Learning from the Masters

Today, I spent most of the afternoon listening to Margaret Atwood’s master class on fiction writing.  This is through http://www.masterclass.com and is part of the unlimited series that I paid $180/year for when I signed up for the Billy Collins workshop on poetry.  Unlike poetry, I have spent quite a lot of time working on fiction writing over the years so I was able to listen to the entire series of lessons at one time. The big question most of my writing friends will want to know is was the class worth the money as well as my time?  I would say in both cases the answer is a strong yes, but perhaps for different reasons, at least for me.

Billy Collins’s class was shorter in terms of class sessions. He had 20 sessions whereas Atwood had 23. His were also more exploratory in a way, more tentative in approach, perhaps because poetry has so many different forms and is also an exploratory form of writing. Plus, of course, I went into his class (watching his videos) with little prior knowledge of what I was learning so I listened attentively, took notes, and stopped after two or three 8 – 10 minute sessions so that I could digest what he had said.  That course took me several weeks to complete and in the process I wrote two free-verse poems and three sonnets, all of which need more work to get to a level I feel good about. Still, I felt very good about the course and loved both Billy’s free and easy way and his friend and fellow poet who joined him for several sessions, Marie Howe. Both were open and vulnerable about their writing processes and clearly had a wonderful relationship as fellow poets. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I already adored Billy’s poetry, of which he read a fair amount, and soon discovered that I adored Marie’s too, which was an extra bonus.  You can find both of their work at www.poetryfoundation.org, if you’d like a sample.

As a bit of background on my fiction experience, I was in John Rechy’s Masterclass for five years here in LA, meeting weekly at his home, and having my work critiqued by him as well as 10 or 11 other writers. Rechy was catapulted to international fame with his first novel, City of Night, which was about his experience as a hustler in the gay subculture of the 1950s. Since that time, he has published sixteen other novels on a wide range of topics. Here is a link if you want to know more about him: http://www.johnrechy.com/. So, my exceptional experience of being a student of John Rechy certainly influenced my appreciation of Margaret Atwood and the topics she chose to cover in her Masterclass.

John Rechy

What I loved about Margaret Atwood’s course was her willingness to go in depth about her research and writing process. She talked at length about several of her books, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace and Oryx and Crake and discussed what motivated her to write these books, what research she did, and any issues she faced during the writing. I found this incredibly helpful. Also, she offered common sense advice all along the way, which included, “The trash can is your friend” and “Re-vision is one of the wonderful things about writing. It’s not like being an opera singer hitting the wrong note on stage for all to see.” I felt as if I learned a good deal from her comments and enjoyed her wry sense of humor that popped up over and over. Plus, she basically said, “Just sit down and do the writing.  That will take care of the angst you feel when you’re not writing.” This is a message I needed/wanted to hear.

Margaret Atwood

So, yes, yes, yes, I would recommend these classes. Probably the clearest indicator of how much I enjoyed Atwood’s class  was my willingness to sit and listen literally all afternoon. That should tell you a lot right there.  I believe the single classes are $90 and the year-pass is $180.  If possible, I’d say the year-pass is the way to go since you also get the chance to listen to as many of the other classes as you can fit into that 12 months. The only downside is that it will automatically renew if you don’t cancel after the year so you’ll need to mark your calendar and cancel before that renewal date.

All in all, I feel excited about what I’ve been learning.  It’s not the same as sitting in John Rechy’s dining room with him and other writers, but that was a singular experience I know can never be repeated. This is different but well worth it.  If you have the money, the time and the inclination, I’d say to definitely go for it.  There is a lot to learn from people of John Rechy’s, Billy Collins’s and Margaret Atwood’s calibre. They are at the top of their fields, after all. Plus, they love the written word and relish the opportunity to share their knowledge. That, in itself, is worth the cost of admission.

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