Crafting The Experimental Essay

“'We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object'—this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there-not just yet. I believed in you.” 

—Maggie Nelson

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 typically 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, discuss and study 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. More importantly, we’ll generate a plethora of new material based on exercises modeled by these authors, and by increasingly experimental trends within the genre. This course will emphasize the evocative and lasting nature of brevity, the significance in subverting a reader’s expectations, and the power inherent to essays that invert conceptual and chronological order. Writers 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 in-class and take-home 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.