I heart teaching

I’ve been at this teaching game for a decade now, and most days–really, almost all of them–I feel lucky to have stumbled into a job that I love so much that I draw hearts on the whiteboard. Because I geek out about all things pedagogy, I spend a lot of time happily helping other teachers think about and plan classes and syllabi and exercises. So to cut down my phone/Skype/IM time, I thought I’d start a blog so that anyone looking for Creative Writing classroom ideas could have easy access.

Many of my exercises have been culled from the Interwebs over the years, and I will 100% try my best to give credit where and when it’s due. Many of the ideas here are things I’ve thought up in my imaginarium and tried, refined, revised, and tried again. I share everything in good faith, and if you do wind up putting anything from here on your syllabus, be a solid citizen and give credit.

Otherwise, I hope I have things to share that will be useful. If at any time you have ideas to share, don’t hesitate to hit up the comments. I’d also love feedback on things you try.

Happy teaching!



“Joy,” Zadie Smith

The first unit of my 300-level CNF class is on Meditations & Epistolaries, and the former isn’t always what I read for sport. I tend to lean toward the lyric, the memoir, the experimental. And if teaching CNF has taught me anything, it’s that all of these labels are part of an enormous Venn diagram, so of course there’s overlap. So while Zadie Smith’s “Joy” does, indeed, brush against memoir, I feel comfortable placing it in with the meditative readings.

This piece made BAE in 2014, and rightly so. I’m entirely on board with any essay that’s interested in A Tribe Called Quest, let alone one that includes the clause “blessed Q-Tip!” But of course that’s not it…

What’s so great about this essay is Smith’s stance; it would be easy to assume that this essay is about how terrific joy is. Who doesn’t love joy? But Smith, in her opening paragraph, writes, “And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage.”

This piece goes to such surprising places it serves as a terrific model for students to seek out the surprises in their own work.

“Woven,” Lidia Yuknavitch

I haven’t taught this gorgeous essay because it was published this summer, and this term is my first CNF break in a few years. I am leaving it here mostly so that I remember to add it to my Spring syllabus. I’ll come back and update this more eloquently later, but for now, if you haven’t, this one is so worth reading.

Two by Dani Shapiro

Memoir is the second unit of my 300-level CNF course–the one we spend the most time in–and “A Memoir is Not a Status Update” is one of the piece I’ve assigned on that first day because Shapiro does such a great job of cutting through some of the misconceptions that students new to nonfiction might have.

For instance:

“As I often tell my writing students, just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.”


“In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea.”

As Shapiro acknowledges, we live in the age of sharing–sometimes over-sharing–and she does a better job of laying out a simple notion quickly: the ways we engage with social media are not the same work of memoir.

Other times I’ve assigned “Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook” instead. In this, Shapiro further covers how we write memoir–and how it differs from what people might expect–and I prefer this piece because it’s a bit longer, the nuances greater. But at the start of my memoir unit, the reading load is heavy, so what I assign varies a bit.

In this piece, Shapiro writes the lines that I most often quote in class when working with students on the scope of their pieces:

“The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell.”

Ain’t it the truth?

Syllabi Bank

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies is loaded with resources for CNFers, and one of its best features is the syllabi bank.

How To Date a Stalker,CNF in [PANK]

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1. Revel in how good-looking he is, how he channels Jude Law when his lazy eye doesn’t wander, how his weaving a ghillie suit that he keeps in the rusted hutch of his white pick-up shows exceptional dedication.

2. Convince yourself it’s meaningful because he plays Nina Simone as you disrobe and paw at each other for the first time. Pay no attention when the music flips to “The Piña Colada Song.” Read more…

The Spinning Field, flash fiction, AROHO Orlando Prize

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We are silk people. That’s what I tell the dipshits at my new high school, but they call me Spider-Girl. They yell, Hey, Spider-Girl! Tarantula-Breath! Arachne! Because in Tarpon Springs, everyone’s Greek. Read more…

This piece was first published in Los Angeles Review, then reprinted by the amazing people at A Room of Her Own who awarded me the Orlando Prize.

Heliciculture, Runner-up 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize in Hunger Mountains

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Ask anyone in Greece and they will tell you the same: our snails are best. From all over they come to our village in Crete to pluck the mollusks from their swirling shells and feel the soft dissolve against their tongues. My yia-yia says other restaurants are all the time with noise at dinner, but Artemidoros is quiet, a hum. Read more…

Lisa Nikolidakis on Spencer Wise’s “The Second-Worst Rug My Father’s Ever Seen”

I wrote this for Assay‘s “My Favorite Essay to Teach.” It was impossible to pick just one, but I do love this essay by Wise. Big thanks to Assay for the pub. If you teach nonfiction and they’re not on your radar, think about following them. They rule.

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

Nikolidakis Author Photo

Lisa Nikolidakis’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in BrevityPassages North, The Rumpus,[PANK], HobartThe Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction won A Room Of Her Own’s Fall 2014 Orlando Prize and is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review. She teaches creative writing at The University of Evansville in Indiana.

One question that we investigate in my Creative Nonfiction course is how do we take that funny anecdote we tell at parties and turn it into compelling memoir? Spencer Wise’s “The Second-Worst Rug My Father’s Ever Seen,” which won Narrative Magazine’s 2013 Fall Contest, is a perfect model. Wise could easily have on his hands an essay that is only about the time he almost flunked out of school and his dad bailed him out, but I’m not sure any of us would care much. Instead, he gives us heart: a father-son story, one about…

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Sei Shonagon/Gretchen Legler

seiI teach Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things” early in the term (on the same day as William Hazlitt’s “On The Pleasure of Hating”), and let’s be honest: a Japanese court lady from the Heian period probably isn’t the most relatable to our Snapchatted (and awesome) students. But later in the term, we read Gretchen Legler’s piece “Things That Appear Ugly or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful,” a piece after Shonagon that uses her same form, a piece that let’s the students learn that they are, indeed, in discussion with works from so long ago when they begin their apprenticeship as nonfiction writers.

Both of these are list pieces in a way–just small snippets–which is great in terms of bringing varying structures into the classroom. The pairing is solid, and has worked really well for me. Later in the term we also read a piece from Agni by Greg Bottoms titled “Dinner With Strangers,” and his way in to his essay is through Hazlitt. Another solid connection.

“Silence, Stillness” CNF in Hippocampus Magazine

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I never say abuse. Instead, I slide into cliché. It was no picnic, I say. Had a rough childhood, but the texture means nothing to anyone else. Rough: my father’s cracked hands, the sound of them dragged across blankets in search of my curled body, hands full of static and Read more…