Master Class

To me, this is the original meaning of “master class”. I discovered it over a decade ago, and it has subtly shaped my writing instruction ever since. I don’t, of course, presume to be a “master” at anything like Segovia’s level. The range of my humor and the depth of my wisdom about scholarly writing is nowhere near his on the matter of playing the guitar. I imagine that the writers who come to see me are correspondingly less ambitious, though I sometimes have to remind myself and my students that I am not really an accomplished scholar at all. Still, this form of instruction seems to work when I do it. Maybe what I lack in humor and wisdom, I make up for in a vaguely Socratic irony. I know, at least, what I don’t know.

“As far as practice and suffering are concerned,” said Roland Barthes, “any writer can be compared to the greatest.” (He was talking about whether one could compare Philippe Sollers to Marcel Proust.) The master class gives me access, not just to a writer’s text, which may then be “corrected”, but to their practice and suffering, which may be disciplined. As writers, we cannot avoid suffering, but I like to think we can make it more precise. This is best done by direct engagement.

But unlike the playing of Segovia’s students, another’s writing can’t happen right in front of us in real time. You can’t tell how good a writer is, nor where their writing can be improved, by watching them work for a few minutes. That simply isn’t how writing works. On the other hand, you can’t simply point out errors of grammar and punctuation in a draft that they’ve spend the past week writing either. (That approach has, thankfully, been pretty widely rejected by writing teachers long ago.) Our instruction needs to bring together what Robert Graves called “the huge impossibility of language” with what I might call the “appreciable finitude of writing”.

To do this, I require participants in my master classes to bring a well-formed paragraph that has been written during a deliberate writing moment. I imagine Segovia expected that his students had practiced something — were “working on something” as it were — in the days leading up to their meeting. The session begins with them playing it as well as they can. Likewise, I expect my students to have written several paragraphs in the days and weeks before they attend the master class. The key sentence and its rhetorical posture had been decided in advance, and the writer has spent 27 minutes composing at least six sentences and at most 200 words to overcome the difficulty that they expect the reader to experience during one minute of their deliberate attention. Having written several such paragraphs (having “practiced”) they select one to bring the master class (where they will “suffer”).

The important thing is that I can now assume that I have before me the product of one deliberate attempt to say one intended thing. I can engage with it directly. First, I read it out loud, straight off the page, having never seen it before, to show the writer how hard or easy that is to do (for a academically literate reader and native speaker of English). I then try to identify the key sentence (the writer knows which sentence they’re hoping I pick) and determine whether it is being supported, elaborated, or defended (the writer, again, was presumably trying to do one of these things, with some exceptions). All the while I’m thinking out loud and moving words around to show what I mean. I even draw on the other participants to get multiple points of view on the same text, multiple readings. Sometimes I make some cryptic remark about “nuance” or “style”. The writer is supposed to sit quietly and take it all in. After 13 minutes (usually) I stop. We then move on to the next participant, another paragraph.

I don’t do a lot of language editing in these master classes, except where things are easy to fix and make the rest of the work go more smoothly. And I don’t ever suggest that I am correcting or even improving the text. That is for the writer to decide on their own. All I can do is reveal the contingencies in the composition, the fact that the paragraph could have been written differently. That, I’m told, is also the value of the experience to those who have tried it. To steal a line from the Segovia, I try to impart “a delicate lack of respect” for the grammar and focus on the possibilities of meaning instead. What participants get is not a judgment of their work but a very explicit experience of being read. “Writing as freedom,” said Barthes, “is perhaps the most explicit in history.” A master class provides an occasion to become, perhaps not “great”, but at least better, through a moment’s suffering, followed by many moments of subsequent practice.


If you’re curious, you can experience my master classes as part the four-week Writing Process Re-engineering self-study course.

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