit scary—and it is at first! It’s hard to put yourself and your work out there, and it can feel very vulnerable having other people analyzing your work, especially if it’s autobiographical.
At the same time, it can be confusing: you’ll get feedback from all of your classmates, and oftentimes they’ll disagree with each other! One person’s favorite passage might be what another person suggests deleting.
So why do it?
A good workshop is a place of mutual respect, where writers collaborate to make their work the best it can be.
First of all, that scariness will fade. A good workshop is a place of mutual respect, where writers collaborate to make their work the best it can be. It can help you solve problems you’ve been wrestling with, or see interesting new dimensions in your work that you hadn’t even noticed before. Over time, you’ll likely find yourself looking forward to getting workshop feedback—even the constructive criticism!—because it does so much to help you improve.
Second, even contradictory advice is useful! In considering a wide range of opinions and suggestions before deciding how you want to proceed, you’ll develop a stronger sense of what’s most important to you in your own writing.
Workshopping other students’ writing will help you improve your own writing.
Finally, workshopping other students’ writing will help you improve your own writing. In closely reading someone else’s work, thinking it through, and then clearly articulating what you liked and what you’d do differently, you can often get a clearer sense of what you do and don’t like in a piece of creative nonfiction, since you’re not as close to it as you are to your own work. This helps you to better understand and apply the techniques of creative nonfiction.
6. Creative nonfiction online courses are a community
As you’ve probably guessed, the shared vulnerability and collaboration of the workshop tends to bring students together!
When I first started teaching writing courses online, I was worried that they might not have the same sense of community that you get in face-to-face workshops. But if anything, I’ve actually seen more of a sense of community in the online creative nonfiction classes.
Moreover, because students get to know each other in a virtual space, it’s easier to carry that relationship forward when the online creative nonfiction course ends.
Writing can feel very solitary, even lonely, so finding a community of writers to be a part of is a great benefit to taking creative nonfiction courses online.
Find the right online creative nonfiction online classes for you
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