ENG 290 Crafting Nonfiction Writing Through Photography

Russ Rymer, Th 1:00 PM-2:50 PM

 Creative Nonfiction Writing Through Photography (or Photography as an Aperture to Creative Nonfiction Writing)

To be very clear, this isn’t a photography course. Or at least, if your photography improves as a result of this class, that is no fault of your professor. This is, instead, a creative nonfiction writing course, and its aim is to improve your writing, using photography as a muse, a guide, a foil, an inspiration, a caution, a lash and a tool. In the course of the course, we will be taking some photos, with whatever kind of camera you have on hand--digital, film, cell phone, home-made, professional or throwaway. We will also be doing a lot of writing--repeat: a lot--in forms ranging from snippets to blog posts to profiles to fully realized long-form, reported essays. 

The ancient battle of word-vs.-image had an escalation in the 20th century, when photography transformed journalism. The objectivity and realism of the photograph--its undeniability--established a new and more rigorous adherence to verifiable fact disembodied from intuition and judgment. That left the writer with a lot of questions. What value can subjectivity lend to fact? Can “truth” ever really be objective? How can “creative” and “nonfiction” peacefully (and fruitfully) coexist? These are fundamental writing questions every narrative nonfiction writer must confront. We will use photography, the great modern arbiter of objectivity and the freezer of moments, to help us grapple with the essentials of narrative writing: the use of structure and metaphor, the ways one story can operate on multiple levels, the presence of the narrator (or the presence of the absence of the narrator), use of tone, voice, tense, place and pacing, thesis and lede. And we will explore how creative forms beyond the prose piece and the photograph--e.g. music, movies, and poetry--can also guide our approach to writing accomplished nonfiction.


Students will be responsible for several written (and self photo-illustrated) assignments duringthe semester: a short (1200 word) profile article about someone the author did not previouslyknow, a short place description based on one’s own snapshots, and a 3500- to 5000-word long-form story, involving all the aspects of a narrative magazine feature, accompanied by the author’s photographs, on a subject to be worked out between the professor and the student at the beginning of the semester. In addition, weekly posts to the class blog will be required, each post using one of the student's photographs as a takeoff for quick, impressionistic (but true!) vignettes.


Please submit several writing samples adding up to approximately 1000-1200 words. The sample(s) can be published, classwork, or private, and can be any genre, but should display your skills, and should give an indication of the type of writing you would like to do. In addition, if you have an idea what you might like to work on for a final project for the class, a topic that would make a good magazine-style story, please let me know. You can email all materials to me directly at rrymer@smith.edu, or drop off a hard copy with Jennifer Roberts in the English Dept. office in Pierce Hall 105. The deadline for submitting samples is Wednesday, January 16, 2013.