In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell outlines what he sees as the “great motives” for writing prose. The fourth of these is “political purpose,” which Orwell defines as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” “No book is genuinely free from political bias,” Orwell writes. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” This conviction—an urgent, abiding sense of political purpose—guided Orwell’s work for much of his life, and a similar conviction guides the work of many writers today.
In this class, open to writers of all levels, we will read, discuss, and write political nonfiction in a range of genres and styles, from op-eds and cultural criticism to literary journalism and memoir. We’ll read and analyze work by writers like James Baldwin, Cathy Park Hong, Zadie Smith, Lacy M. Johnson, and Hilton Als. Students will write and receive feedback on three short exercises over the course of the class and one longer piece, and we will consider what it means, as Orwell wrote in 1946, “to make political writing into an art.”
Students will leave the class with a greater understanding of the many forms and styles that political nonfiction can take, as well as a sense of how to shape, revise, and pitch their own op-eds, essays, commentary, and stories.
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.
- Receive written and verbal feedback from the instructor and verbal feedback from your peers on your writing (three short exercises and one longer piece) and engage in discussion about a range of readings
- Learn about and try out different forms and styles of political nonfiction, including op-eds, cultural criticism, literary journalism, and personal essays
- Learn about the process of pitching and publishing short nonfiction pieces like op-eds and essays
- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Students should expect to complete about an hour of reading each week and be prepared to write three short exercises (under 500-1,000 words) over the course of the class. Students will also turn in one longer piece or an excerpt of one (up to 1,500 words).
Week 1: The Op-Ed
Week 2: Cultural Criticism
Week 3: Memoir & Personal Essays
Week 4: Literary Journalism & Reportage
Week 5: Pitching & Workshopping
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, Longreads, Literary Hub, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing and an MS in journalism from Columbia University, where she taught first-year writing and ran an on-campus writing workshop for military veterans. In 2018, she was one of the winners of the Poets & Writers Amy Award for poetry.
Photo Credit: Grace Ann Leadbeater
"I am continually impressed by Kiley’s rangy intelligence, her effortless prose style, and the fluidity with which she moves between writing essays, criticism, and poetry. Her ability to deep dive into her subject matter, particularly American history, and rescue what has been lost to us with such energy and fierce tenderness is amazing."
“I came for the stories but stayed for the deeply researched connections, uncommon analysis and sentence-level precision. Kiley Bense is a writer of scales—hers is work that somehow finds balance without pulling punches, using details large and small, plucked from the past, to illuminate the present. Kiley writes for all of us here and now as well as those who will come after.”
"Kiley Bense brilliantly combines a historian's tenacious research with a journalist's passion for plot and character. And as I know firsthand from having taught her in a seminar on non-fiction books, she is also an incisive and supportive editor of other writers' work."
“When I took Kiley's course, I was amazed by both her breadth of knowledge and her teaching skills. I've been a college teacher for over 30 years, and I know how hard it is to wrangle all the information needed while organizing class time and inspiring students -- Kiley managed to do all that and use teaching techniques that I will certainly ‘borrow' for use in my classes. This was my first class on reportage, and it definitely changed my writing and my way of reading and understanding information out in the world.”
“Kiley's amazing efficiency in anticipating the exact questions that plague growing writers, shows both her sensitivity to her students as well as her understanding of effective online teaching. Beyond the writing I produced during her short class, working with Kiley gave me newfound confidence to approach the outside world as a writer.”
“I took a class with Kiley. It was very well organized and expertly taught. She was instantly able to help the class create an open, supportive community—so much so that several of us continued meeting after the course and are still in touch. A family emergency prevented me from attending many of the class meetings, but I learned a lot from the course materials she put together, and I am still drawing inspiration from them.”
"I had the opportunity to take Kiley's Crafting Literary Reportage course this summer and the experience has been instrumental for my writing. My background is primarily in personal essay and academic writing, so I was a little nervous about how my project would fit into the course. But Kiley was receptive to my ideas and guided me in the right direction to develop a piece that both employed the skills highlighted in the course and incorporated my goals. Beyond that, Kiley's feedback throughout the planning exercises and the final product was always incisive and helpful. I have already been able to apply these insights to other projects I'm working on."
“Kiley prepared a rich amount of teaching material for each class, including slides, reading assignments, primary historical sources, guest speakers, and independent and small group exercises. Despite the wide variety of content, classes were well-paced and never felt rushed. Kiley was also an excellent facilitator of group discussions. Even though I signed up for the class with a specific essay in mind, one of our writing prompt exercises inspired me to find a new angle on my subject and I came out with two essay drafts instead of just one.”