“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” —Virginia Woolf
We are all unreliable narrators. We carry our biases, our myopia, into all that we do and see. In this class, we will learn how to calibrate a first-person voice in nonfiction work. The clearer we render ourselves on the page, full of specific failings and advantages, the greater access we grant a reader to view the full contours of an idea. However, a first-person voice used in excess or without intentionality can distract from an idea or overstate the writer's importance. To hone our own abilities and judgment in the deployment of this voice, we will read and study writers such as Eula Biss, Jenny Zhang, Zadie Smith, and Wesley Morris.
This is a four-week seminar that will involve close readings and paired writing assignments. It's intended for writers of all skill levels. Students can expect to leave the class with an idea of how to pitch and craft an essay that speaks to some large idea through a carefully calibrated first person lens.
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.
- The utility of anecdotes in nonfiction writing
- How tone can shift in dramatic ways based on minor changes
- Discover how the writing process begins at a raw state of self-examination
- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Students will be expected to submit two writing assignments over the course of the seminar— the second more ambitious in scope and length than the first—and to engage in small writing exercises on their own time, which will not be submitted. Students will also be asked to keep up with reading throughout the four weeks and be prepared for class discussions.
Students will be provided both with written and verbal feedback from the instructor, in the form of regular written assessments on assignments, and the opportunity to talk one on one. Students will not be asked to give feedback on their peers’ assignments.
Week One: We read and discuss Jenny Zhang's “Far Away From Me.” Students will be expected to complete an at-home writing exercise that involves an old memory.
Week Two: We read and discuss Zadie Smith's “Generation Why.” Students must submit a 1,500 word piece that entwines cultural criticism on a specific item (book, movie, song, TV show, etc.) with a personal perspective
Week Three: We read and discuss Wesley Morris' “My Mustache, Myself.” Students will begin work on their final assignment, for submission next week—an essay with pitch on a "big idea" that weaves in a cultural item and a memory or snatch of personal background.
Week Four: We read and discuss Eula Biss' “A House Is Not A Home.” Students complete their final assignment for submission.
Mallika Rao is a writer, with bylines at or forthcoming at T Magazine, New York Magazine, Believer Magazine, the New York Times, the Atlantic dot com, and elsewhere. She writes profiles, essays and cultural criticism, and is interested in how form, language, and authorial voice can be used to serve an idea.
"Mallika Rao possesses all the elements I dream of in a writer: a distinctive voice, lyrical prose, clarity and depth of thought. But most importantly, she has a way of seeing the world that leaves me feeling changed, emotionally or intellectually. She is the first writer I think of when I'm looking for someone who can effortlessly use the personal to tell a story that speaks to a larger cultural dynamic. She brings herself into stories judiciously, with a sense of purpose, and always in service of a larger truth."
“Mallika Rao is one of those extraordinary writers whose work I will always seek out and read across any medium. It’s her artful sentences in her essays, reporting and cultural criticism that reels me in, and her incisive and unique point of view that keeps me reading — able to toggle so adeptly between the personal and the broader contexts. Upon each read and re-read, I learn something new from Rao’s work.”
"No matter the subject, Mallika approaches nonfiction writing with deep thought, care, and a strong understanding of the tensions and mystery that permeate any human relationship. She’s a brilliant portraitist whether writing about a stranger, a family member, or herself—one who steers clear of the easy conclusions in favor of nuance. It’s hard to imagine a better teacher for a class on the difficult art of writing in first person."
"To write with intention is difficult, and daunting; Mallika appreciates craft in a way that few people do. She’s not interested in straw men, or tidy conclusions. She is also not afraid to search for her target, mulling over possibilities in real-time. Her approach to writing has always made me proud to count her as a colleague."