On Teaching Nonfiction in the Academy But Outside Journalism Departments

It’s weird, this placement. In J-school you call it “feature writing” or “magazine writing” but in MFA school you call it “creative nonfiction” (CNF). Near the end (please!) of our house-hunting trip in San Francisco here, I’ve been prompted to think about this problem by Erika Dreifus’s blog post On the Teaching of Creative Nonfiction. “[O]ur reading lists reinforce an impression that creative nonfiction writers are inspired only by private memory,” she writes. Her subtitle is “Only a Few Have a Natural Talent for Nudity”.

It’s no surprise that I’m on the side of Dreifus re memoir’s overshadowing of other NF approaches in CNF instruction in the academy. One thing she doesn’t get at in her post, and which I want to get at quickly here, is this argument: memoir-heaviness is a factor of the current instructor landscape. In most MFA programs, NF isn’t taught by NF writers, but rather by people (usually fiction writers) who also write NF.

From Dreifus:

The discussion reminded me of similar ideas I’d had back when I was an MFA student myself. Remember that I attended a low-residency MFA program, and I was a fiction specialist. I was therefore provided cnf instruction only within the framework of the “gateway” seminars all of us attended, regardless of selected genre.

If your work consists of the building of scenes full of sensory detail to recreate an experience, naturally memoir is the thing you’ll select to read and practice. It’s fiction but true, all other rules apply.

There’s a number of schools with dedicated NF courses on the books taught by working NF writers, but they are the minority. This may very well change. More and more people seem to want to write NF and even spend time and money getting MFA degrees in same, meaning that administrators will (in a happy world) work to attract such students by hiring dedicated NF faculty members. Utah, Ohio, Missouri, etc. will continue to graduate PhD students who’ve read NF booklists for their comps and know a thing or two about essay theory, and thus be qualified to teach a broad scope of NF subgenres and approaches.

I don’t have a way out of this post. In procrastinating to find one, I changed my weather.gov bookmark to pull up the weather for San Francisco, where N & I live now. It was a silly exercise. Every day it wavers between 64 and 72, depending on whether the clouds are in or not. Usually they are. I packed one pair of jeans, another pair of paint-stained workjeans, a pair of khakis, and a pair of corduroys that no longer button around my waist after a summer of sitting in cars and drinking every night. The rest of my clothes won’t be getting here until mid-August, at which point it may get regularly warm enough to start wearing shorts.

Twitter tells me people on the east coast are hot.

One thought on “On Teaching Nonfiction in the Academy But Outside Journalism Departments”

  1. Hi, Dave. Only just read through this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ll be back to visit your blog. Hope you are enjoying your new home!

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