The Writer's Path at SMU

Creative Nonfiction Track


True stories bubble up from life experiences—people, places, events, hobbies, professions, animals and institutions—we have known and/or wondered about. Our lives become rich veins to mine for facts and nuances of “story,” story that shines the light on some facet you’re drawn to by the ever inquisitive nature of writers. Bring your ideas, your curiosity, and we’ll flesh them out into story in Narrative Nonfiction: The Proposal.

“Narrative Nonfiction,” (NNF) also called “Creative Nonfiction” or “Literary Nonfiction”: These terms name the story form that highlights true stories and their facts with storytelling’s gifts of drama. Often, the questions we seek to answer in NNF revolve around the “Why” and the “How” of something or someone.

Narrative Nonfiction stories draw on interests across the universe of writing: history, science, business, sports, travel, geography and memoir to name a few. In this fall’s “Narrative Nonfiction: The Proposal” class, we’ll write a “proposal” of our respective books, including:

  1. a few (usually three) chapters,
  2. a narrative arc expressed chapter by chapter in an outline, and
  3. marketing ideas, why you’re the just right person to write this book, i.e., your interests, knowledge, skills, research and experience.

A PROPOSAL, a polished version of these three components, is what agents and editors require for Narrative Nonfiction rather than a completed manuscript.

That’s why we at SMU offer this proposal course, A NARRATIVE NONFICTION PROPOSAL RATHER THAN COMPLETED MANUSCRIPT, in ONLY nine weeks. Then, when an agent or editor expresses interest IN YOUR PROPOSAL, the keystrokes fly, a completed book the target.

EXAMPLES FROM A FEW MASTERS, starting with the man known as the “Grandfather of Creative Nonfiction,” Gay Talese, because of his biography of The New York Times, The Kingdom and The Power (1962). Others include:

  • Michael Lewis’ Blindside (sports,) Flash Boys (stock market) and
  • Mary Karr’s Liar, (memoir)
  • Kurt Eichenwald’s The Informant (business scandal)
  • Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (autobiography)
  • Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (memoir)
  • J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
  • Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (biography of a horse) and Unbroken, (history/biography of WWII POW)
  • John Phillip Santos’ The Farthest Home Is an Empire of Fire, a Tejano Elegy
  • Susan Casey, Voices in the Ocean, and The Wave, marine science and surfing
  • Erik Larson’s Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (meteorology and history)
  • David McCullough, any of his raft of books on history and biography, such as 1776, Truman, John Adams, etc., a master of true story dramatization in books.

These are a few off my bookshelf—and ones I inevitably use in teaching Narrative (Creative) Nonfiction—but please explore your own literary interests in true stories dramatized—Narrative NonFiction—and…for class…

  • Bring your favorite (or one most closely resembling your story idea or ideas) to class.
  • Bring your ideas, questions, quandaries.
  • Purchase and bring: Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story. An old book. He’s called the “father of creative nonfiction,” especially gifted in teaching the form. Being old, Amazon or a Half Price store is your best bet to find it.
  • Writing implements—pen/pencil and paper; laptop, etc., both, preferably. We’ll write in class, especially during the workshop time, and some exercises (what I call doodling) will be easier on paper.