A great entry point for all prose writing—fiction or nonfiction.

Hi Tara. In your essay you ask `Do writing teachers fear tissues littered across the floor, strangers breaking down?' My answer is that it depends who's using the tissues.
I teach Creative Non-Fiction and Creative Writing to people over the age of fifty. Mostly, the class age averages out at seventy to seventy five. So in a group of eight students we have about six hundred years of life experience around the table. Potentially, that's a lot of built up angst and truck-loads of tissues but it's not why I try to impress on new members that they shouldn't think of writing as therapy. It's because I want to discourage the idea that creating art somehow necessitates suffering. It doesn't, although it can provide a tool for expressing it and dealing with it.
Like anyone who has done this kind of teaching I've had grim stories told to me. There have been ones about being bullied, being sexually abused and, on one occasion, about coming back from school after a WW2 bombing raid and seeing air raid warden Mum walking up the road with a head in a string bag. All were powerful accounts about major events in people's lives but there are also people who can write magic about the making and breaking of daily routines and, for all I know, losing their slippers. Either way, it's about how they tell the story.
Either way, sometimes, after someone has read their work aloud to the group I will look around my class and the only dry eyes in the room are the author's. I think, in a sense, that's how it should be. If it means a few tissues littering the floor I can cope. Reverse the situation to sobbing author and dry eyed audience and `Please gods, no!' Honestly, I can't think of anything worse. Fear doesn't begin to cover it.

Co-Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program

Simon Whaley, Writers Bureau tutor, answers questions about writing non-fiction.
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Co-Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program

First, Dave and I established a competitive program: To Think, To Write, To Publish (shortened to Think Write Publish), supported by the National Science Foundation, which, over a period of four years beginning in 2010, brought “next generation” (meaning early-career) science policy scholars and creative nonfiction writers together to learn from one another. The scholars shared their ideas and their methods with the writers, who shared their skill and experience in writing narrative nonfiction. Paired in teams, they tried to write true stories capturing the scholar’s research in narrative so that the world at large could understand it.

Do fiction and nonfiction writing have anything in common?

I quickly discovered there were two basic challenges to figure out in this regard. First, science policy is rather heady and theoretical—not easy to explain and sometimes based on ideas of what might happen rather than realities. It’s relatively easy to describe and dramatize things that have already happened, but harder to apply nonfiction techniques to the uncertain future. Which led to the second challenge. Since policy was hard to pin down and capture in words—it’s short on life and death stories, dramatic spacewalks, amazing apps—journalists, specifically, and writers, generally, tend to ignore or marginalize policy. They, too, are in a sort of bubble. And so, I soon realized, there was not a large body of compelling published narratives about science policy and the responsibilities of innovation.

Push past obstacles to write like your pen is on fire—fiction or nonfiction.
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While there are clear parallels between reflecting in creative nonfiction and reflecting in our private lives, academia—like the larger culture—remains anxious about crossing into the land of therapy. Do writing teachers fear tissues littered across the floor, strangers breaking down? Or are we afraid of opening our own wounds? We’re trained to compartmentalize relationships and responsibilities, to be professionals. Writing is about writing. Want to be safe? Stick to nature, or call it fiction.

Learn Tricks of the Creative Nonfiction Writer's Trade

Inspired by a from New York’s Ann Friedman, we highlight one exceptional nonfiction Atlantic piece a year starting in 1960 (with some notable mentions from the previous 100 years) written by women. If there’s an unmentioned piece you especially love and want to describe why, please email us at .

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