Ed – CWR 458
Teaching Creative Non-fiction Writing
Tu-Th: 6:30pm – 9:30pm
Instructor: Mabel Hatfield-McCoy
While creative non-fiction classes continue to proliferate in campuses across the country, many of its detractors argue that we are ushering in an era of widespread navel-gazing and narcissism. Critics cry “Havoc!” and release the hounds of confusion. Faultfinders insist that societal collapse is imminent due to massive oversharing by unknowns. Common complaints include ongoing debates about truth; slanderous remarks suggest the form is simply taking dictation from life. As Gertrude Stein once almost wrote, “writing is writing is writing is writing.” Personal Essay, Travel Writing, Memoir, Food Writing, Lyric Essay and Literary Journalism can all be considered forms of the “Fastest-growing genre.”
Teaching Creative Non-fiction Writing will focus on the development of educators well versed in the craft of instructing the genre. Student-Teachers will acquire the tools needed to navigate the precarious world of working with the raw material of life stories—their own and others. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s an art form.
Student-Teachers must have completed all of the following.
PSYC 101: Aptitudes and Ability—Essentials of Assessment
ENG 131: Novelists Who Plundered Their Lives for Material
CWR 202: Holding a Candle to Your Shames: Self Inquiry in the Age of Memoir
HIST 245: Early-21st-Century Charlatans: Truthiness versus Truthbombs
PHIL 315: The Nature of Truth from Stoics to Skeptics
LECTURE AND DISCUSSION (60%)
Week 1: The Sun, The Moon, The Truth
According to Buddha, these three items cannot be hidden. Solar and lunar considerations will be set aside in the first class to focus the discussion on elements of truth. Multiple dictionary definitions will be examined and found lacking. Confusion will reign. The writing is on the bathroom wall and it may be the only trustworthy source. Attention must be paid to the vox populi.
Week 2: Trinity of Truth
Following the first week’s lecture, the class will begin to dissect the three-fold essence of truth. Using the pyramid paradigm of the three sides of every story (yours, mine and what really happened and was captured by a surveillance camera) we will explore the deeper layers of veracity when faced with irrefutable logic.
Week 3: Show and Tell
An old-school-style inspiration technique, Student-Teachers will be given time to share and present stories of failure, guilt, and despair from their own lives within a pedagogical frame. There but for the grace of my agent and Do as I say, not as I did are popular maxims to review. By this point, class members should feel comfortable acknowledging their flaws and blunders on a public stage or they may find themselves waking up in cold sweats, pacing a worn out groove in the carpet or clicking link-bait while sacrificing personal hygiene habits.
Week 4: Objects in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear
Composite characters, collapsed time, invented dialogue—critics of creative non-fiction writers have collectively pointed their fingers at these crimes against honesty and scratched their heads over the merits of attempting to capture truth on paper. Memory is flawed; memoir efforts are suspect. Unless one is writing a roman à clef, attempting to recreate one’s life story on papyrus is deemed a fool’s errand—a pathetic attempt at validation at best and a horrific lack of therapeutic intervention at worst.
Week 5: Corn Flakes versus Snowflakes
Finding the extraordinary in the mundane begins with combining extra + ordinary—a Sisyphean task. Prompts will assist students in turning the daily grind and realities of life into a compost of potential tales that result in unique stories. No one wants to read multiple accounts of surviving alcoholism, coping with depression, or finding salvation in a can of sardines when it’s all been written before as a novel or a haiku. The process will feel as though unique, crystallized gems are falling out of a winter-grey sky to melt on the tongue and then create exquisite, fully-formed sentences on the blank, blizzard-white page.
Week 6: The Unexamined Truth is Not Worth Writing
If a tree falls in the woods, and no one reads about it as a thoughtfully rendered true story of environmental destruction, does anyone care? Consider this: You can’t handle the truth. Honesty is not a game of pretentious hot potato. Students will focus their attention on their foggily remembered truths, asking siblings, parents, and exes to confirm their dimmest memories, tracking moments of vague disagreements or that squabble they had about excessive watering destroying the rhododendron bush. Additional time will be set aside to discuss the problematic issue of Emotional Truth (some have suggested ET is to accuracy as the cello is to cellophane).
Week 7: Qui Docet Discit
Examine popular myths about the profession that takes a licking and keeps on trucking. Qui Docet Discit, (popularized and available in Dollarama’s plastic plaque aisle) means, “He who teaches learns.” George Bernard Shaw wrote that, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Shaw also said that, “schools were prisons,” which would indicate that he’d never seen the inside of Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. Teaching is learning. Give people a fish, and they might eat sushi for a day. Teach them to fish through the events of their life for fodder, and they’ll eat Deluxe Bento Boxes all the time when their tell-all becomes a best-seller.
Week 8: To Err is Human
Built on the foundation of the previous lectures, students will examine examples of destroyed friendships, marriages, and relationships based on innocuous details revealed about secondary characters. Writers have upset family members by disclosing Dad was deaf in one ear, or that everyone spent New Year’s Eve at home. The kleptomaniac ex-husband with a lawyer-sister might take umbrage with his portrayal as bald-faced lying tight-wad. Intention is nine-tenths of the law in determining libel.
WRITING ASSIGNMENT (40%)
To fulfill the requirements of the course, students must submit a research paper on the meta-ontological attributes of writing creative non-fiction. Special consideration should be given to answering the questions “Why am I doing this?” and “Who cares?” Take a position on the use of personal narrative to illuminate a reader on the human condition. Embrace the process of self-investigation, self-contradiction, and ultimately self-awareness. Students are expected to effectively integrate analysis and compare/contrast techniques learned throughout the course. The paper is expected to demonstrate that students will have developed a keen sense of compassion for anyone endeavouring to tell the truth about their lives, the whole fractured, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t truth. Teaching creative non-fiction is not for the lily-livered but for the lion-hearted. Conclusions about the pulse-fluttering, heart-stopping, insomnia-inducing challenge of the field must be drawn with a soft lead pencil, preferably one with the eraser nub intact. Failure to turn in a paper will result in automatic disappointment.
About the Instructor: Mabel Hatfield-McCoy holds both a certificate in serving alcohol from Joey Sanguedolce’s School of Bartending and a cup of coffee every morning. The Wilfred Laurier Secondary School Journal once referred to her as a “writer with ideas.” Most of her relatives (those not involved in an epic feud) are still on speaking terms. Her memoir, Dirty Laundry: How My Mother’s Habit of Hanging Underwear Outside to Dry Shaped My Childhood, has caused a bidding war among vanity presses.
Eufemia Fantetti is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU and the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her short fiction collection, A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue Publishing) was runner up for the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award and won the 2014 Bressani Prize. She has taught English as a Second Language and creative writing. Currently she works as an instructor at Humber College.