Online | Nonfiction | Workshop

6-Week Generative Personal Essay Workshop: Finding Freedom in Constraint

This is a perfect moment for writing a piercingly focused personal essay, even as our thoughts seem to spin out in all directions. The trick is finding freedom in constraint.

In this highly generative class open to writers with all levels of experience, we will alternate between close reading published works by essayists such as Lidia Yuknavitch, Grace Paley, Lawrence Sutin, and Terese Marie Mailhot for their structural elements and borrowing elements of those structures to write essays of our own. Doing so, we will begin to look for resonance between images and discover how the essay can help us question our own thoughts and surprise both ourselves and the reader with unexpected insight.

After every writing week you will receive thoughtful and thorough feedback on your draft from me and from two classmates. I will also share with you a personal essay “formula” that has helped me focus and write three published essays during chaotic times—and I will help you invent your own personal essay formula that you can return to as a meditative container long after our class ends.

Students will leave class with drafts of three new essays as well as a deeper understanding of how to continue generating new essays.

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 Zoom calls will have automated transcription enabled. Please let us know ([email protected]) if you have any questions or concerns about accessibility. 

Check out this page for details about payment plans and discount opportunities.  


- Think about craft aspects such as image, tone, structure, point-of-view, and connotative language, so that you can make active decisions in your work

- Discover material from your life you might never have put on the page otherwise, and see which subjects are rich for you and your readers

- Experience the way working with constraints, such as a predetermined form, can give you freedom to investigate your material more deeply

- Begin to recognize your unique sensibility

- Learn to read as a writer (rather than as a reviewer or a book club member)

- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


Weeks 1, 3, and 5: Students will complete 5-20 pages of reading and share their responses to the readings with the class. Weeks 2, 4, and 6: Students will generate a new short essay and read essays by two classmates. Each student will receive written feedback from two peers and from the instructor. Students will be expected to provide verbal and written feedback on their classmates’ work.


Week One: Reading Week

Introductions; What Is the Personal Essay?; Your favorite writers.

Week Two: Writing Week

Week Three: Reading Week

Week Four: Writing Week

Week Five: Reading Week

Week Six: Writing Week (Adventures in Structure)

Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard is the author a novel, The Risk of Us, and a memoir about her father's unsolved murder, The Lost Night. Her essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, StoryQuarterly, Zyzzyva, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other venues. After earning her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, she served there as Joan Bebe Teaching Fellow and Interim Director of Undergraduate Writing. Her teaching philosophy can be found on her website at


On THE RISK OF US: "An emotionally complex and amazingly suspenseful novel about love and fear."

Jenny Offill

"Rachel Howard has given us a portrait of family-building and attachment that is at once beautiful and painful, serious and funny, page-turning and insightful. I was deeply moved by this novel, a powerful reminder of the risks we take on whenever we love anyone."

Belle Boggs author of THE ART OF WAITING

"I’ve never read anything so beautiful about the intricacies of adoption—the process itself, and the seldom-talked-about aftermath. The prose is elegant and compressed; I often had to stop reading to catch my breath. Anyone who has ever loved a child, in any capacity, should read this book."

Jamie Quatro author of I WANT TO SHOW YOU MORE and FIRE SERMON

"I loved learning from Rachel! She is so knowledgeable, as well as being open, kind and truly interested in building a community of learners. Her expertise was really valuable for me. Her openness and kindness was crucial for me, as someone who has a lot of anxiety about showing my work. "

former student

"My courses under Rachel Howard have been so enriching, meeting and exceeding my expectations. A memorable experience, too."

former student

"[Rachel] made the class a welcoming and nurturing place. But most of all, her detailed knowledge of what she was teaching and her ability to distill our widely ranging pieces to a single aboutness statement, her ability to communicate effectively and with sensitivity all that she saw which was yet untapped potential and then to admire what was already good in very concrete terms, was priceless."

former student