Introduction to Creative Nonfiction (WR 214) Portland State University - Professor Jenny Woodman

  • Introductory Nonfiction Writing: WR 214, Summer 2017
  • M-Th, 1-320PM
  • Science Research & Teaching Center 166
  • Instructor: Jenny Woodman -
  • Office Hours: Thursday, 11:50-12:50; by appointment


An introduction to writing literary nonfiction, using selected works by Jon Ronson, David Sedaris, Alison Bechdel and others to delve into the skills that fostered their art. Beginning with the raw material of exercises in description and dialogue, students will write and discuss short works of creative nonfiction. This course may be used for the Group I requirement for the Minor in Writing. It serves as a prerequisite for the following upper division WR courses: 456, 457, 458, 459.


  • Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home (2006) (ISBN 978-0618871711)
  • LaCava, Stephanie. An Extraordinary Theory of Objects (2012) (978-0061963926)
  • Orlean, Susan. Saturday Night (2011) (ISBN 978-1451660982)
  • Ronson, Jon. Them (2002) (978-0743233217)
  • Rothbart, Davy. Requiem for a Paper Bag (2009) (978-1416560548)
  • Sedaris, David. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) (978-0316010795)

Recommended Text

  • Strunk, William & White, E.B.. The Elements of Style (1999) (ISBN 978-0205309023)


Reading: Come to class prepared to discuss assigned readings on the date listed in the attached course schedule. Prepared means: doing the readings, having something to say about them, and connecting what we're reading to what we're working on in our writing. If the focus in our assignments is dialogue, read the text closely looking for how the author uses dialogue to tell a story.

Notebook/Editing Log: When reading make notes of: key points to discuss in class, questions raised, areas of confusion, and areas where readings may serve your own writing; and, ways the reading touches on an element of craft that we are focused on (i.e. dialogue). Additionally, each student will keep a log of edits and common errors made in our class writing assignments; you will refer to this frequently on order to strengthen your grammatical instincts and gain confidence when editing your own work.

Course website: Before class you should consult our site for announcements. Students will be asked to: post regularly to the site about their upcoming projects; give thoughtful peer feedback; and, ask questions whenever relevant. The site is private and postings are only accessible by classmates and instructor.


  • 12 short assignments of at least 250w each; writing assignments will be started in-class, and handed in during the next class session (i.e. an assignment begun in-class on Tues will be handed in on Wed).
  • 3 papers of at least 750w each
  • 1 final paper of at least 1250w. The final paper will be a revision of one of the first three papers.

Peer Workshops: Bring enough copies of our pieces on due dates (one for each peer in workshop group, self, and instructor). Papers must be double spaced, and include page numbers. We will break into small groups and provide peer feedback with guidance from instructor

Paper Conferences: There will be scheduled individual meetings before paper due dates. Class sessions may be modified on paper conference days -- attending the conference is mandatory.


Your grade is based on the final paper due at the end of the course. Because this paper will evolve from your previous work, this course first requires the satisfactory completion of the above Requirements. Skipping steps will result in an unsatisfactory or non-credit grade, including and up to an F, I, W, or X. The workshopping component of this class relies upon timeliness. A paper turned after the due date will lower your course grade by one level (e.g. A to A-).

Final papers turned in on time and with course requirements completed will be graded accordingly:

  • A: Excellent effort and achievement; few or no issues in its sourcing, structure, or writing.
  • B: Good effort and achievement; minor issues in its sourcing, structure, or writing.
  • C: Acceptable in effort and achievement; significant revision needed to sourcing, structure, and/or writing within an otherwise workable story.
  • D: Below acceptable in effort and achievement; story needs a significant or total rewrite, and/or has major shortcomings in sources, structure, or writing.
  • F: Unacceptable; fails to meet basic academic standards of effort, accuracy or ethics.



Attendance is required and will be noted. Partial attendance of a class meeting (e.g. leaving early) will be considered an absence; if you have a schedule that is likely to conflict with this class, you should not enroll. Class absences cannot be made up. If you miss more than three class meetings, you will be given an unsatisfactory or non-credit grade, and/or asked to drop the course.


Please show consideration for the health of yourself and your classmates. Do not come to class with flu symptoms, and do not return until at least 24 hours have passed entirely free of symptoms (i.e. without needing fever-reducing medication.)


Your papers must be double-spaced, titled and page numbered, with your name and date on the first page. Use a standard 12 pt font and indent the start of paragraphs. Do NOT place an extra space between paragraphs; section breaks may be indicated with a border or asterisks. If your paper will break from this standard and required format, you will need to discuss why and how to do this in advance of submission.


Email is best way to reach me, and I will do my best to answer emails within 24 hours during the week, and 48 hours over the weekend. Do not email me to ask questions that can be answered by reading syllabus, assignment handouts, and other materials provided. Do not email me after 5 p.m. with questions about an assignment that is due the following day as you have had ample time to ask questions or email in the days and weeks leading up to the assignment. You should connect with at least one or two classmates and exchange email addresses and phone numbers so you can have backup information available in case you miss class

We learn best when we are pushed ever-so-gently outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes, this means tackling difficult subject matter or looking at our own work and actions critically. To make room for this, I ask that you come to class ready to engage with the materials, with each other, and with me in a manner that is both kind, courteous, and compassionate. We are here to critique our own writing and the writing of others so we may grow, but we are not here to critique each other or our beliefs.


Laptops/Tablets/eReaders. Laptop use is permitted, but only when class activity warrants it. If you must use your laptop in class to take notes (and only to take notes) please sit in the front row to the side. Using electronic readers is permitted, but browsing the Internet during class is not. Failure to abide by this policy could mean that you may be barred from using technology in future class sessions.

Cell phones. In order to preserve an atmosphere conducive to observation, conversation, and contemplation, no cell phone use will be permitted in class. If there is an emergent situation that requires keeping your cell phone on (silently), please notify me before class begins.

Writing Center

Along with my office hours, please take note that PSU has an excellent Writing Center -- their consultants assist with undergraduate and graduate work alike, and can serve as a "second pair of eyes" on your writing. They are located at 188 Cramer, and have both drop-in hours and an online appointment reservation system at


"Accommodations are collaborative efforts between students, faculty and the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Students with accommodations approved through the DRC are responsible for contacting the faculty member in charge of the course prior to or during the first week of the term to discuss accommodations. Students who believe they are eligible for accommodations but who have not yet obtained approval through the DRC should contact the DRC immediately at 503-725-4150."


The DRC pays students up to $25.00 per credit hour to scan and upload their notes to the DRC Online system. See me after class if you are interested and visit here for more information:


"Academic Misconduct is defined as fraud, deceit, or unauthorized use of materials prohibited or inappropriate in the context of the academic assignment. This includes, but is not limited to: (a) cheating, (b) fraud, (c) plagiarism, such as word for word copying, using borrowed words or phrases from original text into new patterns without attribution, or paraphrasing another writer’s ideas; (d) the buying or selling of all or any portion of course assignments and research papers; (e) performing academic assignments (including tests and examinations) in another person’s stead; (f) unauthorized disclosure or receipt of academic information; (g) falsification of research data; and (h) unauthorized collaboration; (i) using the same paper or data for several assignments or courses without proper documentation; (j) unauthorized alteration of student records; and (k) academic sabotage, including destroying or obstructing another student’s work." (from the PSU Student Code of Conduct)

About Me

Recovered restaurant manager turned home chef, obsessive knitter, science storyteller writing about ocean health and women in STEM, dog mom.

Let's Write Some Words!

Pick a location that is readily accessible to you; it can be at home or anywhere else, but you’ll need to be able to return to a few times in the next couple of weeks.

In this location, pick THREE objects: (1) The most obvious object, the one that you most immediately notice when you enter this location; (2) An object that is subtle or even hidden, that someone would need to observe the area carefully to take notice of, and (3) An object that may have a story behind it, some reason behind why it wound up here. This last object can itself be obvious or hidden, or anywhere in between.

To put it differently: let’s say someone excavates this place as a ruin a thousand years from now. What’s the first thing they’ll find here? What object might they overlook altogether? And what object might make them ask: how did this get here?

Take a paragraph or two to describe each object, answering for each: What made you notice and then pick the object? What condition is it in? What color or shape is it? What is it made of? For instance, if you wanted someone unfamiliar with this location to come and carry away this object, how would you describe it or direct them to it?

Feel free to include other observations on the location and the objects as well. The minimum for this exercise is 250 words, but if you have more to say, then run with it.

For Tuesday

Read selected works from Rothbart and finish WR Assignment #1.

Happy Writing!

Created By
Jenny Woodman

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