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My Harvard Summer Class is almost full. Don’t miss out on the pontificatin’.

Here’s the Sillybus. It’s rough so let me know if you see any typos.


David Gessner


Office Hours:


This workshop focuses on writing and reading creative nonfiction, a genre which includes and often combines the personal essay, memoir, journalism, nature writing, and the lyric essay.



The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

Pulphead by John Sullivan



1. Two completed nonfiction pieces, one of which should be entirely new to this class and which will have been substantially revised by the end of the term.  A cover letter detailing the process of revision should accompany the final revised piece.

2.  The class is primarily a workshop.  Due to this, and the need to get an intelligent, thoughtful dialogue going, I will ask that your write a page-long response for each piece of writing you read by your fellow students. Please be sure to give me a copy of the comments.

3. There is reading due each class. Short written responses are required.

4. Throughout the term we will have occasional writing exercises.



Because Writing Program courses proceed by sequential writing activities, your consistent attendance is essential.  If you are absent without medical excuse more than once, you are eligible to be officially excluded and failed.  On your first unexcused absence, you will receive a letter from me warning you of your situation.



Completion of Work:  Because your writing course is a planned sequence of writing, you must write all of the assignments to pass the course and you must write them within the schedule of the course–not in the last few days of the summer term after you have fallen behind.  If you fail to submit work when it is due, you will receive a letter from me reminding you of these requirements.  The letter will specify the new due date by which you must submit the late work.  If you fail to submit at least a substantial draft of the piece of writing by this new due date, you are eligible to be excluded from the course and failed.



Responses to Class Reading: The purpose of the reading is to make us really think about how a piece of writing is created, to notice the forms and techniques used, so that we can later apply it to our work. This will take a little sweat and a little thinking. I would like you to write up a page or two in answer to the questions I have provided about the reading, and to be ready to discuss your answers in class.



CLASS 1. Monday, June 23.


Close reading of the first page of “Under the Influence” by Scott Russell Sanders in the Lopate “The Art of the Personal Essay” anthology.


Discussion of shapes/forms.

“This I Believe” as a simple form.


Begin “Writing from Place” essay.


For Wednesday:

Revise your “Writing from Place” essay.

Read three This I Believe essays at

Read the rest of“Under the Influence” by Scott Russell Sanders in Lopate anthology.

Answer Sanders questions:


Sanders Questions


1. Go through the first couple of pages in this essay and circle the verbs.  How would you categorize them?  What role do they play?


2. What about tense?  Notice how Sanders jumps from present to past tense.  What does this add to the essay?


3. This kind of writing could easily fall into the adult children of alcoholics/self-help category.  How does Sanders avoid the obvious pitfalls of his subject matter?  How does he disarm the reader?




CLASS 2. Wednesday June 25.


Mini-workshop of your Place Essay

Discussion and close reading of Sanders

Write your own “This I Believe” essay.

Discussion of the writing life. Habits of productive writers.



For Monday:

Revise your “This I Believe” Essay.

Read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” in the Lopate Anthlology.

Read John Sullivan’s “Upon This Rock” in Pulphead.




Joan Didion Questions



1. Note the way Didion moves about in time and tense.  How does she do this fluidly?  How does she achieve the effect of being both general and specific at the same time?


2.Contrast Didion with Sanders.  How are their on-page personalities different?  And how is Didion’s personality–since we don’t really see the “person”–made clear by marks on the page?  What techniques?



3. Both Sanders and Didion use multiple “list” images.  Discuss this.


4. Which essay did you prefer?  Why?



John Sullivan Questions



1. Jot down a few lines about Sullivan’s technique.  Consider: How does he hide a personal essay within an article?  Write a brief description of the movement of the narrator.  How is the self he reveals different from the self we first meet?


2.  Think about this piece as a model for melding the journalistic and the personal.  Begin to brainstorm on a subject that you can write about that will meld the two.  The journalistic part should take actual field work: getting out somewhere, interviewing people, doing research.  “The sweat of your brow.”  As you begin to think about a subject—something you can pitch in one sentence to a magazine editor—start to consider ways you can interweave it with a personal essay.  Brainstorm and try to come up with 3 or 4 articles that you can pitch to me, your editor.  Stretch yourself a little.  Make yourself uncomfortable.



CLASS 3. Monday June 30.


Mini-workshop of “This I Believe” pieces.

Discussion of Didion and Sullivan.

Discussion of journalism and essay. Assign journalism pitches.


For Wednesday:


Read “Feet in Smoke” by John Sullivan in Pulphead.

Write a journalism proposal that involves doing something beyond your comfort zone. (


John Sullivan Questions


What choices did Sullivan make in telling this story? What multiple modes does he use? What does he gain by telling it the way he does?




CLASS 4. Wednesday July 2.


Discussion of journalism proposal

Mini-workshop of “one great scene.”

Discussion of “Feet in Smoke.”


Some thoughts on form: Simple and complex. Action and thought. Thinking on the page.


For Monday:

Begin Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. Read through page 85.

Write a simple scene about your life in the show-don’t tell style of Wolff.


Wolff Questions:


1.Write up a one page reaction of how Wolff uses scene and dialogue to “show not tell.” But also note the few places he does “tell.” Do these transitions work for you?  Wolff’s background is as a fiction writer.  How does this come through in his nonfiction?


2. Consider how Wolff moves his characters through time and space.  That is, stop and notice how characters get from one room to another, from outside to in, from car to house, etc.  I think you’ll find that he does these things with an admirable (and enviable) simplicity.





CLASS 5. Monday July 7.


Mini-workshop of Wolff show-don’t-tell scene.

Discussion of Wolf and memoir.




For Wednesday:


Read Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. Read through page 178.


Look at my cartoon essay, “Everything you Need to Know About Truth in Nonfiction but were Afraid to Ask”:



Wolff Questions



1.What fictional techniques does he incorporate in his nonfiction?  What can we learn from his use of dialogue, for instance.


2. What techniques does Wolff use to create the character of Dwight?


Gessner Question

            Be ready to discuss your own take on truth in nonfiction? Should this sort of writing play by the same rules as fiction? Or are there differences?




CLASS 6. Wednesday July 9.



Discussion of Wolff.

Discussion of truth in nonfiction.


For Monday:

Finish Wolff.


How do you feel about the ending?  Does it live up to the rest of the book?

Write a quick appraisal of This Boy’s Life.



CLASS 7. Monday July 14.



Discussion of Wolf.

In-class exercise. Write a portrait.




(Suggested by Scott Russell Sanders)


Write a short (750 words) portrait of another person. This person should be real, not invented.  Try and decide what is essential about the person you are portraying.  Sanders writes: “Instead of merely cataloging traits, consider ways of revealing the person through narrative summary, through scenes (including dialogue), or through the narrator’s perceptions and judgments.  Try to establish some dominant impression, even if it means, for the moment, ignoring some contrary qualities.”


For Wednesday:

Revise your portrait piece.

Read George Orwell’s “Such, Such were the Joys” on p 269 in the Lopate Anthology.



Orwell Questions:


How is what Orwell doing similar and yet different than what Wolff did? Comment on the way he moves back and forth between his childhood self and his present self. How does he transition in and out? How does he use both showing and telling?



CLASS 8. Wednesday July 16.


Mini-workshop of portraits.


Discussion of Orwell.

Begin discussion of nature writing.


For Monday:

Read Annie Dillard’s “Seeing” in Lopate. p.693

Read Wendell Berry’s “And Entrance to the Woods” in Lopate. p.670

Observation of place exercise. Attempt observation of animals?






Annie Dillard questions


1. It is common for critics to call any nature writer “the modern Thoreau,” but Edward Abbey claimed that Dillard was the only modern writer who wrote in the Thoreauvian style.  What did he mean by this?  In what ways is Dillard Thoreau’s descendant?  In what ways is she not?


2. Great essayists often manage to get their personalities across on the page.  For instance Hazlitt if opinionated and energetic, Montaigne somewhat calm and (over) humble, Johnson strict, smart, and moralistic.  What about Dillard’s personality?   Think hard about this.  Use at least three adjectives to describe the persona that comes off on the page.



Wendell Berry questions

            1.Think about the mix of the personal and the natural in the two nature excerpts (Dillard, Berry).  How personal or impersonal is each writer?  How much does their persona play out on the page?  Which voice do you prefer?  Describe that voice and consider how it is created.


2. In what ways does Berry’s tone reflect his subject.  Say something about his voice.   Often nature writers reflect their regions.  His region is the rolling hills of his home in Kentucky and the “safe” woods and mountains of his home.  How does he reflect this?  Give some thought to how other writers reflect their regions?  The South?  The American West?  New England?




CLASS 9. Monday 21.


Mini-workshop of place exercises.


Discussion of Dillard and Berry.

Discussion of nature writing.



For Wednesday:

Read Philip Lopate’s introduction to “The Art of the Personal Essay.”

What are the key elements, according to Lopate, of the personal essay? Which elements most excite you? Describe how they have been embodied by writers we have read so far this term.




1. Intimacy.  “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy.”



2. Unity to human experience.  “every man has within himself the entire human condition.”  by talking about himself he is, to some degree, talking to all of us.


3. Personal element–“an open drive toward candor and self-disclosure.’



I. The Conversational Element



1. The mind works by contradiction.  Dialogues and dispute with ourselves.


Anticipating the reader’s doubts.  Pre-emptive strikes.


conversational style to establish intimacy with author.




II. Honesty, Confession, Privacy


Honesty but also a basic skepticism about the possibility of honesty.


Blurting stuff out about our own motives. Winning sympathy–movie of the week, etc…


Baring a mask…but how much of this can we actually do?



CLASS 10. Wednesday, July 23.

Discussion of Lopate intro.



For Monday:

Read John Sullivan’s

“Mr. Lytle” and “Michael”


CLASS 11. Monday, July 28.



Discussion of Sullivan.



For Wednesday:

Read Sullivan’s “Getting Down to What is Really Real”



CLASS 12. July 30.

Discussion of Sullivan.











  1. monica wood writes:

    David, that photo of you made me laugh out loud. Thank you.