David Foster Wallace’s Syllabus for His 2008 Creative Nonfiction Course: Includes Reading List & Footnotes


Pho­to cour­tesy of Clau­dia Sher­man.

The term “cre­ative non­fic­tion” has picked up a great deal of trac­tion over the past decade — per­haps too much, depend­ing upon how valid or invalid you find it. Mean­ing­ful or not, the label has come into its cur­rent pop­u­lar­i­ty in part thanks to the essays of nov­el­ist David Fos­ter Wal­lace: whether writ­ing non­fic­tion­al­ly about the Illi­nois State Fair, David Lynch, pro­fes­sion­al ten­nis, or a sev­en-night Caribbean cruise, he did it in a way unlike any oth­er man or woman of let­ters. While nobody can learn to write quite like him — this we’ve seen when Wal­lace-imi­ta­tors write pas­tich­es of their own — he did spend time teach­ing the art of cre­ative non­fic­tion as he saw it,

a broad cat­e­go­ry of prose works such as per­son­al essays and mem­oirs, pro­files, nature and trav­el writ­ing, nar­ra­tive essays, obser­va­tion­al or descrip­tive essays, gen­er­al-inter­est tech­ni­cal writ­ing, argu­men­ta­tive or idea-based essays, gen­er­al-inter­est crit­i­cism, lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism, and so on. The term’s con­stituent words sug­gest a con­cep­tu­al axis on which these sorts of prose works lie. As non­fic­tion, the works are con­nect­ed to actu­al states of affairs in the world, are “true” to some reli­able extent. If, for exam­ple, a cer­tain event is alleged to have occurred, it must real­ly have occurred; if a propo­si­tion is assert­ed, the read­er expects some proof of (or argu­ment for) its accu­ra­cy. At the same time, the adjec­tive cre­ative sig­ni­fies that some goal(s) oth­er than sheer truth­ful­ness moti­vates the writer and informs her work. This cre­ative goal, broad­ly stat­ed, may be to inter­est read­ers, or to instruct them, or to enter­tain them, to move or per­suade, to edi­fy, to redeem, to amuse, to get read­ers to look more close­ly at or think more deeply about some­thing that’s worth their atten­tion… or some combination(s) of these.

This comes straight from the syl­labus of Eng­lish 183D, a work­shop Wal­lace taught at Pomona Col­lege in the spring of 2008, which you can read in its entire­ty at Salon (reprint­ed from The David Fos­ter Wal­lace Read­er). As you may remem­ber from the pre­vi­ous Wal­lace syl­labus we fea­tured, from a 1994 semes­ter of Eng­lish 102 — Lit­er­ary Analy­sis I: Prose Fic­tion at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty, the man could real­ly assem­ble a read­ing list. For his cre­ative non­fic­tion course, he had stu­dents read Jo Ann Beard’s “Wern­er,” Stephen Elliott’s “Where I Slept,” George Orwell’s clas­sic “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage,” Don­na Steiner’s “Cold,” David Gessner’s “Learn­ing to Surf,” Kathryn Harrison’s “The For­est of Mem­o­ry,” Hes­ter Kaplan’s “The Pri­vate Life of Skin,” and George Saunders’s “The Brain­dead Mega­phone.”

In some ways, Wal­lace syl­labi them­selves count as pieces of cre­ative non­fic­tion. What oth­er pro­fes­sor ever had the prose chops to make you actu­al­ly want to read any­thing under the “Class Rules & Pro­ce­dures” head­ing? In the ninth of its thir­teen points, he lays out the work­shop’s oper­a­tive belief:

that you’ll improve as a writer not just by writ­ing a lot and receiv­ing detailed crit­i­cism but also by becom­ing a more sophis­ti­cat­ed and artic­u­late crit­ic of oth­er writ­ers’ work. You are thus required to read each of your col­leagues’ essays at least twice, mak­ing help­ful and spe­cif­ic com­ments on the man­u­script copy wher­ev­er appro­pri­ate. You will then com­pose a one-to-three-page let­ter to the essay’s author, com­mu­ni­cat­ing your sense of the draft’s strengths and weak­ness­es and mak­ing clear, spe­cif­ic sug­ges­tions for revi­sion.

But what­ev­er the rig­ors of Eng­lish 183D, Wal­lace would have suc­ceed­ed, to my mind, if he’d instilled noth­ing more than this in the minds of his depart­ing stu­dents:

In the grown-up world, cre­ative non­fic­tion is not expres­sive writ­ing but rather com­mu­nica­tive writ­ing. And an axiom of com­mu­nica­tive writ­ing is that the read­er does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fas­ci­nat­ing as a per­son, nor does she feel a deep nat­ur­al inter­est in the same things that inter­est you.

True to form, DFW’s syl­labus comes com­plete with foot­notes.

1 (A good dic­tio­nary and usage dic­tio­nary are strong­ly rec­om­mend­ed. You’re insane if you don’t own these already.)

You can read the Cre­ative Non­fic­tion syl­labus in full here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

Read David Fos­ter Wallace’s Notes From a Tax Account­ing Class, Tak­en to Help Him Write The Pale King

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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