Places have pulse and memory. Places breathe and shift. More than just a site or setting, a place often takes the shape of a character: taking significant, often shifting, space in our knowledge of self. Whether writing about a house, a street, a city, a region, or a country, a sense of place is central to constructing (and deconstructing) a sense of identity in personal narrative.
This course is intended for nonfiction writers of all levels seeking to begin or complete essays or memoirs that explore their relationship with a physical environment. Studying Joan Didion's California, Alexander Chee's New York, Kiese Laymon's Mississippi, Joy Priest's Kentucky, Latria Graham's South Carolina, Natalia Sylvester's map of borders and bodies, Diana Cejas' tobacco farm, Toni Jensen's classroom, and the instructor's now-notorious home, we will draw from various forms, techniques, angles, and approaches to writing about place. Each week, we will look at select passages from two to three writers, take prompts from their oeuvre to generate new work or revise projects in progress, and learn to look at place as an extension of our persons.
Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.
- Practical writing techniques for place-based memoir and essay
- Generative prompts (of various forms) from four weekly sessions that build your confidence in constructing a strong sense of place
- Personalized feedback from the author of a memoir and essay collection, and the editor of several books on place(s), including an essay anthology on the American South
- Identify markets and opportunities for nonfiction writers
- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Students will read two to three excerpts or essays before every weekly session. At each Zoom session, the instructor will break down forms, techniques, angles, and approaches to place, and will field questions from the group. After each session, writing prompts will be assigned. After the third session, students may submit one work (up to 2,000 words) generated during the course to submit to the instructor. Work will be returned with personalized feedback on the fourth session, including ideas on where the particular piece may find its, well, place... and how the writer can help lead it home.
Week 1: What is a city but its people?
- Read excerpts/essays by Didion, Chee, Laymon
Week 2: Rhythm, repetition, and breaks in "tight" spaces
- Read excerpts/essays by Priest and Graham
Week 3: In here and out there
- Read excerpts/essays by Sylvester and Jensen
Week 4: My country is my city is my street is my home is me - writing family history
- Read excerpts/essays by Barnes and Cejas
Cinelle Barnes is a memoirist, essayist, and educator from Manila, Philippines, and is the author of Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir and Malaya: Essays on Freedom, and the editor of A Measure of Belonging: 21 Writers of Color on the New American South. Her work has appeared or been featured in the New York Times, Longreads, Garden & Gun, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed, Catapult, Literary Hub, and CNN Philippines, and has received support from the John and Susan Bennett Memorial Arts Fund, the Focus Fellowship, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. She's a contributing editor at Catapult.
"Reminiscent of both Jeanette Walls’s memoir, THE GLASS CASTLE (2005), and Sandra Cisneros’s seminal novel THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET (1984), [MONSOON MANSION] is a story of a tragic childhood told in a remarkably uplifting voice. Barnes imbues scenes from her interrupted childhood with an artistic touch that reads like literary fiction. Luminescent and shattering, Barnes’s first book is a triumph: a conquering of the past through the power of the written word.”
“I write because I am the last to remember,’ Cinelle Barnes tells us in her essay ‘Why I Write Memoir.’ MALAYA is a sensitive, vibrant book that will help so many of us remember and reflect on the stories we shouldn’t forget. Barnes’s deft writing crosses gaps in time, understanding, and experience, illuminating important truths about our country and culture while also allowing us to bear witness to her own fight for healing, justice, and belonging. MALAYA is a book we need, and Cinelle Barnes is a writer to treasure.”
"Cinelle Barnes has compiled the most diverse portrayal of the contemporary South I've read to date. These beautifully-written, clear-eyed essays present the American South through the eyes of its Black and brown voices and expand the reader's view of belonging to or hailing from the region. I love this collection and its depictions complicate the South in ways that mainstream America sometimes refuses to believe about our ugly/beautiful South. A MEASURE OF BELONGING is a major contribution to the canon of Southern literature and each of the writers give of themselves fully. It is a book for our times. Welcome to the 21st century!"
"Cinelle, your feedback is incredible. Thank you! Your notes resonated with me and I am so grateful!"
"Well organized, though-provoking, thorough. Explained boundaries and strategies AND modeled them. Clear, relevant, humane. Excellent teaching of a sensitive topic. WOW!"
"Cinelle deals with extraordinarily difficult material with a very sensitive audience and is mindful while remaining instructive and sharing her story and experience - nice job!"
"The instructor provided a wealth of information, not only about content around the topical area but also about the process. Her incorporation of her own writings in the workshop was powerful and greatly enhanced the class. I bought her book MONSOON MANSION immediately afterward!"