Opinion: My Favorite Master Class So Far

The reason I loved the first hour of Elisabeth Blair’s BWW Master Class, “Relish in the Wreck: The Joy of Revising Poetry,” is that it was packed with dozens of superb ideas and suggestions about specific tools writers can use to improve their poems. The well-prepared Power Point screen-shares were original and creative. One was an artistic mandala, all in words, with rays of ideas spreading outward from central concepts.

Perhaps there have been other BWW Master Classes I didn’t go to that I would have liked as well, but I have been to enough to know what doesn’t wow me. Before I get to that, I’ll confess this is an opinion article intended to provoke discussion among BWW Members about what we want from future Master Classes and other possible free workshops.

What I want from a Master Class is a lot of useful guidelines, ideas, recommendations, insights, and perhaps revelatory anecdotes from an expert, whether or not a published author. I want to learn things I didn’t know and be reminded of the importance of things I did know. I want to leave eager to apply what I have learned. If the Presenter provides a written summary for members after the Class, they get five extra gold stars. (Yes, Elisabeth did.)

Caution: my grouchy old man now appears! What I don’t really appreciate in a Master Class is a lot of time spent in writing to a prompt (even if it’s about a concept being presented) and then participants sharing what they’ve written and the Presenter commenting on it. In my opinion, and I realize most of you disagree, that’s a convenient way for a Presenter to run out the clock without having to prepare and present a boatload of secrets of how to become skilled and professional as writers. Clearly, they don’t want any more competition from us!

I have noticed that BWW writers are thrilled at the opportunity to write to a prompt, and I get it. Instead of having to take the Advanced Placement Final Exam, we’re being asked to write a brief story about “What I Did Last Summer.” I have been to scores of BWW workshops about Poetry, Fiction Books, and Short Fiction, and I have noticed hundreds of writers, all of whom on their own came up with creative topics to write about and who love writing. Then when offered a class in which they’re asked to pick a topic and write about it, they gush.

I agree that there is some benefit to applying a concept in practice writing; however, I propose that MC Presenters could hand out assignments to be written after the class by serious writers who want to learn how to apply the lessons offered. Or they could insist on more than two hours to offer all they have to teach us, including generative writing breaks.

What I saw in Elisabeth’s poetry revision class was a professional who knew her subject from years of searching and striving and was excited to share what she had learned with others at all levels of our own passion to grow as writers. Brava! Five gold stars!

Please be sure add your comments below on the thoughts you have about this and what we want future master classes to look like.

5 thoughts on “Opinion: My Favorite Master Class So Far

  • “What I want from a Master Class is a lot of useful guidelines, ideas, recommendations, insights, and perhaps revelatory anecdotes from an expert, whether or not a published author. I want to learn things I didn’t know and be reminded of the importance of things I did know. I want to leave eager to apply what I have learned. If the Presenter provides a written summary for members after the Class, they get five extra gold stars.”

    I completely agree with this statement made in the above article. Elizabeth inspired me to revise a poem I was completely stuck on. Her ideas were fun and innovative. I don’t need time in the class to put into practice the new idea, but I do appreciate worksheets and activities after the class. This was the best Master Class I have taken in a long time from any organization. I have not attended other master classes from BWW. Elizabeth is a wonderful presenter and her passion for writing shows. It is contagious!

  • Many members love prompts: they jostle one’s brain to try something new, a different approach, a new tense – prompts are meant to stretch one’s creative brain. In a masterclass, they are used with discretion and certainly shouldn’t monopolize the workshop.

    I believe it’s a mistake to think that someone spectacular will explain craft elements to you and somehow, after this “teaching” you will be a better writer. You need to incorporate teachings into your own work, explore different possibilities, deepen your own responses. Whether or not these explorations take place within the workshop is up to the leader, often in response to the needs of the participants. It’s also up to you. At times, leaders will send files ahead, or follow up after the session. Please feel free to respond in the surveys so we can provide valuable feedback to our master class hosts.

  • Also, the example given above of a prompt “what I did last summer” is just snide. That’s high school. A prompt for example for you to cut out every third sentence, for example, is an exercise in honing your craft, discovering language, finding out what’s essential, how to make your sentences sing, dump the extra weight, create tension. A prompt putting your two characters in conflict with a third as a narrator might offer a way out of a sagging scene.

  • 3/4 of the way into the Master Class program, we are starting to assess it. There are lots of opinions: some people love prompts, others hate them. Fiction writers have resonated with Robin McLean, poets with Elizabeth, creative non-fiction people are grateful for the publishing info from Mike. Some think that if only they’re taught the rules, the codes, the processes from a charming and successful writer, they will become better writers themselves. Others believe that they will grow by exploring the craft elements they are exposed to, incorporating these unfamiliar skills in their own work.

    Prompts? No prompts? Do we read? Should we not read?

    I used to hate prompts. I thought they took me away from the dedicated work of my novel. Until one day I did one – I think it was in Joni Cole’s Master Class a few years ago – and to my amazement, found the experience powerful, freeing, creative, impressive. I don’t agree with Dick that including generative writing is a way the leader pads her time. The best prompts are very short. No one in the zoom room has to do them, they can scoot away.

    Should we spend time in the class reading them? That’s a more interesting question to me.Prompts, like conscious and thoughtful reading, are essential, in my mind, honing skills, offering opportunities, goading our brains to new pathways. And if a prompt doesn’t resonate with you, take the few minutes to work on something that does resonate: bring one of your characters home for dinner, make her transgendered, or a homeless person staring at a tiny house.

    Push your brain. It will thank you/

    What do you think?

    And what do you think makes a master class different from a peer-to-peer workshop?

  • Hey BWW folks! Think of you often! Very nice new website! I learned so much at BWW that I needed to take a sabbatical to apply what I learned. My first draft is now over 110,000 words and in a way documents my evolution so far as a fiction writer. I still have a long way to go, which is why the title mentioned in this post caught my attention: “Relish in the Wreck.” 🙂

    I sometimes found that prompts could produce writing magic. One that sticks in mind was being asked to rewrite an episode from a different character’s point of view. I was amazed by the revelations this produced! Other times, a particular prompt didn’t speak to me so I just wrote what I pleased. As for the sharing part, I was often astounded by what participants came up with–sometimes to the point of not wanting to share what I had written. 🙂

    As for rules and tips, I’ve picked up many–and then noticed them being violated or ignored by top authors. Hence the appeal of reading like a writer; the diversity of appealing styles is inspiring. Still, I recently came across a rule (point of view) that intrigued me, both as a writer and as a BWW participant. It’s from Yiyun Li’s book, “Dear Friend…” (p. 154).

    “A reader and a writer should never be allowed to meet. They live in different time frames. When a book takes on a life for the reader it is already dead for the writer. [pp] It is preposterous for the writer or the reader to trespass, yet both sides often dismiss the border set by the characters: when a writer insists on his presence (on the page, between the lines) to dictate how his work is to be read; or when a reader reads without true curiosity about the characters, but with the goal of judging the writer.”

    Now I find that I need to go back through my 110,000+ word draft and root out all the places where I told my reader what to think, and find a way to show them instead (lest I be judged)! 🙂

    Thanks for the prompt, Dick! Miss seeing you all in person!

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