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Reading Recs from Jan DeBlieu

Jan DeBlieu

Which stories in our lives most demand to be told? What themes connect them?

Jan DeBlieu will lead the Creative Nonfiction Workshop at the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2015 Squire Summer Writing Residency. Her workshop participants will study the art of the personal essay, in which scraps of material with no apparent connection can be woven together to form elegant, compelling narratives. They will learn to create what John Gardner called the “fictive dream”: writing that, whether invented or true, draws readers wholly into their worlds.

Here, Jan talks a bit about what attendees can expect if they register for her class, and what she considers essential reading for anyone hoping to write compelling nonfiction.


In our sessions together, we will critique each other’s work, as well as look at true stories in which the authors skillfully include the components that make writing successful—compelling narratives, believable characters, and pacing that keeps the reader’s attention.

Here are some examples of works that succeed beautifully in these aspects.

1. Writing a personal essay can be an exploration for writer and reader alike. In his essay “Buckeye,” Scott Russell Sanders skillfully demonstrates how to bring a person—in this case his father—to life on the page, while telling a poignant, satisfying, and deeply moving story. How does he accomplish this? We’ll be examining this piece to see. Here’s a link to the essay in the online journal Terrain:

2. Love it or hate it, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a page-turner, as well as a blockbuster bestseller. Even people who complain about the author’s self-absorption have difficulty putting the book down. Why?

The same is true of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work. This prolific and acclaimed Norwegian writer is penning a six-volume autobiography (yes, really, and he’s not that old), and the first four volumes are quite popular in Europe. Many readers commented that Knausgaard’s two-part article “My Saga” was pretty strange—but that they just had to finish it.

What compels us to keep reading certain works? How do they pull us in? We’ll discuss this with an eye toward mixing some of that same irresistible quality into our own work.

3. John McPhee can make any subject interesting. He’s also a master of powerful, succinct description. In The Control of Nature, he tells the story of three different landscapes and how they shape the people within them. My favorite part of the book comes in the opening pages of the third section, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains.” Take a look at how McPhee crafts the opening scene—which features a family being trapped when an avalanche of rocks descends on their house.


The NCWN 2015 Squire Summer Writing Residency runs July 23-26 at East Carolina University in Greenville. Registration is open through July 8, but only to the first forty-eight registrants. Don’t delay: register now!