The course consists of:
12 evening sessions (Wednesdays, 6.30pm – 8.30pm AEST) 7 in class/ 5 online
3 day-long sessions (Saturdays, 10.00am – 4.00pm AEST)
1 individual consultation with your Course Director
Reading material specific to the topic of each session will be supplied in advance each week. This material will usually take the form of an essay or an extract from a longer work. There will also be set texts, which will be sent to students.
Session 1: Saturday June 4 (in class)
‘Will work again on the novel today. Writing is a hard business, Max – but nothing makes you feel better.’ Ernest Hemingway, letter to Maxwell Perkins.
Introduction to the course and discussion of projects. This session will provide an overview of the world of narrative nonfiction writing, its myriad forms and subjects, while at the same time identifying the features that are common to all of them.
Session 2: Wednesday June 8 (in class)
‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’ Terry Pratchett
The drafting process, part 1, and finalising project development. A close study of the drafting process – the different stages involved in drafting – helps us understand the intimate relationship and ever-changing dynamic that exists in writing between the conscious and unconscious mind. For the next two sessions we will look at how a disciplined drafting process can harness the unconscious mind in ways that can help a writer resist the tyranny of perfectionism and the fear of the blank page/screen; how a disciplined drafting process will help you to resist the paralysis of expectation and tolerate (if not embrace) the doubt and uncertainty that are necessary to writing, to all forms of creativity. This session will also continue the conceptual development of your projects from last session in preparation for the announcement and discussion of your final project choices next week.
Session 3: Wednesday June 15 (in class)
‘Good stories are not written. They are rewritten.’ Phyllis Whitney
The drafting process, part 2, and final commitment to project. In Writing the Narrative Nonfiction Book, you will not be expected to commit to a specific project until Session 3, but you must then stay with that project for the rest of the course. Sessions 1 and 2, therefore, are both designed to listen, question, support and guide you in the process of self-reflection necessary at this stage – along with other concerns, this exploration will be a scrutiny of your motivations, curiosities, obsessions, desires and fears, as well as any ethical worries you might have, any perceived obstacles, any questions of self-censorship and self-doubt. It is not unusual for writers to discover that the project they really want to write, the subject that is most uniquely theirs, the subject most urgent for them, is hiding behind a safer but less original one.
Session 4: Wednesday June 22 (in class)
‘When you reach the end of a book you should still find it possible to remember the beginning. Otherwise the story loses shape, its “architectonic clarity” is clouded.’ Milan Kundera
Between the covers: the internal design of a book. In this session we will examine how and why the full realisation of a book’s potential is closely connected to its design. Every book has design elements that the writer needs to consider, and every design element has profound implications for the way a reader will receive the book’s story, its themes and deeper meanings. Along with other concerns, design involves questions of structure; of the arrangement and interaction of a book’s ‘parts’. Essential questions have to be asked: Do you, for example, want to work on a large canvas, painting a big picture, telling a big story – or do you need something smaller, a tight frame and focus, because the story you want to tell is a more intimate one?
Session 5: Wednesday June 29 (in class)
‘In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book.’ Junot Diaz
‘It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.’ David Foster Wallace
Persona: Who is the storyteller? This session will be a wide-ranging exploration of narration and your particular book’s narrator. While we’ll focus on the technical aspects of narration – point of view, reliability/unreliability of narrator, authorial presence, voice (which includes questions of tone, vocabulary, pitch – high or low, formal or colloquial), we will also explore the more subtle and enigmatic but no less important aspects of narration that both Diaz and Foster Wallace speak about in the quotes above. What is a persona? In what ways is persona similar/different to character?
Session 6: Wednesday July 6 (online)
‘The true method of knowledge is experiment.’ William Blake
Experimental, unorthodox and new forms of narrative nonfiction. In this session we will look at nonfiction works that span several generations, yet all share the same feature of resisting convention and complacency, finding new ways of responding to changes in society and culture. These will include works of nonfiction poetry, fragmented narratives, oral histories, collage, text/image dialogues, and Twitter narratives.
Session 7: Wednesday July 13 (online)
‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ Simone Weil
Character, part 1. How do we think and write about character in the context of nonfiction? What constitutes ‘attention’ when speaking about character? What are the characteristics of ‘transparent’ and ‘opaque’ characters; when might our project need one but not the other? In a series of exercises over the next two sessions we will focus on the characters in your projects, exploring ways of knowing them more fully, focusing on the creation of dialogue, and developing the skills of close observation.
Session 8: Wednesday July 20 (online)
‘There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.’ G.K. Chesterton
Character, part 2. A continuation of last session’s work, with a focus on questions of empathy in the context of ‘truth-telling’. An exploration of the difficulties non-fiction writers face in their encounters with human complexity, and some strategies for dealing with these difficulties.
Session 9: Saturday August 13 (in class)
‘The colour of truth is grey.’ Andre Gide
True stories, part 1: Memoir. What does ‘truth’ mean in the context of memoir/autobiography? What are the differences between ‘factual’ and ‘emotional’ truths? This session is designed to help you access autobiographical material, while giving it a voice and shape that feel authentic to you and the reader. We will explore the ethics and responsibilities that come into play when our stories involve life experiences and memories that are shared with others.
Session 10: Wednesday August 17 (online)
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Anton Chekhov
Engaging the reader. There is no story in this world interesting enough to hold the attention of a reader if its writer fails to understand that reading is a collaborative act. Writers and readers make the meaning and significance of a book together – it’s the work of a writer to draw the reader to the writing in a way that will summon the reader’s own memories, beliefs, and experiences. From the micro to the macro level, we will look at the techniques that help to compel readers, as well as those habits of writing that push readers away.
Session 11: Saturday August 20 (in class)
‘With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are.’ George Saunders
True stories, part 2: Writing about others. This session will help in developing the technical skills required when writing other people’s stories. We will explore the immersion technique, the recording and recreation of dialogue, research and interviewing skills, the rules around the merging of characters, forms of fact-checking, the protocols of telling other’s stories, and the ethics and responsibilities of this form of narrative nonfiction, especially when significant gaps in power and privilege exist between the writer and their subject.
Session 12: Wednesday August 24 (online)
‘Only connect.’ E.M. Forster
What is at stake? What is important to a reader of narrative nonfiction? When a work of nonfiction provides a reader with a powerful, lasting experience, an experience different from that of reading fiction, what has the writer done? And why? A close look at these questions and others will help to clarify the desires of nonfiction writers and readers, throwing light on what is possibly the single most important thing to know about narrative nonfiction: when there is nothing at stake, there is no experience. This is true for both writer and reader. In this session we will explore narrative tension and expectation, cliche, the ways in which we sometimes hide our real material from ourselves (and why), writing and risk, and ways of breaking our material down to its authentic core.
Session 13: Wednesday August 31 (in class)
Visit by industry guest.
Session 14: Wednesday September 7 (in class)
Visit by industry guest.
Session 15: Wednesday September 14 (in class)
‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ Thomas Mann
Where we’ve been and where we’re going. In this last session, we will review your projects and writing processes. We will look closely at the individual obstacles and technical problems of every student, and together share strategies for overcoming them. Importantly, we will also explore what has been learned in the course thus far – from time to time, a conscious examination of the growth in your writing is necessary to its integration. Your present work habits will be reassessed, along with your writing discipline and the organisation of your writing life. Finally, as we move toward a new phase of manuscript development in Stage 2, we’ll explore ways of building writing stamina, endurance, self-mastery and resilience, as well as the particular form of faith that every artist needs to nurture in themselves.