Once upon a time, long before the Age of Oprah, writers who had lived through something fascinating or terrible or both would turn their experiences into exaggerated works of fiction. Nowadays, however, these narratives equally take the form of essays—ruminative, retrospective works that comprise the diverse and expansive genre we call creative nonfiction. What does this mean? It means, in part, that the artful and experimental rendering of personal narratives is increasingly considered both artful and necessary; experiences once deemed so humiliating or painful that people hid them are now so remunerative that some writers even make them up. But what does an artful experimental essay look like, how does it function, and how is it differentiated from autobiography and simple recollection? Perhaps more importantly, considering the flood of nonfiction manuscripts on the market—the Neilson Bookscan reports a 400% increase published between 2004 and today—how can we elevate our personal narratives into artful, meaningful work?
In this class, we’ll read and discuss a wide variety of contemporary, experimental essayistic modes, including popular essays by contemporary essayists Jenny Boully, Eula Biss, Brian Doyle, Michael Martone, Kyle Minor, Ryan Van Meter, Diane Seuss and others. We’ll discuss the primary elements that comprise an artful essay and work to engage and understand the idea that the essay is less interested in the past than the act of remembering, and identifying the many ways past selves continue to inform who we are in the present. This course emphasizes the evocative and lasting nature of brevity, the significance in subverting a reader’s expectations, and the power of essays that invert conceptual and chronological order.
We will generate an abundance of entirely new work, and each writer will be offered the opportunity to workshop at least one essay, either generated through exercises or modified work brought from home. You might consider this course, in short, something of an experimental essay boot camp where victory takes shape through meaningful prose.
Amy Butcher is an essayist and author of Visiting Hours (Blue Rider Press/Penguin-Random House), a 2015 memoir that earned starred reviews and praise from The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and others. Additional essays have appeared recently in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, The New York Times “Opinion” column, The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Guernica. Her 2016 New York Times op-ed, “Emoji Feminism,” inspired Google to propose eleven new female, professionally-empowered emojis, rolling out on phones universally this year and discussed at length on the BBC. Her essays have recently been awarded the 2016 Solas Award for “Best Travel Writing of the Year,” The Iowa Review Award in nonfiction, as well as a notable distinction in Best American Essays 2015 and Best American Essays 2016. She is a graduate of The University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and presently serves as an assistant professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses on the essay.