Why is creative nonfiction writing included in Comp 1?

For the past few days, I have been wondering why creative nonfiction, such as personal narrative and personal essay, are included in Composition 1 at all. I didn’t include it last fall, the most recent time I taught this course, and that worked out great. Why not leave creative nonfiction to the creative writing courses? I still don’t have a good reason, except that our blankety-blank textbook devotes two whole chapters to it.

Here are some reasons why creative nonfiction doesn’t fit into a level-1 composition course:

Creative writing of any kind, even nonfiction, uses totally different tools and structure than research and argumentative writing. In general, we do not use dialogue, exposition, and sensory description in research and argumentative writing, except in brief examples intended to win the sympathy of the reader. As readers of research and argumentative writing, we do not expect or accept a need for suspended disbelief or a single-perspective narrative. On the contrary, we demand that all points and evidence be eminently believable without any imaginative effort on our part, and we do not tolerate the inevitable bias of a single perspective.

The learning curve for creative writing is significantly longer and steeper than the learning curve for expository and argumentative writing, because the latter kinds of writing are completely formulaic. Creative writing is also structured around formulas, but it is only considered “good” when it subverts the formula or infuses the form with something original.

These are totally opposite writing strategies, effected using totally distinct sets of writing tools. I do not like teaching my students to aim for one kind of goal for two months, and then do a 180 and charge blindly off in the opposite direction. It takes long enough to get them on the same page as I am once in a semester that I strongly resent having to do it twice, instead of building on the progress they have made so far and steadily working toward a higher standard of excellence in a single direction.

That is not to say that I do not enjoy teaching creative nonfiction. The students seem to enjoy it, and I understand why some teachers would say that that is reason enough to include creative nonfiction writing in an otherwise “dry” and “boring” semester. But research and argumentative writing is not dry and boring to me. In past semesters, most of my students have seemed to enjoy it, too (often, more than they expected).

Add to that the fact that I have spent decades learning how to write creative works and how to teach others to write them, and you may begin to see why I see creative writing as a serious business. It is not a throwaway unit to ease unwilling students into the semester. It is a craft that requires curiosity, persistence, and a willingness to learn from others over an extended period of time. Tossing in a couple of creative nonfiction papers in order to throw students a bone of “fun” feels incredibly disrespectful to the craft, especially when they are not given enough time to really dig in and explore the possibilities of that craft.

And I don’t have the time to give them for that. Stupid late start semester.


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