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Best-Selling Author Helps Students Craft Compelling Nonfiction

New York Times best-seller Jennifer Keishin Armstrong brings her literary skills to a new Graham course titled Writing Nonfiction: Turning Facts Into Gripping Scenes.

Headshot of Jennifer Armstrong

Before she was a student of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s at the Graham School, Teme Ring was a fan.

The suburban Chicago resident had devoured Armstrong’s Seinfeldia, a New York Times bestseller detailing the rise of Seinfeld as one of the most important and culturally relevant shows in television history, and savored Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, Armstrong’s behind-the-scenes dive into the making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Ring, a lawyer-turned-blogger focused on the vibrant world of Chicago comedy, also yearned to take a course in narrative nonfiction, eager to learn the tricks Armstrong and other creatives employ when writing about true events and real subjects.

Then, serendipity: Ring learned Armstrong was teaching a virtual class at the University of Chicago Graham School titled Writing Nonfiction: Turning Facts into Gripping Scenes. She enrolled immediately.

“You mean I could be her student? I’m in,” Ring says.

Teaching from experience

During the summer 2022 quarter, Ring and 14 others filled a virtual classroom for the author’s inaugural course at Graham. Over eight weeks, Armstrong provided an insider’s look at creating scenes simultaneously engaging and factual, a sophisticated narrative art though a hallmark of Armstrong’s seven acclaimed books on pop culture.

Armstrong used Robert Caro’s book Working to help students grasp the particulars of researching, interviewing, and writing while a second text, Sam Wasson’s Improv Nation, enabled students to examine different narrative concepts in action. Armstrong also designed weekly assignments to drive students’ literary development, including exercises built around describing a scene in a movie and relaying a personal experience.

“I wanted to be able to teach them how to make their own work more exciting rather than flailing along in the dark,” says Armstrong, a Chicago area native who has also taught at the famed Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City.

Along the way, Armstrong shared samples of her past work. She detailed her own process, openly discussing successes and failures with unflinching honesty, before capping the course with a primer on the modern-day publishing business.

“There’s something special about helping others get through roadblocks I have encountered myself, and that’s what I aim to do as a teacher,” Armstrong says.

A course with immediate impact

For Billy Greco, a new Graham student taking his first writing class since high school, Armstrong’s course propelled his work on a 20-year project about the Jesse Ketchum Medal, a 150-year-old academic award in the Buffalo City Public Schools. Fueled by lessons in Armstrong’s class, Greco began rewriting scenes throughout his book and incorporated new ideas, such as in medias res, the narrative technique of opening a tale near the story’s climactic point to generate immediate intrigue.

“I was constantly analyzing what it takes to make compelling nonfiction and then seeing how I could bring those ideas and lessons into my own work,” says Greco, who published nearly 100 scientific articles over a 33-year career as a cancer research scientist where he never dared drift from the passive voice or the linear order of events. “The best classes are the ones where students grow and that has been true of Jennifer’s course for me.”

Once a fan of Armstrong the writer, Ring is now also a fan of Armstrong the teacher. Though admittedly intimidated to take a course with the New York Times bestselling author, Ring calls Armstrong “warm, empathetic, and accessible” as a writing instructor.

“She facilitated an environment in which it was easy to connect with her as well as my fellow classmates from around the country,” Ring says. “She was open about her process and provided an insider’s look at what it takes to be successful with narrative nonfiction.”

As Ring continues to write about Chicago’s comedy scene, she employs many of the skills learned in Armstrong’s class to craft more dynamic narratives. She finds herself hunting for the attention-grabbing opening and digging for details to enrich a story and maintain narrative momentum.

“There’s so much information from Jennifer I’ve been able to use right away,” Ring says. “Her class really changed my entire approach and has given me so much optimism for the future.”

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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