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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 313-315
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The Flow of River Writing:
Framing a Creative Nonfiction Class
Karen S. Uehling
Particular places have long intrigued writers. Henry David Thoreau (1995) wrote about Walden Pond; Jon Krakauer (1996) wrote about Alaska; Eddy Harris (1998) wrote about the Mississippi River. Building on the idea of place, I designed a creative nonfiction course that centers on the Boise River, which flows alongside my campus. During the spring semester of 2002, students made four observations of the river and read Mary Clearman Blew's Written on Water (2001), a collection of essays on Idaho rivers. Using local natural phenomena and writing on other regions, this course could be adapted to other geographical locations and themes.
The river project offered several advantages. Students catalogued the rivers themselves: their locations, directions of flow, and drainages. They were introduced to eighteen regional writers and began to feel part of this community. They noticed how authors crossed boundaries, often incorporating description, narrative, and memoir with history, fact, and argument; and they reveled in the rich metaphorical meanings of rivers. This project also provided a specific focus in what was otherwise a loosely constructed class based on journal keeping, memoir, personal essays, and segmented essays, with flexible topics. The river project provided a meeting place within that varied writing.
During the first class session in January, the students and I hiked down to the river to make notes. This sensory observation became the first journal entry. It was 4:45 P.M. when I began writing in a rough script with numb hands. My notes include ducks at rest, immobile; barren bushes and trees; white rounded rocks; dry leaves and twigs; geese honking; seven male runners wearing brightly colored sweats, hats, and gloves talking and laughing; stagnant water with leaves moving beneath the surface; a fast moving stream with white caps across a rock median, but closer to me, still water.
I often walk to work, and to enter campus I cross a footbridge that spans the river. Doing so, I notice day-to-day changes: the occasional dusting of snow on riverbanks, winter streambed dredging for flood control, the slow return of life as spring approaches, the lush, green leafiness of early summer. As the term continued, I reminded students to make additional river observations. [End Page 313]
The course was structured around three texts and several writing assignments. In addition to the regional writing of Blew's Written on Water (2001), we used Sheila Bender's Keeping a Journal You Love (2001) and Bill Roorbach's Writing Life Stories (1998), a craft-based rhetoric on creative nonfiction. The major assignment was a twenty-five-page portfolio, to include the Boise River essay and pieces representing memoir and segmentation. Informal writing assignments consisted of a journal and drafts in progress.
Students kept a "writer's journal" each week; entries derived from prompts in Bender and Roorbach, responses to the river essays, river observations, and open-ended writing. In their journals, students also made a continuing list of river language—from the essays, from their own thinking and talking, and from exploiting a thesaurus. Each week students submitted a "journal set" comprised of raw journal pages clipped together (for privacy), a description of the contents of that week's journal, and a typed journal excerpt. The process of rereading their journals and selecting material to excerpt requires thinking about writing—as Donald Murray (2002) suggests, listening for a creative tension, feeling a focus emerge, being surprised, or noticing a vivid detail. Journal entries and excerpts provided the seeds of essays.
We workshopped essay drafts in progress, and these pieces could later be combined into longer works. A useful revision technique, suggested by Roorbach (1998), is to interlace two existing pieces into a segmented essay, thus interweaving two seemingly unrelated narratives, but stories that are nonetheless connected because they are told by the same writer.
Journaling, excerpting, drafting, revising, and polishing built directly into the fabric of the course the experience of writing as process and the centrality of revision over...