HC221H: Writing the Self

Professor: Dawn Marlan

4.00 credits

  • CRN 21039: Tuesday & Thursday, 1600-1720 @ MCK 473

Alongside the ascension of mainstream creative nonfiction like the memoir, the personal essay has been proliferating in blogs, magazines, and journals. Using both story-telling techniques and analytic tools, and attending to artful, surprising writing, personal essayists challenge popular opinion, treading on dearly held beliefs and values, often their own. Meandering, digressing, pointing out self-contradictions, essayists break through their own defenses to achieve the unusual honesty that has been the hallmark of this genre since the 16th century when Montaigne took himself as the object of his inquiry, inaugurating a venerable tradition of controversial boundary-crossing.

In the course, we will follow Montaigne’s reflections on monstrosity, Tanizaki’s lament about the loss of traditional Japanese culture, Baldwin’s haunting account of brutal discrimination, Rich’s divided identity, Orwell’s memories of life in an authoritarian boarding school, Fitzgerald’s musings about mental illness, Woolf’s celebration of imaginative identification on the streets of London, and Tower’s account of taking his aging father to Burning Man. As we traverse this rich territory, we will ask whether it’s possible to be a reliable narrator when the writer becomes a character.

In this course we will have two goals: analyzing some of the best essays from various traditions in terms of content and craft, and writing and workshopping our own. Our task will be a paradoxical one: delving into the self and getting distance from it, exploring one’s own interiority to reach the other, and aiming for the place where the individual and the collective come together.