Writing about Oneself

A seminar and workshop in first-person writing. Students explore a series of themes (including food, family, love, and identity) both by writing about their own lives and by reading British and American memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, and letters. An older work, usually from the nineteenth or early twentieth century, is paired each week with a more recent one on the same theme.

Spring application due by noon on December 6.

Please read the course description below, paying special attention to sections highlighted in bold, some of which describe exceptions to the standard application procedure.

This is a reading and writing class—part lecture, part seminar, part workshop—in which students explore a series of themes (including love, loss, family, and identity) both by writing about their own lives and by reading British and American memoirs, autobiographies, letters, and personal essays.

First-person writing is a peculiar blend of candor, catharsis, narcissism, and indiscretion. The purpose of this class is to harness these elements with sufficient rigor and imagination that self-portraiture becomes interesting to others as well as to oneself. Each week, we will read two works on a particular theme, one “old” (ranging from four decades to more than two centuries ago) and one “new” (mostly from the last two decades) —a coupling designed to erode the traditional academic boundaries between eras and between “ought” and “want” reading. (For instance, when we consider the theme of love, we will read excerpts from H. G. Wells’s On Loves and the Lover-Shadow and Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, and write personal essays on an aspect of love, not necessarily romantic.) Readings will include works by James Baldwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joan Didion, Lucy Grealy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary McCarthy, James Thurber, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Our connections to the readings will be reinforced by several author visits. By writing a thousand-word first-person essay every other week, students will face the same problems the authors in our syllabus have faced, though they may come up with very different solutions. Students will critique each other’s work in class and by e-mail. Each student will have at least five individual conferences with me, most of them an hour long, in which we’ll edit your work together.

Students who wish to apply to “Writing about Oneself” should submit the standard Application for Creative Writing and Journalism Courses on the English Department Website by noon on Wednesday, December 6. Please note the following special instructions for English 455 applications:

                1. The standard application specifies “a” writing sample. Ignore that! I can assess your work better if you submit two samples, totaling 5-15 pages if double-spaced work or around half that if single-spaced. (If the total length exceeds that, please mark the sections to which I should pay particular attention.) You may even submit three samples if one is very short (for instance, a Daily Themes one-pager, in which case please note the prompt).

                2. If possible, your samples should belong to the same genre we’ll be reading and writing (“non-non”–nonacademic nonfiction). Personal essays, other nonacademic essays, and literary journalism would all be appropriate. In other words, writing about yourself would be welcome but not required. (If fiction is your strength, one but not both of your samples may be a short story. Similarly, if you’re a playwright, one sample may be a scene from a play. The other sample should be non-non.) Choose pieces that give your literary style a thorough airing. Cogency will be valued; interminable tomes will cause me to droop.

                3. Your “statement of purpose”—essentially, a letter to me—should explain some things your samples won’t tell me. The application suggests “a paragraph,” but you are welcome to write as long a letter as you wish. For instance: Why do you want to take the class? What would you contribute to it? What writing experience and honors have you accumulated? (I’ll still consider you if the answer is None and None.) What are you majoring in? (English majors receive no special preference.) Is there anything else that might help me understand you as a writer or a person? Your letter need not be conventional; it should sound like you.

I am not looking for a particular kind of writer. My ideal class is a mix of experienced journalists and creative writers (usually fiction writers or playwrights), with a couple of students who fit no category but just happen to write beautifully. Although most of its members will likely be juniors and seniors, anyone may apply. There are no prerequisites.

Undergraduate Course #: 
Th 2:30-5:20