Non-fiction writing with Leah Jing McIntosh: Teen Writing Bootcamp
At the Library’s Teen Writing Bootcamp in May-June 2022, critic and essayist Leah Jing McIntosh taught teens the building blocks of non-fiction writing. Here, she shares some tips and reflections from the workshops.
The 2022 Non-fiction Teen Writing Bootcamp was built around exploring four distinct and expansive forms—the essay, the review, the profile, and the memoir. At the beginning of each workshop, we began with a writing warmup, taking a few minutes to respond to a photograph from writer and photographer Teju Cole’s Blind Spot, letting the hand move across the page. In these early moments, the writers also made sure they were settled, calm, comfortable, and ready to start writing. We shared a few of these early words and then contrasted them to Cole’s own perceptions before diving into learning about different non-fiction forms through generative writing exercises and dialogue.
In an interview with Hilton Als, Joan Didion notes the difference between fiction and non-fiction: 'Writing non-fiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolours.' During each session, we thought through what nonfiction-as-sculpture means for the essay, the review, the profile, the memoir; how notes form so much of the writing process. Though we were looking at disparate forms throughout the workshop, the practice of researching, perceiving and taking notes anchors all non-fiction writing. In following this idea of sculpture, we spoke about how notetaking is not something that happens prior to the writing process but comprises it. The workshop included a range of writing exercises shaped around this idea of making notes, including automatic writing, list-making, and collaging, with the occasional Oulipian constraint.
During the sessions, we also spoke about how a narrow vision of the writing process — or maybe a common misperception— is that writing is only ever done on the page or at a desk. As an essayist, critic, or journalist, writing is done everywhere and all the time; it is mostly thinking work, something always feeding into something else, ideas appearing in unlikely places, banal moments. Non-fiction, then, becomes a complex constellation of perceptions and moods, facts and figures, of analysis and research, with the writer at its very centre.
And, where the idea of ‘research’ or writing ‘notes’ might seem dull, it was this concept of the writer at the very centre of non-fiction writing that brought this workshop to life. Instead of striving for an unattainable objectivity, the writers found themselves testing out their individual voices, bringing their own unique experiences to the page. By entangling themselves in their work, their writing soon became filled with brilliant insights and keen perceptions of the world. The writers also brought a wonderful generosity in commenting on each other’s work, creating supportive dialogue.
Honestly, teaching this workshop was a real thrill; the writers approached each idea and exercise with a fearlessness and dedication that makes me very excited for the next generation of essayists and critics.
- Als, H, 2006, 'Joan Didion, the art of nonfiction', The Paris Review, 176
- Cole, T, 2016, Blind spot, Faber & Faber, London
More to explore
Find out more about the Teen Writing Bootcamp programs.
This program has been made possible with the generosity of Serp Hills Foundation and The JTM Foundation.