David Foster Wallace's mind-blowing creative nonfiction syllabus: "This does not mean an essayist’s goal is to 'share' or 'express herself' or whatever feel-good term you got taught in high school"

EXCLUSIVE: Another from the DFW archive -- you'll love his literary email address and the super-smart reading list

Published November 10, 2014 11:59PM (EST)


Excerpted from “The David Foster Wallace Reader”  And here's our earlier look at a syllabus from one of David Foster Wallace's fiction seminars.

Pomona College
English 183D Spring, 2008


Wednesdays, 7:00–10:00, Crookshank 207
Inst: David Wallace
Inst. Office, Phone, and Email: Crookshank 101, 607-8357, ocapmycap@ca.rr.com
Inst. Office Hours: Wed., 6:00–7:00, Th., 3:00–4:00, and by appointment.

Description of Class

English 183D is a workshop course in creative nonfiction, which term denotes 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. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. 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. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel. An advantage of the workshop format is that it will allow you to hear what twelve reasonably intelligent adults have been induced to think and feel about each essay you write for the course.


There are no required textbooks 1 and I will provide free Xeroxes of all outside readings. You will, however, be responsible for making [12] high-quality, single-sided copies of each essay you distribute for workshop discussion. I may also ask some students to produce [12] copies of some other document or exercise.

Total Writing Workload for Class

(1) Let’s say 24-39 pages of finished, high-quality nonfiction.

(2) A one-to-three-page letter of response to each one of your colleagues’ essays — figure 30-35 letters total.

(3) A couple letters of response, for practice, on selected published essays.

(4) Additional individual exercises, rewrites, or other work assigned at your instructor’s discretion.

Class Rules & Procedures

(1) For obvious reasons, you’re required to attend every class. An absence will be excused only under extraordinary circumstances. Having more than one excused absence, and any unexcused ones at all, will result in a lowered final grade. After the first two weeks, chronic or flagrant tardiness will count as an unexcused absence.

(2) All assigned work needs to be totally completed by the time class starts.

(3) All the essays that you turn in must be written specifically for this course. You may not submit any work that was substantively begun before 15 January 2008.

(4) You need to have a special pocket-folder that’s just for English 183D. This folder will function as your class portfolio, which must contain copies of all assigned work for the course (see (9) and (10) below). Please bring your portfolio to each class; and please put your name, the date, and some kind of rudimentary header on each piece of work therein.

(5) English 183D is to be a safe and serious critical venue. You should treat each peer’s essay-drafts as confidential documents. No one outside this class gets to read them or know anything about them — not roommates, not mutual friends, not distant email buddies. If you discuss peers’ essays with each other outside class, you must do so in a maximally private and respectful way.

(6) With a cap of twelve enrolled students, there is room in our workshop schedule for everyone to have three separate slots, and for each class meeting to comprise discussions of three different essays. This is a good number. Occasionally, though, a student will want to submit more than three pieces, or maybe two longer essays rather than three medium ones, etc. This is not impossible, but it makes for tricky scheduling — you need to confer with me individually (and soon) if you wish to submit something other than the normal three pieces.

(7) Once you sign up for a certain slot in the workshop rotation, that slot is yours. You can change or trade only with the whole class’s permission. So please choose with care. We will fill out the first portion of the workshop schedule tonight and the remainder on 2 February.

(8) All workshop essays are to be distributed the week before the class in which they’re to be discussed. There are two options here. Let’s say you sign up to have an essay workshopped on Wed., 12 March. Either you can bring [12] copies to class for distribution on Wed., 5 March, or you can place the copies in the special E183D box outside my office door by 4:00 p.m. on Thurs., 6 March. But 4:00 p.m. on the Thursday before your assigned slot is the deadline. Don’t be late. There are no “extensions” in workshop-type classes; your deadlines are obligations to [12] other adults. Finish editing and revising far enough ahead of time that you can accommodate computer or printer snafus.

(9) This class operates on the 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. 2 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. At the top of each letter, please put your name, the author’s name, the essay’s title, and the date. Make a hard copy of each and every letter of response you write. Staple the original letter to your marked-up copy of the essay, so that at discussion’s end they can all be returned to the author for private perusal. Place the copy of your letter in your class portfolio.

(10) Besides letter-copies and maybe a couple exercises, the only other things you’re required to save in your portfolio are the instructor’s copy of each essay you submit to class (i.e., the manuscript copy that I read and marked on, with my letter of response attached). I’ll be collecting portfolios at the end of the term, but I also reserve the right to look through anyone’s portfolio at any time — that’s why you need to bring your portfolio to each class meeting.

(11) All written work for E183D must be high-quality printed in regular font and reasonable point-size. Everything must be double-spaced, with one-inch margins all around, and stapled. Your workshop essays must have a title page on which appear the piece’s title, your name, and the date. Your last name and the page number should appear in the upper right corner of p. 2 and of every page thereafter. 3 All copies must be complete, unsmudged, unfaint, and easily readable.

(12) For a variety of reasons, I probably will not put specific grades on your work when I hand it back to you. Anyone who has a problem with this should come speak to me personally; I may make an exception for someone with a professionally diagnosed anxiety disorder or something. And I will provide, at any point during the term, an estimate of her overall grade so far to any student who comes and asks me for it. (And anyone who appears to be heading for a final grade of 7 or below needn’t worry about asking — I’ll make it a point to let you know.

(13) Part of the grades you receive on written work in this course will depend on each document’s presentation. Presentation here means evidence of care, of facility in written English, and of empathy for your readers. The essays you submit for group discussion need to be carefully proofread and edited for typos, misspellings, garbled constructions, and basic errors in usage and/or punctuation. “Creative” or not, E183D is an upper-division writing class, and work that appears sloppy or semiliterate will not be accepted for credit: you’ll have to redo the piece and turn it back in, and there will be a grade penalty — a really severe one if it happens more than once.

Rough Components of Final Grade

Essays = 60%

Letters of Response = 20%

Attendance, Quality & Quantity of Participation, Effort, Improvement, Alacrity of Carriage, Etc. = 20%.

(N.B. The instructor’s grade scale is numerical and goes like this: 13 = A+ = Mind-blowingly good; 12 = A = Extremely good; 11 = A- = Very, very good; 10 = B+ = Very good; 9 = B = Pretty good; 8 = B- = OK; 7 = C+ = Mildly subpar; 6 = C = Seriously subpar; 4, 3, 2 = D = Downright bad; 0 = F = Obvious.)


For Wed., 30 January: Read the following published essays: (1) Jo Ann Beard’s “Werner,” (2) Stephen Elliott’s “Where I Slept,” (3) George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” (4) Donna Steiner’s “Cold.” Pick one of these essays, pretend that it’s been written and distributed by an E183D colleague, and write a practice letter of response to it, being as specific and helpful as possible in detailing your impressions and reactions and suggestions for how the essay might be improved.

For Wed., 6 February: Read the following published essays: (1) David Gessner’s “Learning to Surf,” (2) Kathryn Harrison’s “The Forest of Memory,” (3) Hester Kaplan’s “The Private Life of Skin,” (4) George Saunders’s “The Braindead Megaphone.” Pick one of these essays, pretend that it’s been written and distributed by an E183D colleague, and write a practice letter of response to it, being as specific and helpful as possible in detailing your impressions and reactions and suggestions for how the essay might be improved.


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

2 For writers: One reason to double-space your essays and to give them generous margins is to give us space to write marginalia. For readers: Make sure that your margin comments are legible and lucid, and that they’re directed to the author; the manuscript copy is not the place to jot notes to yourself. Example: “It’s not clear how this sentence supports the conclusion you draw in the next paragraph” would be OK to write in the margin, whereas “Sentence sucks — make sure to ridicule author for this in class” would not.

3 (FYI, p. 2 means the second page of the actual essay; the title page doesn’t count. And it’s classier to omit the number on the first page of a document’s text . . . so the first page you number should be the second page of the actual essay.)

Excerpted from “The David Foster Wallace Reader” by David Foster Wallace. (Also available in a limited edition deluxe set.) Copyright © 2014 by The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co. All rights reserved.

By David Foster Wallace