WRT 563/663 Syllabus and Week-by-Week Class Plan


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WRT 563/663 Course Section 01
Course #2282/2276, The College of Saint Rose
Nonfiction Writing
Fall 2015; Daniel Nester, Instructor
Wednesdays 6:15pm-8:45pm
Albertus Hall Room 301
E-mail: nesterd@strose.edu; Phone: 518-454-2812
Website: danielnester.com
Teaching Blog: nestersteachingblog.wordpress.com
Office: Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, First Floor #2
Office hours: Mondays and Wednesdays 3pm-5pm and by appointment

Course Description for Fall 2015

This advanced workshop will study and cover modes of literary nonfiction: first-person and immersion journalism, personal essay, literary interviews, and profiles. We will dip our toes in new storytelling methods: video, audio, and web publishing platforms. Through assigned readings, students will read published models, hand in written assignments, and critique each other’s work each week. We will investigate and pitch to venues, publish one review or interview in Pine Hills Review, and collaborate on a final project that will be published on the Medium platform. Prerequisite: WRT 563 or permission of instructor. Fulfills 600-level
writing requirement. May be taken more than once for credit. (3 credits)

General Course Description

This course is a workshop in nonfiction writing, namely “creative nonfiction.”  What is creative nonfiction?  We will begin with one definition from Lee Gutkind, called the “godfather” of the genre, and work from there.  Gutkind defines creative nonfiction as “nonfiction that employs techniques like scene, dialogue, description, while allowing personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity.” I have an extended attempt at a definition here.

A writing workshop works from the premise that when a group of writers convene on a regular basis to present and help each other with their writing, the work will improve, and students will begin to see unexpected, surprising things show up along the way.  Much like a traditional workshop in, say, poetry or fiction, we will present copies of our writing each week for written critique and discussion.  The writing may be produced from open-ended assignments or from exercises and assignments given to you by your instructor.  I have posted The “Rules” of A Creative Workshop here.

We will also have presentations on assigned readings.

Required Texts

Williford, Lex and Michael Martone. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present. New York: Touchstone, 2007. [Amazon listing]

Copies of writing and web links will be supplied by the instructor. Do plan on printing at least 100 pages throughout the course of the semester, as well as making Xeroxes of your own drafts for others in class.  Make plans accordingly: add prints through your ITS account, if necessary, to make sure you can print out your readings or your own work for class.  Failure to be able to come to class with your own printed documents or copies of other students’ work will mean he or she is unprepared for class.

Course Requirements, Percentage of Your Final Grade

• 35% Participation: discussions, reading reactions, presentations, Writing Center visit, conferences, group work, group writing, critiques of student work;
• 35% Informal writing: weekly writing assignments, journal-writing in composition notebook, in-class exercises;
• 30% Formal writing: Two longer essays, exams, one at midterm and on at the end of the semester; Final Portfolio

Rubrics and Syllabus Statements and Policies

Some of these are applicable to this class and some are not. I include everything here to give you more of a sense of how I teach as well as to get a better idea of my assessment methods

I use a grading rubric for many of my individual assignments. The following apply on class-by-class basis, and should give you an idea of how I assess student performance.

Participation, Collegiality, and Conduct Rubric
Creative Writing Assignments Not for Workshop: An Evaluative Rubric
Student Reading and Writing Rubric

Syllabus Statements and Policies
We’ll go through these quickly in the first week of class. Please read through these.

Snapshot from My Grade Book
Writing Format
File Format and How to Name Your Files

Attendance Policy
Conferences and Drafts
Late Work
Participation: Writing Class
Required Materials and Skills
Recording Devices

Student-Led Discussion: Tasks of the Workshop Discussion Leader, Lead Critic
The “Rules” of a Creative Writing Workshop

Academic Integrity
Students with Disabilities
Writing Center Visits

Week-by-Week Class Plan 

This section of the class syllabus is updated and adjusted often. Please check each week for changes and clarification regarding what work is due and what will be covered in class.

Week 1: September 2
Introductions. Go over Syllabus, assignments.

Due: Saturday, September 5, 11:59pm: Author Interview research, questions, draft of introduction/header note (200-250 words); name file “LastnameFirstnameAuthor1” and place in “Author Interview” folder in our Dropbox

From Touchstone, read Jo Ann Beard and John McPhee

Week 2: September 9
Author Interview: Present and discuss author research, questions, draft of introduction/header note.

“Pecs or it didn’t happen,” Doree Shafrir, Buzzfeed
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese, Esquire

Due: Saturday, September 12, 11:59pm: Profile pitches, with research, questions; name file “LastnameFirstnameProfilePitch” and place in “Profile” folder in our Dropbox

Week 3: September 16

Present and discuss pitches for our Profile Feature Story

“Inside the Mansion—and the Mind—of Kim Dotcom, the Most Wanted Man on the Internet,” Charles Graeber, Wired
“The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador,” Karen Russell, GQ
“Judy Blume Knows All Your Secrets,” Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine
“The Voice and the Hammer,” Jeff Sharlett, Virginia Quarterly Review

Week 4: September 23 No class; instructor is away

From Touchstone, read Phillip Lopate

Conferences: Present research and discuss sketches and drafts for Profile Feature Story

Week 5: September 30

From Touchstone, read Cheryl Strayed

Week 6: October 7

From Touchstone, read David Foster Wallace

Week 7: October 14

From Touchstone, read Eula Biss

Week 8: October 21

Read Didion, “The White Album”

Discuss Make Your Own White Album Assignment

Week 9: October 28 No class; instructor is away

Conferences: Present drafts of White Album Assignment

Draft of White Album due October 31, 11:59pm; place in TK folder in Dropbox

Week 10: November 4

White Album workshop 1

Week 11: November 11

White Album workshop 2

Week 12: November 18

Week 13: November 25 No class; Thanksgiving break

Week 14: December 2

Week 15: December 9

Week 16: Final conferences

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Profile Feature Story Assignment

Accompanying animated GIF accompanying "Pecs or It Didn’t Happen."

Accompanying animated GIF accompanying “Pecs or It Didn’t Happen.”


Your assignment is to write a profile story, a feature-length piece of first-person journalism that centers on an individual person. The subject you choose does not have to qualify as newsworthy, famous, or even timely; your job is to tell a compelling, true story using the tools nonfiction writers have at our disposal: a particular point of view, research and interviews, scenes and dialogue, speculation, and storytelling.

Medium Publication

There’s a twist. Before we pitch our stories, we will develop a common theme: for example, a subject, location, or attempts to answer a question. We will then publish them as a group of pieces in a pop-up publication on the popular content management system Medium. We also need to come up with a name for this publication.


“Pecs or it didn’t happen,” Doree Shafrir, Buzzfeed
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese, Esquire
“Inside the Mansion—and the Mind—of Kim Dotcom, the Most Wanted Man on the Internet,” Charles Graeber, Wired
“The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador,” Karen Russell, GQ
“Judy Blume Knows All Your Secrets,” Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine
“The Voice and the Hammer,” Jeff Sharlett, Virginia Quarterly Review


Pitch: Select 1-3 prospective subjects for a Profile Feature Story. Conduct some light research and come up with a pitch for each of your stories, which you’ll distribute in class. Pitches come in all shapes and sizes: tell one specific story to draw us in, ask a question that you will investigate in your story, or tell us something about yourself to establish a point of view. The class will greenlight each pitch.

Research: This will run the gamut from direct or tangential research, online and library work, collecting articles, consulting social media, compiling photos.

Title: have a compelling title and subtitle.

Interviews: Preferably in person and with a recording device. You will interview main subject and at least two more people.

Format: this is open-ended. You can have sections with subheaders, several vignettes and narratives, descriptions of past events/flashbacks and present-day scenes; any of these are acceptable. The degree to which you include yourself in the story is entirely up to you as well.

Word count: 1200-1500

You must conduct an in-depth interview. You will need to hand in your questions and notes, so be prepared. If you use a tape recorder, you must transcribe your notes.

Three images to accompany your story: original photos, drawings, archival images from subjects


Pitch: tba

Research: tba

Rough Draft: tba



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Author Interview Assignment

This is assignment is to interview an author of a recently released or soon to be released book of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. These interviews will be edited and published in the College’s online literary magazine, Pine Hills Review.

Before we start, we will read about the literary interviews and examples of interviews with authors.

John Rodden, Performing the Literary Interview (introduction, in Dropbox)

Interviews: Some Published Formats (on the Teaching Blog here)

Toni Schlesinger, Five Flights Up (excerpts, in Dropbox)

The Paris Review’s Art of Writing interviews: Phillip Levine, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood

Elizabeth Hildreth’s awesome interviews for Bookslut: Matthew Lippman, Christopher Salerno,  Sonja Livingston

Conducting The Interview

Ideally, you should meet your subject in person, but we are in Albany and these authors are all over the country. So how do we approximate a face-to-face interview? There’s the phone, of course, and Skype. Those would be fine, as long as you can find a way to tape it. There’s also email. But sending one email with, like, 20 questions is not the ideal way to conduct an interview. To conduct an interview over email requires a couple backs-and-forths on email over a period of time. On the other hand, people are busy, and the degree to which a subject may want to go back and forth varies.

Bottom line: establish and agree how the you the interview will be done before starting. We will discuss all this in class.


Word Length: 1200-1500 words, including an introduction (200-250 words)


Research, Questions of Author Interview due October 26, 11:59pm in “Author Interview” folder of our Dropbox

Transcript of Interview of Author Interview due November 16, 11:59pm in “09 Author Interview” folder of our Dropbox

Final Draft of Interview of Author Interview due November 30, 11:59pm in “10 Author Final Draft” folder of our Dropbox

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Final Conferences for English 218

It’s time for your final conference. Please sign up for one of the many available slots below. Times are available on a first email, first come basis. At our conference, we will go over the following: a breakdown of your final grade; your strengths as an active learner in this class, ways you think you can improve; your Final Performance.

These conferences will take place in my office, which is Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, Albany, NY 12203. My office is Room #1, the first on the right as you walk in. Please note that a missed conference, or one you fail to schedule with me, counts as a missed class (i.e., one absence), and cannot be made up.

Tuesday, March 31

1pm Abrie M

2pm Eva C

2:30 Ercan K

3pm Juliana W


4pm Stephen R

4:30pm Rachel D

5pm Jacky T

Wednesday April 1

11:30am Courtney B

1pm Danielle S



Thursday, April 2




4:30pm Daniel S

5pm Olivia S

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Collaborative Writing: Some Exercises

Above: a video on making an exquisite corpse poem that may or may not be helpful.

Some thoughts on collaborative poetry writing

Collaborative poetry goes back as far as poetry itself. You could say all writing is collaboration, how we draw from writing that precedes us, that inspires us. Some collaboration is more obvious. A poem attributed to more than one author is an examples. Other collaborations are more subtle. A poet may get a first line from another poet, a friend, or a source text, and this may or may not be mentioned in the notes of a book.

Still others collaboration is never mentioned at all. A poet write down things a friend says at a party,  integrates that into a poem. Or maybe a poet remembers something overhear during a movie or television show.

There are so many reasons to bring collaboration into your writing life. The first and foremost is that it’s fun. It works a different section of your brain; it forces you to react to someone else. Often and ideally, the result is another voice entirely different than any one collaborating author. Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, two poets who have collaborated for years, call it their third collaborative voice.

The scholarly and clinical literature out there shows that using collaborative writing techniques deepen interpersonal communication and strengthens bonds in a group. The writing activity becomes a venue of personal disclosure with other people also involved in the process, based on what one researcher calls “mutual concern.” Group members have a chance to develop and demonstrate proficiency in basic group skills. Charles Gillespie, a clinical addiction counselor who has written a number of articles on collaborative poetry writing in a therapeutic setting, talks about how writing poems together leads to a “sociopoetic process.”

“Poems that capture authentic human experience, no matter how simple or sophisticated,” Gillespie writes, “are the poems that generate the most discussion and identification.”

Collaboration with found material

“Poem Beginning with a Line by _____.” This could be another poet, which is the time-honored tradition. It could also be something overheard, a line from a TV show or magazine article. The poet Ross Gay has a poem called “Poem Beginning with a Line Overheard in the Gym,” for example.

First poet writes/says a line, second poet writes/says the next.  Repeat as necessary.

One word at a time–out loud, with a note-taker, or with one person typing, or both writing/typing. The collaborative poems of Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman are often done live.

The only rule we gave ourselves was that when one’s turn came, one could say either a word or use punctuation (and later, parts of words). As we got more comfortable with the back-and-forth exchange, the process became as much about challenging each other as it was about helping each other complete the poem. For instance, a phrase that, were it printed out afterwards on the page would read “weirdly eyeing” was actually made by adding suffixes and such to each other’s words, so that the content of the phrase was constantly shifting, like this: “we / ‘re / d / ly / I / ing”.

This is collaborative poetry as performance. We will be doing this for sure.

Asynchronous collaboration

Collaboration is often two or more people in the same room. But other times it’s not. It’s done asynchronously: over snail mail, email, and now with collaborative methods online like Google documents.


I am still looking into this Japanese form. Ron Padgett’s excellent Handbook of Poetic Forms calls this form a collaborative form. Here’s how the Academy of American Poets explains how rengas are written:

To create a renga, one poet writes the first stanza, which is three lines long with a total of seventeen syllables. The next poet adds the second stanza, a couplet with seven syllables per line. The third stanza repeats the structure of the first and the fourth repeats the second, alternating in this pattern until the poem’s end.

Group sestina

Sestina, six poets: Each poet picks a word for each teleuton/end word; each poet then writes a stanza; all write the envoi. Generator here.


An abecedarian uses the alphabet’s order as its design. (Fun fact: Psalms 31:10-31, the famous “virtuous woman” passage,” is actually an abecedarian acrostic poem that uses the Hebrew alphabet.)

Exquisite corpse

The classic group poetry exercise. “Play Exquisite Corpse” from Academy of American Poets

One teacher’s lesson plan

“All Together Now: Collaborations in Poetry Writing.” EdSITEment. National Endowment for the Humanities. Contains lesson plans for grades K-2.

Bouts-rimés, or rhyme challenge. James Addison, as he is quoted this entry in The Wikipedia, describes this as a “[list] of words that rhyme to one another, drawn up by another hand, and given to a poet, who was to make a poem to the rhymes in the same order that they were placed upon the list.” Here is an encyclopedia entry.

Some peer-reviewed research on collaborative poetry in the classroom.

Gillespie, Charles. “The use of collaborative poetry as a method of deepening interpersonal communication among adolescent girls.” Journal of Poetry Therapy. 18:4 (December 2005), 221-231. <http://www.cottonwooddetucson.com/pdf/Staff_Arti>.

Gillespie, Charles. “Recovery Poetry 101: The use of collaborative poetry in a dual-diagnosis drug and alcohol treatment program.” Journal of Poetry Therapy. 15:2 (Winter 2001), 83-92.

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