Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice in Free Creative Writing “Master Class”


Image by Angela Rad­ules­cu, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

If you’re any­thing like me, you yearn to become a good writer, a bet­ter writer, an inspir­ing writer, even, by learn­ing from the writ­ers you admire. But you nei­ther have the time nor the mon­ey for an MFA pro­gram or expen­sive retreats and work­shops with famous names. So you read W.H. Auden’s essays and Paris Review inter­views with your favorite authors (or at least PR’s Twit­ter feed); you obses­sive­ly trawl the archives of The New York Times’ “Writ­ers on Writ­ing” series, and you rel­ish every Youtube clip, no mat­ter how lo-fi or trun­cat­ed, of your lit­er­ary heroes, speak­ing from beyond the grave, or from behind a podi­um at the 92nd Street Y.

Well, friend, you are in luck (okay, I’m still talk­ing about me here, but maybe about you, too). The Wash­ing­ton, DC-based non-prof­it Acad­e­my of Achieve­ment—whose mis­sion is to “bring stu­dents face-to-face” with lead­ers in the arts, busi­ness, pol­i­tics, sci­ence, and sports—has archived a series of talks from an incred­i­bly diverse pool of poets and writ­ers. They call this col­lec­tion “Cre­ative Writ­ing: A Mas­ter Class,” and you can sub­scribe to it right now on iTunes and begin down­load­ing free video and audio pod­casts from Nora Ephron, John Updike, Toni Mor­ri­son, Car­los Fuentes, Nor­man Mail­er, Wal­lace Steg­n­er, and, well, you know how the list goes.

The Acad­e­my of Achievement’s web­site also fea­tures lengthy profiles–with text and down­load­able audio and video–of sev­er­al of the same writ­ers from their “Mas­ter Class” series. For exam­ple, an inter­view with for­mer U.S. poet-lau­re­ate Rita Dove is illu­mi­nat­ing, both for writ­ers and for teach­ers of writ­ing. Dove talks about the aver­sion that many peo­ple have for poet­ry as a kind of fear incul­cat­ed by clum­sy teach­ers. She explains:

At some point in their life, they’ve been giv­en a poem to inter­pret and told, “That was the wrong answer.” You know. I think we’ve all gone through that. I went through that. And it’s unfor­tu­nate that some­times in schools — this need to have things quan­ti­fied and grad­ed — we end up doing this kind of mul­ti­ple choice approach to some­thing that should be as ambigu­ous and ever-chang­ing as life itself. So I try to ask them, “Have you ever heard a good joke?” If you’ve ever heard some­one tell a joke just right, with the right pac­ing, then you’re already on the way to the poet­ry. Because it’s real­ly about using words in very pre­cise ways and also using ges­ture as it goes through lan­guage, not the ges­ture of your hands, but how lan­guage cre­ates a mood. And you know, who can resist a good joke? When they get that far, then they can real­ize that poet­ry can also be fun.

Dove’s thoughts on her own life, her work, and the craft of poet­ry and teach­ing are well worth reading/watching in full. Anoth­er par­tic­u­lar­ly notable inter­view from the Acad­e­my is with anoth­er for­mer lau­re­ate, poet W.S. Mer­win.

Mer­win, a two-time Pulitzer Prize win­ner, dis­cuss­es poet­ry as orig­i­nat­ing with lan­guage, and its loss as tan­ta­mount to extinc­tion:

When we talk about the extinc­tion of species, I think the endan­gered species of the arts and of lan­guage and all these things are relat­ed. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. I think poet­ry goes back to the inven­tion of lan­guage itself. I think one of the big dif­fer­ences between poet­ry and prose is that prose is about some­thing, it’s got a sub­ject… poet­ry is about what can’t be said. Why do peo­ple turn to poet­ry when all of a sud­den the Twin Tow­ers get hit, or when their mar­riage breaks up, or when the per­son they love most in the world drops dead in the same room? Because they can’t say it. They can’t say it at all, and they want some­thing that address­es what can’t be said.

If you’re any­thing like me, you find these two per­spec­tives on poetry—as akin to jokes, as say­ing the unsayable—fascinating. These kinds of obser­va­tions (not mechan­i­cal how-to’s, but orig­i­nal thoughts on the process and prac­tice of writ­ing itself) are the rea­son I pore over  inter­views and sem­i­nars with writ­ers I admire. I found more than enough in this archive to keep me sat­is­fied for months.

We’ve added “Cre­ative Writ­ing: A Mas­ter Class” to our ever-grow­ing col­lec­tion of Free Online Cours­es.

Image via Angela Rad­ules­cu

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flan­nery O’Connor Explains the Lim­it­ed Val­ue of MFA Pro­grams: “Com­pe­tence By Itself Is Dead­ly”

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

Sev­en Tips From William Faulkn­er on How to Write Fic­tion

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Comments (8)
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  • Shelley says:

    I tell my col­lege stu­dents that poet­ry is com­pli­cat­ed because life is com­pli­cat­ed.

    That said, I think a poem should also give us a cou­ple of hand­hold. Ran­dom obfus­ca­tion is self-indul­gent.

  • Mr. Thomas of Ohio, in America, but of a good nature; says:

    I need­ed this, thanks.

  • D.O. Morris says:

    Thanks for this insight­ful arti­cle. I have been trapped some­where between writ­ing the thought about the book or arti­cle and com­plet­ing the work after maybe 500 words. Real­ly need­ed this. Thanks!!

  • Elissa Field says:

    Fab­u­lous! Thanks for post­ing about this, as the pod­casts will be a wel­come addi­tion to my week­ly read­ing. I’ll be sure to share your link with oth­ers.

  • Neerja says:

    Pre­cise­ly what I need­ed!

  • ummeaziz says:

    i woul love to learn

  • Margherita says:

    How unfor­tu­nate this class is offered on ITunes only, not a user friend­ly site, with dif­fi­cul­ties in down­load­ing and oth­er tech problems–read the neg­a­tive com­ments there & you’ll see this is not just “my prob­lem”.

  • Mark says:

    Yes, How exact­ly do you sub­scribe to this on iTunes? I’m try­ing now (and I’m quite knowl­edge­able tech­ni­cal­ly), but it is pret­ty darn con­fus­ing. It seems to be linked to anoth­er iTunes U course called Authors & Poets, that you may then have to sub­scribe to. And there are some com­plaints about a book for the course that you can only see on an iPad? I’ve done sev­er­al MOOCs, but so far iTunes U seems rather con­fus­ing to me…

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