Teaching Creative Essays in the Composition Classroom: An AWP Addendum

At the AWP Conference, I presented on a few panels, one called “The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide to the Composition Classroom,” which Michelle Burke graciously organized. In my talk, I emphasized the importance of teaching the essay as an exploratory form where students are freed to risk uncertainty and, hopefully in the process of writing, discover something new. As Philip Lopate said recently in his Feb. 16 NY Times piece, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” “The essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt.”

I promised the attendees that I’d post the prompt on my blog. So what follows is the actual prompt I’ve used, and underneath that, a brainstorming exercise for pre-writing. Feel free to e-mail me if you’d like e-copies of the documents in Word form. Good luck, and let me know how it goes if you decide to take a stab at this assignment.

THE PROMPT: An Imitation of Cofer–Personal Essay and Analysis

Heather Kirn Lanier

Format:  This essay is divided into two parts.  The first part is 3-4 pp and divided into sections; the second part is 2-3 pp.  Double-spaced; heading (your name, e mail, instructor’s name, course, date, draft or final); title; page numbers; stapled.

Part I:  Writing as an Insider

(3-4 pp.) Your assignment is to write a personal essay that imitates Cofer’s rhetorical structure and/or approach and that captures a personal truth about an issue of identity. You are not imitating Cofer’s content, but her style.  Feel free to use similar subsections that Cofer uses or invent new categories of your own. You can choose to write a “Story of My Body,” as Cofer did, or you can write on a different topic altogether. Even though you are free to write on a variety of topics, your essay should still capture a personal truth about any issue related to identity.

Part II:  Writing as an Outsider

(2-3 pp.)  In this section, you will perform a close-reading analysis of your own text, similar to the analyses you performed in the first assignments.  You will write about yourself in the third person (using phrases such as “the author” and “Kirn writes…”).  Address the following questions: What is the personal essay’s overall meaning and how does the writer communicate it?  How do the significant parts of the text add up to create the whole?  You can choose to focus on any strategy relevant to a textual analysis, such as the development of a binary opposition, the structure of the sections, or the telling details and examples that communicate meaning.  Whatever your focus, you should still generate an analytical thesis for this section.


  • As Donald Murray said, “an effective piece of writing has a single dominant meaning, and everything in the text must advance that meaning.” While your essay will be broken up into sections, you must choose details and anecdotes to advance a single meaning.  That’s where focus is important.
  • You will not necessarily know what that meaning is until you begin drafting.  Just like essays of textual analysis, it will take you some time to develop your ideas and then determine the best way to present them.  Prewriting and early drafting steps are crucial in discovering what you want to say.
  • It might help to brainstorm some approaches to this essay.  Perhaps you’ll want to keep Cofer’s title, but not entirely.  What other stories could you tell?  “The Story of my Hands”?  “The Story of my Wardrobe”?  Be creative.  But think about whether that “story” (or whatever other approach you choose) would have larger significance to you and to issues of identity.
  • Here’s a strange paradox of writing: writers reach the universal through the personal.  In other words, the more specific you get, the greater impact your story can have on a general audience.  You might think it would be the opposite—“write generally, so everyone can connect with your writing”—but that’s not true.  Use as many details as you can! Think of the five senses, and appeal to all of them in your essay somehow.   The more detailed, the realer your essay will be.


A strong “part I”…

  • Is focused around a thoughtful (though implied) thesis that raises an issue of identity and answers the “so what” question.
  • Avoids offering morals, clichés or simplistic messages in favor of presenting and investigating complex ideas.
  • Represents those complex ideas through telling details, examples, and sensory imagery. (“Showing rather than telling.”)
  • Is arranged in a way that advances the essay’s implied thesis.
  • Makes use of some approaches used by Cofer, including structure, style, voice, arrangement, and/or epigraph.
  • Displays a competent, consistent style and a mastery of language by making artful choices in diction, syntax, sentence-variation, tone, and so forth.
  • Uses sentence structure, word choice, grammar, spelling, and punctuation correctly and in a way that enables rather than hinders clear and effective communication.

A strong “part II”

  • Offers a central argument about the meaning of the personal essay (“part I”).
  • Presents a reading of the text that is insightful, analytical, objective, and thoughtful.
  • Makes descriptive and analytical claims to advance the argument about the meaning of the text.
  • Uses textual evidence to support the claims.
  • Has coherence: progresses logically and smoothly, with appropriate transitions indicating connections between ideas.
  • Uses sentence structure, word choice, grammar, spelling, and punctuation correctly and in a way that enables rather than hinders clear and effective communication.
  • Displays a competent, consistent style and a mastery of language by making artful choices in diction, syntax, sentence-variation, tone, and so forth.

Personal Essay Brainstorming Activity

Answer the following questions in a “free-write” style.

  1. What does the word “identity” mean to you?
  1. After reading the definition, what else might you add to your understanding of the word?
  1. What constitutes (or “makes up”) YOUR identity?  What groups do you belong to?  What are the different parts of yourself?
  1. In what way do you have more than one identity?
  1. How has your identity changed over the years?
  1. How does your identity change, according to whom you are with?
  1. What has been an important part of your identity?  Why?
  1. What has been a difficult part of your identity?  Why?
  1. Looking over your responses, what important issues come up?  What might you like to write more about?

Share your ideas with a partner.  Discuss the following:

  1. What would be the focus of your essay?
  1. How might you title it?
  1. How might you structure it?  What subsections could you use?

Consider Chapter 1 of Tell It Slant, “The Basics of Good Writing in Any Form” and apply the advice.

  1.  Make a list of concrete details that demonstrate or in some way connect to your issue of identity.  (Particular foods?  Sounds?  Smells?  Objects?)
  1. Leaving plenty of room in between, make a list of important “scenes” from your life that relate to your topic.  (Describe them in a brief fragment, for instance, “The time we lost the championship game.”)
  1. Under each “scene,” list any sensory details that come to mind when you recall that scene.  Also list any lines of dialogue you remember.
  1. Review your plans.  Circle any details or scenes that you definitely want to include in your writing.  Ask yourself, under what “subsection” would they go?  How might you arrange them?

IDENTITY–Some definitions

[From MSN Encarta]

1. what identifies somebody or something: the name or essential character that identifies somebody or something

2. essential self: the set of characteristics that somebody recognizes as belonging uniquely to himself or herself and constituting his or her individual personality for life

3. sameness: the fact or condition of being the same or exactly alike

4. mathematics equation true for all its variables: a mathematical equation that remains valid whatever values are taken by its variables