The great French writer Annie Ernaux—this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—once said about work, “I started to make a literary being of myself, someone who lives as if her experiences were to be written down someday.” For decades, Ernaux has mined her personal life to illuminate the world, often using her own story to draw the world’s attention to things we often look away from and would rather forget. In this workshop, students will learn the fundamentals of constructing the self on the page by reading short excerpts from writers like Ernaux, James Baldwin, and Melissa Febos. Students will then be given a series of prompts and will develop, and workshop, their own personal essays. We will focus on various forms of the personal essay, from food writing to cultural criticism to current affairs. Students will also be given tips about how to pitch, and publish, their personal essays in outlets like The New York Times, Catapult, Eater, and Literary Hub.
Class One: We will go over the various POVs, or points of view, in telling a personal story. While some assume that personal stories must be told with the “I” form, we will read the work of Kiese Laymon who often writes his essays in the second person (i.e. the “you” form). Students will then write a short personal essay using the second person.
Class Two: We will tackle writing a scene. Personal essay comes alive when it is told in a scene. We will discuss how to write dialogue, voice tags, and descriptions that pop off of the page.
Class Three: We will workshop each other’s work. Each student will get one chance to submit a personal essay of up to 800 words. We will also talk about how to write the ending of a personal story.
Class Four: We will continue workshopping each other’s work. We will also do a close reading of the Modern Love column in the New York Times and read what editors of that column like (and dislike) in a story.
Class Five: We will continue workshopping each other’s work. We will also discuss how to pitch and place personal essays in local and national publications.
Tuesdays, 6/20-7/25 no class 7/4 (5 sessions) 3-5 pm
Faculty: Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor of English at Bowdoin college. He received his MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan where he received awards in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting. In 2019, the podcast he co-founded about food, race, gender, and class called Racist Sandwich was nominated for a James Beard Award. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Guernica, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, and many other publications. Prior to beginning his writing career, he worked at Amnesty International and in the US Congress.