21W.731-1 | Spring 2004 | Undergraduate
Writing and Experience: Exploring Self in Society



The four major Writing Assignments, as well as other writing exercises in your Reader - Writer Notebook/Journal, are at the center of the course. Each writing assignment will build upon the skills of the previous piece(s) that you’ve crafted. In each unit, reading assignments and preliminary writing exercises will prepare you for the essay or short fiction piece that you will be crafting. Over the course of the semester, you will revise each of your pieces after you receive feedback from the instructor and your classmates. Additional writing assignments include response letters to fellow classmates on their work due at the scheduled workshops. You will also keep a typed reader/writer notebook of writing exercises and will give at least one Oral Presentation and a reading from one of your pieces of writing at the end of the term. As the semester ends, you will submit a Final Portfolio of all four writing assignments, first versions and revisions. The portfolio is due at the last class with the revision of the fourth piece.

Sample Title Page (PDF)

Reader-Writer Notebook/Journal: Responding to Essays/Creative Nonfiction (PDF)

Suggested length of each journal entry: 1-1 1/2 typed pages, double-spaced.

The purpose of the notebook/journal is to help you to “read as a writer,” paying careful attention to the ways in which authors craft their pieces to address an intended audience(s).  Each class you usually will submit one short journal entry on an assigned reading. Some journal assignments will be given out in class.  However, in other journal entries, you can choose how to focus on one or more aspects of the writer’s craft.  These entries will help prepare you for class discussions as well as your own writing. Sometimes I will ask one or two students to distribute copies of a journal assignment(s) to the class to stimulate discussion.

Here are some general questions to consider in reading essays for class. In writing (unassigned) journal entries, you will probably only focus on a few of these questions. However, thinking about all of them will help you prepare for class. Later in the term, I will distribute a response guideline sheet for the short stories that we read.

  • What is/are the potential meanings of the title? How does the writer introduce the essay?
  • What is the general tone of the piece - persuasive, angry, informative/neutral, ironic, humorous? What kind of language(s) does the writer use - direct and simple, colloquial, abstract/“high academic”, personal/confessional, humorous? Does the tone shift over the course of the essay? What’s the effect(s) on you as a reader? What is your impression of the writer/narrator?
  • How vividly does the writer draw upon memories of personal experience or the experiences of others? In what ways does the writer employ the tools of fiction (setting, character, dialogue)? How does the writer use imagery, symbol and metaphor?
  • What sections, paragraphs, words or sentences seem especially significant? Why? How does the writer use repetition - of words, phrases, sentences or passages - in the piece?
  • What’s the central point of the piece?
  • How does the writer end the essay? What do the introduction and conclusion as “bookends” of the piece suggest about how to read the essay?
  • How do you see this essay as connecting with other readings (for the course or outside), experiences you’ve had, and issues that you’ve thought about?
  • What have you learned as a writer from this piece? Are there any narrative techniques that you are working with (or would like to work with) in your own writing?

Writer’s Letter Assignment (PDF)

Suggested length: 1-1 1/2 typed pages, double-spaced.

Throughout the semester, I will ask you to keep a constant finger of the pulse of your own work with each writing assignment.  As I read your work, I will do so developmentally, considering your progress from the previous assignment and your goals for the next one.  We open the term, then with a reflection on your own experiences with writing: what has worked for you so far as a writer, what aspects of your writing are satisfying to you versus those which are less so, what you hope to accomplish in this course and so on. Please take a half-hour to an hour to create a portrait of yourself as a writer. These questions are intended as a guide. Don’t answer these questions in a list-like fashion! Create an engaging and readable narrative.

Some Questions to Consider:

  • How often do you write (a) for courses/assignments (b) for pleasure (c) for other purposes (e.g. job, student publication)? How often do you wish you wrote?
  • What do you like to read? Are there any specific authors who have inspired you as a writer?
  • Does the experience of writing vary for you with different types of writing e.g., technical, expository, diary, fiction)? If “yes”, say more.
  • How would you characterize yourself as a writer (this characterization may differ with specific kinds of writing such as technical and scientific writing, poetry, science fiction, etc.)? How do you think others see you as a writer?
  • What “writing rituals” (e.g. place to write, music, etc.) do you have?
  • What influences have been most helpful for you as a writer (e.g. friends/family, classes, religious, political)?
  • What has your experience in writing or English classes been like?
  • What are your goals for yourself as a writer this term?

Exploring Identity: Exercise 1.1 (PDF)

Suggested length: 1-1 1/2 typed pages, double-spaced. Please bring six copies of this exercise to class with you. We will share these exercises for feedback in small groups.

This short assignment should help to prepare you for essay #1 or another piece of creative nonfiction or short fiction that you will write during the term.  The aim of this exercise is to narrate an individual experience in vivid language and motivate the reader to engage with your writing.  If you develop 1.1 into a longer piece, you’ll have the opportunity to reflect more profoundly about this experience and connect it with wider human issues.

In this exercise, your goal is to begin to explore the roots of your own identity or the identity of someone you know well.  As you begin this assignment, identify what’s most important in life to you or your subject (core ethical or religious beliefs, social ideals, personality traits, national, cultural or ethnic identity, goals or commitments, career goals).  Write about the roots of your (or your subject’s) identity through narrating one experience such as:

  • A particularly meaningful incident or event.
  • A specific symbolic moment within a close family or personal relationship.
  • A meaningful artifact (photograph, family heirloom, sentimental object or keepsake). If you choose a photograph, you may want to append a copy to your exercise.
  • A special or “sacred” place or meaningful journey.

Be vivid, detailed and descriptive in your prose; use dialogue when appropriate.  Try to recapture the power of lived experience in the language that you use in portraying yourself (or other characters) or depicting a setting. For most writers, this means slowing down your narration so that the reader can vicariously experience the emotion of the piece.

POSTSCRIPT (a few sentences): How might this piece be interesting for a wider public readership or a specific smaller audience (e.g., the MIT community)? How might you shape this piece so that it speaks effectively to your chosen readership? What larger human issues does your experience raise? How can you connect this experience with a central idea or perspective? 

Note:  In this type of writing, it’s often best to allow ideas and perspectives (what we might call “argument” in expository writing) to emerge from the experience, rather than fitting an experience to meet the demands of a preconceived idea.

Essay 1 (PDF)

Suggested length: 4-5 typed pages, double-spaced. First Version: Submit two copies with a cover letter and Exercise 1.1, if applicable. Second Version (due two weeks later): Submit two copies, a cover letter, the marked-up first version, and Exercise 1.1, if applicable.

For both the first version and revision, please submit two copies with a cover letter to me reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. If you develop your draft from exercise 1.1, please include your marked-up exercise. When you submit your revision, please include the marked-up first version with my comments, ex. 1.1 (if applicable) and a cover letter commenting on the ways you’ve responded to the comments/suggestions of your peers (and myself) and the changes you’ve made in revision. (While it’s important to consider everyone’s comments, I don’t assume that you will necessarily agree with all the revision suggestions of your reviewers.)

Through exploring a central aspect of your own identity (or the identity of someone close to you), write an essay that reflects on your (or your subject’s) experience(s) to connect with issues that speak to a wider audience. In essays like this, it is often most effective to ground your discussion of your (or your subject’s) identity in such experience(s) as:

  • a critical event(s) or turning point(s) in life
  • a specific symbolic moment(s) within a close family or personal relationship
  • a family or personal ritual or “rite of passage”
  • a meaningful artifact (photo, sentimental object, family heirloom or keepsake)
  • a special or “sacred” place or meaningful journey

Reflect carefully on the voice that you adopt as a writer. Don’t assume that first-person narration is your only option; you can write about yourself in the third person, if you wish. Be vivid and descriptive in your prose; use the tools of fiction - character, setting and dialogue. Shape your narrative so that it clearly conveys a perspective or central idea. You may choose to incorporate secondary sources, although they are not required in this piece.

The challenge of this assignment is to shape and frame the raw material of experience and memory for a reading public. Using the lens of experience, you have a rich opportunity as a writer to communicate with readers about a wide variety of topics that evoke a shared sense of humanity.

Note: You may decide to expand or elaborate upon Exercise 1.1. Alternately, you can use 1.1 as a warm-up assignment for another essay or piece of short fiction and write about a different experience for Essay 1.

Workshop Guidelines for Essay 1 (PDF)

Essay 2 (PDF)

Suggested length: 6 typed pages, double-spaced. First Version: Submit two copies with cover letter to me reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. Second Version: Submit two copies with cover letter as well as the marked-up draft (with my comments).

Writers often use their (and others’) experiences to reflect on a broad range of social and psychological issues relevant to a wider readership.  This essay builds upon and extends the skills of Essay 1.

Explore an issue (psychological, social, ethical) through the lens of a past or current experience(s). The individual experience can be yours or that of someone else. As you narrate that experience to your readers, think carefully about your voice as a writer and the ways in which writing voice helps to establish your perspective for readers. In crafting the essay, pay careful attention to your narrative strategies:

  • choices in narration (varieties of first person, third person, mixed narration)
  • setting(s) as establishing a context for your essay
  • developing character and using dialogue
  • (if relevant) working within multiple time frames
  • using figurative language (metaphor, simile) when appropriate
  • providing a clear sense of the larger meaning of your piece while avoiding didacticism

In this assignment, you should use at least two secondary sources in the revised version. As a writer, you can integrate these sources in one or both of these ways:

  1. As support or clarification of your point of view
  2. As counterargument to your perspective

Be sure to cite your sources (use MLA form) and include a bibliography. Your revision cover letter should explain how you chose these sources and how they influenced your thinking.

If you relate to other sources (from the course or your own reading) as “deep background” informing your writing style, approach or perspective, note in your cover letter (first version and/or revision) which readings influenced either your thinking about this topic or your style as a writer.

Peer Proposal Review Guidelines (PDF)

Workshop Guidelines for Essay 2 (PDF)

Oral Presentations (PDF)

Each student will present an article from the “Writers on Writing” series. In this series, fiction and nonfiction authors discuss a wide range of issues related to writing as work:

  • rhythms of the writing life
  • using writing technology (pens, computers)
  • imagining the audience
  • dealing with the “inner critic”
  • the process of revising and rewriting
  • relationship of fiction and nonfiction
  • learning the art of storytelling
  • storytelling and family/ethnic tradition
  • creating characters and narratives
  • characters as alter egos

Each student should introduce his or her article, summarizing it and reading one or two representative paragraphs to the class. Presentations should be about 3-5 minutes.

Essay 3 (PDF)

Suggested length: 7-8 typed pages, double-spaced. First Version: Submit two copies with cover letter to me reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. Second Version: Submit two copies with cover letter as well as the marked-up draft (with my comments).

Drawing upon your own experiences or the experiences of someone close to you, write an essay that explores a social, ethical or psychological theme.

As in your previous essays, pay careful attention to the way in which you reflectively narrate your own (and/or other’s experiences) using the elements of fiction (character, setting, dialogue) within creative nonfiction. Experimenting with different approaches and styles (e.g. third person, first person - diary, letter) can help you to grow significantly as a writer. In this essay, you should incorporate interview material from at least one person and two secondary sources: (a) as epigraph quotations (b) as references (to support your view or present counterargument) cited within the essay. See Easy Writer for citation styles.

Exercise 3.1

Write a two paragraph proposal describing your plan for the essay. What (and whose) experiences will you be writing about? Who have you interviewed (or who will you interview)? What will be the major theme(s) of your essay? Why do you think this would be interesting for a reader? Bring FIVE copies with you to class.

Workshop Guidelines for Essay 3 (PDF)

Assignment/Essay 4 (PDF)

Suggested length: 8-10 typed pages, double-spaced. First Version: Submit with cover letter to me reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. Second Version: Submit with final portfolio.

For assignment #4, students have the opportunity to write either a piece of short fiction or a creative nonfiction essay (drawing upon experience) on a topic of their choice. In either your fiction or nonfiction, you may find that you want to explore in greater depth a theme from your earlier writing (essays or freewrites) or generate a new topic.

If you select the fiction option, let the reader know if you are crafting this as a short story or as a novel segment. If you submit a novel segment, write a brief prologue (1-2 paragraphs) in which you describe your plans for the novel and tell the reader where the segment will appear.

For Revision

At the end of your short story or novel segment, write a brief statement (1-2 pages) describing any outside sources that you have consulted and the ways in which course readings or other outside research influenced your piece of short fiction (e.g., plot, character, narrative style, setting, dialogue).

Workshop Guidelines for Essay 4 - Non-fiction (PDF)

Workshop Guidelines for Essay 4 - Shortfiction (PDF)

Final Portfolio (PDF)

Congratulations! Your work for the semester is nearly complete. For the final portfolio, due on the day of last session, include the draft and revised versions of each piece (together with my comments). Place old work on the left side of the portfolio, and new work on the right side.

At the beginning of your portfolio, include a 1-2 page introduction (at the front of the portfolio) that describes your writing for the term. Think of yourself as planning to publish your semester’s work as a collection of short pieces (essays, fiction). As you prepare this introduction, think about the connections between your pieces, the similarities and differences (in content and form) in your four selections. In summary, what might a reader find most interesting in your collected work? (Note: This is a descriptive, not an evaluative introduction. Don’t tell the reader what you feel are the shortcomings of your pieces!)

At the end of your portfolio, write a short evaluative letter describing how you have seen your writing improve over the course of the term. (Obviously, you will want to comment explicitly on the revision of assignment #4.) What aspects of your writing - in both nonfiction and fiction - do you want to continue to work on? (You may find it helpful to review your “writer’s letter” from the beginning of the term.)

Good luck preparing your portfolio!! An answer to a common question: you can submit your portfolio in an envelope, a folder with pockets, or a ring binder.

Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2004
Learning Resource Types
assignment Written Assignments
assignment Presentation Assignments