Nonfiction Writer Discovers His Creativity

Student Thomas Farley shares his personal experience in creative nonfiction

When Thomas Farley enrolled in Creative Nonfiction Workshop, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Already a published writer of nonfiction for magazines, newspapers and websites, Farley had been looking to bring something more to his writing. Berkeley's reputation and Farley’s own curiosity about how he could improve as a writer motivated him to enroll in a course that would allow him some expression of creativity.

Photo of writing student Thomas Farley

“After all,” Farley says, “who doesn’t want to be more creative?” 

How is creative nonfiction different from creative writing? Instructor David Rompf likes to refer to author and creative nonfiction pioneer John McPhee, who once said that “creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

“I like the elegant distillation of his definition,” says Rompf. “I urge my students to make more of what they have in their early drafts. What does that mean for the writer? It means mining the facts and the narrative for deeper insights, specific details, nuanced observations and, ideally, some very surprising connections. It means taking detours, not from the facts but from the surface. Creative nonfiction implicates the writer as an explicit traveler on that journey—a traveler who probes self-understanding as an essential part of the quest.”

Farley shared his journey with Extension, telling us what he learned about writing in this genre.

On discovering something new:
“Creative nonfiction refers to a genre and a specific type of writing that I had been unfamiliar with. The course focused on personal nonfiction writing, such as memoirs and personal essays. In it, I read selections I might not normally read, from well-known authors as well as the writing from people I didn’t know at all.

“The recommended readings in The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books, 1995) were nuanced and complex. In my previous writing, clarity—above all else—was always the standard. In a 600-word newspaper story, the writer has absolutely no room for layers and cryptic themes; here, in this course, reading assignments were long-form pieces that indulged in this.”

On the online classroom environment:
“Feedback from instructor David Rompf was always direct and guiding. We tangled now and then, but in a good way. And he and I even continued to exchange e-mails about writing, long after the class ended.”

Instructor Feedback

Photo of writing instructor David Rompf

“I try to respond to students’ writing with the same kind of depth, specificity and broad-mindedness that I encourage them to strive for in their assignments.”
David Rompf

“During the critiquing of each other’s work, classmates often developed points that were not brought out by the instructor—or even by oneself. And it was always interesting to read what the other students were working on. Such a learning environment is good for any writer; this is an exercise class, and a writer needs to do the exercises.”

On knowing yourself:
“In the end, I affirmed I already knew my voice as a writer. But, because of the course, I also found the opportunity to write and read about topics I would not have normally considered. I never would have thought of approaching a literary review because, well, I was completely unfamiliar with them. As a freelancer, I am always pursuing paid work, but I never thought or knew about the possibilities in the creative nonfiction genre. Now I do.”

On next steps in writing in the genre:
“My last paper for the class was a long essay—a personal memoir. The instructor liked it very much, and he encouraged me to send it to different literary magazines, which I did. Eventually, I even started browsing literary review lists on my own, including Narrativemagazine.com and Submittable.com. My piece went out to at least eight different magazines before acceptance in Temenos Journal, and I hear that is typical. One shouldn’t be discouraged.

“Without this class, I would have never taken the time to delve into the circumstances of something that happened to me 25 years ago. But with this class, I had an assignment, a word count and a deadline. It was time to write and bring the past forward! I’d strongly recommend the Creative Nonfiction Workshop to any writer who wants to stretch their literary muscles. Exercise, remember? Look over the recommended texts to see what may be discussed. And take a chance on doing some creative nonfiction writing.”