Part One: Creative Nonfiction: I have long admired Dear Sugar (actually Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Torch) for her ability to apply the tenets of personal essay—narration, reflection, self-interrogation, and light analysis—to her columns advising readers on a wide variety of subjects. I love the empathetic spirit of offering her life experiences for the particular purpose of helping someone else. I love the encoding of writing as a humanitarian act into the form she chose. And I love the writing itself. Teaching the advice column form to creative nonfiction writers enacts Vivian Gornick’s concept of the situation and the story: the situation for writing is the circumstances or plot, while the story is that of the writer’s thinking. Writing advice columns with the skills of the essayist allows emerging CNF writers to focus on the shared, often abstract subjects that translate across disparate experiences.
Here is the assignment prompt I use in my 300-level creative nonfiction workshop:
Advice Column Essay: Radical Empathy Through Personal Experience
Format: 750 words min., double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-pt font; your name and my name, date.
Description: As the first page of our syllabus says, I believe that art is a humanitarian act. All semester, we have been reading the advice columns of Dear Sugar on The Rumpus, admiring the ways in which she offers her craft in nonfiction for the purpose of guiding others. There are other examples of the advice column, both historical and contemporary, but I became interested in Sugar because of the way she applies the formal tenets of essaying to her work. Her work is a testament to the artistic notion that when we create, we never do so in isolation.
Your final personal essay, then, will be written in response to one of your classmates’ anonymous letters in search of advice. No topic is off-limits. You will not know who wrote the letters. Only I will know who wrote the letters, and I won’t tell (so don’t ask). I will merely collect them and dispense them back to you in a random order (please inform me right away if you get your own letter by accident). Your job will be to use your own experiences and the techniques of writing nonfiction that we have studied this semester to respond to the letter writer’s question or problem.
You are welcome to bring in outside resources in your letters to one another, as Sugar often does, weaving her experiences with passages from other texts, information on nonprofit organizations, helpful websites, news articles, etc.—to help you advise the person who wrote to you. We’ll talk about these options in class. But most of what she does is narrate a time when she felt similarly to the letter writer, and uses the personal essay form as a conduit for her insights on the letter writer’s situation and feelings.